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Concentration in prayer and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder


Rabbi Ari Shvat

Tevet 27, 5776
I have suffered OCD (diagnosed) for a number of years, and though I am in control of some aspects, there is one major element which I simply feel almost powerful against. This is called ’Purely Obsessional OCD’, and takes the form of constant ruminations in one’s mind, which ruminations can be almost constant, waking till going to sleep. I do not like admitting this, which is why I have chosen this anonymous channel through which to seek help. I would be embarrassed, even ashamed, to admit this to my own Rabbi. The particular aspect to which I am seeking help pertains to intrusive thoughts during prayer and study, though these ruminations often haunt me many hours of the day. During prayer I constantly worry that I may be directing my prayer to false gods or other such nonsense, and not to the One True G-d, Hashem. Constantly during prayer thoughts pertaining to this come into my mind; for example when reading the Shem Hameforash, I worry constantly that the name or image of an idol may spring into my mind, and as I am sure you can understand, these worries have the adverse affect that such names and images do indeed come into my mind. Constantly during prayer, I cannot concentrate, because I feel I must instead constantly be fighting these thoughts. This is actually what doctors advise against; they suggest letting the though come, ignoring it, and simply letting it go away. In this I see the sense, but when these intrusive thoughts are so intense, it feels impossible to simply ignore them. I feel that by ignoring them, it is no better than praying directly to idols. And when I try to direct my mind to Torah, I am simply reminded of idolatrous thoughts, even when I study. I feel I constantly need to remind myself of to whom I pray, but then these thoughts will come. It is like I remind myself that I worship only Hashem, the formless, singular, incomparable G-d who revealed Himself in Torah and Judaism; but these thoughts will come and say ’but you actually worship such-and-such’ or ’and this prayer is directed to so-and-so’, and other such idolatrous nonsense. I feel that by ignoring these thoughts and not fighting them, it is like tacitly accepting them, despite this being what doctors all advise. I know this is a ridiculous and shameful problem. And I am very ashamed to say that this problem had caused me at times to give up prayer and study, and at times I have gone months without such. I am now praying and studying, and I want to continue doing so. But my mind feels so heavy with these nonsense thoughts; I have headaches after prayer, and rather than feeling the peace and contentment which everyone else seems to have, and only feel worse than before, and relieved to have the ordeal over. I want to experience the closeness to G-d that everyone else has, but it always feels like I am being pushed away. I pray to G-d that he cleanses my mind, but then these thoughts come, and I feel pushed away. I don’t know what help I am looking for, what advice or answers. But if anyone has anything which they think can help, I will be most grateful.
I can only guess that you are writing me now, during the gentile holiday season, because this is the time of the year when the gentile surroundings are obsessed with their religion, and here apparently also lies the solution. Thank God, living in a Jewish State in Israel, their holidays come and go without too many people noticing, and how much more so, during the year, gentile and idolatrous thoughts simply aren’t on anyone’s agenda or imagination. This is just one of many reasons the Torah tells us that the natural situation is to live among Jews in the Jewish Land. Similarly, in the meantime, I would suggest watching as little TV and do as little window-shopping as you can, and limit your exposure to such “stupidities”, and they won’t pre-occupy you, just like Martians don’t obsess you. In addition, when difficult to concentrate during davening, the Mishna Brura suggests passing your hand in front of your eyes while thinking about the pasuk “Lev tahor b’ra li Elokim, v’ruach nachon chadesh b’kirbi” (“G-d created me with a pure heart, and (please) renew in me the proper spirit”, Tehilim, 51, 12). Doing this helps you “re-set” and re-focus on what you want, and ask Hashem for His help, as well.
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