The Cultivation of Positive Thinking

The nature of positive and negative thought

Dr Zahurul Hassan Sharib (1914-1996) gave great importance in his writings to the power of positive thinking - but positive thinking can easily be misunderstood. It is not enough to be optimistic and focussed on a goal, if the goal is not itself worthy.

A tyrannical dictator can be a ‘positive thinker’ in the sense of being single-minded in the pursuit of power, but evidently this does not have good results - in fact for many, including the person himself, it can lead to destruction. The war, rape, pillage, and murder that it brings in its wake invoke negative thoughts of revenge, hatred, malice, etc. There are many instances throughout history that provide more than ample evidence of this.

For Dr Sharib, real positive thinking was inextricably intertwined with that unfashionable thing - a moral frame of mind. The development of a positive mental attitude means that we must not only have qualities such as determination, patience, and firm resolve, but must focus these qualities on, and integrate them fully with noble aspirations for the benefit of mankind. Further, we must realize them in actions in daily life. The holy Qur’an reminds us again and again of the need to believe in the oneness of God and to do good.

Entertaining negative thoughts, without any doubt, tends to bring about the very things we fear or dread, or on which we have focussed our attention. Negative thoughts often arise from fear, or from insecurity, or as the result of bad experiences, they bring gloom and decrease the quality of life. In this situation, we cease to live, become content with merely existing, with seeking our own animal comfort, which is really to wallow in self-pity. Life becomes an intolerable burden, and we make life intolerable for others. In severe depression, even the body itself becomes unbearable. The environment seems grey, without colour, and it seems to be something seen at great distance, having no contact and bringing no surge of joy at its beauty.

Rembrandt, the great painter, had the ability to invest even a lump of meat with a sense of life and beauty; the depressed person sees even the most beautiful forms and shapes of nature as if they were lumps of old meat.

Sometimes we ask, can God really have made hell for those who do not heed Him, can it really exist? Someone who is really depressed and distressed does not have to ask this question, he has a taste of the reality. The fact is that thoughts and actions have consequences in this life and beyond the grave.

Now, the question is, can positive thinking really help us to prevent our lives from becoming a wasteland of depressive thoughts and destructive impulses? Can it help us out of such a bad situation?

If by positive thinking is meant just, so to say, ‘bucking up,’ this is hardly enough. No! Positive thinking means to build for ourselves a beautiful inner life, to landscape an inner garden, complete with pavilions and cool places, replete with gentle sunshine and cooling showers, and good company, with birds singing, and bees collecting honey. Surrounded by strong and secure walls within which we feel safe, happy, and content.

The next question is, how can we build such a beautiful inner place? Positive thinking is one of the tools to help in this, along with prayer, good reading, good company, a simple outer life, meditation, charity, high standards of integrity, modest expectations, honest labour, the remembrance of and gratitude to the Creator, and above all love.

We need to have a planned and systematic approach. ‘Rome was not built in a day.’ We must be prepared for a long haul, tackling one task at a time but having an overall plan. It is real work, pure and simple, and it is the work of a lifetime, and it is work worthy of man. Kipling reminds us that ‘Adam was a gardener.’

Laying the foundations

Work of this kind means to begin by reviewing our situation. We must take some time out to look honestly at our condition, at the would-be ‘inner garden.’ What are the most pressing needs? What can wait till later? We need to be brutally honest with ourselves, and see what the real state is without self deception. If we later want roses, we must begin by taking off the rose-coloured spectacles, to see clearly how things really are now, and then start to think how we want them to be eventually. But to dream is not enough, we must also act.

Maybe we want to start with small things, or maybe it is better to be more drastic and dig out the big weeds right away.

Either way, delay is not an option. Left alone, the weeds will grow and the would-be garden will deteriorate. We must move forward or go backwards - remaining as we are cannot be an option. There is a passage in the Mesnevi of Hazrat Jalaluddin Rumi in which he tells the story of a strong young man who decides to delay pulling out some small weeds, day-by-day he puts it off, always saying he will do it tomorrow. Eventually he reaches an old age and finally he tries to pull out the weeds, but the weeds have grown strong and virulent, and he has grown weak and aged. What would have been a simple task has become a Herculean labour of formidable proportions.

After this stage of self evaluation and having made the resolution to do something, we must now construct a firm moral framework that will provide the protective walls and the base on which to build the inner garden.

