The Power of Thought
MyLife Essay Contest 2017
In every situation in which we find ourselves, we have two options. We can choose to think the best or worst about our reality. Other than changing our mood, how much of an influence do our thoughts really have? Through exploring the Chassidic perspective how we should channel our thoughts, we will truly grasp the full impact of our thought processes.
The everyday maelstrom of thoughts in one’s brain can become overwhelming. This is especially due to people tending to imagine the worst about a situation. As people foreshadow and predict doom, these destructive thoughts can prove disastrous to one’s equilibrium. And these appear vindicated, as countless times the very situation frightening a person, becomes a reality. The vicious cycle continues in which a person finds themselves incapable of ceasing what has become a harmful pattern. Viewing the way in which the feared situations are often the ones that take place, a person feels they are justified in imagining the worst will occur. In fact, it is believed that this is the most sensible way of thinking for a pragmatic person. Unfailing optimists are seen as delusional and holding an improbable view of reality. Thus, a person will repeatedly quell positive thoughts with the notion that to think this way will lead to increased disappointment when the outcome that is hoped for does not eventuate.
Most of us are guilty of falling into this trap. Somehow, it can feel as if our thoughts act as a self- fulfilling prophecy. We believe it is logical to think negatively about a situation as the outcome is likely to reflect that. Other times we find ourselves pleasantly surprised by the results of a situation. Yet, people feel that they were only satisfied due to having low expectations. The common perception is that high expectations lead to disappointment and low expectations ensure a person does not become disillusioned.
The doctrines of Chabad are based on the foundation of Chachmah, Bina and Daas, the intellectual facilities of the mind. The Alter Rebbe, the first leader of the Chabad Chassidus movement wrote the Tanya, a guidebook as to how to live one’s life according to the teachings of Chassidus. The seven Rebbeim of the Chabad movement each contributed copious amounts of Chassidus, in the forms of books and talks, building on the foundation provided by the Tanya. Thus, the teachings of Chassidus contain formulas and solutions for all paths or challenges a person may find themselves facing.
Hence we can question, what is the Chassidic perspective on our thought processes? What is the Chassidic interpretation of the way in which we are to think and view the circumstances we encounter in our lives?
The 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, offers a revolutionary perspective on the thought processes of a person in a sicha – discourse (Likutei Sichos chelek 36, Shemos p.1-6). This idea rests upon a base established by the teachings of previous Rebbeim.
As people, we fear the heavenly consequences that await us due to our transgressions. The notion of G-dly reward and punishment is well disseminated in the world, arousing significant trepidation in those who fear G-d. Naturally, for those perfect Tzaddikim, who do not have the capacity to sin, this fear does not exist. Such people, await a life of comfort in the next world, owing to their complete devotion to, and service of G-d.
However, for most people, this is not the reality they face. Rational individuals are aware of their shortcomings. Naturally, this leads to worry regarding the manner in which G-d will handle them. It is easy for people to then become nervous, in a situation in which they require G-d’s assistance, that G-d will not aid them for they are undeserving.
Chassidus teaches that it is this way of thinking which will lead to the demise of a person. In fact, if a person wants a desirable outcome, this is precisely the opposite thought process to the one they should have.
A passage in chapter 37 (Psalms 37:3) of Psalms includes the commandment of the Jewish nation to ‘betach bahashem’ believe in G-d. This is an imperative placed on the Jewish nation, explains the Rebbe. As Jews, we must have bitachon in Hashem. This bitachon is a step beyond the simple emunah that each Jew possesses. Every Jew has emunah instilled within them as a gift from our forefathers. While sometimes concealed, in times of distress this latent emunah becomes revealed and demonstrates that the Jew has an eternal bond with G-d. However, this emunah is not an active acquisition. It is the recognition that G-d can do everything in the world. This does not require a person to do more than profess the great potential of G-d.
In contrast, the quest for bitachon requires the commitment and action of a person. It is beyond simply acknowledging the existence of G-d as the One True Creator, as emunah does. Having bitachon demands a person to recognise that every single thing in this world comes from G-d, and is G-d. Bitachon is taking a giant leap, and placing all of one’s burdens and responsibilities on G-d. It is affirming that G-d runs the world, which means that everything that happens occurs due to G-d. It is not just believing in the potential, but recognising the reality, the fact that G-d truly is behind everything that has happened to a person. Bitachon is viewing the events of one’s life through the perspective that it is all from G-d and thus innately good. As Creator of the world, G-d knows what is best for us, assuring us that everything that happens to us must be good.
When a person truly believes this, then they can change the way in which they think. Rather than wondering and worrying about the fate of a situation, the person places it entirely in G-d’s hands. And when a person can do this, G-d acts with them measure for measure. Chassidus explains that G-d is all merciful and desires the best for His people. Harnessing this G-dly mercy is dependent on us. When we behave with complete faith and demonstrate that we sincerely believe that G-d will relate to us in a merciful way, then G-d ensures that this will be the case.
