Daily life can be a roller coaster. When things are going well, it’s easy to think positively. But obviously, things don’t always go well. We all have challenges and times when things don’t go our way. Dealing with negative thoughts can be difficult, but fortunately for yogis, our practice teaches us how to do it.
In one of the studios near me, one of the yoga sutras is inscribed on the wall. Simply, yet not easy, the sutra reads:
When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite (positive) ones should be thought of.
This is part of sutra 2.33. The act of replacing negative thoughts is pratipaksha bhavana.
The Practice of Dealing with Negative Thoughts
Like many, when I first saw sutra 2.33 on the wall, I shrugged. Sure, it’s sounds like great advice. Maybe if you’re an enlightened yogic sage you have no problem dealing with negative thoughts by simply replacing them with positive ones.
And anyway, aren’t we yogis supposed to still the mind completely? Can we have only positive thoughts or is it better to have no thoughts at all?
A still mind is ideal, but for most of us, it’s not possible to sustain mental stillness for long. So, we start by working with negative thoughts, which all humans have. If we’re going to have thoughts, we may as well learn how to make them positive.
Patanjali isn’t suggesting we never have negative thoughts. Of course, we’re going to have them. The sutra acknowledges that not only will have them, but they will disturb us. It’s the disturbance that’s a problem.
If we have negative thoughts that don’t disturb us, there’s no reason to replace them. This is also possible (we can let them go), but sutra 2.33 asks us to replace thoughts that disturb us. The goal is to find something positive to occupy the mind instead.
The Power of Positive Thinking
Most of us agree that positive thinking is better than negative thinking. In the next sutra (2.34), Patanjali notes that negative thoughts are the result of ignorance. It’s only with awareness of these false—that is negative—thoughts, that we can do something to change them so they don’t cause pain. We can’t change what we’re not aware of.
Once we’re aware of negative thoughts, we can replace them with opposite thoughts. In the next few verses, Patanjali gives us specific examples.
For example: When one is confirmed in non-violence, hostility ceases in his presence. (sutra 2.35)
Patanjali continues by showing us how to use the yamas and niyamas to cultivate positive thoughts and actions. When we commit to truth, he says, our actions align with divine will. Refraining from excess opens us to spiritual growth. And so on.
The yoga lifestyle Patanjali is describing prepares for the divine powers yoga offers those who practice with devotion. Dealing with negative thoughts is an important step, because negative thinking depletes our power.