A few months back, Mitch Horowitz proposed a 30-day challenge, based on the writing and experiences of American philosopher William James, who saw radical and rapid positive changes in his life when he took up the practice of what, today, is generally termed “positive thinking.”
Horowitz is the author of One Simple Idea: How the Lessons of Positive Thinking Can Transform Your Life and Occult America: White House Seances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation. He is, in my estimation, a serious, thoughtful, and informed historian who is able to see through to the deeper levels of different movements and cultural, spiritual trends.
In particular, what struck me about Horowitz’s description of the process was a quote by James that he had included. The philosopher, “resolved to impose definite restrictions on my thoughts.”
The popular image of “positive thinking” is one of a desire for excessive consumption, and previously, I had thought of it as little more than base materialism dressed up as spirituality — an attempt to acquire mansions and sports cars without doing any kind of actual work.
It is interesting to note that James himself had suffered from depression and described his pursuit of positive thinking as a “Promethean act of will.” This does not seem quite in line with the modern mindset of believing we somehow “deserve” whatever we desire.
While “positive thinking” as we understand it is rooted in the modern (19th century) movement of New Thought, Horowitz’s description reminded me of far more archaic strains of thought.
Here, in particular, we should recall James’s idea of “restricting” the thoughts.
Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad has commented has spoken of the three types of dreams, as described by Muslim theologian al-Ghazali. There are, accordingly, those that merely abstract and regurgitate the events and thoughts that we have experienced lately. Those that are influenced by the angelic or the Divine. And those that are influenced by the demonic.
In regard to the “demonic” type of force, both in dreams and in waking life, Shaykh Murad has remarked that if people do not “have sufficient self-discipline they can find that they are really [fixated] on the ugly.”
He mentions especially certain forms of modern art that attempt to draw us in, and to draw us over to its worldview, by showing us what is ugly and unwholesome. (But we can also think of certain horror movies and certain types of pornography, in particular, that attempt to attract much larger audiences by revealing what is debased and sadistic.)
Moreover, Shaykh Murad seems to suggest that we can become obsessed with, or perhaps possessed by, ugliness. That it can, in other words, become a part of our consciousness, lying beneath all of our thinking.
In his lecture on the “Crisis of Modern Consciousness,” Shaykh Murad goes on to speak about the discipline of lowering the gaze (ghadd al-basr), in Islam, away from what might excite the individual toward materialistic ends: “one looks towards one’s feet… one is not, like everybody else, looking in the shop windows and looking at the cars and looking at all the stuff that is around, but constantly involved with what is important with one’s own internal life.”
In other words, the thoughts are restricted, not to obtain the latest car, smartphone, and so on, but so that they are focused on the Divine and those aspects of life that are essential to the Divine plan, so that we will choose the healthy over the unhealthy — in food, associations, thoughts, and so on, and, indeed, that we might expect this to be reflected even in our dreams (though God may, perhaps, choose something different for us).
A similar idea can be found in the writing of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, who commented much on the nature of thoughts. He suggests, for example, that no matter what the individual might “aspire” to be, he should “refer […] wholly to the Divine Providence, and […] bend and apply all thy present thoughts and intentions to holiness and righteousness,” in order to fulfill his aspirations.
In the medieval Icelandic Poetic Edda we find the following advice:
If a friend thou hast | whom thou fully wilt trust,
And good from him wouldst get,
Thy thoughts with his mingle, | and gifts shalt thou make,
And fare to find him oft.
Here the thoughts are not of one person, but two. They must mingle to create something “good.” Yet, the thoughts themselves are uplifted by the giving of gifts and by visiting one’s friend often.
We all know how we become more joyful, and how our thoughts can be radically transformed, when we receive a gift from someone we love, and, of course, equally, when we give a gift to someone we love, even if we do not expect one in return. We also know that gift-giving, and generosity towards guests, including strangers, was an important custom in traditional societies, whether Muslim, Christian, or pagan, etc. This was more than a social custom. It was, in effect, also a religious or spiritual command. According to St. Benedict, “all guests who arrive [at a Benedictine monastery are to] be received like Christ.”
Returning to the stanza from the Poetic Edda, it seems that friends are to cultivate good thoughts together so that this will lead to good actions and good results. Gift-giving is a part of that process. Gift-giving and generosity are also — in the language of religion — part of acknowledging God’s plan or revelation.
Though perhaps not the intention, we might, then, reread the above passage from the Poetic Edda, imagining that the “friend” is not another person, but God — or in the language of polytheism, one of the gods or goddesses — and that the “gift” is a sacrifice, such as giving up a particular food or unwholesome activity or relationship, and that “faring” to him means reflecting often on the Nature of Deity, meditation, prayer, and so on.
To restrict the thoughts is a kind of sacrifice to one’s higher “Self” or higher consciousness. And to cultivate this consciousness — which is in line with the Divine plan — is, ultimately, a sacrifice to Deity itself. Yet such a sacrifice means, it would seem, treating other people and the things of the created world as part of that Divine plan. It means rejecting thoughts that denigrate our self and others, and, instead, focusing on and cultivating what is good.
As we all know, this is not as easy as it sounds. Anger, jealousy, self-pity, and so on affect us all from time to time — perhaps sometimes, or with some people, even day to day or hour to hour.
But, when such feelings arise, and when petty and destructive thoughts or daydreams begin to bubble up in the consciousness, we can choose not to indulge them. Recognizing them, we can cut them off, saying to ourselves, simply, no, I don’t want to waste my time thinking like that when there are good things I can think about and can cultivate in my life. Instead, we can, in the words of the ancient Persian Zend Avesta, “embrace and propagate the good thoughts, good words, and good deeds… that we may be in the number of the good.”