In 2003, a number of leading self-help authors were asked to list the works that were, to them, most inspirational. The book mentioned most often was James Allen's As a Man Thinketh.
Despite the fact that his books have been inspirational for generations, very little is known about the man himself. He was born in Leicester, England. When he was fifteen his father was brutally murdered by a robber, forcing Allen out of school and into the workforce. He eventually worked his way up to the position of executive secretary for a high ranking officer of an English corporation.
Then, at the age of 38, he retired with his wife to a small cottage in Ilfracombe, a tiny town on the northernmost coast of England. In 1902 As a Man Thinketh was published - about the same time Allen made this move. He and his wife intentionally pursued a simple life of gardening and contemplation. In the next ten years, Allen wrote more than twenty more books, and then he suddenly died at the age of 48, in 1912.
This book is barely 7,800 words long - about thirty pages of a typically printed paperback. And yet it rewards every single reading, no matter how many times you return to it. Each sentence is a pearl of truth and wisdom; each word carries as much meaning as a single word possibly can. If you read it once and underline every statement that strikes you as profoundly true, and then read it again, still underlining, and then again, you will underline the entire book.
As with all books like this, the author is careful to acknowledge that everything he is about to say has been said many times before. On the first page he opens with a quote from the The Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha, which is based upon an oral tradition that may be 10,000 years old.
The ancient "wisdom" Allen summarizes for us is not really "wisdom" at all. It is fact; accepting it as such can completely rejuvenate your life. The exact same insights are illuminatingly presented Napoleon Hill's classic, Think and Grow Rich.
James Allen's words still resonate today because he speaks of the very nature of consciousness. Since our consciousness is entirely under our control -- which Viktor Frankl shows us is the case even in the most horrific of conditions in his heartrending classic Man's Search for Meaning -- then our ultimate responsibility is for us to use our consciousness in the proper way. The essential idea that we can control consciousness is hotly debated by theologians, but if we accept for the moment that we can control our thoughts, the next obvious question is what we ought to do with them. Here is one of Allen's most succinct instructions:
A man's mind may be likened to a garden, which may be intelligently cultivated or allowed to run wild; but whether cultivated or neglected, it must, and will, bring forth. If no useful seeds are put into it, then an abundance of useless weed-seeds will fall therein, and will continue to produce their kind.
Just as a gardener cultivates his plot, keeping it free from weeds, and growing the flowers and fruits which he requires, so may a man tend the garden of his mind, weeding out all the wrong, useless, and impure thoughts, and cultivating toward perfection the flowers and fruits of right, useful, and pure thoughts. By pursuing this process, a man sooner or later discovers that he is the master-gardener of his soul, the director of his life. He also reveals, within himself, the laws of thought, and understands, with ever-increasing accuracy, how the thought-forces and mind-elements operate in the shaping of his character, circumstances, and destiny.
Thought and character are one, and as character can only manifest and discover itself through environment and circumstance, the outer conditions of a person's life will always be found to be harmoniously related to his inner state. This does not mean that a man's circumstances at any given time are an indication of his entire character, but that those circumstances are so intimately connected with some vital thought-element within himself that, for the time being, they are indispensable to his development.
Every man is where he is by the law of his being; the thoughts which he has built into his character have brought him there, and in the arrangement of his life there is no element of chance, but all is the result of a law which cannot err. This is just as true of those who feel "out of harmony" with their surroundings as of those who are contented with them.
As a progressive and evolving being, man is where he is that he may learn that he may grow; and as he learns the spiritual lesson which any circumstance contains for him, it passes away and gives place to other circumstances.
Man is buffeted by circumstances so long as he believes himself to be the creature of outside conditions, but when he realizes that he is a creative power, and that he may command the hidden soil and seeds of his being out of which circumstances grow, he then becomes the rightful master of himself.
That circumstances grow out of thought every man knows who has for any length of time practiced self-control and self-purification, for he will have noticed that the alteration in his circumstances has been in exact ratio with his altered mental condition. So true is this that when a man earnestly applies himself to remedy the defects in his character, and makes swift and marked progress, he passes rapidly through a succession of vicissitudes.
The soul attracts that which it secretly harbors; that which it loves, and also that which it fears; it reaches the height of its cherished aspirations; it falls to the level of its unchastened desires; and circumstances are the means by which the soul receives its own.
Every thought-seed sown or allowed to fall into the mind, and to take root there, produces its own, blossoming sooner or later into act, and bearing its own fruitage of opportunity and circumstances. Good thoughts bear good fruit, bad thoughts bad fruit.
The outer world of circumstance shapes itself to the inner world of thought, and both pleasant and unpleasant external conditions are factors which make for the ultimate good of the individual. As the reaper of his own harvest, man learns both by suffering and bliss.
Following the inmost desires, aspirations, thoughts, by which he allows himself to be dominated (pursuing the will-o'-the-wisps of impure imagining or steadfastly walking the highway of strong and high endeavor), a man at last arrives at their fruition and fulfillment in the outer condition of his life.
Allen also addresses the anxiety that you might feel the moment you accept this wisdom as truth. You might worry that your negative thoughts are going to manifest themselves around you. You may also worry that you can't control your mind - that it presents "impure imagining" to you whether you want it to or not.
This is the human condition; you are not alone. The method for gaining control of your "innermost desires, aspirations, [and] thoughts" is to work at it continuously. Become aware of your mind, and simply do not berate yourself. Learn how to let negativity flow into the past, and how to begin again from the moment. When you scold yourself for having a negative thought, let that, too, flow into the past, and begin again. Focus on what you want, or if you don't know what you want, focus on thoughts that will lead you to know what you want. There is no other way.