Look Within

Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is a collection of thoughts that the emperor wrote to himself about life and how we should think about all that happens. The philosophy to which Aurelius subscribed and laid out in his book is known as stoicism and it centers around becoming more present in our daily lives and becoming more aware of how we are living and thinking.  Throughout his book Aurelius constantly focuses on the benefits and importance of self-awareness, and what we gain when we develop a meaningful practice of self-reflection.  To that point he wrote, “Look within. Within is the fountain of good, and it will ever bubble up, if thou wilt dig.”
His short quote reveal three key parts of Aurelius’ thoughts about the world. He is constantly optimistic about our place in the world and where we are heading in the future, he believes that we are all more inclined to be good people, and he believes that a greater ability to recognize our emotions and thoughts will help us become more complete and comfortable in the lives that we live.
What made Aurelius optimistic about the world was his ability to detach meaning from the events which happened to him and around him. On his journey inward he recognized that he had the power to interpret any situation in the way which would suit him the best. He could see The things which happened around him as good or bad, but until he attached a meaning and decided whether something was overall positive or negative, the thing itself was neutral. Living in this state of neutrality allowed him to find a space where he decided how he would respond to things, and where his own opinion was more powerful than the actions of others or the events around him. This gave him more control over his life and world, and it allowed him to approach  the world in a more optimistic manner.
Looking inward Aurelius recognized that all of his actions were based on rational thoughts within his mind. He extended this thought to other people and managed to see people as rational beings. This sounds like an obvious observation, but I believe it is a thought that has been lost by many people in the world today.  We often look at other people in society, especially those we do not know or those who we see making what we consider to be mistakes, and think of them as idiots or morons.  When we approach others in this way we reduce their humanity and cease to see them as rational beings. Aurelius sought to understand people in a greater perspective, and he believed that everyone was taking actions that seemed the most logical to themselves.
Ultimately, looking deeper into ourselves through self-awareness can help us take a better view of other people around us and it will help us also better understand our place in the world. Once we begin to recognize the power of our mind and align ourselves with our ruling principles, we can grow in ways that help maximize our lives and the lives of those around us. Marcus Aurelius recognized this, and practiced self-awareness to help improve his life and the life of others.

Living Without Error

In his writing Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius reflected the ideas of stoicism and the lessons the philosophy taught him throughout his life. He valued the power of the rational mind, and was constantly looking for ways to better understand his own faculties so that he could better control his mental state and his perception of the world.  Through self-awareness and an ability to focus on the present, Aurelius was able to gain power over his mind by taking the control of his thoughts away from other people, objects, and events around him.  In regards to the strength of ones mind and becoming a complete individual, Aurelius wrote, “The third thing in the rational constitution is freedom from error and from deception.  Let then the ruling principle holding fast to these things, go straight on, and it has what is its own.”


When I first read this quote I left myself a note that I think sums up the idea presented by Aurelius in this quote and throughout his book, Meditations, in a powerful way. “He is not saying that the mind is free from making errors, but that it is free from living with those errors. The rational mind can understand an error and then chose the reaction to that error with which it lives.”  What I was trying to capture in my synopsis of the Emperor’s quote is the idea that the mind and the power of our rational thoughts decide how we will be affected by the mistakes that occur in our life. The mind can chose what will be learned from, what will shape our decisions, and what will be carried with us for the future.  The mind is in control of interpreting events and errors and choosing how they will be folded into the mess of experiences and decisions that make us who we are.


What separates Aurelius from other thinkers is his beliefs of what the mind is capable of doing when sorting out the events and histories of our lives.  Unlike today when it is common for us to regard our past mistakes and histories as baggage, Aurelius saw our past as nothing more than experience one could view through evolving lenses of the past.  Our mistakes and previous decisions do not have to hang around us and be carried with us constantly weighing us down and impeding our progress.  The mind is capable of recognizing its own decisions and thoughts, and the mind is capable of freeing itself from the past by controlling what it does with the experiences (both good and bad) from our lives.

