A Dose of Self-Awareness

Marcus Aurelius was the emperor of Rome in the second century and in his position became one of the most powerful people on the planet.  But even in his position as emperor he was able to find ways to remain humble and to look at other men in a way that elevated them. He reminded himself of the areas where he needed to grow, and he focused on his own faults more than he looked for faults in others.  He wrote about his beliefs of self-awareness in his book Meditations, giving us an insight into his practice of self-reflection.


When looking at himself relative to other people Aurelius wrote, “consider that thou also doest many things wrong, and that though art a man like others; and even if thou dost abstain from certain faults, still though hast the disposition to commit them, though either through cowardice, or concern about reputation or some such mean motive, thou dost abstain from such faults.” He uses this section to explain that we can never elevate ourselves above others if we are truly practicing self-awareness and if we are able to open our minds to see the world from multiple perspectives, including the perspectives of those who we deem to be in error.


Aurelius is encouraging himself to recognize that he shared many of the same faults that he saw in other people, and he used this recognition to keep himself from making the mistake of placing himself on a pedestal above others. By not placing himself on a moral high ground and by not elevating himself beyond the rest of humanity, he was able to better understand the lives and decisions of those around him. He was able to recognize that he had the same desires and wishes to make decisions that he would criticize in others, and this awareness helped him to participate with others and connect with them in a deeper manner.


If we fail to build self-awareness into our lives then we will likely place ourselves above others and begin to look at only our successes relative to the shortcomings of others.  This places us in a world were we can never have true relationships with those around us, and instead of being able to help others, our ignorance will push them away in a firestorm of hypocritical advice giving. Aurelius’ practice of self-awareness is something we can incorporate into our own lives to help us grow, and to help those around us grow.

Forming Opinions

The power of the mind and our ability to control our mind as rational human beings is a central focus of the philosophy of Stoicism.  Being able to look at the world from multiple perspectives and seeing events beyond our singular point of view combine with self-awareness to give us the ability to choose how we will react to the world, as opposed to putting us in a place where we are pushed around by the world.  Marcus Aurelius dives into aspects of this philosophy throughout his book Meditations, leaving us with bits of knowledge that we can use to overcome obstacles and challenges that spring up in our daily lives.

Aurelius’ writes, “that not one of them produces in us an opinion about itself, nor comes to us; but these things remain immovable, and it is we ourselves who produce the judgements about them.” In this quote what the emperor says is that things and events on their own have no impact over our lives and do not somehow force themselves on our brain in a way that changes our thought. It is our observation of things and events and our interpretation that creates an impact on the way we think, and we have the power to change our perspective, change our opinion, and determine whether or not something makes a difference in our lives.  Stoicism takes power away from things, other people, and events, and places it back on the rational faculties of our mind.

Failing to recognize this power, Aurelius would argue, is abandoning our own power and giving it to forces beyond us. It is the act of sacrificing the faculties of our mind and deciding that we do not want to be the ones who are ultimately in charge of our reason and our lives.  When another driver does something that you find annoying or frustrating, allowing yourself to become so angry is a choice, allowing another human being to control your conscious mind.  Becoming overcome with desire for a certain item can take away the power of your mind to control your desires and wishes, and place the control firmly with an inanimate object that does not know or care that you have great desires for it.  Instead, Aurelius’ quote encourages us to recognize the emotions, desires, and impulses of our brain and to work to manage the faculties of our mind so that we are in charge of our thought processes.  By knowing our thoughts and accepting our reactions we can learn about ourselves and begin to decide how we will act and react, and we will become true stewards of our lives.

Benevolent Toward All

Throughout Meditations Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius encourages us to maintain an even temperament, especially in our interactions with others. He focuses on the idea that we will see the world as we choose to see it, with positives and negatives projected onto the world by our own mind.  Aurelius believes that our opinions shape the reality of the world around us, and he writes about ways that we can take control of our thought process to change our opinions and perspectives.  This is clear in his writing of other people and our interactions with others,


“Suppose any man shall despise me. Let him look to that himself. But I will look to this, that I be not discovered doing or saying anything deserving of contempt.  Shall any man hate me? Let him look to it. But I will be mild and benevolent towards every man, and ready to show even him his mistake, not reproachfully, nor yet as making a display of my endurance, but nobly and honestly.”