Shah Wali Ullah of Delhi, the great 18th century sufi saint, says there are four basic virtues into which all other virtues fit. These are purity, humility, generosity, and (the highest of all), justice. We must aim to foster a love of these within ourselves.

Purity of the body merely implies keeping it clean - a simple enough thing but a good place to start and move on from. Inner purity implies the establishment of good mental habits of watching our thoughts and noting when they become negative. When we find this to be the case then we must replace such thoughts with their opposite. If they are focussed on selfishness, then they must be changed to thoughts of altruism. If they are cowardly thoughts, then they must be replaced with thoughts of courage and so on. This is what Dr Sharib called the law of substitution. Just as with habits of bodily cleanliness, the process of purification is frequently repeated. We do not wash our bodies once and then assume it is done - hygiene must be maintained daily, and it is the same with inner hygiene.

For the sufis, the inner purification is carried out by the grace of the spiritual guide who cleans the mirror of the disciple’s heart again and again from within. This cannot be understood by everyone but is well known to disciples. In sufism this relationship is the cornerstone.

Humility, it is said, attracts the favourable attention of the angels. By this we may understand that a flow of goodly thoughts and energies occur where real and genuine humility shows itself.

We must empty ourselves of pride in our own achievements and understand that nothing can be done, but that there is a continuous flow of mercy towards mankind from its Creator. We must be empty of self-importance to receive this flow. The ego is a tiny, insignificant particle in a vast universe of particles - each absorbed by its own business and wondering why it comes into conflict with other egos. When we realize this inwardly, then we come to know that the soul is vast enough to contain what appears to be an infinity of such universes.

Generosity is ranked even higher in the good opinion of the souls that Almighty God has given the administration of His creation to. To be generous with money or goods is a small though beneficial thing, to be generous-hearted is something much greater. When we give money or goods we are advised to give the best, not merely to give away that which is not wanted. Generosity of heart and spirit implies that we give the best of ourselves for the benefit of others - for the benefit of all. Of course it implies forgiving and forgetting both real and imagined hurts, and covering the faults of others. There is a story that Hadhrat Ali, the foremost leader of all the sufis, was given a robe by the holy Prophet Mohammed under instruction from God, because when asked what he would do with it, he said he would use it to cover the faults of of the people.

True acts of generosity draw the attention of the saints of God.

Greatest of the four virtues is justice. God is just, and when we act with justice to others and seek justice for them we become identified with this quality of God. Sometimes justice must be fought for on behalf of the poor and the oppressed and downtrodden, and no quarter given. We should always begin by being sure that our own behaviour to others is always just and fair.

All the aforesaid virtues must be entirely subsumed and absorbed. When these become an integral part of us then the foundations of the beautiful garden can be said to have been well and truly laid.

Tending and nurturing

Now the flowers and trees we have planted begin to grow, watered from the continuous flow of Divine grace. We must tend them of course, remove the weeds, prune and so on, but the wasteland has become fertile and our work has become that of tending and shaping, of cultivating and enjoying. We know that we cannot make the things grow, but can only maintain and shape the garden so that its natural beauty becomes enhanced.

If we continue to be assiduous in our efforts, for a while we may feel content and happy with the garden; walk in it at will, enjoying the perfumes, admiring the colours, relishing the change of seasons and the different states this produces in the garden.

Then something strange begins to happen - we begin to feel something is yet missing- without knowing exactly what it is! Everything has been made in good proportion, and all the elements are there, but still something remains and we don’t know what it is! We feel baffled, puzzled, and disappointed, frustrated that our work seemed to be for nothing after all.

The transformation

Then one day when we have all but given up wondering what it is that is missing, our Friend comes by.

Is He attracted by the beautiful smells, colourful flowers, or the luscious fruits? Is it the tears of anguish that our labours seemed for nothing that attracted Him? We may not know - but when He comes, it is as if we had never really seen the garden - every rose glows, every leaf dances, every fruit ripens and the water gurgles with the contentment of a baby being fed at its mother’s breast.

But the surprising thing is that we have eyes for none of it, our eyes, ears, and being, are only for our Friend, the Beloved.

Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi says: ‘There are flowers and pomegranates in the garden aplenty, but when the Beloved is not there these do not matter, and when the Beloved comes these do not matter’.

Now, in the words of Khawaja Muinuddin Hasan Chishti, the turbulent river has reached the ocean, mingled with it, and become calmed forever.

Reprinted with permission of the author from the Zahuri Sufi website at