Rembrandt, Portrait of Old Man in Red (Hermitage, Saint-Petersburg)

In popular spiritual circles today you find people who are convinced that in order to get what you want, in any realm, all you have to do is change your thoughts. If you believe, for instance, that you do not deserve the experience of enlightenment, then you will never have it, and that if you change your belief and think in a positive way, awakening will be yours for the taking. They believe that by changing your thoughts, you change reality. The idea is that matter follows thought, not the other way around. People who believe this philosophy go as far to say that if you actively believe that you will get a million dollars that the universe will find a way to give you a million dollars; that if you are sick, all you have to do is believe that will get better and you will. This theory is very attractive to people who have relatively comfortable lives because it means that they are responsible for their good fortune. But it also implies that people who get sick are responsible for their illnesses. It means that people who suffer bring their suffering on themselves, and that if they learned to think differently, they could have happy and prosperous lives.

I know a woman who decided to experiment with this theory. She had some health issues that restricted her diet. For two weeks she acted as if she were a healthy person. When it came to her diet, she ate what she liked because she was a healthy person and healthy people eat what they like. She repeated to herself over and over again that she was healthy and that the foods that she ate were good for her body. She pursued the idea of changing the way she thought about her health with enthusiasm and vigor, but in the end she got very sick and had to go back on the restricted diet.

On the other hand I have experienced what is called physical depression because of a concussion that I suffered. Before this accident I had never been depressed in my life and so I was naturally confused by what I felt. I quickly discovered that if I believed the emotions connected to the depression, it made all my symptoms—which included insomnia, dizziness, and anxiety—worse. Keeping a positive outlook was sometimes necessary just to get through the day. When negative thoughts about my accident and the subsequent mess that occurred as a result of it, I had to exchange these negative thoughts with positive, reassuring thoughts. If I didn’t, I became very sick. In this case a positive attitude was not only important but essential to my recovery.

Clearly there is some power in changing the way we think, in changing attitudes, but, at the same time, we have to understand that this kind of work will only take us so far.

In the Fourth Way we study attitudes, first and foremost, in order to learn which ones can help us connect to higher centers. What we want is to be able to exchange attitudes that are opposed or indifferent to the work of conscious evolution with attitudes that serve our efforts to be present and to remember ourselves. This work is not hard to do, but it does require some observation and some persistence. Essentially attitudes are emotional, but, at least in the beginning, the process of changing them is intellectual. The problem with trying to control emotions directly is that emotions happen to us very fast and are therefore hard to catch and control; thoughts, on the other hand, are much slower and easier to control. Ouspensky tried to calculate the difference in speed between thoughts and emotions, and the figure he came up with is that emotions are 900 million times faster than thought. The principle is that you can hold a thought in your mind and make it fairly consistent, and when you put that consistent thought up against your emotions, which are more fleeting, eventually that thought will affect the emotions.

Let’s say you like to drink wine at night with your friends, but if you drink more than two glasses, you feel bad in the morning. At night, when your emotions are in change, you want to drink and talk and eat and express yourself. When you’re in this state, when you feel this way, you have no conception of the next morning. And since the mind is the function that has the capacity to imagine the future and remember the past, it’s the mind’s role, in this situation, to hold the thought of how you will feel in the morning at the moment you order the wine in the evening. It is the mind that holds the past and future together and that convinces the emotional center of the value of having just two glasses of wine.

By creating right attitudes you consolidate the fact that you have really and seriously decided not to give way to negative manifestations. ~ P. D. Ouspensky

Changing attitudes doesn’t require higher centers. And really work on attitudes isn’t needed when higher centers work. In higher centers the past and future are implicit in the present, and so this slow intellectual method becomes unnecessary. In this sense you can say that changing attitudes is like being present or self-remembering because it is a process that imitates the working of higher centers.

Of course this process of using the mind, or the deductive faculty, to affect emotions and change behavior is commonly used in many different types of moral and psychological training. You begin with thought or analysis and that eventually changes emotion, which changes behavior. The whole of modern psychoanalysis is based on this principle.

The primary value of learning to change attitudes is that some ways of looking at the world (or other people) are expansive and lead to greater understanding, and other ways of looking at the world hamper understanding and encourage illusion and prejudice.