In this quote he is showing how important it is to look toward all people  with an attitude of brotherhood and unity. When we accept and recognize that we are all connected then we see that the best way to move forward would be to work together and to lift everyone in our actions. Looking for the negative and hypocritical in others is not productive, but developing into the person who can lead a group with clear focus will help guide the change we want to see.


Aurelius is encouraging us to abandon our reliance on the opinions of others and to develop strong personal thoughts about ourselves. He is not simply encouraging us to be self-confident or even to hold fast to our opinions, but rather to let other people’s opinions of us remain separate from how we act toward others. By treating everyone well and avoiding grudges we can be more open toward those around us. Constantly checking to see if we have been harmed by another will be exhausting, and will also build barriers between us and people in our lives.

Growing Together

Marcus Aurelius believed in the power of mankind to unite and band together to build a better world and become more than we ever could be on our own.  In this spirit he placed acting in the common good above acting in our own interest, and valued unity over individuality.  “A branch cut off from the adjacent branch must of necessity be cut off from the whole tree also. So too a man when he is separated from another man has fallen off from the whole social community,” Aurelius wrote in the second century.


His metaphor is looking at the complex way that society exists and the importance understanding the ways in which we are connected. We may feel disjointed and independent of other individuals and groups, but the reality is that we are united in a way where everything flows through all of us to create the society we live in today.  He explains that separating ourselves from even one individual is an action that separates us from the entire community. Once we turn one person away from our life, we are insulating ourselves in a more narrowly defined group and building an identity that blocks other people from interacting with us. This limits not just our growth, but the growth of all.


On a societal level this means that anyone who is forgotten and pushed out becomes dead weight on our tree of life, holding down the branches around them.  We can look at this metaphor from multiple perspectives and use it to adjust the ways we think about those who are often outcasts within our society. Creating systems that isolate the poor, minorities, and people with criminal backgrounds places an undue burden on those who are still trying to flourish in the community, for they must not only bear their own weight as they grow, but they must also hold up the branches that were cut.  Aurelius would argue that society will not grow to its fullest if it were constantly cutting out members on whom it depends. The true test of our society is to find ways to incorporate all without the need for pruning. Leaving out individuals forces them to be carried by others, and it forces others to shoulder more of the burden that could be evened out with greater participation from all.

Benefitting From the Negative

There was an aspect of Marcus Aurelius’ life that would seem incredibly foreign and difficult to most Americans today, the ability to live with uncertainty and accept ambiguity. For many people living in the United States today, unanswered questions are painful and challenging, and there is a clear preference for seeing the world as black or white.  Aurelius on the other hand, seemed to be a master of living life in the intersection of ideas, constantly thinking through the good and the bad of any one thing or event, and constantly trying to reconsider everything in his life from multiple perspectives.  He never saw a bad event as being truly terrible or awful, and believed it was within person’s ability to choose how to interpret any given event. Aurelius wrote,


“Now, in the case of all things which have a certain constitution, whatever harm may happen to any of them, that which is so affected becomes consequently worse; but in the like case, a man becomes both better, if one may say so, and more worthy of praise by making a right use of these accidents.”


The emperor is taking a negative situation in this quote and expanding it beyond the current moment to imagine it within the context of a human life.  By shifting his focus he is able to view a negative as a necessary part of life, as an opportunity to grow and face new experiences. This is not something that is easy to do, especially when in pain immediately after facing a negative event or challenge, but it can help an individual begin to see that their actions, thoughts, and decisions will shape how their life is impacted by the bad things which happen to them.


What he is also able to do in this situation is see the world in a complex manner. He is looking at the universe and removing his impulse to describe events that happen. He does not narrow the possibilities of the universe down to a single point.  To accept that it is our opinion which shapes the reality around us is to live with open possibilities and to embrace uncertainty and ambiguity.

Recognizing Our Own Shortcomings

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote about the importance of turning inward and honestly judging our own character in a way that is intimate and helped us move our lives forward in a constructive manner.  Throughout his book Meditations he wrote of the importance of being self-aware, and provided notes about being socially responsible by becoming more intentional with our actions, and more honest in our thoughts.  He encouraged himself constantly to be humble and realistic about his abilities and his own faults, careful to never raise himself above other men despite the fact that for 20 years he was one of the most powerful people on the planet. The way that he looked at himself relative to others is summed up well in a quote from Meditations,


“When thou art offended at any man’s fault, forthwith turn to thyself and reflect in what like manner thou dost err thyself; for example, in thinking that money is a good thing, or pleasure, or a bit of reputation, and the like. For by attending to this thou wilt quickly forget thy anger, if this consideration is also added, that the man is compelled; for what else could he do? Or, if thou art able, take away from him the compulsion.”


