How to be Tranquil

“Occupy thyself with few things, says the philosopher, if thou wouldst be tranquil,” wrote Marcus Aurelius in his common place book which was published after his death in the volume Meditations.  In a short section he writes about doing a few things well and being focused and content with those things so that your mind can be at ease with your effort and action.  Aurelius continues,


“But consider if it would not be better to say, Do what is necessary, and whatever the reason of the animal which is naturally social requires, and as it requires. For this brings not only the tranquility which comes from doing well, but also that which comes from doing few things.”


The first quote from the emperor addresses the idea of developing skills focusing on a few areas. When we are pulled in too many directions trying to accomplish too many disparate things, we are unable to focus and do well with any individual thing.  The second part of Aurelius’ quote speaks to the idea of being socially responsible and doing that which is required of one (through relationships, work, or societal obligation) with a singular focus.  Guiding all of our focus in a single direction helps us perform our best with the task at hand, and knowing that we did the best we possibly could with any objective helps us find a sense of tranquility about ourselves.


It can be difficult in a world of Facebook where we see our friends doing so many cool, interesting, and charitable things, to feel content with our own lives and actions.  To find the peace of mind and satisfaction with the daily habits and decisions we make in our own life, we can employ the ideas of Marcus Aurelius and ensure that things that we do are done with the greatest focus and effort. Knowing that we have focused to do our best with any activity can give us the reassurance that we need in a social media filled world.  Additionally, by considering the tasks in front of us and putting all of our mental capacity toward that one task, we can fully apply ourselves in a way that helps us avoid doubts and questions about why we are doing the work on which we must focus.  Whether your task is writing an essay, mowing a lawn, or scrubbing a bathroom, completing the task in a deliberate and quick fashion (meaning your are avoiding multitasking with things that hinder your performance) can bring a sense of pride and peace in what you do.

Judging Others Along Our Journey

Throughout Meditations, the book published after his death containing his writing and personal reflections, Marcus Aurelius focuses on the mind and our thoughts, and how we can use our thoughts to give us guidance.  Two areas that he returns to frequently are our life journey and how we think of our journey, and how we think about the people we interact with along our journey.  While writing Meditations he was continually reminding himself not to be judgmental of others and to remain focused on the positive in his own life.  His spirit is captured in the following quote which merges both of these ideas,


“How much trouble he avoids who does not look to see what his neighbor says or does or thinks, but only to what he does himself, that it may be just and pure; or, as Agathon says, look not round at the depraved morals of others, but run straight along the line without deviating from it.”


What he is saying is that those who begin to focus more on what those around them are doing begin to lose sight of their own lives and actions. When you continually worry if others are working as hard as you then your own work will suffer. If you focus on the things that other people have, you begin to depreciate the things that you have. These types of comparisons may help drive a capitalistic society today, but just as they were dangerous in the second century, in the 21st century they can detract from your overall life.


A better use of time and focus according to aurelius is to look inward and focus on presence.  Avoiding lingering thoughts of a gilded past or glorified thoughts of a potential future, we are better served and can make the most of our time on earth if we can focus on where we are now, and how we can make the most of our current actions.  Living with goals for the future and understanding and learning from the experiences that have shaped us is key, but when the past or future take over in our lives, then our current self becomes a less important afterthought.  Remaining present, and pushing worries about others behind us can allow us to participate in activities we truly enjoy, and to maximize the time in which we actually experience the world.  Aurelius continually encouraged himself and wrote down reminders to remain focused on the present, and to not let jealousy or worry over the actions of others detract from his own life.

Opinion and Perception

“Take away thy opinion, and there is taken away the complaint, “I have been harmed.” Take away the complaint, “I have been harmed,” and the harm is taken away.”


This is one of the short passages that Marcus Aurelius wrote down in his common place book in the second century, and it is one of my favorite quotes in the work which was published after his death as Meditations.  His views and ideas about stoicism are shared throughout his writing, and the quote above is one of the best examples of what stoicism is, and how it can be implemented in our lives.  Taking control of the mind is a central part of stoicism, and controlling our thoughts leads to better actions, controlled behavior, and choices that lead to better life outcomes.


Aurelius’ quote above shows how important our thoughts and perceptions can be.  It shows how frequently we filter everything in our lives through a good or bad lens, and what we are truly doing when we look at the world in such a way.  How we respond and what we think is very often shaped by how we perceive an event. If we think that something is good while it is happening or being said, then we are more likely to be moved to participate with it. When someone says something that we view as being wrong or negative, we react by pushing against what was said and holding ourselves in opposition to the individual or group that said it.