To What Nature Leads Thee

In Meditations, written by Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, we are given an example of how to live a life guided by stoicism.  Aurelius contended that all rational beings should be self-aware and conscious of the world through which they move so that they can decide how they will behave.  Through self-reflection, focusing on the present, and recognizing our own thoughts, Aurelius believed that we could manage our perception of the world in a way that helps us become better stewards of our life.  With these principles he wrote, “Do not look around thee to discover other men’s ruling principles, but look straight to this, to what nature leads thee, both the universal nature through the things which happen to thee, and thy own nature through the acts which must be done by thee.”


His quote is meant  to encourage us to move forward without begin distracted by thoughts of others.  He wants us to spend time through self-awareness and self-reflection understanding what it is truly like to be us. By living in the present moment without fears of the future or memories of the past dictating our decisions, we can become more rational in our actions and behaviors, and we can be better judges of each moment and each decision that we make.  Understanding what our guiding principles are and folding them into our lives will help us succeed, but constantly searching out the guiding principles of others and nitpicking their moral character will distract and prevent us from growing into the best version of ourselves.


I think that one must walk a careful line when following the advice laid out by Aurelius in this quote. It is important to learn to judge the character of those around you and to recognize who is worth following. There are times when we must be able to identify those whose life view is in accord with ours so that we can work with them to achieve more than we can individually.


What the emperor’s quote really speaks about is avoiding spending all of ones time gossiping about others. We must learn from the good and bad of those around us, but if we spend all our time looking at the bad in others and focusing on the shortcomings of those in our lives, we will miss the good, and we will be limiting ourselves when we could focus on our own journey and growth, and how we can build from what we learn from others.

To Avoid Becoming Frustrated at Things

Marcus Aurelius had a very practical way of looking at the world, and his pragmatism stands out in his book Meditations when he is taking about the ways in which we become frustrated.  Rather than allowing himself to be driven by emotions he was able to slow himself down and think about his thoughts and what should be done.  This aspect of stoicism helped him see the world in a more wholesome manner, and it can help one reduce stress and overcome points of frustration.


Aurelius wrote, “It is not right to vex ourselves at things, For they care nought about it,” to remind himself that he should not give anything outside of his mind the power to control his mind. In our world of technology I think this idea fits perfectly into our lives. It is not uncommon for a piece of technology (our computers, TVs, wireless routers, headphones, etc…) to frustrate us.  When we expect our technology to operate seamlessly, we become very disappointed and sometimes irate when things fail.  Allowing ourselves to be overcome with emotion in these situations will not help our devices, and will often lead to worse situations.  What Aurelius would argue is that we should never allow an inanimate object to control our life to the point where it can challenge our emotional wellbeing.


When looking at how we should perceive the world around us, Aurelius wrote, “the things which are external to my mind have no relation at  all to my mind.” What he is explaining in this quote is that his mind is its own entity and that it cannot be directly affected by anything outside of our heads.  We choose how we want to allow our mind to react to the world around us because our mind is in control of itself.  When we allow our technology to be the singular thing that brings us joy then we are giving an item control over our brain. When an external event demolishes our emotional state, we are choosing to abandon control of our mind, and we are letting things that do not directly touch our brain to have power over the one thing we absolutely control.


Divorcing ourselves from reliance on things outside ourselves (technology, relationships, activities) helps us to regain control of our faculties of mind.  Aurelius would not argue that we should not enjoy the world around us and the point of stoicism is not to avoid any emotional feeling, but we should be able to recognize our thoughts and emotions and adjust our mental framing to be more productive and helpful. We should accept our feelings and understand  them, but we should also have the mental control to shape the actions, decisions, and perspectives of our life. When we give things external to the mind  the power to direct the mind, we give up our independence and become subordinate to things.

The Practicality of the Present

In the book, Meditations, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius offers us insight into the mindset of stoicism and shows us both how to practice stoicism and the benefits that it can bring to our lives. The power behind stoicism lies in shaping our thoughts, controlling our emotions, and giving ourselves the power to choose how we wish to behave in any given situation.  It requires ardent self-awareness and self-reflection to truly recognize how we are living and to adjust our lives, thoughts, and actions to better align.


Part of stoicism requires the ability to be fully present in any given moment so that you are conscious of your thoughts and deliberate in your actions. Aurelius writes,


“Wipe out the imagination. Stop the pulling of the strings . Confine thyself to the present. Understand well what happens either to thee or to another. Divide and distribute every object into the causal and the material. Think of thy last hour. Let the wrong which is done by a man stay there where the wrong was done.”


