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Replace negative thoughts with positive ones

The lives of visionary people inspire us. Yet they can torment us too by making us feel that trying to emulate them, even in small ways, is just too big a mountain to climb. For many people this pressure doesn’t just come from a few isolated heroes they try to imitate, but also from people around them who have achieved what they believe they can’t – success and happiness. That self-defeating paradox has existed since man first appeared on earth. What most people don’t realise is that its antidote has existed for just as long.

In his best-selling book “The Power of Positive Thinking” published in 1952, author Norman Peale acknowledged that many people’s lives are dominated by negative feelings. He argued that though these negative thoughts accumulate to become a semi-permanent burden, they could be countered by following a program of thinking positive thoughts. In other words, people could learn to think positively.

Many such ideas trace their origins to oriental philosophies, especially strands of Buddhism. A fundamental tenet of Buddhism is that, though a man’s mind determines his sense of the world, a man is master of his own mind. Thus, an unhappy man causes his own unhappiness; indeed, he chooses that state, just as a contented man chooses to be content. Buddhism proclaims that achieving contentment is simple; it starts with accepting that our circumstances are the way they are, whatever that may be. When we do that, we can choose to change those circumstances.

A Tibetan Buddhist mind-training practice, which dates from the 12th century, is Lojong. It hinges around two principles. One is called “Ultimate Bodhicitta,” which loosely means open-mindedness; the other is “Relative Bodhicitta,” which roughly translates as compassion. Lojong uses a set of fifty-seven motivational slogans or aphorisms that focus the mind on those principles by purifying the practitioner’s mental attitudes. Examples of the slogans include: “Maintain an awareness of the preciousness of human life,” “Be grateful to everyone,” “Always maintain only a joyful mind,” “Don’t malign others,” “Don’t seek others’ pain as the limbs of your own happiness,” “Don’t be swayed by external circumstances,” “Don’t wallow in self-pity,” “Don’t be jealous,” “Don’t expect applause.” They all have one common attribute: all are positive.

Systems like Lojong are as relevant now as they were eight hundred years ago. Indeed, for a number of reasons they are particular suited to today’s world. First, they are easy to understand. Second, they are easy to put into practice – you just decide to adhere to them and then continue to do so. Third, the way they work at countering persistent negative ideas and paranoia easily resonates with people today because they are based on common sense. Fourth, and most importantly, they work.

Of course, we don’t have to adopt an oriental philosophy based on fifty-seven slogans to make our lives work. Slogans from many sources can be truly transformative if they reach into our inner beings and move us profoundly. We just need to choose the ones that work for us. An entrepreneur might pick slogans that extol risk-taking or that promote the value of doing work rather than thinking about it: “You cannot plough a field by turning it over in your mind.” The slogan used for the 2008 Obama presidential campaign shows how successful slogans are in politics. “Yes we can” is both inspirational and motivational. The three-word phrase directly addressed the capabilities and hopes of Obama’s campaign team and supporters. It told them that the tough gruelling battle ahead was winnable, but more importantly, that winning it was up to them. On the other hand, the slogan “Yes we will,” initially might seem to express more confidence and be less ambiguous. In fact, it’s much weaker because it’s presumptuous and so, would be seen by many people as arrogant. More importantly, it lacks the implicit invitation to be an important part of a vital, yet unfinished mission.

A great advertising slogan is Nike’s “Just do it.” It speaks directly to every athlete by implicitly acknowledging that most of them resist doing exercise at least sometimes – they’re tired, the weather is bad, their bodies ache from the last session, etc. Yet, it also implies that athletes are well aware that if they are not motivated to overcome these excuses every time, they might as well give up. The phrase “Just do it” is a perfect motivator because it tacitly recognises the athletes’ problem, but tells them clearly what they have to do regardless. Possibly the most famous advertising slogan of all is the one Avis used in the sixties. They turned the fact that they were not the largest car rental company from being a negative attribute to and positive one, by proclaiming: “We’re number two, so we try harder.”

Slogans are a simple, yet proven way to replace negative thoughts with positive ones. We can hang them on our walls; put them into our diaries, our computers and our smart phones. It takes no effort, costs nothing and they’re with us wherever we go. Those well-chosen wise words have the power to transform our lives. The perfect time to begin the transformation is right now. As one slogan says, today is the start of the rest of our lives. Let’s go for it!