For Aurelius, the stoic emperor, the goals was to live without opinion and to be able to open perspective to take in all angles of an event.  He strained to see the world objectively by taking away his opinion, and examining the world in the way it is, and not how he wanted it to be.  This is never an easy task as it does not eliminate all perspective, but it helps us begin to see things and think about things from the perspective of others. Abandoning opinion and not needing to deem every situation or occurrence as good or bad allows us to grow and connect with others in new ways. We become better at understanding the motives and actions of others, and we can make better decisions that do not intentionally ostracize or damage another.

Transformation and Opinion

In many sections of his writing in, Meditations, Marcus Aurelius comments on how we react to things around us, and how we can recognize that the outside world does not truly affect who we are, but that our reactions and thoughts are what shape us as human beings.  Aurelius writes,


“But among the things readiest to thy hand to which thou shalt turn, let there be these, which are two.  One is that things do not touch the soul, for they are external and remain immovable; but our perturbations come only from the opinion which is within.  The other is that all these things, which thou seest, change immediately and will no longer be; and constantly bear in mind how many of these changes though hast already witnessed.  The universe is transformation; life is opinion.”


In this quote Aurelius is explaining the stoic idea that we can chose how to react to the world and events around us, and that we can control our emotions to better behave and think throughout our days and lifetime.  There are few things which truly change the brain and shape the way in which the brain functions, and for the most part, how we experience life will be determined by the decisions we make, and how we allow our choices and experiences define us.  We can label things as good or bad, but nothing truly is good or evil unless we decide in our mind that it is.


Aurelius is also speaking about the brevity of so many of our experiences in life.  It can often be hard to imagine being someplace else, or having different experiences, but whatever our current state is, we likely will live in a massively different state in the future. There are things such as chronic disease or the loss of family which will be permanent and unchangeable, but the way that those things affect us can be temporary and bearable.  Aurelius is reminding us that good or bad, we can change our lives and how we experience life through our thoughts and opinions. When we chose to bring a better perspective to our lives we can shape the lens through which we perceive our experiences, and we can chose whether things have positive or negative outcomes for ourselves.  Recognizing that things don’t shape us as much as our own mind shapes us shows the importance of mental fortitude, and remembering how quickly life transforms helps us build the grit needed to maintain our thoughts and positivity.

Tranquility of the Mind

One of the main ideas in the philosophy of stoicism is the ability to control the mind and the thoughts that we have. When we practice stoicism we are building our self-awareness so that we can reflect on not just our actions and decisions, but also the thoughts that we have.  We are able to use an increased self-awareness to better organize our thoughts and begin to think in a better way.  Marcus Aurelius wrote a note to himself in his book that would be published as Meditations, and in his note he address the idea that we can build our mind up through thought and self-awareness to where we can have an internal place of safety and comfort. “Tranquility is nothing else than the good ordering of the mind,” Aurelius wrote in the middle of a passage about desire and distress.

When I first read and highlighted this quote I left myself a note saying, “no matter what happens around us, the mind can be peaceful and tranquil through the control of our thoughts.” This idea encompasses what Aurelius was writing about in the larger section from which I took this quote.  He is addressing the idea that we are sovereign over our mind and that no one can tell us how to think, what to think, how to react or feel, or how to behave in any situation.  For Aurelius, the idea of mental sovereignty meant that he had the power to control himself in any situation and that he could determine who he was in any situation.

Through meditation and self-awareness Marcus Aurelius explains that we can learn to become more egalitarian and magnanimous in our lives.  He encourages us to live comfortably and simply, and to not let ourselves be guided by passion as opposed to reason.  When we practice self-awareness we are able to recognize parts of ourselves that are not treating others fairly or are allowing other people to shake our mind. By focusing inward and recognizing our emotions and reactions we can change the way we think and the way we behave. Ultimately, this recognition will give us greater control and focus throughout our lives, and it will allow us to become more temperate and peaceful in our actions, decisions, and interactions with others.

Focus and Presence

Marcus Aurelius, in his work Meditations, wrote about the importance of presence in our daily lives, and how focus and the ability to be grounded in the present moment can bring us happiness.


“If though workest at that which is before thee, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract thee, but keeping thy divine part pure, as  if thou shouldst be bound to give it back immediately; if though holdest to this, expecting nothing, fearing nothing, but satisfied with thy present activity according to nature, and with heroic truth in every word and sound which though utterest, though wilt live happy.  And there is no man who is able to prevent this.”


The quote above shows the value in giving your self over to what it is you are currently working on, and focusing on that thing with 100% of your attention. The quality of your work will be maximized, and with greater focus your determination and effort will culminate and build into greatness.  When that mindset is coupled with self-awareness, you can create something  that you are proud of, and ensure that all of your actions aimed toward your current goal help fulfill your mission and the task in front of you.


