“What you think, you become”

“What you think, you become,” or sometimes “The mind is everything; What you think, you become,” is commonly attributed to the Buddha, but doesn’t seem to be scriptural. At best an overly-free — well, inaccurate — paraphrase.

Jayarava did a blog article on this one some time ago and concluded it was not from the Buddha. His exposition is rather long, but worth reading. I agree with him, by the way.

The closest I know of to this quote is in Majjhima Nikaya 19, “Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking and pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness.” That’s a rather different statement, of course.

“What you think, you become” has always puzzled me. If I think about Lady Gaga I’m not going to become an outré pop star. But that’s probably just me being literalist. I suppose it’s intended to mean something like “Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking and pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness.”

Here’s a fuller version of that quote:

Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking and pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with sensuality, abandoning thinking imbued with renunciation, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with sensuality. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with ill will, abandoning thinking imbued with non-ill will, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with ill will. If a monk keeps pursuing thinking imbued with harmfulness, abandoning thinking imbued with harmlessness, his mind is bent by that thinking imbued with harmfulness.

This is from a sutta called the Dvedhavitakka, or “Two Modes of Thinking,” where the Buddha is talking about his realization, before his Awakening, that there were two tendencies within the mind.

First, he would notice that, ‘Thinking imbued with sensuality [or ill will, or harmfulness] has arisen in me; and that leads to my own affliction or to the affliction of others or to the affliction of both. It obstructs discernment, promotes vexation, and does not lead to Nibbana.’

He further noticed that as he mindfully observed this kind of thinking, with an awareness that it led to suffering, it would subside.

Second, he would notice that ‘Thinking imbued with renunciation [and non ill will, and non-harmfulness] has arisen in me; and that leads neither to my own affliction, nor to the affliction of others, nor to the affliction of both. It fosters discernment, promotes lack of vexation, and leads to Nibbana.’

And having observed the arising of this kind of thinking, he would give it his mindful attention. As he says, in a rather lovely simile:

Just as in the last month of the hot season, when all the crops have been gathered into the village, a cowherd would look after his cows: While resting under the shade of a tree or out in the open, he simply keeps himself mindful of ‘those cows.’ In the same way, I simply kept myself mindful of ‘those mental qualities.’

From that point on, to cut a long story short, he entered the jhānas and then got enlightened.

So this is the context of “Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking and pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness.” It means that the mind is trainable, and what kind of thoughts we put our energy into come to shape the mind, and affect both its affective tone (are we happy or unhappy) and its ability to discern the truth.

It’s been suggested that the “what you think, you become” quote may also stem from the first two verses of the Dhammapada, which express in poetic form what the Dvedhavitakka Sutta explains in a more expanded form:

1. Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.

2. Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.

These verses are from the “Chapter on the Pairs” (Yamakavagga) which explores these two modes of thinking, or being.

This derivation, rather than the Dvedhavitakka Sutta origin, may be supported by the fact that “What you think, you become” is often seen in another form: “The mind is everything; What you think, you become.” The connection may not be obvious, but sometimes those Dhammapada verses have been translated to include “our life is the creation of our mind” rather than “our mind is the creation of our thoughts.” And it’s not a great leap from “our life is the creation of our mind” to “the mind is everything.” So that may be the origin of this suspect quote.

Eknath Easwaran’s translation of the first verse of the Dhammapada in fact begins, “Our life is shaped by our mind, for we become what we think.” This is not at all far from “The mind is everything; What you think, you become.”

And that fuller version of the quote is very old indeed. I’ve found it in a 1897 book, In Tune with the Infinite, by Ralph Waldo Trine. Trine used “The mind is everything; What you think, you become” in several of his books, but I haven’t been able to establish where he got it from. I’ll keep looking.

These two Dhammapada verses are often rendered in a very different way from how they were intended, along the lines of “The world is the creation of your mind” — but that’s for another fake Buddha Quote post.

26 thoughts on ““What you think, you become”

  1. A close one is ‘You are what you think’ (from the 11th verse of Chapter 1 of the ‘Ashtavakra Gita’ – Marshall’s translation, 2005). The usage in this verse clarifies what this one line is meant to get at, and fits the quote you have posted above as well.

