“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.

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43 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.

      • The fuller quotes are this.
        It is true what they say:
        “You are what you think.”
        If you think you are bound you are bound.
        If you think you are free you are free.

        You are Self—the Solitary Witness.
        You are perfect, all-pervading, One.
        You are free, desireless, forever still.
        The universe is but a seeming in You.

        I am neither free nor bound.
        The illusion of such things
        has fallen into disbelief.
        Though I contain creation,
        it has no substance.

        • Thanks. Actually I make reference to this passage in discussing a fake Dhammapada quote in the forthcoming edition of Tricycle.

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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.

  9. I agree with the above comment concerning actions and dealing with our emotions. The world is full of suffering and disasters because we keep spiritual concepts too much in mind while our lifestyles, greed and emotions are not in alignment. Yes, “mind precedes everything,” but how quotes get distorted, they take out the real heart of Buddhas message which some of this feels deliberate as you never really see quotes of his circulating that do not fit in with the new-age/consumer-age.

    In fact, I posted a real Buddha quote from the Dhammapada on facebook a while back and someone left and angry comment saying it was a “fake” because Buddha would never say that. From all the quotes they had seen on facebook they couldn’t perceive Buddha as someone who would bluntly ask us to release our attachments. So, for the commenters who says its a waste of time to confront the fake quotes or that Buddha wouldn’t wish us to, I disagree. After all, people get upset the bible has been twisted and so they don’t trust it anymore.

    Buddha was not a new-ager. And it isn’t ethical to twist his words to falsely project him as something he was not. This quote has a “law of attraction” feel to it. However, Buddha would not have used the law of attraction how it is currently being used. Buddha was more about using the mind to release everything rather than to gain things. So, is it misleading to attribute these kind of quotes to Buddha without circulating other things to give a fair picture of who he was and what he teaches?

    • I get that all the time here, Mandy: people telling me what the Buddha would and wouldn’t feel/think/do, despite their obviously having no familiarity with the Buddhist scriptures, and no idea of what the Buddha taught or what he might have been like. Basically “their” Buddha thinks just like they do and has their opinions.

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  11. I found this variation on facebook today….
    “what you think you become, what you feel you attract, what you imagine you create”

    • Ah, the Law of Attraction, masquerading as the Buddha’s teaching. The Buddha said that what you imagine has no effect whatsoever unless it’s in line with what you do, and that a desire for results without the appropriate conditions is like trying to make butter by stirring water.

  12. eh, didn’t Buddha mean your thought in doing something?
    for example, when you think about positive thoughts, you become happy?

  13. I don’t see what is confusing about the saying. There are people who make a living poking themselves with metal spikes and not be bleeding, not be in pain, and when monitored, have no reaction in the equipment of body trauma. Now THAT is mind over matter. To the extreme, no doubt, but a good indication that our mind is more powerful than our bodies.

    WE are the placebo. Your mind tells your body what to do. It doesnt know the difference between your independent thoughts or the gears that are already turning in there. People are given placebos and have changes sometimes just as equal as the person on actual medication. People who imagine their bodies healing, often heal. People who are always worried about getting sick, or say that they feel like they will never get better when they are sick… often hold on to colds and illness much more frequent and longer than they usually would.

    My Dad used to say you can do anything you put your mind to. And considering my Dad was a great artist, and a self taught chemist, carpenter, mathematician, engineer, astronomer, aquarium dude, bonsai trainer (I really could go on and on about the things my Dad had done), but it leads me to believe it is possible.

    While you wont physically become Lady Gaga, if you set your mind on a thinking positive only mission to become a popular performance artist, then you can become that. You have to set your mind to DRIVE. Obviously it would be important to keep your eye on the prize and think of becoming a pop star…. because if you think you will fail, or suck, or not be as good… then you already set yourself up to not put in your maximum effort. When there is no such thing as fail, then there is only success, because there is no giving up. Thinking positive, and you will become positive. Even if you set out to become one thing in particular, but while on the path ended up somewhere kinda similar that still worked for you…. You still became what you thought. Successful, happy, free, creative, whatever. But you built the road for success by only thinking about success. A path that you build with negativity will always be under construction

    If you follow Mr. Emoto’s and similar studies, water has memory. Plants watered with water that was told “I hate you” grew far worse or died over plants watered with “I love you” water. Negative water froze into ugly crystals, while positive water froze into pretty snowflake crystals. Our bodies are made up of water. Imagine how our body retains negativity when we think it, speak it, or are around it all day? Theres a lot of negativity in the air, and wi-fi/cell phone waves everywhere… no wonder so many people are such a douchey bunch nowdays, you know?

    Thoughts become things. What you think, you become.

  14. What of the alternate quote “What you are is what you have been. What you will be is what you do now.”

    It is very philosophical, but the problem is these quotes circulate for so long we don’t always know their origins.

    • Interesting, J. That version seems to come from Sogyal’s Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, where it’s apparently attributed to the Buddha. I’ll look into it at some point. Thanks.

  15. You are already free. Since thought is actually perception captured in one’s time stream, one becomes aware of being free by seeing where and when one is in this place. All is paradox so being right about anything is useless to freedom. Being willing to see all opens the door. My experience.

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