The important thing for Aurelius during the times when we see faults with other people is to recognize ways in which we share those faults or ways in which we have similar shortcomings in our own lives.  He encourages us to look inward at our selves rather than to put ourselves on a pedestal above others. When we see the faults in others and are blind to our own failures we limit our growth and build a false sense of exceptionalism in our lives.


Aurelius’ quote is similar to a quote I wrote about from Colin Wright in December of last year,


“On a personal level, outrage makes us feel superior. By becoming indignant, we’re drawing a line in the sand and declaring ourselves to be on the right side of a given issue. We’re saying, ‘How horrible this situation is, and how capable am I of declaring right and wrong, and passing judgment on those involved!’”


Aurelius explains the ways in which we can overcome the feeling of outrage that builds in us when we see others acting in a negative way. Their faults can be taken as personal insults or moral failures, and it is far more tempting to become outraged than to recognize that we share the same or similar shortcomings in our own lives. Failing to see our own faults and allowing ourselves to build a sense of outrage gives us the chance to tell ourselves how great we are, how correct our world views have become, and how much better we are than other people in society. It feels great to be outraged and to talk about our superiority over others, but it limits our interaction with other people and prevents our society from being able to join together to become better.


As emperor Aurelius had no shortage of opportunities to let himself build on outrage and feelings of superiority, but what he instead reminded himself in Meditations is that he could not place himself above others because in doing so he would become blind to the reality that he and all people make the same mistakes.  He was more focused on using self-awareness and reflection to grow and make the world better than he was on building his fame and influence by denigrating others.  Recognizing our shortcomings and where they come from can help us have conversations with others about the same failures and about ways in which our society encourages (or does not punish) those failures. Avoiding outrage and understanding our errors helps us become more human and helps us connect with others so that they may avoid the same shortcomings in their lives.
The Ruling Faculty

The Ruling Faculty

Marcus Aurelius placed his ruling faculty, or the conscious and rational ability of his brain above all else in his life.  He focused on maximizing his rational ability and strove to bring a sense of awareness and intentionality to all aspects of his conscious being. To him, recognizing the power and control that he held over his rational brain meant that he had the ability to shape his life by changing his opinions, ideas, perspectives, and thoughts of the world around him.  In Meditations he wrote about how one could recognize and take charge of their conscious and how one could view the world from greater perspectives.  Aurelius wrote, “What is my ruling faculty now to me? And of what nature am I now Making it? And for what purpose am I now using it? Is it void of understanding?” By framing his conscious decision making ability in this way he was able to put power for his life and his actions into his own hands, or rather into his own rational brain. He looked at the world and saw himself as the primary actor driving the decisions and actions of his life.


This quote is valuable to me because I often feel as though my life is being driven and pulled in multiple directions without my consent or ability to shift and change course.  In our busy worlds of 40 hour work weeks, we may often begin to feel as though our routine is set with external forces determining what decisions we make and how we realize those actions.  Throughout Meditations Aurelius writes about the importance of being aware of our actions and retaining control over our rational brain, but in the quote above he shows us exactly how he practiced developing a rational brain.


Simply asking ourselves questions and focusing on ourselves wont create the lives we want to lead, but if we can build Aurelius’ questions into every fabric of our being, then we can begin to morph our lives into something greater.  Recognizing that we have the ability to be rational beings and that we have the ability to control our lives through the thoughts and perspective we adopt, will help us to build powerful habits that allow us to constantly grow.  The self-awareness that stems from the constant questioning of how we are applying the rational faculties of our mind will slowly allow us to ensure that we are always making decisions for reasons that are deliberately judged and not based in impulsivity.

Turning Words to Action

In Meditations, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius shares his thoughts on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life.  The book is his collection of self-reflections on not just how to succeed in life, but how to take advantage of the time we have on this planet, and how to live a life that lets us feel complete.  One of the themes in his book is connecting our beliefs, thoughts, and words with our actions. He encourages us to reflect on our lives and be aware of the ways we think that we and others should behave. If we can be honest with ourselves and recognize wether or not we are truly living up to those standards then we can always ensure that our actions align with our beliefs and that we are moving in the right direction for the right reason.


