“We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think.”

I saw this one being passed around on Facebook.

We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.

This is obviously meant to be Verse 2 of the Dhammapada, but “we become what we think” isn’t quite right. It’s very similar to “The mind is everything. What you think, you become,” which also purports to be a translation of the Dhammapada.

It may be an alteration of Eknath Easwaran’s translation:

Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think. Joy follows a pure thought like a shadow that never leaves.

The first clause is different: “Our life is shaped by our mind” is now “We are shaped by our thoughts.” And “Joy follows a pure thought” is now ” When the mind is pure, joy follows.”

“We become what we think” and “What you think, you become” do not reflect the content of the opening verses of the Dhammapada.

What the text actually says is “Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought.”

The original isn’t about “thoughts” or “thinking” as a causal factor, but about “mind,” which includes not just thinking but also our feelings and volitions.

The original doesn’t say that we become what we think about, but that the mind’s habitual cognitive and volitional patterns shape the kind of mental states we experience.

The Buddha is talking about how our experience becomes habitual. If we continually respond to life with thoughts and emotions that are aversive or grasping, we’ll experience greater suffering. If we respond with mindfulness, patience, and compassion, we’ll experience greater joy.

Ideas such as “We become what we think” and “What you think, you become,” tie into a western preoccupation with the intellect. Descartes, for example, says “I think, therefore I am,” not “I feel, therefore I am,” or “I experience, therefore I am.” Self-help manuals encourage us to “Think and grow rich,” or to engage in “positive thinking.” Some studies, however, have shown that positive thinking can backfire, resulting in depression. Affirmations such as “I’m successful and people like me,” if not actually true, cause cognitive dissonance and merely remind us of our short-comings. io9 has a good article discussing the pros and cons of positive thinking.

The Buddha’s view on positive thinking was that if it violates reality, it’s worthless. Just as you can’t make a boulder rise into the air by means of wishful thinking, so you can’t experience happiness unless you actually do the things that lead to happiness, such as living ethically.

For the Buddha it was what we do in our thoughts, speech, and action that is the determinant of our happiness, not our thoughts alone.

3 thoughts on ““We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think.””

  1. Isn’t this just a take on the first part of F. Max Müller’s translation:

    ” All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage… If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him. ”

    That one seems to be pretty widely accepted, and almost universally quoted.

    1. That translation may be widely (although definitely not universally) quoted, but no competent modern translator would accept it as an accurate rendering of the Dhammapada.

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