The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote a wonderful set of Stoic meditations, and although they have been compiled into a book, they had originally been intended for himself to practice in his daily life. I recently finished reading the book and there are so many amazing parts of it, but I'll just pick one main quote to focus on for today.

From Marcus Aurelius's Meditations (~161 - 180 AD):

“Keep this refuge in mind: the back roads of your self. Above all, no strain and no stress. Be straightforward. Look at things like a man, like a human being, like a citizen, like a mortal. And among the things you turn to, these two:
i) That things have no hold on the soul. They stand there unmoving, outside it. Disturbance comes only from within--from our own perceptions.
ii) That everything you see will soon alter and cease to exist. Think of how many changes you've already seen."


I'm not going to get into any historical details about Marcus Aurelius and Stoicism, but if you're interested I'd definitely suggest looking it up. There's a lot in the quote, but the heart of it is really simple. All the events that happen around us are no more than sensations and events: they have no real value apart from what we give them. "Disturbance comes only from within": it is the importance that we ascribe to them that causes us to be stressed, angry, or grieved. The truth is that things just happen. The world follows natural laws and we have very little control over our surroundings and the actions of others. What we do have control over is our mind. We can control our own actions and how we view the world. If we see the world fraught with emotions, with the ability to cause us pain, fear, happiness, etc, rather than bare sensations to make of as we will, then we will be constantly plagued by the vicissitudes of the world.


For example, let's say you break your leg. There is real pain--that is a sensation of the body which we can't control--but to look on it as a tragedy, or at least, a huge inconvenience, and to remain bitter that you can't go out and do things while others enjoy the summer, arises from our minds. We can choose not to experience these feelings: we can't choose to be unbothered by the pain of our broken leg: it's an event that has already happened and we can't change the past. But we can accept it, and move on to more important things. Something else Marcus said about pain is that "pain is neither unbearable nor unending, as long as you keep in mind its limits and don't magnify them in your imagination"--quite true, because in the scheme of things, this little experience is neither important nor long-lasting. Even if it was long-lasting, there is still no need let it affect you because there is nothing you can do to change it and to let it sap both your physical and mental energies is not necessary.


What is worth keeping in mind are these three keys: "Objective judgement...unselfish action...willing acceptance...of all external events." In the case of pain, the objective judgement says that you can't change the past, so there is no benefit in feeling any negative emotions toward it. The unselfish action is to not affect others by your pain, and the best way to do that is to not be disturbed by it yourself, since we all know that the state of our minds affects the people around us. And lastly, the most important part, is willing acceptance of all external events--good or bad. It is only by accepting what we can't change that we can focus on what we can and so actually succeed in life. It's about placing importance on things that matter. It might even be helpful to make a list of things we can't change and things we can, just to put things into perspective. Because when it comes down to it, what we can change is within our mind--our outlook--and what we can't is everything else that happen around us. To be able to go from saying "It's unfortunate that this has happened" to "It's fortunate that this has happened and I've remained unharmed by it--not shattered by the present or frightened of the future. It could have happened to anyone. But not everyone could have remained unharmed by it...the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune."

In order to actually carry these practices out, what is important is to have strength of mind. The strength to see things for what they are and not get blown away by the unexpected, or even the dreaded expected. To "no longer be shocked by everyday events--as if they were unheard-of aberrations." If we see things in the light of their significance, and "that everything you see will soon alter and cease to exist," then we will not cling to the impermanent, will not lament about the ever-changing fortunes of the world that come your way. These basic principles of Stoicism are the same as Buddhism: if we cling to the impermanent, we will suffer, and the only way to go beyond that is to develop a strength of mind which, in the Stoic case, is focused on knowledge and clarity of thinking, and in the Buddhist case, on meditation and enlightenment, though they both overlap: Stoics can strive for enlightenment and Buddhists develop intellectual skills as well. They also both focus on the fact that the place of an individual is in society so that he or she can help others, a universal duty for everyone.

I hope that this little bit of Marcus Aurelius's philosophy can help inspire you in your daily life. Even just a little shift of mind and perspective can lead to great effects, so that eventually, we can "be like the rock that waves keep crashing over. It stands unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it."


[*I also have another Stoic post from last year that builds off similar ideas.]




2 comments:

It is really inspirational. Good work

This is great, thank you!

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