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Do positive thoughts attract good things? While this popular idea may have some truth to it, I’ve realized it’s also an oversimplified assessment.
Abdu’l-Baha, one of the central figures of the Baha’i Faith, described human thought this way:
The reality of man is his thought, not his material body. The thought force and the animal force are partners. Although man is part of the animal creation, he possesses a power of thought superior to all other created beings. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 17.
We all have the ability and free will to control our thoughts. Unlike animals, our heightened intellect allows us to not only process the things going on around us, but also to evaluate our thoughts and feelings. With that freedom to think intentionally, we can often adjust the way we interact with the world:
If a man’s thought is constantly aspiring towards heavenly subjects then does he become saintly; if on the other hand his thought does not soar, but is directed downwards to centre itself upon the things of this world, he grows more and more material until he arrives at a state little better than that of a mere animal.
Thoughts may be divided into two classes:
(1st) Thought that belongs to the world of thought alone.
(2nd) Thought that expresses itself in action.
Some men and women glory in their exalted thoughts, but if these thoughts never reach the plane of action they remain useless: the power of thought is dependent on its manifestation in deeds. – Ibid., pp. 17-18.
So thoughts are not merely interpretations—they are also aspirations, or goals. Whenever we try to understand things around us, some level of aspiration contributes to the thought. When we think about the way a plant grows, we aspire to understand a part of the natural world. When we think about a movie we watched, we aspire to relate to a work of art.
Thought has some attractive properties. If we seek to develop our higher selves, we grow spiritually—our thoughts focus on a Higher Power and direct our path in a certain way.
Does this mean that positive thoughts, a vision board and a few affirmations will lead to prosperity and growth for all? Probably not.
If popular media had its way, for example, many of us would lead lives entirely focused on higher and higher levels of material consumption, emphasizing physical beauty, and putting our own happiness before the well-being of others. Instead, the Baha’i teachings say, we all need to make a supreme effort to find ways to enhance our spiritual existence:
He must turn away from ideas which degrade the human soul, so that day by day and hour by hour he may advance upward and higher to spiritual perception of the continuity of the human reality. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 265-266.
To push back against this kind of mentality, we have to actively work against materialistic forces like consumerism and think beyond the confines of our fleeting personal desires—so we can rise above self and serve the interests of humanity. Many paths can help unclutter the mind and refocus it on serving others. For me, praying and reading the Baha’i writings clarifies and brings meaning to my thoughts.
But thought needs to become action, as Abdu’l-Baha said, or it will prove useless. It is so easy to get on our high horse and have long belabored conversations about what we should do and how we should do it, but unless they motivate and implement change, they mean very little.
Just imagine what the world could be like if we developed thoughts—and the accompanying actions—that would heal our world collectively! As we change our mindsets, our souls and hearts will change with them:
The important factor in human improvement is the mind. In the world of the mind there must needs be development and improvement. There must be reformation in the kingdom of the human spirit; otherwise, no result will be attained from betterment of the mere physical structure. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 277.
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Report of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s words as quoted in J. E. Esslemont, Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era, p. 93