(Originally published as a newsletter for The Dragontree Holistic Day Spa)

Last month, I wrote about how visualizing a desired outcome can enhance our chances of achieving that outcome. It’s practiced all the time in sports, with athletes creating mental movies of themselves performing at their best before they do their thing. Rarely, however, do we hear about it in everyday use, where, in the same way we might visualize this is where I want the ball to go, we could pinpoint our mental focus on this is where I want my life to go.

Yet, many have written and lectured on the topic over the past couple centuries, most prominently the New Thought philosophers – leaders in a movement that has affected the way we think much more than most people know. Perhaps you have heard of its more recent, less coherent incarnation, the New Age movement, or the movie on one of its principles, The Secret.

New Thought philosophers ranged from the mystical to the pragmatic, though all shared a central belief: our mind affects our reality. Most in this movement also shared a belief in God as a form of infinite intelligence which is everything and everywhere, and which dwells in and is accessible to all people. These ideas were first articulated in the early 1800s, long before the modern self help and “spiritual, not religious” explosion that began in the late 1900s.

The notion that we are able to affect reality with our thoughts is both the most special and the most troublesome feature of the New Thought movement. Most New Thinkers, especially the early ones, applied this concept specifically to health, with the fundamental belief that all disease begins in the mind. One New Thought forefather, Phineas Quimby (1802-66), asserted that illness always arises from negative or erroneous beliefs, and that changing the mind (specifically, in his terms, making it “open to God’s wisdom”) could initiate the cure of any disease.

Later New Thinkers developed this idea into the Law of Attraction (a term first used in print in 1906). The Law of Attraction states more broadly that “like attracts like,” and therefore, that the kind of thinking you regularly engage in will shape the quality of your life. This was New Thinker Napoleon Hill’s premise in his books on wealth, including 1937’s Think and Grow Rich, which has remained a perennial bestseller.

I have witnessed these beliefs in both beneficial and harmful ways, and I’d like to discuss what I believe is true and untrue about them. In particular, there are two ideas that are important to address. The first is the notion that everything that happens in our lives is a direct result of our thinking. The second is the idea that if positive thoughts bring us good things, negative thoughts must bring us bad things.

There is no doubt that the quality of our thoughts profoundly affects the quality of our life. If, for instance, we believe our life is good, then it is good – to us anyway – regardless of the material circumstances of it. So, the case could be made that thinking positively is the most worthwhile aspiration one could have – more worthwhile than aspiring to create a set of circumstances that we hope will induce us to have positive thoughts about our life.

But, there is a big difference between the idea that our thoughts affect our experience and the idea that our thoughts affect our material circumstances. Thinking negatively can make us feel like crap. It can even give us a headache or a stomachache. But is it the cause of all disease? Phineas Quimby and his patient Mary Baker Eddy (who went on to found Christian Science) would certainly say so. But how do we know this is true? There are many pessimists and curmudgeons in good health and many happy, positive people who get sick. In terms of the connection between thoughts and health, the only thing we can come close to making educated statements about is the notion that positive thoughts can promote healing.

I believe some of the New Thinkers – and many folks since – made an erroneous leap of logic, whereby they witnessed the ability of negative thinking to affect our subjective experience of life and they saw the healing power of positivity, and they concluded that negative thoughts are the sole cause of disease, thereby throwing out every other probable influence on human health. Ken Wilber writes about this unfortunate viewpoint in Grace and Grit, the account of his wife’s battle with – and eventual death by – cancer. Their ostensibly well-meaning New Age friends would ask her, “Why do you think you gave yourself cancer?” Such a stance not only has little bearing in reality, it acts almost entirely in a hurtful, guilt-inducing way.

To take this already damaging concept and expand it into my thoughts are the sole cause of reality leads us to a tremendous potential for blame. I think I have never been as disappointed by a supposedly evolved human as when I read an interview with Louise Hay, widely hailed as a guru in the field of affirmations and positive thinking, in which she was asked if she believed the Jews were to blame (through negative thinking) for what happened to them in the Holocaust. She replied, yes, adding graciously, “I probably wouldn’t say it to them.” This is among the most poisonous things a human mind has conceived. Even Hilter never said the Jews did it to themselves. All it takes is a little thinking – is it likely that all six million Jews happened to wish, in unison, for gruesome, torturous deaths? – to arrive at a more mature understanding of reality.

