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Modern People’s Mental Issues - Too many wandering thoughts

Facing the complexity of life and interpersonal relationships, it is indeed difficult for us to keep our mind unmoved. With the fast spread of technologies in modern times coupled with rapid, constant changes in our life and environment, more and more people are suffering from mental issues as a result. Though we are supposed to be the masters of our minds, most of the time we don't even recognize our mind; sometimes, we even get carried away by our mind without noticing it at all. For this featured topic, we interviewed Ven. Kuan Qian, Director of Juefeng Buddhist Art Foundation, Dr. Huang Wenxiang, Director of Ping-An Psychiatric Hospital, and Dr. Chen Zhengxiong of Taipei City Allied Hospital's children and juvenile psychiatry department. They offered their insights on how to address mental issues through the mind itself, from the perspectives of the Buddhist Yogachara School and contemporary psychoanalysis.

Too many wandering thoughts

Most people have deluded thoughts. Having lots of deluded thoughts may not constitute a psychological issue unique to modern society, but it is indeed undeniable that it is hard to have a tranquil mind in today's world. Why do we have deluded thoughts? And, what concepts and methods are there to help us deal with our wandering thoughts?

Why do people have deluded thoughts? Simply put, it's because our mind is not really settled. If we can manage to reduce our deluded thoughts, then our mind will more likely become calm and settled. Along with deluded thoughts come afflictions. Having afflictions may not be an illness in itself, but when vexations start to adversely affect our work and daily life, we will be unable to properly fulfill our roles. When this situation continues and gets worse, it eventually becomes an illness.

"When our deluded thoughts are so overwhelming and uncontrollable that it has become an illness, it is necessary to seek treatment. For example, when people suffer from insomnia—often because they are troubled by having too many deluded thoughts—they can seek treatment from psychiatric outpatient clinics, first for medication to help improve their sleeping quality, and then other auxiliary methods, depending on individual situations," said Dr. Chen. He also pointed out that it is usually too late to seek treatments when our deluded thoughts are already troubling our lives. Therefore, prevention is the best measure. One way to reduce our deluded thoughts is to gradually cut down on seeking external attractions, including the six dusts (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, thoughts) and the five desires (wealth, sex, fame, food, sleep). For example, some Buddhists may practice vegetarianism out of compassion, but the habit of eating simple food will in turn also help us reduce our craving for food, thereby reducing our other deluded thoughts as well.

According to Dr. Huang, in addition to temptations from the external environment, some deluded thoughts actually come from our subconscious. "Our brain is like a huge database, storing all kinds of feelings since we were a fetus in our mother's womb, including pleasure, aversion, and fear… Given the right conditions, certain thoughts will develop and manifest." For example, some people's deluded thoughts originate from their fears, such as the fear of darkness, height, any enclosed space, and the fear of being exposed to a certain kind of situation. Our unconscious fear may have to do with a certain unpleasant incident we experienced in our childhood or sometime in the past—one which, if not reconciled and resolved in time, will remain stored and accumulated over time. During a counseling session, a psychiatrist or mental counselor can help people first identify those unpleasant past experiences and then deal with the source of those issues.

Although the fear that resides in one's mind is linked to some external stimuli, to resolve the problem entails not simply avoiding the external conditions or rejecting the present circumstances that might trigger the fear. From the Buddhist perspective, fear comes from a lack of confidence or faith, and belongs to "negative doubt", one of the fundamental afflictions. Ven. Kuan Qian said that of all the afflictions, "negative doubt" is actually the easiest to overcome. Buddhism is meant to help people eliminate their doubt of uncertainty, while generating faith instead. When we understand the truth as taught in Buddhism, our mind will naturally be free of fear. According to the Venerable, our deluded thoughts will become afflictions only because we cannot get what we want. People tend to attach to the thought that they can own something external, and desire for it be permanent. So, the ultimate solution is to thoroughly understand that we cannot possibly own something permanently, wanting it to remain forever unchanged. By realizing that all external existences are insubstantial and illusory, we will be less likely to let our mind cling to deluded thoughts.

However, the concept is easier said than done. The real practice is found in daily living. This is why Master Sheng Yen encouraged beginners in meditation to adjust their mind by counting the breath. In meditation practice, any arising thought of something or some state of being is actually a deluded thought. Counting the breath is simple and straightforward: the only thought is counting the breath, without involving any desire for sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch. Over time, when we become more skilled in our practice, our mind will naturally settle down, and will thereby be less likely to give rise to deluded thoughts. Besides meditation practice, Buddha-name and mantra recitation are also methods we can use to practice gathering our scattered mind to focus and stay on one single object. Technically counting the breath, reciting the Buddha's name, or reciting the mantra also constitute a thought in and of itself. But these are methods we use to draw ourselves back from our wild, scattered thoughts, thus returning to our practice. If we can continue to consistently apply the method, we will be able to maintain calm abiding in the present moment.

Extended Reading:

Modern People's Mental Issues - Too many wandering thoughts

Modern People's Mental Issues - Materialistic Obsession

Modern People's Mental Issues - Chronic Depression

Modern People's Mental Issues - Intense Anger

Buddhist Methods for Training the Mind - The Seven Stages to Regulate the Mind

The Key to Training the Mind—Chan Practice

The Key to Training the Mind—Single-minded, undisturbed concentration through Buddha-name recitation

The Key to Training the Mind—A focused mind through upholding a dharani/mantra

Resource: Issue 316 of Life Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation
Photos: Venerable Guo Shyang
Translation: Shujen Yeh (葉姝蓁) 
Editing: Keith Brown, Chia-cheng Chang (張家誠)