I used to read a lot of self-help books.
How-to-become-awesome-like-me motivational crap such as Think And Grow Rich and Tony Robbins’ stuff. I even watched the DVD of The Secret.
I dropped all of that stuff off at a second hand bookstore. Hoping for the Universe to help me reach my goals, just didn’t do it for me.
Two years ago I started looking for something more, someone who had it all figured out and – like some of us find it in religion – could show me the way. I needed something to hold onto.
What I needed was someone to teach me how to live.
I needed a filter – a funnel in which I could throw the crapload of situations, possibilities, people, products, emotions around me – that would teach me were to direct my attention to and what to ignore.
I was looking for a guide to truly live MY LIFE.
And that’s exactly what I found in this tiny little book a Roman Emperor wrote 2,000 years ago: Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.
Throughout his life Marcus Aurelius wrote down his thoughts in his personal notebooks. He just wrote for himself so there wasn’t meant to ever be a book, but I’m glad someone took his notes and started making copies because it taught me:
- We all struggle with the same problems and have been for ages
- You actually can control how you react to what happens to you
This book opened doors for me that I didn’t even know existed, but more importantly it made me shut the doors that I didn’t know could be shut.
Even though the book is only 160 pages long, its content will last you a lifetime. It impacts my way of thinking 24/7.
Reading a paragraph or two can be compared to a 60 minute massage for your soul. Reading the whole thing will make you a better person.
This isn’t a book to be just read though, it’s a book that is meant to be practiced, even memorized initially. Everybody’s always talking about how hard their last workout was, but working out your body is peanuts when you compare it to training your thinking. It’s the hardest training I’ve ever done. And as we’re all competing in this every day, you better start warming up.
To make clear why this book is so important to me I need to make a quick side step and share a story about a person I met recently:
Some months ago I made a trip to Oslo. I travelled there to attend a 2-day seminar with Ido Portal. Ido is often called Master Of Movement. Even though he hates to be called that, it kind of sets the tone for what he does: he’s a teacher, practicer and student of movement in a – what he calls – holistic way.
In Oslo, Ido talked about the lifelong search for self-dominance when it comes to movement. He implies that for him his goal is to have control over his body: to not be controlled by his body. He mentions that he will probably never succeed at this, but that this is exactly the reason why it’s worth striving for and why it is worthy of daily study, practice and reflection.
The reason why I mention Ido in this post is that the phrasing “self-dominance” actually perfectly fits with what Marcus Aurelius aimed at with his Meditations: his aim was to be in control of his thoughts: to not be controlled by false perceptions all the time. That’s why he made it a daily practice, wrote down his thoughts and was a student of the Stoic school of philosophy.
To use a metaphor Marcus uses in the book: he did not want to be like the puppet – being jerked around in all directions – all the time.
And just as Ido struggles every day and needs to practice his body meticulously, Marcus tells us to practice self-dominance of the mind every time a situation presents itself.
Below you find 14 ways in which Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations influenced my thinking:
On having the choice to control your thoughts
Your ability to control your thoughts – treat it with respect. It’s all that protects your mind from false perceptions – false to your nature, and that of all rational beings. It’s what makes thoughtfulness possible, and affection for other people, and submission to the divine.
Choose not to be harmed – and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed – and you haven’t been.
To be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It stands unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it.
To shrug it all off and wipe it clean – every annoyance and distraction – and reach utter stillness.
Nothing has meaning to my mind except its own actions. Which are within its own control. And it’s only the immediate ones that matter. Its past and future actions too are meaningless.
You don’t have to turn this into something. It doesn’t have to upset you. Things can’t shape our decisions by themselves.
What are you doing here, Perceptions? Get back to where you came from, and good riddance. I don’t need you. Yes, I know, it was only force of habit that brough you. No, I’m not angry with you. Just go away.
Why should we feel anger at the world?
As if the world would notice!
You can endure anything your mind can make endurable, by treating it as in your interest to do so.
On using very detailed objective representation to keep your head clear from false perceptions
Like seeing roasted meat and other dishes in front of you and suddenly realizing: This is a dead fish. A dead bird. A dead pig. Or that this noble vintage is grape juice, and the purple robes are sheep wool dyed with shellfish blood.
Perceptions like that – latching onto things and piercing through them, so we see what they really are. That’s what we need to do all the time – all through our lives when things lay claim to our trust – to lay them bare and see how pointless they are, to strip away the legend that encrusts them.
Pride is the master of deception: when you think you’re occupied in the weightiest business, that’s when it has you in his spell.
On the importance of work
At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work – as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for – the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?
– But it’s nicer here…
So you were born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best as they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?
– But we have to sleep sometime…
Agreed. But nature set a limit on that – as it did on eating and drinking. And you’re over the limit. You’ve had more than enough of that. But not of working. There you’re still below your quota.
Do what nature demands. Get a move on – if you have it in you – and don’t worry whether anyone will give you credit for it. And don’t go expecting Plato’s Republic; be satisfied with even the smallest progress, and treat the outcome of it all as unimportant.
