“You are what you think.” … Really?!!
So this is a massive movement in personal development right now.
You can’t check a talk show, open a blog, read a book, magazine, newspaper without someone telling you, “You are what you think.” Or “You are your thoughts.” Or, “Thoughts become things… choose the good ones!”
And, of course, there is a truth in this. The collated effect of repetitive thoughts defines, in a major way, the way in which we relate to others — the way we view the world — the way we anticipate that the fates will treat us — or, if you like, the degree to which we have control over our experiences in life.
The thoughts that we repeatedly have, in this way, can calcify into a prism through which we interpret our world.
For example, if we repeatedly think that life is tough, that the gods are inclined to give us a hard time, then I guess we will adjust most of our behaviour to be defensive against the next hit. And, as an extension, may well be inclined to see life as depressing and as a series of traumas.
So, if we were to adjust those thought patterns and make it our business, daily, to celebrate the wonderful things that we already have — whether it be our health, the security we have in our life, the food we have to eat, a warm shower, the love of a friend, our eyesight, the sun in the sky… whatever. If we were to spend the first thirty minutes of each day confirming to ourselves the astonishing good fortune that we are enjoying then, yes, perhaps we could begin to change the prism through which we shape our experience of life… maybe.
I say “maybe”, because it seems self-evident to me that the people who scream most loudly that this gratitude is a secret to a better life are invariably very wealthy and enjoying great good fortune in terms of the physical trappings of their life!
The best-selling authors and personal development gurus who tell us all to wake up and thank our mattress for giving us such a good night’s sleep, and that this ritual will be a portal to a happier spiritual life might want to have a word with the single mum in a sink estate in some inner city “slum” who is sharing her bed with a couple of kids and a lot of bed bugs.
That woman may not be reading the latest New York Times bestseller on how to visualise an orange aura, but a social worker or friend might infer that she should spend less time thinking so pessimistically about her existence — they might infer that her thoughts are partly responsible for keeping her poor.
And it is this thought fascism that does worry me rather a lot. To say to someone who is profoundly depressed or going through a very tough time in their life “you ARE what you think” feels to me tantamount to abuse. What are you saying to this individual? That it is their fault that they are poor, that there is not enough food in the house, that they don’t have a loving partner — and that all this is brought about because they aren’t thinking better? That because they spend a lot of their time thinking “shit, life is tough. This isn’t fair. Why do I not have more money so I can pay my bills? Why has my kid got another cold and I can’t afford to get her medicine? Why is my god so cruel?” — because they think these things it is their fault that things aren’t getting better? Really? Is this helpful? Is it true?
It is horseshit. And can be dangerous horseshit. It is a kissing cousin to the attitude of politicians who think of an entrenched “underclass” of society that is infected with stupidity and criminality.
Surely one of the many truths in life is… that it is not fair. Some of us appear on this planet in the maternity ward of a developed nation and, generally speaking, we are not going to die of starvation or cholera. Around half of the world’s population are going to pop onto this planet in a country where they will have to struggle for a decent couple of meals each day. Is that because they are thinking the wrong thoughts? Horseshit.
Are these gurus just talking to a substrata of the population of the developed world, to those of us who have the luxury to worry about things other than food, security and ill health? Nope. That does not seem to be their thesis. It seems to me that many of them profoundly believe that the power of thought can move mountains, can change the biorhythms of the planet. Sorry, guys, I think you’re one sandwich short of a picnic. I think they have taken a substantial truth about the nature of human psychology and inflated it into a hocus-pocus law of physics.
I don’t know why they feel the need to do this… well, actually, I think I do. It is a combination of absolutism — a desire to find an incontrovertible law of nature that suggests simplicity of shape, benevolence, security — and laziness. Laziness to not think harder about the true nature of human psychology and to convey it to readers and thinkers.
They think, perhaps, that their readers will buy more of their books and products if they are told that there is ONE simple step to take, a red pill, that will immediately transform their existence for the better.
Well it is a lie.
But, hey, let’s look at another idea — not so very different in some respects and, yet, carrying a completely different resonance about the nature of both psychology and the nature of existence.
And it is this… thoughts are just… thoughts.
That they have NO power whatsoever on the material world. That true freedom exists in letting those thoughts flow through our heads without giving them much status.
That we are incontrovertibly NOT our thoughts. That we are not defined predominantly by our thoughts. Nor, indeed, necessarily by our actions. We are defined at the moment of our birth as just… being. And that’s it.
We have value and significance because we just are.
The rest is flimflam.
These personal development gurus, most of them, are on a scam. On one hand they are suggesting we are spiritual beings that should seek to define ourselves outside of our physical existence — that we should not seek to define ourselves through the trappings of our physical life and our status — and at the exact time they are selling us volumes of self-help that are seeking to guide us to thought processes that will increase the likelihood of us “attracting” better physical success to our existence! Um, guys, isn’t there a conflict of value structure here?
If we’re going to bandy about cute little aphorisms — maybe we should be printing bumper stickers that say, “Don’t worry. Thoughts DON’T become things. Chill out!” I don’t believe individual thoughts are “bad”, “damaging”, “healthy” or “unhealthy”. But I profoundly believe in the power of narrative. Maybe that is what these gurus are trying to say. If so, say it.
If our underlying story — the story we tell ourselves about ourselves — is one where we see ourselves as “failing” or “weak” or “selfish” or just plain “bad” — then we are in a lot of trouble.
But you can’t just tell someone to stop thinking those thoughts. Or to start thinking of themselves with greater kindness. That’s not gonna work. They are stuck in their story. First, they need to understand how a story works, how it gets its power. They need to understand how, perhaps, this story was developed in their heads — where it came from, why, who gave it to them. And, only then, when they can read this narrative as something that exists independent from themselves — only then, can they let it go — throw it away — and begin to write their own story.
Whether they realise it or not, the gurus who insist “you are your thoughts” (these thought police) could well be cementing the people they wish to help in the narrative that already imprisons them.
Thoughts are just thoughts — little boats travelling on the surface of our being. We are the river — we are the ocean. We’ve always been there — and it is good.