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  3. The “inclination of awareness” reminds me of the so-called Law of the Instrument. As Maslow put it, “If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.”

    • The first line of Dhammapada 1 is Manopubbaṅgamā dhammā manoseṭṭhā manomayā.

      I would translate this as “All experiences* (dhammā) are preceded by mind (Manopubbaṅgamā), having mind as their master (manoseṭṭhā) created by mind (manomayā).”

      I don’t see anything in there that corresponds to “we become what we think.”

      *dhammā is more often translated along the lines of “mental phenomena” but I rather like “experiences” because it’s more, well, experiential.

  4. I just came across this quote attributed to William James on FB:

    “The greatest discovery of our generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind. As you think, so you shall be.”

    While most quotation sites have only the first sentence, another quotation site (http://schipul.com/quotes/499/) gives the second sentence as: “As you think, so shall you become.”

    Maybe “What you think, you become” is just a sloppy rendering of this sentence, when someone was quoting from memory alone.

    According to Wikiquote (http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/William_James) this quote is, however, misattributed to William James. So we have something misattributed to the Buddha turning up in another quote misattributed to William James. LOL.

    Now, what about this one:

    “You become what you think about all day long.”
    ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

    This would also be quite close if shortened to “You become what you think” (e.g. here: http://www.purposefairy.com/798/what-you-think-you-become/).

    • A more extended treatment of this theme is in the following quote, which is often attributed to the Buddha (but then isn’t everything?)

      Watch your thoughts. They become words.
      Watch your words. They become deeds.
      Watch your deeds. They become habits.
      Watch your habits. They become character.

      I started investigating this and found that it had already received a very thorough treatment here: http://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/01/10/watch-your-thoughts/

    • By the way, I believe:

      “You become what you think about all day long” is not by Ralph Waldo Emerson at all. There’s no trace of that quote in 19th century literature, and it seems to have been coined by Wayne Dyer, the self-help guru.

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    • I doubt very much whether the Buddha would discourage us either from investigating the meaning of his teaching:

      “…a lay follower himself is consummate in conviction and encourages others in the consummation of conviction … when he himself explores the meaning of the Dhamma he has heard and encourages others to explore the meaning of the Dhamma they have heard…”

      or from clarifying what are and what are not his words:

      “Monks, these two slander the Tathāgata [a synonym for "Buddha"]. Which two? He who explains what was not said or spoken by the Tathagata as said or spoken by the Tathagata. And he who explains what was said or spoken by the Tathagata as not said or spoken by the Tathagata. These are two who slander the Tathagata.”

      Of course perhaps you have some special psychic connection with the Buddha such that you can know what he though without needing to refer to his teachings :)

  7. Thanks for this. My cousin posted this on his fb and I said “So I think Shampoo, will I become Shampoo?”. I thought knowing Buddha, this could not be his quote. You helped solve the puzzle :)

  8. 1. 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 a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.
    2.. Mind it is which gives to things their quality, their foundation and their being. Whoever speaks or acts with impure mind, him sorrow follows, as the wheel follows the steps ofthe ox that draws the cart.

    I am not a Pali scholar but if the translations of these two stanzas from the Dhammapada are correct do they not imply that we have a choice of becoming happy by fostering pure wholesome thoughts or becoming miserable by indulging in evil thoughts?
    In other words we become happy or miserable by what we think?
    After all is not Buddhism is all about eliminating suffering?

    • Hi, Nihal.

      Thanks for writing. That’s a 19th century translation, and probably influenced by the modern self-help movement. The word that’s translated in your verses (which are from Max Müller’s translation) as “thought” is “mano,” which is a tricky term. Most of the respected contemporary translators render it as “mind,” which is something much broader than “thought.” For example, Gil Fronsdal, Narada Thera, and Buddharakkhita all have it as “mind.” Thanissaro has it as “heart,” which I think strays a bit too far, but is nicely poetic.

      Our thoughts (if by that you mean the words we speak inside our heads and the things we imagine) are certainly important and need to be become skillful if we’re not to cause ourselves and others suffering. But we also need to transform the emotions that lead to the arising of those thoughts and the the actions that arise from those thoughts.

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