The Ancient Art of Positive Thinking

This is an excerpt from my book ‘You and the Conscious Universe’ (previously published as ‘The New Positive Thinking’) which will be available on the Amazon website on May 12th.

Though you may not know it, nearly all of the world’s important spiritual texts are, secretly, tracts on ‘Positive Thinking’, whose message (in all those modern self-help books on your shelf) is not so modern after all. That is, the teachings that underpin Positive Thinking are rooted in a very old species of magical thought, the kind written about by the philosophers, occultists and alchemists of yore – right back to a period before Christ. In those days (under the name of Mystery Initiation, Gnosticism, Hermeticism, Higher Magic, or later, Natural Philosophy) it required a period of training, purification; of sacred role-play and a need to know and understand one’s inner nature. To change one’s world, one had to change oneself. Though it hardly seems obvious, there’s really little difference in the inspirational self help books of nowadays, and those containing obscure alchemical recipes for making gold. But it’s true: only the language has changed. They are both about using the Law of Attraction to one’s own benefit.

What drove the alchemists of the Renaissance was not the search for actual gold, but the very secrets of Creation. That which gives rise to Life in all of its many forms. They knew full well that the Mind has a creative aspect, that it literally brings about desired situations and circumstances when used in the correct ‘scientific’ way. The image of the alchemist in his laboratory – setting to work on chemical compounds and base metals, distilling, purifying, coagulating etc. – is simply a metaphor for activities in the Mind, or soul. Here, raw emotions, base instincts, falsity and untruth must be ‘burned’ in the fires of purification, killed off, as the alchemist strives for the pure spiritual Self, the ‘gold’, which lies beyond matter. As the ancients would have said, Positive Thinking is nothing less than instructions for the soul.

In the ancient world, whatever had a creative, ‘miraculous’, force to alter our fate was always ascribed to divine or supernatural beings – God (or the deities of pagan religion). And we find these magical powers at work in the myths and legends of antiquity, encountered by the Hero on his symbolic journey, on his Spiritual Quest to find the Self. The Hero’s quest often took the form of a dangerous pursuit of a priceless gift or treasure (typically made of gold, again symbolising our spiritual Self). This could take many years, and involve all manner of mortal struggle where obstacles forever seemed to litter his path. He might even undertake a visit to the forbidding realms of the Underworld itself (a metaphor for the Subconscious mind). The point is that this spiritual ‘treasure’ was not easily won; Jason had first to dice with death to obtain the Golden Fleece, and Heracles had to overcome the dragon which guarded the Golden Apples of the Hesperides.

Sometimes, the prize is simply difficult to access, located in a remote castle, concealed cave, or even on the sea-bed. These are symbols for that which is remote from or ‘magical’ to the conscious mind, like the fabulous riches concealed behind a door in a rock face (from Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves). This door (the threshold between conscious and Subconscious) can only be opened with the magic command ‘open sesame’, just as the Subconscious only responds to certain species of ‘magical’ words, or properly spoken affirmations. In the story of Aladdin, the miracle working powers of the Subconscious are represented by a magical lamp (procured from an underground vault) housing a djinn, or genie, who can make one’s wishes happen in an instant. On his journey, Aladdin must proceed ‘without lingering for a single moment on the way.’ If he does he’ll be turned into ‘a black stone’ (i.e. he will fail).

This is to say that he must not ‘linger’ in his thoughts, for that may invite doubt. How many times is it said in Positive Thinking manuals that we must have complete faith in the Subconscious to engineer our desires? If he finds himself in the Underworld, or an environment far from home, the Hero must give up his illusions of power and put his faith in a higher Being – or calamity will result. The musician Orpheus (when trying to recover his beloved Eurydice from the Underworld) fatally mistrusted the god Hades and looked behind him when he’d been warned not to. Similarly, when the Old Testament Lot was fleeing Sodom with his family, the Lord had commanded, ‘look not behind thee’, but Lot’s wife disobeyed and was turned into a pillar of salt. This is no different from the teaching in Positive Thinking that says we must trust wholeheartedly in the ‘powers of the subconscious’ if our magical exercises are to succeed. We need to play by a different set of rules, here.

And we must certainly (as the coded myths show) put in the work needed to summon the forces of the Subconscious. One gets nothing for nothing – something is always asked of us; something has to be relinquished. Thus, in ancient myth, some kind of ‘sacrifice’ is usually required during the Quest, as when Innana of Sumerian legend was made to disrobe and remove all worldly adornments before entering the Underworld. This is a metaphor for ‘letting go’ of our attachment to the material world, not material things themselves, but our illusions of ego-power and control. Often the ‘sacrifice’ is simply a part of ourselves – we may need to give up certain attitudes that are a hindrance on our path of self discovery.

