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I watched a video of the Dalai Lama and he seemed to be saying that afflictive thoughts cause suffering and that people need to control their thoughts and cultivate wholesome ones etc. Outside of a retreat environment I can't see how it's possible. Everything is moving so fast. Hundreds of thoughts are just coming and going all the time. It's not even possible to be aware of them most of the time. I find myself suffering and have no clue about the thoughts that got me there. I mean they must have already happened and gone. It's not like I chose to think them. I'm not sure what I should do. Should I just try to cultivate more metta?
Also we are taught to not analyse the content of thoughts arising during meditation but to just note them and return to the breath. I'm wondering how I get to know what is wholesome and unwholesome if I don't analyse?

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  • For information on wholesome and unwholesome states of consciousness, (citta), you may wish to read Manual of Abhidhamma by Narada Mahathera, (available free from Archive.org - archive.org/details/abhidhamma_201807). It is understood that the cure for Monkey Mind is meditation, Anapanasati and Vipassana. Feb 11 at 8:53
  • Some people may find A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma, an edited version of Narada's translation by Bhikkhu Bodhi, a little easier to read. archive.org/details/… Feb 11 at 10:57

4 Answers 4

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The Pali Suttas refer to analyzing thoughts as wholesome & unwholesome. Refer to MN 19 and MN 20.

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When you focus on a mundane task -- like driving a car -- then you shouldn't be "distracted".

A functional MRI brain scan shows that in a state of "focus" there is LESS brain activity, i.e. fewer different areas of the brain activated. This could seem counter-intuitive, "I'm thinking A LOT about the problem", but maybe it's more like, "I'm thinking ONLY about the problem".

Also we are taught to not analyse the content of thoughts arising during meditation but to just note them and return to the breath. I'm wondering how I get to know what is wholesome and unwholesome if I don't analyse?

I'm not sure what you're taught.

When I'm driving a car, if a thought arises then I "just note it and return to driving" -- keep my eyes on the road! And for whether it's wholesome or unwholesome, the question is, "Is it a thought that's relevant to keeping the car safely directed toward open road, and slowing in time for any eventual obstacle?"

I'm not exactly sure how that gatekeeper or analyzer works -- just as I'm not sure exactly what's the connection between brain and muscular motor activation -- it might be what's called "intent" (e.g. I "want" to be driving safely), combined with a learned (maybe also called skilful) ability to focus or concentrate.

Assuming it is a learned skill then (like other learned skills) ability varies (from person to person), and may improve with practice.

I note that "practice" has two meanings, learning to do something and actually doing it -- or by actually doing it -- e.g. in the phrase "he practices medicine".

I use "driving" as an example, if you're not familiar with that perhaps pick any other skill. I suspect that "skill" and the ability or willingness to learn might be interchangeable to some extent, e.g. they used to train mathematics students to become programmers, classics students to be civil servants, etc.

The definition of "wholesome" is more interesting and broader in Buddhism than in other subjects -- not "what's a good solution to this maths problem?" but instead "what's a good way to behave socially in this situation?" etc.

So I think that yes, we have control of thoughts, in several ways:

  1. Reduce incoherent thinking (by achieving a state of focus)
  2. Semi-automatically filter thoughts as they arise
  3. Sometimes there are times when you might use higher-order, rational thinking or discourse, instead of or as well as a semi-automatic low-level filter. For example sometimes an occasion arises when I might be jealous of someone. But instead of stupidly doing that and therefore being unhappy, Buddhist doctrine teaches that unhappiness is unnecessary (i.e. needn't arise), and would be mind-made (so you avoid it by controlling thought), and that there are "wholesome" alternatives (e.g. mudita, being "happy for them" instead of "jealous").
  4. Perhaps you choose to engage in intentional, focussed activity (or non-activity) -- and gradually, perhaps as a result of the doctrine about morality -- get better at that, i.e. choosing what to think about.
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  • Yes, we should be wary of our thoughts when driving because of the risks of getting into accident and being killed by distracted thoughts. I think it will also be beneficial to be wary of them as we go through the day...to understand the intentions and motivations behind them.
    – Desmon
    Feb 4 at 5:54
  • Advice in the suttas for meditation might be relevant for driving too -- i.e. not too much tension/agitation, and not too much torpor.
    – ChrisW
    Feb 4 at 7:54
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It's worth remembering that thought is tied up with control: thought is how we construct problems in the world and how we resolve those problems we construct. I mean, if we feel cold, we think about the counterfactual idea that we could be warm, and then we think about what we can control to make that counterfactual happen. So we have to be a bit careful when we talk about 'controlling thought' because if we try too hard to control our thoughts we can end up thinking more, not less, and that's counterproductive.

What someone like the Dalai Lama talks about 'controlling thought', it isn't an invitation to stifle or repress thought. It's the more genial idea that we if we have a thought we can choose to redirect it into a better (more wholesome) thought. So if we have a thought like "J is such a complete ____", we can consciously pull that thought and replace it with something more kind and compassionate. It's like weeding a garden: pull what's bad, plant what's good, and after a while the only thoughts that spring up are good ones. That's not a particularly high-level practice because it still takes place in the realm of thought, but it walks the line between letting our weedy thoughts run rampant and trying to use one thought to strong-arm another thought into silence. A thought arises: see it, evaluate it, if needed move it aside and fill the empty space with a more wholesome thought. Rinse and repeat…

And just so it's said, you know the difference between a wholesome and an unwholesome thought. You know it in your bones, in how a thought makes you feel. You just have to stop the thought-flow long enough to let the feeling seep through.

The endless flow of thought in daily life is a different issue, one that meditation will ease over time. What we do in meditation (in part) is try to get the experience of no-thought (i.e., a state in which we do not try to control anything). Many people think incessantly not because they need to, but because they are afraid to drop the feeling of control they get from thinking. As we become accustomed to the pleasant ease of not being in control on the cushion, it will extend itself naturally out to other activities in our lives. There are a few tricks to use in daily life that help that process along. I personally like the dialectical approach, where if I experiences a little spasm of thought, I ask myself what problem those thoughts are trying to deal with, and why they're trying to do it right now. Mostly that works back to something silly (someone accidentally insulting me); sometimes it works back to something practical (hunger or tiredness making me grumpy); I can then dismiss it or deal with it as needed. Other people use mantras, deep breathing exercises, nature breaks, hearing the spaces between the words… anything that breaks the steady flow of thought, and thus breaks its control over our attention.

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There's no way(other than 2 causes, which doesn't matter in this case) to stop thoughts coming up.

It like infinitely rotating ball. No stop. Even after reaching Nirvana, until the death of last life. (only after death of people who reached Nirvana, their thoughts stop)

So normally, below Nirvana, there's no stopping thoughts.

Only you can do is, decide what you're thinking.

So, you /person can only influence your next thought. You can influence your next thoughts to think about something good.

So why does it matter?

So you can focus your mind, which is thinking same one thought.

Fundamentally, thought is the creator of the world. Every thought has some energy to it. If you can focus this energy, you can do almost anything. Normally this energy goes as Karma and make your future. But if you achieve Dhayana you can focus this energy and change your surroundings in this life.

It's going out of hand. (explanation), so I stop now. I am happy to expand explanation, if someone is interested.

Thanks 🙏.☸️.

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