On the other hand, if we doubt that we are truly deserving of G-d’s kindness, due to our sins or detachment from G-d, then this is the outcome we obtain for ourselves. G-d interacts with us in the way we interact with Him. If He sees that we feel no hope of benevolence, then He does not bestow His grace upon us. This viewpoint does not allow a person to dwell on the fact that they may be undeserving. This perspective asks a person to refrain from deliberating regarding his own merits, as if the person is making accounts, then, measure for measure G-d will act in the same way. Chassidus teaches that we should discard these notions. When we believe that G-d will treat us with mercy despite our faults, then this is exactly what G-d will do.
Thus, in fact it is our human thoughts and perceptions which determine the course of our lives. The way WE think sets us on the path that life will take us. When G-d sees us truly entrusting our fate to Him with complete faith, then He sees fit to relate to us with Heavenly mercy. The task of attaining bitachon is our task. And it is this bitachon which draws G-dly mercy down upon us. With this idea, Chassidus teaches us that our destiny is in OUR hands. It is the way in which we think which will determine our reality.
The third Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek, explained this idea simply with his adage ‘tracht gut vet zein gut’– think good and it will be good. In response to his disciple approaching him, desperately asking for mercy for his sick child, the Tzemach Tzedek answered with this phrase. With this, the Tzemach Tzedek taught that when we think positively, we achieve a positive outcome from on high. Chassidus teaches that our actions in this world are mirrored in the spiritual realms. Everything that happens in this world is a reflection of the higher worlds and vice versa. Thus, our thought processes have power. They have the power to change our reality. The imperative is with us to recognise this potential we have.
In Deuteronomy (21:10) the verse states, ‘when you go out to war on your enemies.’ The wording of this is questioned, as it seems to make more sense to say when you go out to war against your enemies. However, the Chassidic teaching regarding positive thought assists us in understanding this. G-d is promising the Jewish people victory if they go out to war with the attitude that they are on their enemies, on top of their enemies. When the Jewish army arrive in battle with the confidence that they have the strength to overcome their enemies, then G-d will ensure that this is the outcome that will be reached. This instance in Torah is thus clarified by applying the Chassidic teaching regarding the power of our thought processes.
Contrary to the way we sometimes appear programmed to think, to imagine the worst of a situation, Chassidus teaches us to think in the opposite way. Our thoughts have unlimited power. When we truly trust in G-d and believe He will ensure the best possible situation for us, then this is the fortune we will receive. It is dependent on our ability to harness our thoughts and use them as a method of success for ourselves, rather them allowing them to cause our downfall.
Yet, this is difficult. How do we do this? How do we steer our minds to think in this manner when it is easier to think in a pessimistic way?
This requires four steps.
The first is to look around in the world and acknowledge the force behind everything. Viewing the wonders and constant seemingly natural miracles that occur in the world, it appears foolish to believe anything aside from G-d could have created wonders such as the ones we have.
Once a person has truly recognised this, they must be capable of viewing this even within their own lives. This step is far more difficult, as it makes G-d a personal entity for each person. When accepting this, a person is essentially stating that the all events of their life have been purposeful and guided. Accomplishing this requires a person to feel accountable for everything that has happened in their lives, and then hand over this accountability to G-d.
Thirdly, a person must visualise a positive outcome for the situation with which they are dealing. They must be able to truly view themselves in the optimal situation and believe that this can and will occur.
Finally, the person must be able to confidently believe that G-d will continue dealing with them in a merciful way and in the best possible way for them. As G-d is the all merciful creator of the world, it is not difficult for Him to extend this mercy to every person. All G-d wishes to see is that the person believes that G-d will show this side of Him. This level of positive thinking requires a person to accede control to G-d, retaining their strong belief that G-d will behave with them in a kind manner.
Surely this is not an easy process. It requires dedication, and a person will often find themselves stumbling as they struggle to reach the goal of revolutionising their thinking. However, it is a rewarding journey. When no longer restrained by the shackles of destructive thought cycles, a person can increase their accomplishments and build for themselves a happier life. G-d Himself will assist the person in this journey when He views that the person fervently believes that G-d is with him.
This idea has recently been scientifically proven. Anaesthesiologist Henry K. Beecher pioneered the placebo effect. It has found that in a third of cases, the belief of the patient in the impact of the medicine healed the patient swifter than the actual medicine. This idea, discovered years after the Tzemach Tzedek explained the idea of ‘think good and it will be good’, proves the way the teachings of Chassidus have permeated the world. Using this ideological standpoint that positive thoughts can alter one’s reality, terminally ill patients have cured themselves.
Thus yes, our thoughts really do matter. Even more than our actions, the way in which we think influences the future of our lives.