Likewise, as we’ve seen, the mythic Hero or character from Fairy Tale is usually involved in some kind of struggle as they battle opponents and supernatural forces. Again, this is metaphor for the internal struggle to overcome the ‘lower’ personality, something often symbolised by an animal, ogre or monster: Perseus and the Medusa, Theseus and the Minotaur, Odysseus and the Cyclops, and all manner of secret enemies, false friends, wicked uncles and evil stepmothers. These elements must be overcome or even ‘die’ before the spiritual Self can be reborn, and only then can the Hero attain to the Holy Grail, the Philosopher’s Stone, the Golden Fleece, or live happily ever after in Shambhalla or Atlantis (magical ‘places’ where we arrive after initiation). Or in modern language, when we can exercise in full the Powers of the Subconscious.

As the alchemist Thomas Norton said, the secret wisdom of the ages (such as Myth) reveals knowledge to the initiated, but to the ignorant nothing whatever is revealed. This is simply because they are unable to see it for what it is. And such wisdom cannot easily be expressed in words alone. It is not enough simply to state that Mind or Consciousness creates the material world, or that Thought Thinks Us, for that’s just a form of words. One needs the vision and intuition to see that it’s really true. This is what you’ll have by the time you get to the end of this book.

The Ancient Art of Positive Thinking


I would remark, that in the most ancient times … it was in this branch of science [magic] that was sought the highest point of celebrity and of literary renown. At all events, we find Pythagoras, Empedocles, Democritus, and Plato crossed the seas, in order to attain a knowledge thereof … Returning home, it was upon the praises of this art that they expatiated—it was this that they held as one of their grandest mysteries …2

– Pliny the Elder

Greek philosophers like Empedocles and Pythagoras were believed to have special ‘miraculous’ powers, which is how successful Positive Thinking would have looked in antiquity. (And let’snpt forget Jesus, that Positive Thinker extraordinaire.) The NeoPlatonist (‘new’ Platonist) thinker Iamblichus (245-325 CE) was also fascinated by the subject of fate and how we might magically ‘overcome’ the one we’ve been given. He was thus a teacher of the Ancient Art of Positive Thinking. In his work, Theurgia – Mysteries of the Egyptians, Chaldeans and Assyrians, he writes of re-claiming the ‘divine’ part of our soul:

‘I say, therefore, that the more divine, intelligible man, who was formerly united to the Gods by the vision of them, afterwards … became fettered with the bonds of necessity and fate. Hence it is requisite to consider how he may be liberated from these bonds. There is therefore no other dissolution of them than the knowledge of the Gods.’3

Here is Positive Thinking writ large – you can change your life by changing your thoughts, or by using the power of the Subconscious (‘the knowledge of the Gods’.) We find the same message among today’s inspirational teachers and motivators. Iamblichus is saying humans have become alienated from their spiritual side, the ‘divine’ part, thus they’re subject to the whims of their lower selves – fear, greed, envy, sloth (all the seven deadly sins, you might say). Because of this they are playthings of fate, but this can be overcome, for there is:

‘another principle of the soul, which is superior to all nature and generation, and through which we are capable of … transcending the mundane order … Through this principle, therefore, we are able to liberate ourselves from fate. For when the more excellent parts of us energize, and the soul is elevated to natures better than itself, then it is entirely separated from things which detain it in generation …’ 4

Notice that there’s a power ‘superior to nature’ that can ‘liberate’ us from circumstance, that can lift the soul and bring positive change. (When we have ‘energized’ the more ‘excellent parts’ of us.) Put plainly, we can overturn whatever might be dragging us down and be one of life’s winners, instead. Again, this is like modern Positive Thinking:

‘Is there something – a force, a factor, a power, a science, call it what you will – which a few people understand and use to overcome their difficulties and achieve outstanding success? I firmly believe there is’5

This is from American author Claude Bristol’s book The Magic of Believing, written in 1948. He’s saying the same thing as Iamblichus, referring to the use of this mysterious force. As to how the Magic of Belief really works, another major NeoPlatonist, Plotinus (d. 270) tells us that it is:

‘by the fact in Nature that there is an agreement of like forces and an opposition of unlike, and by the diversity of those multitudinous powers which converge in the one living universe …the powers that answer to incantations [or prayers] do not act by will … The prayer is answered by the mere fact that [inner] part and other [outer] part are wrought to one tone like a musical string which, plucked at one end, vibrates at the other also.’ 6