In a short segment in Meditations, Aurelius writes, “No longer talk at all about the kind of man that a good man ought to be, but be such.” To follow through on this advice requires self-reflection and self-awareness to measure our actions against the ideas we have for how  we should live.  Recognizing the areas where we do not act in accordance with our beliefs is not difficult, and we will have no shortage of excuses for why we do not act the way we know we should.  Once we can understand the excuses  and accept our own shortfalls we can begin to enact Aurelius’ advice, and we begin to see that our lives become more fulfilling as we live with a greater intent. Rather than wishing for our lives to be different, we can recognize the changes we want to see, enact them, and putt power and control over our lives back on within our own hands.


When we spend time focusing on what a good person should be without looking first inward at ourselves, we abandon hope of living our life with intention, and risk becoming increasingly judgmental of those around us. Cynicism builds in this situation, and we fail to take action to change the world in the direction we want. Instead, we see the negativity around us, assume ourselves to be a beacon of moral righteousness, and fail to improve our life or the lives of those around us.


We do not need to speak to others about what we all should expect from life, society, or ourselves, but our actions should define our expectations. When we fail to build our words and thoughts into our daily habits, others will take notice, and our words will become hollow, leaving us increasingly frustrated at our inability to advance and create the change we want to see or expect to see in ourselves and others.


Joel Achenbach explored what went wrong on the Deep Water Horizon oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico the night it exploded and left an open gusher at the bottom of the ocean. He found that there was never one major mistake or any serious oversight that catastrophically caused the collapse of the system and the blow-out of the oil well.  What happened on the well was an accumulation of risky decisions, a failure to observe small and nonthreatening warning signs, and a cluster of poorly designed, or poorly integrated, back up systems. Everything played together to make it hard to determine the exact conditions on the sea floor, and mislead the people who had the power to stop operations. Each indicator of a potential problem on its own was insignificant, but taken together they lead to a total catastrophe.


“When doing something risky, remember that risk builds like plaque.” Achenbach wrote in his book, ‘Make sure that your back up plan is really in back and won’t get blown up out front along with your plan A.”


What Achenbach is encouraging us to do is to take the time to plan out our back up and understand how seriously our entire operations or systems could fail.  If we look for the best possible back up plans, and put in place real stop guards when the information we receive is potential damaging then we have a head start for preventing a disaster. The more we understand our warning signs the better we will be able to adjust and make decisions that minimize risk.


In his book about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, author Joel Achenbach explains the steps that were taken by both BP and the United States Government to solve the problem of the broken well leaking oil thousands of feet below the surface.  Our government eventually established a think tank task force of the best scientific minds in the country to address the problem in part by viewing it from new and unique perspectives.  One of the scientists brought on board was Dr. Steven Chu from Stanford University, and Achenbach explains why he was such a good addition to the team by referencing a graduation speech from Dr. Chu that outlined the way he thought about interacting with others in  the world.


In his speech Chu said, “In your future life, cultivate a generous spirit. In all negotiations, don’t bargain for the last, little advantage. Leave the change on the table. In your collaborations, always remember that ‘credit’ is not a conserved quantity. In a successful collaboration, everybody gets ninety percent of the credit.”


I really enjoy what Dr. Chu states in his quote and I think our society would benefit from hearing his quote more often. Whether it is scientific discussion, presidential politics, business negotiations, or marriage, trying to win any negotiation and take 100% of the credit will cut out some of the people with interest and input in the discussion.  Trying to instead find the best path to move forward while presenting an honest and valid view of world will help all parties advance.  Dr. Chu was invaluable to the BP oil spill team of scientists because of the way he could help arbitrate discussions and ideas for shutting the well. He was quick thinking, witty, encouraging of discussion, and also had everyone’s best interest in mind.


What the BP oil spill crisis showed was that no one could take 100% of the blame for the disaster, and that no one could take 100% of the credit for its solution. When we narrow our view of the situation we start to look at the problem in a black and white view, and we instantly start to assign wholesale blame and complete credit to single actors. We are much better off if we learn from the mistakes and see the ways in which everyone shared in the decisions that lead to the disaster, but also recognize the ways in which everyones’ actions lead to a joint solution.