Cognitive Pearl #039 Shevat 9, 5775 January 29, 15

Looking at Sleepy, it’s easy to see the resemblance to his wolf ancestors. Large jaw, pointed, tapered ears, body designed for maximum speed, and strong, sharp teeth. But whereas wolves are vicious, brazen animals; Sleepy is the most docile dog I’ve ever known. Of course that’s what domestication does; it transforms a wild animal and turns it into something useful.

Neutralizing the valence of the target (such as clarifying how one can get AIDS) happens at the same time that the cognitive therapist helps the client ‘domesticate’ his obsessional thinking. By ‘domesticate’ I mean that in my approach to anxiety I’m drawn to the dialectic captured in the Talmudic expression, ‘that all that Heaven has done is for good’. Obsessional thinking is a wonderful skill when used to make life beautiful. For the OCD sufferer however the servant has become the master; what we’re doing here is re-domesticating the mind.

This is where the cognitive therapist reverts to his roots in the worlds of cognitive science and philosophy of mind. For those of you that are familiar with mindfulness you’ll feel at home.

Domestication begins with separation. We help the client get some distance between himself and his thoughts. Usually, we confuse our thoughts with ourselves. As in ‘I think that I’m Josh just as surely as my hand is connected to my arm’. With that transparent connection (I don’t feel the connection between my hand and arm; the connection is transparent to me.) I’ve been fooled by the Designer into over-attaching myself to my thoughts. In reality I’m a self (that’s for another time) who has thoughts and a name; they are not my essential ‘me’. Some thoughts are great; some are ‘eh’, and some need to be tossed into the recycling bin.

While there are many good reasons to take my thoughts seriously, that attachment gets me into so much trouble. Such as by turning me into a ‘freier’ and leading me to believe that I know the whole picture when I know ‘bupkis’. (Truth, at least in this world of ours, is at best, a story only partially told.) 

Or by leading the obsessional thinker into believing all of his thoughts, much like Sleepy drags me along when he chases one of the local cats. Stupid dog.

More on this next week! Shabbat Shalom Gut Shabbos to all!