In Positive Thinking, the subconscious must be ‘one’ with its object, it must believe the goal to already be a reality. Then, things happen. Then, the ‘multitudinous powers’ (the unknowable forces of the Subconscious) get to work. And so, Plotinus – in his roundabout way – is saying nothing other than: like attracts like. Napoleon Hill writes that:

‘our brains become magnetized with the dominating thoughts which we hold in our minds, and, by means with which no man is familiar, these ‘magnets’ attract to us the forces, the people, the circumstances of life which harmonize with the nature of our dominating thoughts.’7

And so, the idea that the human mind can exert control over the environment is nothing new. The nineteenth century mystic and doctor Franz Hartmann also wrote about ‘an internal power of man’ which, if he ‘knows how to use [it] … may enter from the passive into the active state, and employ these powers himself.’8 In the late twentieth century, American spiritual teacher Ram Dass noted how ‘we are all affecting the world every moment’ whether or not we intend it. Again, these are very old ideas. The thirteenth century cleric, Albertus Magnus, informs us how he:

‘discovered an instructive account [of magic] … which says that a certain power to alter things indwells in the human soul and subordinates the other things to her … When … the soul of a man falls into a great excess of any passion, it can be proved by experiment that it [the excess] binds things [magically] and alters them in the way it wants.’9

This ‘magical’ faculty in the soul is a medieval version of Your Subconscious Power – it is the ‘emotionality’ of the soul ‘falling into a great excess’ that does the trick. In the same way, modern inspirational writers insist your desire must be stoked to white heat. Magician Bob Makransky reminds us that in any Positive Thinking exercise, ‘the important point is to get to the feeling of the desire, and not just do it by rote.’ He adds: ‘you should be in a happy, delighted mood – lose yourself in reverie’ and get ‘a feeling of intense longing’. This is the ‘certain power to alter things’ – it is the strength of feeling used in Positive Thinking that actually makes the difference. In Al Koran’s Bring Out the Magic In Your Mind (1964) the author says:

‘Your thoughts and words are all powerful, but the most powerful thing of all is emotion. What you see for yourself. What you feel … Your whole heart must be in getting this thing you want, or it is useless to go on. You cannot make magic (and all you wish it to bring you) a mathematical certainty unless there is strong feeling.’10

Then there is the so-called As If Technique, which has its roots in the same magical culture as the one Plotinus inhabited. We’ll learn how to use it in the final chapter but, simply put, you are to act and feel as if you had already obtained your goal. This is vital to Positive Thinking. Al Koran advises that ‘you obtain your desire by feeling as if you had already got what you want now’. Realising how illogical this sounds, Koran imagines his reader’s response: ‘Screwy, that’s what he is. Screwy.’11 Pretending that one’s goals are already here and now (as a method of attainment) sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it? Even so, it’s an old, venerable piece of occult advice. Here is Jesus’ take on the As-If method, as quoted in the New Testament:

‘Therefore I say unto you, All things whatsoever ye pray and ask for, believe that ye have received them, and ye shall have them.’12

The existence of this inner force – unlike the attitude of today’s material science – was always taken for granted. The notion of ‘magical power’ wasn’t quite so absurd in those far off days. But if we’re to succeed in operating the Power of the Subconscious we need to look within and trust in its wisdom. If we update the language and vocabulary of these old texts, they would sound just like a modern life-coach. Positive Thinking is thus a most ancient art, indeed – it has simply appeared in different guises throughout history, and not always recognisable ones!

1. Andersen, Uell, Stanley, Three Magic Words, originally published by George J. McLeod Ltd.

Copyright, 1954)

2. Pliny The Elder, Natural History, Book 30.

3. Iamblichus, Theurgia – Mysteries of the Egyptians, Chaldeans and Assyrians, trans. Taylor, Thomas, London: Dobell 1985.

4. ibid.

5. Bristol, The Magic of Believing, Prentice-Hall inc., 1948

6. In Godwin, Joscelyn, Music Mysticism and Magic: A Sourcebook, Arkana, 1987.

7. Hill, Napoleon, Think and Grow Rich, 1937

8. Hartmann, Magic, White and Black, JW Lovell, 1890.

9. Albertus Magnus – De Mirabilibus Mundi (1485?). In Jung, C.G., Collected Works Vol. 8– ‘Synchronicity’ P448

10. Koran, Al, Bring Out The Magic in Your Mind, A. Thomas, 1964.

11. ibid

12 Mark 11: 24.