Stop whatever you’re doing for a moment and ask yourself: Am I afraid of death because I won’t be able to do this anymore?
On constantly reminding yourself that you’ll be dead soon to motivate yourself
Not to live as if you had endless years ahead of you. Death overshadows you. While you’re alive and able – be good.
Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.
On doing and wanting only what’s essential
If you seek tranquillity, do less. Or (more accurately) do what’s essential – what the logos of a social being requires, and in the requisite way. Which brings a double satisfaction: to do less, better.
Because most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquillity. Ask yourself at every moment, “Is this necessary?”
Love the discipline you know, and let it support you.
Treat what you don’t have as nonexistent. Look at what you have, the things you value most, and think of how you’d crave them if you didn’t have them. But be careful. Don’t feel such satisfaction that you start to overvalue them – that it would upset you to lose them.
On learning and anti-learning from others
Look into their minds, at what the wise do and what they don’t.
The best revenge is not to be like that.
When faced with people’s bad behavior, turn around and ask when you have acted like that. When you saw money as a good, or pleasure, or social position. Your anger will subside as soon as you recognize that they acted under compulsion.
Or remove the compulsion, if you can.
This advice from Epicurean writings: to think continually of one of the men of old who lived a virtuous life.
On handling setbacks
Just as nature takes every obstacle, every impediment, and works around it – turns it to its purposes, incorporates it into itself – so, too, a rational being can turn each setback into raw material and use it to achieve its goal.
Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole. Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, “Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?” You’ll be embarrassed to answer.
People try to get away from it all – to the country, to the beach, to the mountains. You always wish that you could too. Which is idiotic: you can get away from it anytime you like.
By going within.
Nowhere you can go is more peacful – more free of interruptions – than your own soul.
On not giving a fuck about what other people think
Enter their minds, and you’ll find the judges you’re so afraid of – and how judiciously they judge themselves.
When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him.
Ignoring what goes on in other people’s souls – no one ever came to grief that way. But if you won’t keep track of what your own soul’s doing, how can you not be unhappy?
To care for all human beings is part of being human. Which doesn’t mean we have to share their opinion. We should listen only to those whose lives conform to nature. And the others? He bears in mind what sort of people they are – both at home and abroad, by night as well as day – and who they spend their time with. And he cares nothing for their praise – men who can’t even meet their own standards.
That sort of person is bound to do that. You might as well resent a fig tree for secreting juice.
They haven’t really hurt you. They haven’t dimished your ability to choose.
You want praise from people who kick themselves every fifteen minutes, the approval of people who despise themselves?
Remembering that the whole class has to exist will make you more tolerant of its members.
Isn’t it yourself you should reproach – for not anticipating that they’d act this way? The logos gave you the means to see it – that a given person would act a given way – but you paid no attention. And now you’re astonished that he’s gone and done it.
It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.
On giving mental space only to what’s important
You need to avoid certain things in your train of though: everthing random, everything irrelevant. And certainly everything self-important or malicious. You need to get used to winnowing your thoughts, so that if someone says, “What are you thinking about?” you can respond at once (and truthfully) that you are thinking this or thinking that. And it would be obvious at once from your answer that your thoughts were straightforward and considerate ones – the thoughts of an unselfish person, one unconcerned with pleasure and with sensual indulgence generally, with squabbling, with slander and envy, or anything else you’d be ashamed of thinking.
The value of attentiveness varies in proportion to its object. You’re better off not giving the small things more time than they deserve.
To live a good life:
We have the potential for it. If we can learn to be indifferent to what makes no difference. This is how we learn: by looking at each thing, both the parts and the whole.
On believing in yourself
Not to assume it’s impossible because you find it hard. But to recognize that if it’s humanly possible, you can do it too.
On fame and reputation
Our own worth is measured by what we devote our energy to.
So many who were remembered already forgotten, and those who remembered them long gone.
People out for posthumous fame forget that the Generation To Come will be the same annoying people they know now.
Today I escaped from anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions – not outside.
On being a good person
To stop talking about what the good man is like, and just be one.
Learn to ask of all actions, “Why are they doing that?”
Starting with your own.
Characteristics of the rational soul:
Self-perception, self-examination, and the power to make of itself whatever it wants.
It reaps its own harvest, unlike plants, whose yield is gathered by others.
The despicable phoniness of people who say, “Listen, I’m going to level with you here.” What does that mean? It shouldn’t even need to be said. It should be obvious – written in block letters on your forehead. It should be audible in your voice, visible in your eyes, like a lover who looks into your faces and takes in the whole story at a glance. A straightforward, honest person should be like someone who stinks: when you’re in the same room with him, you know it. But false straightforwardness is like a knife in the back.
When you start to lose your temper, remember: There’s nothing manly about rage. It’s courtesy and kindness that define a human being – and a man. That’s who possesses strength and nerves and guts, not the angry whiners. To react like that brings you closer to impassivity – and so to strength. Pain is the opposite of strength, and so is anger. Both are things we suffer from, and yield to.