By Ziv Porat
The journey of life requires us to transform, grow and evolve. Without doing so we are bound to find ourselves stuck, frustrated and subjected to some kind of discomfort or pain. Life has a persistent way of reminding us that we have to move forward. The main obstacle to this progress arises from unproductive or negative, habitual ways of thinking and behaving. Negative behavioral patterns seem to be hard to break and unhealthy thought patterns even more so. Many of us have tried to overcome these impediments with varying degrees of success.
In yogic teachings a stress is placed on such transformative or positive thinking. It is in one form or another the essential practice of any spiritual path, especially in its beginning and intermediate phases. In Raja yoga, the yoga system from which we have borrowed the physical culture of yoga poses and breathing exercises, such transformative thinking is emphasized and utilized. In the classical text of Raja yoga, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, there is a verse that beautifully describes the practice of positive thinking: “When negative or harmful thoughts disturb the mind, they can be overcome by constant pondering over their opposites”. This short verse reveals much about this wonderful and necessary practice.
In the yogic tradition thoughts and emotions are not considered to be two different entities; an emotion is known to be a particular kind of thought pattern. Even though our psychological and physiological experience of thoughts, on the one hand and of emotions on the other is different, they are but mental modifications of different amplitudes, as it were. Emotional states and thoughts are intimately linked as well; they mutually support and produce each other. Habitual thoughts of dislike toward a person turn into anger and in due time this will yield hatred. The emotions of anger and hatred will in turn produce copious thoughts of a similar nature. We frequently find ourselves trying to manage unwholesome emotions and attitudes. This fact makes the direct way of transforming both into beneficial patterns, as suggested in the verse from the Yoga Sutras, a very potent remedy for such a pervasive tendency.
The statement, “disturb the mind” in this verse is quite significant. When negative thoughts and emotions flood the mind they actually cause a disturbance, which induces mild or intense pain. When the calm surface of a lake is disturbed by powerful currents and high winds (unwholesome attitudes, emotions and habits), then the outcome would be huge and violent waves. The waves are akin to our mental agitation, emotional difficulties, unproductive attitudes, less then desirable impulsiveness, irrational behavior, harmful habits etc.
Some years ago, while on a trip to India, I attended a class in which the teacher explained positive thinking with a lovely analogy. He asked the students how they would transform milk in a large and heavy jug into water. Since the milk jug is very heavy it cannot be lifted or tipped and therefore the idea of poring the milk out wouldn’t work. The answer, he said, is to fill a smaller and more manageable pitcher with water, using it to pour the water into the large milk jug. This will cause some milk diluted with some water to spill out and repeating this process will cause the same result. If one keeps poring water into the jug that was once filled with milk, that would further dilute the milk each time we pore water into it. After repeating this action numerous times, the milk jug would be rendered empty of milk and filled with clear water.
This delightful analogy gives us the essence of positive thinking, which is also the foundation of most positive behavioral changes. The yogis tell us that we are not to waste our time trying to push away the negative patterns for this is a useless activity; mind would only resist this coercion and persist with its unwholesome thoughts and habits. The suggestion is a simple one, that is, to consistently and continuously think on the positive opposite, i.e. reflecting on and putting to use the wholesome mental habit that we are trying to create. The suggested method is to invest our intention and effort in cultivating a positive and desirable mental habit. We are to do so without expending much energy in the attempt to eradicate the negative one that we are trying to replace. Once the positive pattern is strongly established and deeply rooted in the mind, the unwholesome pattern will be diminished of its own accord till it vanishes altogether. The practice of transformative thinking is therefore a more pleasant task of implementing positive changes rather than fighting negative ones.
The essentials of this practice, as mentioned previously, are consistency and continuity. It’s about thinking positively in the face of whatever negativity the mind insists on projecting. Since the conditioned, unwholesome habits are deeply ingrained in the mind they will persist for quite a while. We cannot expect an overnight transformation and the yogis advise us to stay the course no matter how long the negativity lingers. Success in this practice is dependent not on its forcefulness, but rather on its steady implementation. The yogis encourage us not to lose heart after a week, a month or a year of sporadic attempts, but rather to keep our effort steady and unceasing. The secret to success is to have trust in the process, confidence in oneself, tenacity and unwavering endurance.
The yogis encourage us to hold fast to the truth that any perceived failure in this practice is only a temporary setback; it will certainly be overcome if we persist. The concept of ‘failure’ itself is part of the unfavorable pattern that we are trying to change. It is an unnecessary and burdensome way of perceiving ourselves and our efforts. It puts shackles on our legs preventing us from moving forward. We need to stop seeing our apparent lack of success in a negative light but instead see it as a stimulus for firmer resolve and further effort. A statement of unknown origin comes to mind in regard to the idea of a perceived failure, “It is not how many times you fall which counts, but how many times you get up.”
The yogis also recommend embracing the attitudes of confidence and cheerfulness, as part of positively transforming our way of thinking. Confidence will allow the seeds of self-development and spiritual progress to mature, protected from the pests of self-doubt. Confidence is the force that gives strength and a steady direction to our thoughts and actions. Cheerfulness is the indispensible lubricant of any transformative process that we undertake. Without a jovial attitude we are bound to get disappointed, stop our efforts and succumb to the weight of the difficulties that we encounter. Therefore, a sense of humor and a cheerful attitude will promote not only success but also a more harmonious journey.
“Never lose faith in yourself, you can do anything in this universe. Never weaken, all power is yours”. These are the instructive words of a great yogi; we may wish to remember that this is not a random statement or a mere pep talk, but rather a statement of fact that was inspired by its author’s firsthand experience and knowledge. This knowledge can and will become our own, if we invest a positive intention, plot a steady course forward, apply effort and possess a desire to realize our own amazing potential.
 Swami Vishnudevananda, Meditation and Mantras, NY, Om Lotus Publishing, 1981, page 169
 Swami Vivekananda, The The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda/Volume 7/Inspired Talks/Thursday, August 1, Wikisource, en.wikisource.org/ Date accessed 11/29/2017
About the author:
Ziv Porat has been studying and practicing Yoga and Vedanta as spiritual discipline in the Sivananda tradition since the ‘80s. He has educated students on the physical and spiritual aspects of Yoga and Vedanta in California, Israel, and Spain. He conducts workshops and writes about spiritual development, coaches individuals and teaches weekly yoga and health classes at retirement communities in the SF Bay Area. Ziv strives to make the great teachings of Yoga and Vedanta accessible, interesting and inviting. Website: https://lightonspiritualliving.com