His passage is full of short stoic soundbites that reveal the importance of staying present, and the importance of controlling your mind as opposed to letting other people or other things shape your thoughts. He leaves it to the reader to imagine the benefits of his advice in this section, but it is easy to see that you can be more at peace when living in the present without your mind overflowing with fears of what the future holds or with grudges against those who have done wrong to you.  When you sort yourself into the present and become more considerate and clear regarding the world around you, it becomes possible for you to achieve more and build better perspectives of the world.


When Aurelius encourages us to put a stop to our imagination he is not encouraging us to leave all creative thought behind. What he is urging the reader (originally himself) to do is to avoid thoughts of the future that leave one full of fear or with specific desires.  Anticipating a future that one imagines to be difficult and unhappy may cause one to become depressed in the present. At the same time, imaging a future that is bountiful and rich may lead one to feel unnecessary pressures in the present to ensure that ones life lives up to the luxury imagined. In both cases, visions of the future can impact the decisions made in the present, affecting the way in which we approach our current tasks.


By staying present we avoid thoughts of what we cannot predict and reduce the amount of stress that we have.  We can leave our grudges behind by recognizing that a wrong can only be harmful to us if we carry it with us at every moment.  Making decisions in the present that we know will benefit us in the future will help to prepare us for the challenges we will face, but being focused on just the future may cause us to loose sight of where we are now, abandoning the life that sustains us on our way to our goals.

Listening and Empathizing

In his writing from the second century, Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius talks about the importance of self-awareness, being present in every moment, and learning to view others through new perspectives which build empathy with other people.  Combining these ideas in a simple thought, Aurelius wrote, “Accustom thyself to attend carefully to what is said by another, and as much as it is possible, be in the speaker’s mind.”  In this short sentence, he is encouraging us to practice all three of his main tenants, and to apply them specifically in conversation.  He does not continue on to explain the benefits of actively listening to what others say, nor does he expand on his thoughts in this passage to explain the downfall of failing to build empathy with others, but throughout his book he reminds us the importance of all of these areas, and he challenges the reader to see the importance of what he discusses.


Being present in a conversation means that one is more focused on what the other person is saying than their own thoughts or what is happening around them.  Listening intently involves not just focus, but communication through both verbal and non-verbal expressions as we demonstrate our engagement and ask more probing questions to better understand the speaker.  It is a practice which involves intention and self-awareness as much as mental focus. If we do not recognize our behavior and if we lack the determination to attend to every work that is said to us, then we will not build the focus needed to truly connect and listen well.


What I really appreciate about this quick quote from Aurelius is the idea of empathy that is implicitly expressed by the emperor.  Focusing on what is said in a conversation is an excellent skill, but without empathy we become more like a lawyer than a close friend to the person who is speaking. If we do not put ourselves in the mindset of the individual speaking, and if we do not try to understand their perspective, then we may just be preparing our thoughts while they are speaking, building a defense to our own point of view and perspective.  Taking the time during a conversation to truly understand the other by being in the speaker’s mind will help us connect with people in a more profound way, and it will help us have a richer understanding of how other people interpret the world around them.


In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius focuses on the power of our minds and how we can change our thoughts to improve the way we move through the world.  He focuses on self-awareness and the importance of recognizing how we behave and react to things and events in our lives. By taking control of our thoughts and actions we give ourselves the power to guide our life in a way that is the most productive and helps us be the best possible version of ourselves.


When it comes to our behaviors and reactions Aurelius writes, “It is in our power to have no opinion about a thing, and not to be disturbed in our soul, for things themselves have no natural power to form our judgements” (emphasis mine).  What Aurelius is saying in this quote is that we can decide how we will react to events in our world and that we shape the way that our lives play out. In the general course of our lives we can change the way we think about and perceive events that we deem to be negative if we can refocus our thoughts and find a positive perspective.


Changing our thoughts means that we have to recognize that no event and no thing has power over our individual faculties of mind. We always have control over our mind even if we have lost all else.  Certainly this is a great challenge during major life challenges like illness, foreclosure, and death, but recognizing your own ability to control your faculties of mind can help give you a stillness during the tempest, and return power to your situation.  Aurelius argues that this ability allows us to abandon the idea that something is either good or bad, and gives us the skill to evaluate the world in a more complete manner.  It is in our power to decide whether we think something is good or bad, an it is up to us to determine how any event or item impacts our life.