Aurelius is writing about more than just today’s popular idea of monotasking. He is writing about focusing on a single thing and doing it well, which is the base of monotasking, but he is also diving into the idea of staying grounded in the present moment, in every moment of our lives.  Rather than being distracted by thoughts and feelings of our past or future, he encourages us to look at what is in front of us at each moment and consider how we can make the most of it and build the most in ourselves from it.  Monotasking is the idea of doing one thing at a time and bringing our full focus to that thing, but it does not include the same type of grounded awareness that Marcus Aurelius writes about when describes the benefits and importance of staying grounded and true to oneself in every action and decision.


When I first read the quote above it stood out to me as a quote written about achieving flow in the work that we do. When I look back at it I understand the ways in which Aurelius is describing flow, or that state where you are so absorbed in your work that time seems to act strangely and you are able to produce wonderful work with a clear focus and minimal effort, but I am not sure that is exactly what Aurelius is hitting on.  Flow usually accompanies actions that are truly engaging or are activities that we are passionate about. Finding that area for any individual is a powerful feeling and a very rewarding experience which does bring happiness, but Aurelius is encouraging us to find the same type of happiness through the grounded awareness of ourselves and our activities. In being focused on how each action and decision builds into the person we become, we are able to stay present and focused on those activities so that they are in alignment with who we are and want to be, and ultimately, we will find happiness through rigorous self-awareness, determination, and self discipline.

The Faculties of the Mind

In his collection of thoughts, Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes about how we should think about our thinking. His book was written as tool for him to return to when he felt as though he was not living to his full potential. Changing the way we think and being aware of the thoughts that we have can help guide us in our life and decisions.  Aurelius encourages us to build awareness of our thoughts, and to create robust mental habits.  He writes, “Reverence the faculty which produces opinion, on this faculty it entirely depends where there shall exist in thy ruling part any opinion inconsistent with nature and the constitution of the rational animal.” What this quote shows is the way that Aurelius thought about our mental state and the ways in which we can strengthen our mind.

Aurelius is focused on how we act and govern ourselves, and the choices that we make throughout the day. He understands that we will always be challenged and that making the best decisions will not always be clear, but his quote shows that we can focus on our thoughts to improve our decision making process. When we become determined to be guided by reason and not passion or desire, we can become more rational in our actions, and we can focus better on the things which we can do to build real value in our lives, in the lives of those we care about, and in our communities.  Finding a way to be mentally strong will help us shape our lives to be fuller and more meaningful.

To do this we must begin to think about our thinking in new ways. We have to understand that our faculties of mind can shape the way we interpret the world, and we can see that our mind can give us the power to change not just who we are, but who we want and expect to become.  When we look at our life and understand that our mind can become isolated from factors around us, we put power and control of our life back on our shoulders. This means that we can be guided by reason above all else, and that reason and logic can be the forces which shape our decisions and reactions.  Aurelius would argue that this is critical to life otherwise one will be tossed about by impulsivity and desire.  Looking at our faculties of mind in this way can help us understand how the world affects us, and how our decisions shape the lives we live.

Thinking of Others

Marcus Aurelius was the emperor of Rome during the 2nd century, and while he was leader he wrote down his thoughts in what would later be published as the stoic philosophy guide book, Meditations. A reoccurring thought for Aurelius and something he focused on from multiple perspectives, is the way in which we think about ourselves, those around us, and how we relate to others.  For Aurelius, comparing ourselves and our fortunes to that of others and those around us was one of the most dangerous things we could do. In Meditations he wrote down multiple notes reminding himself that he should focus inward and practice self-awareness as opposed to looking outward at others. His point is well explained by the following quote, “Do not waste the remainder of thy life in thoughts about others, when though dost not refer thy thoughts to some object of common utility.”


What he is explaining in this quote is the importance of focusing your thoughts toward useful and meaningful objects or goals. When we look at other people and spend our time wondering what they are thinking, feeling, or trying to accomplish, we are losing an opportunity to do something meaningful and powerful with our own thoughts.  Rather than finding a useful outlet for our focus, we are dialing in on forces we cannot control and cannot ever know. Thoughts about others should be centered around ways in which you can interact with them to reach toward a common goal, to improve society, or to do something that benefits the other.


To build Aurelius’ advice into our lives today, a practice of self-awareness is necessary.  For me, I try to focus inward and understand my thoughts while I am exercising or writing.  A reflective focus during these times helps me build a habit of being more present in my thoughts throughout the day so that I can better recognize when my thoughts are drifting into negative or wasteful areas.  It is a constant practice, and I need to be continually reminded to refocus my thoughts and outlook. I believe that Aurelius would have felt the same way in his life, after all, he felt the need to write these ideas down time and time again in his common place book.  Once we begin to better recognize our thoughts and feelings we can pause throughout our day to ask ourselves why we are thinking a certain way about those around us. We can begin to change those thoughts and to adjust during times when we sense our focus drifting toward gossip.

