“We are what our thoughts have made us; so take care of what you think. Words are secondary. Thoughts live, they travel far.”~ Swami Vivekananda

Years ago, on a teacher training retreat, I pulled an inspirational card from a deck of affirmations. It read: “You are amazing and beautiful and everyone loves you!”

I remember looking at that card, then kind of sheepishly looking around to see if anyone had seen the card I chose, and then laughing out loud. Me? Amazing and beautiful? Ha! There was no way I could say that about myself. It was completely false on the one hand and horribly egocentric on the other. And everyone loves me? Well that seemed just plain ridiculous. There were plenty of people, I was sure, who did not like me, and certainly did not love me. But on that morning, that was the card I pulled. My desire at that time was to orient myself, with solemnity and focus, in a particular way to the day. I also had the intention of being totally open to whatever the card might tell me.

So I rolled it around in my head for a while – not just the affirmation itself, but the many questions that came with it. Why was it so easy to create a story in which I was less than amazing or beautiful, a story in which many people did not, or might not, love me?

And at the same time, why was it so uncomfortable to create a story in which I actually was both amazing and beautiful, a story in which, in fact, everyone really did love me? And how might I be different in the world if I moved in a way that reflected that story?

I considered all the implications of that little card. What if my whole life was just a series of stories that I was narrating as I went along – putting my own spin, my own projection, my own fears and biases on each one? And what if the way I told and lived my story started to become the way in which I actually met the world and the world met me? What if the narrative I created in my head was the exact reality I created in my life?

I started to become aware of how often I defaulted to the “bad” story, the story of judgment, the story of betrayal, the story of injustice, the story of convenience, the story of convention. And I started to become aware of how much everyone around me seemed to do the same thing.

Once I began to really notice this tendency, I was amazed at just how pervasive it was. Stories, stories everywhere, with a disproportionate number of those stories, at least for me, having an undertone of anxiety and self-doubt.

I began to observe how these various narratives affected my interactions and sense of ease in the world. I created an adage for myself and for my students: “If you’re going to make up a story, you might as well make it a good one,” and used it often in both teaching and practice.

According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras 1.5 – 1.11, there are five types of thoughts which fall into two categories: klishta and aklishta. These are sometimes referred to as “colorings.” We can use our awareness of them to move towards clarity in our thinking, or at least to acknowledge that we are usually adding a particular hue or bias to our observations. In other words, “good story” or “bad story,” we must realize that we are always coloring our thoughts, and decide whether it is in our continued best interest, and in the best interest of those around us, to see and be in the world through a particular lens. Indeed, if we can become aware of how much undue anxiety and agitation we create by speculating or fantasizing, we might be able to stop the negative train and replace it with a more positive thought.

While this idea is not new – in fact, in Sutras 2.33 – 2.34, Patanjali suggests that when we think of a negative thought, we should replace it with a positive one, a practice called pratipaksha bhavana – there has recently been much written and researched about the power of positive thinking.

Within the last decade, many of us-especially those of us in the world of yoga, spirituality and self-improvement-have bought into the idea that simply changing our thoughts will result in actually changing our life into the life we want and our dreams will come true. The 2006 internationally best selling self-help book “The Secret,” by Rhonda Byrne, introduced the idea of creating our own reality through the power of thought and has since become an oft-repeated truism.

As tidy and enticing as this idea may seem, it is also by definition “aklishta” or “colored” and requires “viveka” – the philosophical value of discernment in yoga practice.

While we can see that in the moment if we replace a “negative” thought with a “positive” one, we might feel more at ease, but we must also realize that simply creating positive stories may not actually bring us what we want, and in fact, may cause great harm.

While research has shown that positive thinking can create positive states of mind, motivation and readiness for learning, (Fredrickson, Seligman)
it has also indicated that positive thinking can lead to apathy and lack of preparedness when things go wrong (Oettingen, Kappes).

When I think of the idea that simply thinking something positive will actually make it so, I am deeply troubled by its implications as a therapist, as a spiritual teacher, and as a human being. It seems to me that this is a slippery slope to blaming and shaming. If only he could have thought himself well, if only I had kept a more positive outlook, if only she had healed that relationship with her mother, if only he had let go of his anger. This, for me, is where positive thinking blurs into magical thinking and has the potential to create greater harm than good.

So what is the power of positive thinking? Should we or shouldn’t we? What story should we tell ourselves? What narrative should we create that allows us to be at ease in the moment while not languishing in fantasy or apathy, not inadvertently slipping into the ego identification that allows blaming ourselves or others for things that go wrong, and unduly congratulating ourselves for perceived successes?

What is required here is a paradigm shift in which the opposite of negative is not positive, not a black and white binary, but something more spacious, more still. In other words, we redefine “positive” as something like a state of ease, of equipoise, of self-efficacy. For me, this returns to the most foundational of Patanjali’s Sutras: 1.2 and 1.3. In these two sutras, Patanjali defines yoga as a stilling of the fluctuations of the mind, and tells us that the result of this effort will lead to awareness of our true nature.

In the yoga vernacular, this state, our true nature, might be referred to as something like “jivatman” or “soul.” I also like to call it our sense of “basic ok-ness.” This is the part of us that is outside of stories, immune to the erratic pendulum swing of the current narrative.

When we cultivate this part of ourselves, these “positive” thoughts transform. They are no longer, “If I believe in a particular outcome, that outcome will occur,” but instead, “Whatever happens, I will be ok.”

But how do we create this state of self-efficacy, this state of ease, of soul?

Our yoga practice is an ideal training ground for this new definition of “positive thinking.” We can learn to become aware of our thoughts through various practices of yoga including breathing, meditation and asana. Through practices like chanting, and positive affirmation (sankalpa), we can begin to change our inner narrative – our coloring of thoughts. We can use our entire yoga practice as an opportunity to develop skills and capacity to rest in our true nature, our sense of “ok-ness,” or simply as the experience of resting there.

While we can still commit to casting our everyday thoughts in an optimistic light, and we can still actively work towards the outcomes we want, we can also know on a deeper level that, irrespective of the end result, we are ok. In this, we find real power and a new paradigm of positive thinking that allows us to truly be in the flow of life. In this, we are indeed, always amazing and beautiful. Divinely and unconditionally loved.

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[Photo by Madelinetosh – CC BY]