Special Topics

Modern People’s Mental Issues - Materialistic Obsession

In the modern world, material desires dominate people's lives, and numerous problems in society are chiefly rooted in desire. Why do people harbor feelings of greed? Furthermore, why do modern people seem to have more desires than in previous times? Are there ways to deal with one's greed and desires?

The growing complexity of interpersonal relationships, coupled with a rapidly changing living environment have resulted in people having more options in modern life. Having many options from which to choose imperceptibly complicates people's desires and overall lives. In the face of many diverse options, we need to know how to choose. If we do not have the required wisdom to make choices, we may easily lose our direction in life. The common problem faced by ordinary people is that it is easy to take what we desire, but difficult to renounce it. Intellectually, we may know that we have to give up desire, but merely knowing this does not give us the resolve to do so. At that point we face the dilemma of "being trapped in the chaos of our own indecisiveness".

Dr. Zheng-Xiong Chen, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist in the Songde Branch of Taipei City United Hospital, used the example of watching drama series or movies to illustrate the problem of desire. He pointed out that people are accustomed to watching various TV series, and are keen on movies full of sound and light effects. After watching these, it seems that the desire to watch is fully satisfied, with no residual desires remaining. However, some influences of the original desire will imperceptibly remain: "It will make our mind become more and more attached to the external environment and phenomena. Once our demand for stimulation continues to increase, to a certain extent, it becomes an addiction". Dr. Zheng-Xiong Chen is concerned that although these stimuli do not cause immediate harm, they will gradually make people become subconsciously addicted to them. He explained that the human mind is very unique. In addition to the fact that our mind is greedy and craves all kinds of sensory pleasures, our greed is strong because the human mind is grasping external things all the time. "The human mind is craving for all kinds of sensory pleasures. It can also distinguish good from bad, which allows people to seek pleasure and avoid suffering. However, the mind motivated by curiosity makes people lose their judgment. Regardless of whether it is good or bad, people will run toward any stimulus". Dr. Zheng-Xiong Chen emphasized that even addicts know that drugs and gambling are not good and may even potentially destroy their families and lives. Some addicts will even cut off their fingers with knives and vow never to touch them again. Sadly, when tempted by friends, these same individuals often can't fight the temptation, and dive back into the vicious cycle of addiction as a result.

Such is the nature of the mind. The mind that can distinguish good from bad can be affected by grasping and attachments. Western psychology believes that this kind of mental clinging and attachment belongs to a deeper, subconscious mind, which may sometimes override people's consciousness to make decisions out of ulterior or hidden motives. Normally, in the process of counseling, psychologists will seek to identify the patient's suppressed emotions from his or her experiences of growing up.

"When these emotions have been suppressed for too long, they will turn into heavy afflictions. Our mind will be covered by defilements, the removal of which can relieve our afflictions. Just like a piece of rotten meat, the longer it is stored, the more it stinks. Our job is to find out the origin of the defilements and uncover the repressed emotions in order to help the patient to better understand their problems". Why do some people have to soothe their restless mind by swiping credit cards, shopping, and constantly satisfying their material desires? It may be because the patient was neglected while growing up and, hence, lacks a sense of security. At this time, in addition to giving medication and counseling to the patient, behavior modification is also used. This involves letting the patient cut off his or her credit cards, or having family members and friends remind the patient continuously to suppress the impulse to shop. The problem is that when a patient’s situation is more critical and no one around can help, the power of self-control is actually quite limited.

In the Sutra of Mind Meditation in Mahayana Jataka, there are many metaphors used to describe greed. For example, moths are attracted to lamp fire and fly toward the flames without realizing that the lamp fire may hurt them. Wild deer chase after the sound mimicked by hunters and, hence, become their prey. Pigs live in filthy places, yet take great pleasure in it. These examples are all metaphors that express the way our mind chases after the five defilements of desire, which in turn generates various karma.

In our everyday life, it is not easy to eliminate the external conditions for greed to arise. This is because every day when we wake up, we are starting to contact with the outside world. Even so, Ven. Kuan Qian, Director of Jue Feng Buddhist Art and Culture Foundation, emphasized that if we don't start by addressing more obvious afflictions, it is impossible to deal the deeper and more subtle desires. In other words, the progressive accumulation of desires for external objects can lead to addiction. At the same time, however, the desires can also be overcome gradually through cultivating virtuous thoughts, such as generosity. As the saying goes: "Never fail to do anything good which you deem petty; never dare to do anything bad which you consider trivial." Dharma practice begins in our daily life. When facing afflictions-- such as desires that appear constantly while walking, standing, sitting, and sleeping--- the best response is to constantly remind ourselves to develop the right concepts and habits.

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: 雅鳳  
Editing: Keith Brown, 明曄