For example, there are many attitudes that are simply dismissive; they dismiss any possibility of understanding or of empathy. Let’s say you’re having a discussion with a friend. If you take the attitude that they don’t know what they’re talking about, it very likely that you’ll not listen to what they have to say or make any effort to understand their point of view. The attitude that they don’t know what they’re talking about gives you permission to not hear what they say or, at least, to listen very superficially. Another attitude that would have a similar effect is the attitude that you know more than they do. Since you’re smarter than they are, you go into the discussion convinced that you have nothing to learn from them. Again you give yourself permission to disregard what they have to say. In my experience many so-called conversations are like this. Instead of two people listening to what the other has to say, you have two people who are so identified with what they want to say that they are simply waiting for the other to stop speaking so that they can express their opinions.

In working with other people you will not only want an attitude that will help you understand them, you also will want an attitude that will help you be present. Maybe you’ve observed in the past that if you stopped thoughts and just tried to be present to the person who is speaking, you saw many things about yourself and the other person. Maybe this experience was a revelation to you. So now when someone speaks to you, you don’t want to have an attitude that they don’t know what they’re talking about or that you’re smarter than they are, you just want to listen to them without allowing your mind to comment. You want to be open. The difference between the two is that the first attitude is negative in the sense that it shuts down many possibilities for you and the second attitude is expansive and opens up the many possibilities.

What is important to remember here is that intellectual attitudes are an effective vehicle of change, but only when they touch the emotion center. A strictly intellectual attitude cannot affect your desire to be present or to connect with higher centers. But a way of looking at yourself or the world that makes you emotional can help. By using attitudes you can learn to transform an emotion like fear into love or to transform anger into acceptance. But this work is very individual; you have to find attitudes that make you emotional, that inspire you to transform your negative emotions.

Hand and hand with the idea that our thoughts affect reality is the idea that positive attitudes attract positive situations and negative attitudes attract negative situations. The notion that positive thinking can bring you what want has become almost a movement in America, affecting even the business culture. Again there is a certain amount of truth in the effectiveness of positive thinking. If you have negative attitudes, you will tend to attract negative situations; and if have positive attitudes, you will tend to attract positive situations. But there are limits. Thinking positive thoughts does not make problems go away. If you make a bad investment, thinking in a positive way about it will not alter the consequences of your bad choices. You may be able to postpone the consequences by lying to yourself and to others, but eventually someone will have to pay. Of course the business world has distorted the idea of positive thinking by using it for its own purposes. If a corporation is firing a group of people, it is in their interest to make those workers feel that it’s best for them to have a positive attitude about losing their jobs, and if a corporation is looking for investors, it is in their interest to communicate a positive attitude about how their market share will continue to grow. But thinking and telling people that everything is fine, doesn’t make everything fine. One thing we can be certain about is that arguments motivated by greed not only encourage lying but also encourage unrealistic (and even delusional) expectations. Greed is also an attitude, and not a very good one for understanding the world and other people.

Oddly the idea of the necessity of a positive attitude is most popular when it is connected to the acquisition of material possessions, which is where it is the least effective. If you have no money and sit in your room and have positive thoughts about winning the lottery, it really isn’t going to help increase your odds of winning. On the other hand having an open and positive attitude about connecting to higher centers is important. If you don’t believe that it is not possible for you to have a mystical experience, then you will certainly block any opportunities for you to create such an experience. In this case, it is useful to be positive and open. But to believe that you can sit, and make no efforts, and think positively about being given a new car and that the universe will give you a new car is simply delusional.

In a nutshell what I want to say here is that the idea of creating positive attitudes is more relevant to higher worlds than it is to the material world. This is a good example of how ideas of conscious evolution become distorted. On a certain level your thoughts do create your reality, but this, as I understand it, is only entirely true in the realm of the higher intellectual center, the highest level possible for a man to achieve. To say that the same powers are given to us, mechanically, in the physical world is just wrong.

What we want from an attitude is understanding. When you see that an attitude stops understanding then it’s time to change that attitude. In most cases—especially in cases regarding your inner development—you will find that a positive attitude gives more understanding than a negative attitude. But there are certain situations where a positive attitude will not help you understand. For instance you cannot understand war with a positive attitude. Wars could not happen without a certain level of prejudice, intolerance, and negativity, and in order to see this type of mechanical behavior in other people, you need to have a negative attitude or outlook. In other words, you cannot go into a war situation thinking only the best about people, because, if you do you, will not understand the mechanics of what is happening. Ouspensky puts it this way: If a man studies life, he must come to negative conclusions, for there are too many things wrong in life. Trying to create only positive attitudes is as wrong as having only negative attitudes.