Thoughts are powerful, but they aren’t the only form of energy in the universe. When a person suspends thought for a moment (and this is indeed a special thing), the world does not cease to exist. In health, there are countless other influences, from genetics, to nutrition, to environment, to trauma, that all play a role. In the world at large, our thoughts typically have only a subtle direct impact on other people, because everyone else has their own free will. The Jews couldn’t have made Hilter and the Nazi regime do what they did.

But I’m making this point on the limitations of thought because, the truth is, thoughts do have some ability to affect objective reality (as I explained in part one of this article). We just have to understand what those limitations are and how to work with them.

One limitation on the power of thought to affect objective reality is that almost nobody has much practice at it, and even fewer have studied under a master with a methodology. Plain old visualization – seeing the outcome you desire – can be quite beneficial, especially with practice. But the results can be improved with a more refined technique. A basic “amplifier” of visualization is to evoke in oneself the emotion you expect to feel upon actualizing your goal. More potent refinement of technique can be achieved through the practice of Qi Gong. Qi Gong masters can do some amazing things with intention. But still, they fetch water and chop wood the usual way – like everyone else.

Although I spent several paragraphs arguing against the idea that thought is the sole cause of disease – much less the sole cause of everything – I don’t think many people truly believe this anyway. A much more common form of problematic interpretation of New Thought philosophy is the idea that if the Law of Attraction is true, it must be true in both directions. That is, if visualizing our goal can help make it happen, thinking about something bad must be like cursing ourselves.

I first encountered this twist on the Law of Attraction when I was obsessively worried about the loss of a girlfriend who was moving far away. A friend told me, “Worrying is like praying for what you don’t want. You’re doing exactly what you do when you visualize, except you’re focusing on the thing you want not to happen.” This made sense. After all, how could it only work in a good way but not in a bad way? It also made me unbelievably paranoid that my bad thoughts would come true.

That was a dozen years ago, and I’ve been thinking about this ever since. Without anything to refute it, my eventual conclusion was, the power of the mind to influence objective reality is so limited, it’s just not worth worrying about what our negative thoughts might do to us. Meanwhile, without having an explanation, I regularly noticed that positive thoughts tended to win out over negative ones. Sure, bad things happened to people sometimes, yet for the most part, I saw negative thoughts affect people’s perspective moreso than their material circumstances.

Finally, a working explanation occurred to me, and here it is. David Hawkins wrote several books (the most famous being Power Vs. Force) on the idea of testing muscle strength as a means of getting answers to questions. In the simplest terms, he said, we can determine truth versus non-truth by understanding this as a binary proposition, like a switch. That is, truth is 1 and non-truth is 0; truth is on and non-truth is off; truth is real and non-truth is illusion.

When we hold the truth in our mind, we attune ourselves to somethingsomething real – and when we hold a non-truth in the mind, we attune ourselves to nothing except a made-up thought. Thus, attunement with the truth is a relatively fortifying act and attunement with illusion is relatively weakening. When a muscle is tested as we focus on the truth (e.g., my name is Peter) it should be stronger than when we focus on a non-truth (e.g., my name is Betsy).

I know this is pretty out-there stuff. For what it’s worth, I think muscle testing is fraught with inaccuracy, and, beyond this basic idea, I’m not sure I agree with the rest of what Hawkins teaches. But this core concept – that we are strengthened when we are aligned with the truth, and weakened (or at least, not strengthened) when we are aligned with a non-truth (because it is empty) – makes sense to me.

I was wondering one day about whether there’s any fundamental difference between a positive thought and a negative thought, and I realized – and felt – that when I had a positive thought, I was, in most cases, aligned with some fundamental truth of my nature. And when I had a negative thought – usually a worry – I was disconnected from my fundamental truth.

Both thoughts could be entirely hypothetical. For instance, one could be a fantasy about having so much money I have enough to help out all my friends and family, and another could be a worry about driving my car off the side of a bridge. Even if the first thought is not actually, currently true, there is something intrinsically truthful and fortifying about it, as is any aspiration toward happiness, love, abundance, generosity, gratitude, peace, connection, inspiration, and health. In my opinion, these qualities are our native state – our Truth. They are who we are, even if we’ve been conditioned to believe otherwise. Consequently, thoughts that are aligned with this truth are much more powerful in their ability to affect the trajectory of our lives and even to bend reality around us than are thoughts that are not aligned with this truth. This is why parents can worry their heads off about their children (though I don’t recommend it) without concern of causing bad things to befall them. This is why we can worry that we’ll get cancer (though I don’t recommend it) without concern that this will cause us to get it. And this is why cultivating thoughts that connect us to happiness, love, abundance, generosity, gratitude, peace, connection, inspiration, and health (and I highly recommend this) will yield profoundly good returns.