Continually Closer to Death

In Meditations a reoccurring theme is  the acceptance and awareness of death and the end of our time on Earth.  While writing down his thoughts and collecting his ideas, Aurelius returned over and over to death and our recognition of death.  He did not have a morbid view of our passing, and he did not have a negative view of our death, but he approaches it with humility and realism.  The emperor writes, “We ought to consider not only that our life is daily wasting away and a smaller part of it is left, but another thing also must be taken into the account, that if a man should live longer it is quite uncertain whether the understanding will still continue sufficient for the comprehension of things … We must make haste then, not only because we are daily nearer to death, but also because the conception of things and the understanding of them cease first.”


In the emperors view of death we find an understanding that we don’t only expire in a physical form, but in a mental form as well. He is well accepting of the aging process and recognizes that our physical form will break down along the path to death, and that before we do reach our end, our mental faculties will also experience a state of decline.  Aurelius, throughout his book, never seems to be worried or concerned with death and generally approaches it as a welcome experience at the end of our lives. Since everyone faces death he sees it more as an equalizing force in humanity, and as it affects everyone he sees no point in trying to hide from it or fear it. This mindset transforms Aurelius’ views on death from pessimistic to optimistic.  He is excited about the time he has on earth and is compelled to take advantage of the time he has.


I think you could compare the way that Aurelius views death and our time on this planet to the way that many view school in the United States.  Whether you look at high school or college, for many people in our country school life is a limited time period with a beginning and an end.  Continuing on in  this metaphor I will focus more on college because it can be easier to comprehend the end of college and of the lives we lived throughout college. From my experience in college everyone approaches their time at school with a different lens. Some are excited about every day, some dread each day, some simply want to reach the end, many fear what the end of college will bring, and many students fill the gaps between or occupy multiple states at once.  You can see the end of college as a reward and as the end of your life(style) all at the same time, which creates a wide range of approaches to college for students.  In my metaphor Aurelius would be a student who recognizes that his time in school will end, and works to fulfill his time at his university before he runs to the eventual end.  He accepts that it cannot last forever, and he strives to find ways in which he can constantly improve and gain knowledge that will make each day richer.


This is truly the approach Marcus Aurelius brought to his life and implemented over the long run.  He saw death and his eventual end as a welcome part of life, even if he did not want to face it.  His message about remembering death is not morbid or fear inducing, but rather a message encouraging us to focus on the present and take advantage of the time that we have.

Reviewing Good and Bad

Marcus Aurelius has a great way of thinking about the events which occur throughout our lifetime and the way in which we react to those events. Part of the stoic philosophy involves rational thought before emotional action, and through reflection Aurelius explains what he thinks of the way we often look at good and bad events in the world. He writes, “…good and evil should happen indiscriminately to the good and the bad. But death certainly, and life, honor and dishonor, pain and pleasure, all these things equally happen to good men and bad, being things which make us neither better nor worse. Therefore they are neither good nor evil.” What is great about the way that Aurelius looks at the events that happen in our life is that he does not dwell on whether they are overall positive or negative, and he does not fret about why good things happen for bad people or why bad things happen to good people.  His thoughts are filled with a level of realism and pragmatism that we don’t often build into our own lives.  He takes the world as it is, and  tries to identify how to best move forward given the situation and experiences that we all face and share.


What I like about Aurelius’ quote, which is an idea he brings up throughout Meditations, is the focus on the perspective that we bring to all of our experiences and the idea that we are constantly trying to judge and keep track of our life.  We can spend time and mental focus worrying about why good or bad things happen to us, and we can continually judge our experiences as good or bad, but ultimately, this thought does not get us where we want to go. What we see as either positive, neutral, or negative can be interpreted in widely different ways by people with different social economic status, racial backgrounds, and experiences.  What we may perceive as a positive event in our life could be a tragically negative event in the life of another person.  Rather than spending time ascribing a positive or negative qualifier to anything that happens in our life, Marcus Aurelius would argue that we should think of how an event impacts our lives and the lives of others, and we should move forward from that event in way that is guided by reason so that we can better grow and participate in society.


I think that Aurelius’ ideas parallel nicely with Bob Berg’s ideas about relationships from his book The Go Giver. Berg wrote about how we view what happens in relationships and what we expect to get our of relationships. When we enter a relationship, be it personal, sexual, business, or any other form, our expectations and desires will influence how well we connect with another.  If we can approach a relationship without worrying about whether something was good or bad for us, and without judging everything in terms of how it relates just to us, then we can grow and connect better with others. Berg writes about being selfless in relationships and avoiding the mental accounting of keeping track of the good that you receive verses the good that the other receives.  He writes that a focus on making sure each event is equally matched for both partners by another event of reciprocal value will eventually pull you apart.  When you can understand that good and bad things happen to you both equally, you can focus your relationship on the other person and what your goal is together.