Compassion and Awareness

I remember reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and highlighting a segment where Aurelius encouraged us not to judge others because we have the same propensity for negativity and mistakes as anyone around us, and often times it is not our will alone that stops us from behaving in the same way as those that we judge. Often we refrain from the activities we judge others for because we are afraid of losing status or reputation. Often it is because we had learned a hard lesson and someone else showed us why we should behave differently, and sometimes we behave differently simply because we have different life circumstances which allow us to avoid the behavior we criticize in others. No matter why we don’t behave the same way as those we judge, it is not because we are somehow superior to the other person, but just responding to different cues.

 

The idea from Aurelius helps me remember that life is hard and everyone (including myself) is under pressure, challenged, and limited by our own circumstances and struggles. Remembering this allows me to give myself and others a break. Aurelius has helped me recognize where I could improve or where I want to maintain positive habits in my own life, while simultaneously remembering how easy it can be to end up in the same place as another person that I would otherwise criticize.

 

This idea came back to me in Thich Nhat Hanh’s book The Miracle of Mindfulness. The author writes about the benefits of meditation and of living a life that is constantly mindful and builds self-awareness into every step of the day. Keeping the mind open and cognizant of ones surroundings and experience helps one get beyond the ego, the stories we tell ourselves about success and happiness, and beyond our constant struggle to signal our virtues and value.

 

Hanh argues that mindfulness and self-awareness ultimately lead to more compassion for the people around us and for ourselves. He writes, “When your mind is liberated your heart floods with compassion: compassion for yourself, for having undergone countless sufferings because you were not yet able to relieve yourself of false views, hatred, ignorance, anger; and compassion for others because they do not yet see and so are still imprisoned by false views, hatred, and ignorance and continue to create suffering for themselves and for others.” Self-awareness and a more objective view and understanding of the world helps our minds to be more free and open to the experiences of the world. This allows us to step back and be more content with who we are and with the lives we live, ultimately allowing us to have more compassion for the people around us. When we better know and understand ourselves, we gain more insight into the lives and struggles of others and we can better appreciate and respect their humanity and the obstacles that we all face.

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.