What is “positive thinking,” anyway?
There have been innumerable talks, books, and articles about it, but how many of us have taken time to sit down and contemplate what it is, exactly? I have tried to explore it from two different perspectives. A general understanding and the yogic description of it.
The Generic Perspective
Let me start with a common understanding of this concept. Similar to many, I too have gone through a tide of “positivity” for a while, until the recent past, when this tide took a different direction and became a revelation for me.
Honestly, I do not blame anyone, nor am I critical toward myself for going with the “positive thinking” wave. I am truly grateful that it happened, as it made my understanding of what it is so much deeper and life-changing.
The usual understanding of “positive thinking” is that one needs to think positively, regardless of how a circumstance unfolds in a given moment, especially when the outcome is not as expected. It is suggested that one has to stay positive and not feed energy to any “negative thought,” as it would make the situation much worse than it already is.
I have practiced this technique many times. Each time I came across an unhappy instance, I reminded myself to think positive thoughts and not to entertain any negativity. It was quite a traumatic phase. I felt as though I was constantly fighting a battle within me. A part of me could perceive what was happening, and a part of me was pushing to choose the extreme opposite of it—to shut myself completely from reality and stay in some kind of a nonexistent mental dimension. I was so lost in making this a way of life that I failed to realize the constant conflict and that it was draining my energy slowly, but quite forcefully.
The entire dynamic took a different turn when I was introduced to the grace of yoga.
The Yogic Perspective
One of the definitions of Yoga as per the Bhagavad Gita (Chapter 2 Verse 48) is:
योगस्थ: कुरु कर्माणि सङ्गं त्यक्त्वा धनञ्जय |
सिद्ध्यसिद्ध्यो: समो भूत्वा समत्वं योग उच्यते
yoga-sthaḥ kuru karmāṇi saṅgaṁ tyaktvā dhanañjaya
siddhy-asiddhyoḥ samo bhūtvā samatvaṁ yoga uchyate
Be steadfast in the performance of your duty, O Arjun, abandoning attachment to success and failure. Such equanimity is called Yoga.
Lord Krishna explains that one has to focus only on performing one’s duty to the best of one’s ability and not be attached to a specific outcome. By practicing this, one can experience a state of equanimity by accepting the outcome irrespective of whether it is aligned with our expectations or not. This is called “yoga.”
Keeping aside whether to accept the Bhagavad Gita’s teachings or not, let’s look at it from a practical and logical perspective. Let’s say, given a situation, one is supposed to take an action. That is the only moment over which one has control. Once this is done, one doesn’t have any control over anything else. There are innumerable factors like timing, other people’s actions, the external circumstances, and various other dynamics from the world at large. There is absolutely no power in an individual to influence these external factors. And if that is true, then there is no need to get anxious about the results.
This is such a simple yet profound understanding.
Once we contemplate and let this fundamental truth sink in, the entire dynamic of how one can handle each situation changes. The irony of this understanding is that we gain immense freedom and control over ourselves in a situation that looks so out of control. This leads to a state of inner peace, which is being referred to in the above verse.
Now, one can face a negative situation that may involve them or not. We have two options to choose from:
>> If one is involved, we can perform our part of the action and let go of any attachment to a specific outcome.
>> If one is not involved, we can accept what is happening instead of having an internal conflict between what is really happening and trying to think only positive thoughts.
Logically speaking, the situation will not change just by thinking positively. There is immense potential in acknowledging what is. Once this is done, the next step is to shift the thought energy into a positive one. In this way, there is no internal conflict, and it is much easier to channel one’s thought energy into a productive channel.
Let me explain further with an example for each of these scenarios:
My first example:
There is a conflict or misunderstanding between me and a friend. I explain and clarify my side of the story to the best of my ability. This is the only action that I can do and that is in my control. I have no control over whether my friend chooses to try and understand me. I can keep my heart open with an attitude of acceptance for whatever the outcome is, with the awareness that I gave my best under the circumstance. With this approach, I am accepting that there is a negative situation that calls my attention. I can redirect this energy toward understanding and acceptance. Hence, I am at peace within and there is no inner drama or forceful push and pull.
My second example:
Watching disturbing news or listen to someone who’s experiencing trouble in their lives.
There are multiple ways one can handle this scenario.
First, we can avoid such events where possible. Personally, it’s been more than six years since I stopped tracking any news updates. It is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I am so much more at peace, and able to channel my energy in many productive ways. Also, an interesting note is that I’ve found I am updated with information that impacts me directly or indirectly at the right moment, anyway. (This deserves a separate discussion by itself). So, it is a win-win situation. I don’t feel disconnected from the happenings in the external world, and I am at peace without being overly impacted by external disturbances.
When one cannot avoid any event or a negative update, then:
>> Prayers are a powerful tool one can use, always. Pray for oneself and those impacted in all possible ways. Sit in meditation and pray, visit a sacred place, or get your positive intention out into the cosmos.
>> Contribute—look for ways to contribute positively toward the situation. It could be in the form of sharing one’s time, resources, money, or offering help.
>> Visualize and keep sending loving energy to the people and situation involved with the intension that whatever unfolds is per Divine Will and for all involved highest and greatest good
The more one trains oneself to handle negative situations in these ways, the more one experiences a glimpse of the tranquil state that is referred to in the Bhagavad Gita.
Once this dimension opens up and keeps expanding within oneself, one accepts all that is happening with an open heart and with the conviction that “whatever happens, happens for good.” The natural outcome of this attitude is “positive thinking” without any conscious effort.
This approach not only helps at an individual level, but also at a universal level. Rather than channeling energies into the negativity of the situation, we can channel them toward world peace and spreading love. This will gradually lead to lifting the consciousness of an individual at a higher level and the vibrations of the planet at large. Numerous research has shown this to be effective. The most famous study is the “Maharishi Effect” which was conducted in the United States in 1974.
Thus, I truly believe that this is a healthy way of positive thinking. It is unfortunate that even today, many fail to understand this difference and are so driven to follow the generic “positive thoughts only” approach. Sometimes, I find it quite scary thinking of the potential damage this can cause an individual’s psyche.
But, with the help of yogic teachings, I feel that we can find a balance between accepting the seemingly negative that is happening and approach it constructively, by keeping oneself grounded and centered.