The Bounds of Opinion

“Nature’s wants are slight; the demands of opinion are boundless,” writes Seneca in Letters From a Stoic. Nature is indifferent to humans. The world exists and life exists upon it, but the world doesn’t seem worried about what life flourishes, how it flourishes, and what life does. It simply carries on and life must react to what happens across nature.

 

In our lives we have an extreme number of desires, of thoughts about good and bad, and of preferences for one outcome over another. All of our desires, our fears, and our thoughts lead to expectations about how we think the world should be, but nature is not aware of our beliefs of how it should operate. We bring to the world a complex set of ideas, and they are continually batted around as if they were meaningless.

 

Seneca’s quote above is about recognizing that there is no reason that the world should be a certain way, and there is nothing that makes the world conform to the beliefs and views that we have. There is an unlimited number of ways to want the world to be, and while in a sense the way we view the world determines how it seems to us, there is something that seems to be separate about the world. It operates on its own, even if our views and decisions make it seem to behave one way or another. We can work toward different outcomes, we can strive for something different, and we can attempt to actualize our preferences, but ultimately it is all just opinion built upon an indifferent world.

 

This is not a nihilistic sentiment or something we should feel discouraged by. What it means is that the universe exists and we have come to exist within it with the ability to manipulate and change parts of it. We have great opportunity to use what the universe contains and we are limited by only our imagination, the laws of physics, and the initial conditions of the big bang. We can’t change the laws of physics or the initial conditions of the big bang, but we can always change our imagination and thoughts, and we can always learn more about our universe and what is possible within an indifferent nature.

 

Bringing this down to an individual level, we can take pressure off ourselves by recognizing that there is no perfect way that we or anything else ought to be. The universe does not care. We are matter that is cognizant of its own existence and from our self-recognition flows the ability to examine and perceive so much more than just the matter within ourselves. From us flows the ability to create the reality we see around us and to create the opinions, thoughts, ideas, and preferences that we bring to the world. It is up to us individually to recognize the opportunity we have and to act accordingly.

Act Accordingly – Origins in Stoicism

One of my favorite authors is Colin Wright and I thought of him instantly when I read the following quote in Marcus Aurelius’ common place book, Meditations, “Since it is possible that thou mayest depart from life this very moment, regulate every act and thought accordingly.” Back in August of last year I wrote about Colin Wright’s book Act Accordingly and the first sentence of his book which reads, “You have exactly one life in which to do everything you will ever do. Act accordingly.”  I love the fact that Wright borrowed from Aurelius, and I love the principle that Aurelius built into stoicism.

 

Act Accordingly means living in the present moment and understanding the choices and decisions that you make.  It involves self-awareness and self-understanding to know why we act the way we do and why we hold the beliefs that we do. The more we build a process of self-awareness and reflection the better we can navigate our world and achieve the results that we desire. The idea of acting accordingly means that we appreciate the life that we have and we are able to take meaningful steps to reach our goals.  When we act accordingly we pause, recognize what we desire, what is truly useful, and work to be conscious as we move through our days.

 

For Aurelius, act accordingly translated into a spiritual recognition and understanding that we will all pass away, and that our time is not just limited, but it is often unpredictably short.  His message is to be fully present in every moment, avoiding periods of time where you shuffle through life without focus and without intention.  When you recognize that any moment could be the end of your life you begin to cherish the time you have. An increased presence of mind can translate into a greater sense of fulfillment in every moment.

 

Wright’s approach to act accordingly draws from the stoic tradition that Aurelius helped build, but he includes modern frameworks that fit the life in which we live now.  He is focused beyond just the single moment, but he does not abandon the idea and importance of presence of mind.  Wright encourages his readers to build more focus on their lives and decisions, and to find a way to pull themselves out of autopilot.  What distinguishes the two writers is the way in which Wright focuses on freedom and building a life with the most abundant possibilities.  Wright explains acting accordingly as taking advantage of the time you have in your life, and consciously creating a system that allows you to have the most choices and possibilities.  For Wright, the best way to act accordingly is to be fully self-aware, understand what drives you, and to use those drives to move into situations where life can be flexible and open to greater possibilities.

 

Both authors base their thoughts of acting accordingly on the idea of self-awareness, but each shows a different way in which that self-awareness translates into the choices and decisions that we make.  Understanding that our time and our lives are limited helps us see the importance of maximizing our decisions, and helps us to understand that we must move forward in ways that best align with our self-reflections.  Focusing on acting accordingly will help you build a set of heuristics that guide your life toward goals that are responsible and meaningful.

Stoic Self-Awareness

The last couple of years for me have been a journey to better understand my thoughts, motivations, desires, beliefs, and assumptions. I began working on self-awareness after I realized that I did not fully understand the world and what was happening around me. Podcasts helped open my eyes and helped me see that there were many things that I did not fully understand and viewed from only one perspective. From that realization I began to see the importance of self-awareness.  I have continued to make self-awareness a major focus in my life, and Marcus Aurelius echoes my thoughts and feelings of reflection in his writings Meditations.

 

“Those who do not observe the movements of their own minds must of necessity be unhappy,” Marcus Aurelius wrote in regards to self-awareness.  By not focusing on ourselves and by not looking inwards, we are allowing ourselves to move through life without guidance and direction.  The way we think about the world and our position in the world is something we can change and control, but it is also something that can move and fluctuate on its own if we  are not careful. Aurelius is encouraging us to master our thoughts and explore those parts of us which make us who we are.

 

A powerful metaphor that I came across to better explain the importance of self-awareness and reflection came from a young author named Paul Jun. In his book Connect the Dots, Jun described the following metaphor. Think of self-awareness and focus like a flashlight in a dark room.  Your flashlight can illuminate a certain space, and the more narrow the focus of your flashlight the clearer the item you shine it at becomes.  But while you are focused in one area, everything else is obscured. When you begin to take a step back and shine that flashlight at a greater area you will see things that were hidden before.

 

For me, this idea of self-awareness and shining a flashlight of focus on areas that had been dark to my conscious helped me better understand many of the expectations and pressures that I lived with. I thought deeply about what my ideas were regarding success, and where those ideas came from.  I thought about what I expected myself to do as part of the identity I had developed for myself, and I thought about why I had those expectations.  Through a journey of self-awareness I was better able to understand my own morals, values, and principles which gave me the ability to see what things fit in with who I wanted to be and act accordingly.