Understanding Yourself

Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor during the years 161 to 180, kept a journal that he continually returned to with all of his thoughts and values. His journal was published after his death as a collection called Meditations, and in his journal he makes constant references to the importance of self-control, self-reflection, and rational thought.  He combines these ideas with social challenges and presents a view of he world that resonates with people to this day.  Regarding how we should think about ourselves relative to others and how we should think about our own joy Aurelius wrote the following.


“He who loves fame considers another man’s activity to be his own good; and he who loves pleasure, his own sensations; but he who has understanding, considers his own acts to be his own good.”


Aurelius constantly focuses on the idea that we are independent from the actions, thoughts, and judgements of those around us. In his mind we may all be connected, but we choose how to allow others to move and shape our lives.  It is the way that we decide to think about the world and interpret the actions of others that determines how the actions of those around us impact us.


In the first part of the quote Aurelius is showing that those who desire fame and popularity depend on the thoughts of other people to find their happiness. To them, their own thoughts about themselves matter less than the thoughts that other people have of them.
In the second part, the Emperor explains that people who live for nothing other than their own pleasure have submitted their own independence to material things or physical pleasures. Their enjoyment and life’s meaning comes from what they can obtain as opposed to a recognition of who they are.  They have made the world around them more important than themselves, and their value and happiness is based not on the person who they are, but on the items in their lives that make them happy.


Lastly, Aurelius argues that those who bring rational thought into all aspects of their lives are the most fulfilled. Since we all determine through out own thoughts what is good in our lives and what is bad, what is going to help us and what will harm us, and what is important and what is not, we have the power to determine how we see the world.  The people who base their lives on rational thought are able to reflect on what happens around them and rely on their own decisions and actions to find happiness. They may find some level of fame and material well being, but rather than finding inspiration in things and popularity, they are inspired and moved by the things that they can do to better themselves and others.  They are not dependent on others for their own happiness because they understand who they are, and have an ability to determine how they react to the world around them.

Recognizing the Positivity of Others

Throughout his book Meditations, Marcus Aurelius focuses not just on how we should think about ourselves, but on how we should think of others.  During his life he strived to avoid thoughts of negativity and he focused on finding the positive aspects of humanity in all people.  Rather than reducing people to their flaws and lowest qualities, Aurelius recognized that all men act in a way that made the most logical sense to them.  He did not reduce individuals in his mind, but instead he built them up based on the values and virtues they exhibited.  His thoughts of others and how he tried to approach others is partially explained in the following quote,


“When thou wishest to delight thyself, think of the virtues of those who live with thee; for instance, the activity of one, and the modesty of another, and the liberality of a third, and some other good quality of a fourth.  For nothing delights so much as the examples of the virtues, when they are exhibited in the morals of those who live with us and present themselves in abundance, as far as is possible. Wherefore we must keep them before us.”


In his practice of thinking about others Aurelius highlights the best parts of them, but not in a way that is overly flattering.  Rather than seeing the worst in people and picking them apart for their flaws, he looks to others to admire their great qualities and to see what he can learn. By looking at what people around us do well, we are able to recognize the qualities and traits that we wish to display, helping us understand the values of our actions from new perspectives.  His focus is on continually growing and improving through reflection, and by doing the same in our lives, those around us become new lenses through which we can view our place in the world.


Aurelius is also focusing in his quote on a type of contentedness in our lives that few of us achieve in our capitalistic society. We are constantly compared to others and it is tempting to want to tear others down rather than build them up. Focusing on the flaws of others is an easy way for us to place ourselves in the moral high ground and to feel good about our decisions, but it is a myopic way to approach the world. Seeing the value in others and actively searching out their virtues is a humbling practice that can leave us feeling like we are not as awesome or impressive as we would want to believe, but we can learn to love our society in a greater manner. What Aurelius argues in his brief quote is that we can become more at peace with ourselves and with those around us when we make an effort to better recognize the greatness of others. We can feel a greater appreciation for our peers and fellow citizens, treat them better, and be less insecure with our selves if we can better recognize and accept the virtues of other people rather than the shortcomings of others.