Senator Cory Booker wrote about a tenant leader and housing advocate in Newark that he met when he was part of the Newark City Council in his book, United. Booker met Frank Hutchins through advocacy work and events to help people living in areas of intensely concentrated poverty. Booker was with Frank during one of his last moments before his death and talking about the time he spent with Frank as cancer overcame him, Booker wrote, “When he looked at me it was as if his whole being was present and attuned to mine—it wasn’t just a moment, it was an experience.”
This quote brings me to an idea I think about frequently but don’t always manage to incorporate into my life in a meaningful way. Many of the books I have read focus on the idea of presence and being in the moment. An important component of being in the moment, one Booker truly understood and felt when he was with Frank, is a recognition of our emotions and allowing ourselves to truly feel and understand our emotions in the moment. Mindfulness allows us to think about how we are feeling and reacting to a situation, but it can sometimes take us away from the moment, and we can get caught up in our own thoughts to the point that we forget to experience the important moments where we are.
Booker’s time with Frank at the end of his life is an example of how to bring emotion into the present. Experience includes emotion and an awareness of those emotions, but it also involves being present in the moment. Booker did not just recognize his emotions but felt them and felt the enormity of the situation an was able to record and truly be present in the moment. When we are with others, we can be present and engaged by turning away from phones and screens and focusing on discussion and dialogue with the other person. Being present in this way involves truly focusing ones attention on the other person, and not on thoughts about how other people will think of us or thoughts of what we should or should not be doing, thinking, or feeling in the moment.
I am not the best at this even though it is something I think about often. I am working to improve and become better at understanding and feeling my emotions without being overcome by thoughts specifically about how I am feeling at any given moment. Becoming overcome with thoughts about how you are feeling and reacting takes you away from the present moment, where mindfulness helps you recognize your emotions and engage further in what you are doing at the moment.
“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.
Marcus Aurelius focused on mindfulness in every action and every decision that he made as Emperor of Rome, and his writings in Meditations reflect his approach toward mindfulness. He stresses the importance of doing every action with meaningful intent so that no time is wasted, and so that no effort is half-hearted. By becoming more focused and making sure that every action is undertaken with focus and intent we are able to build more awareness into our lives, and we can focus on not just what we do, but how we think about what we do throughout the day. Aurelius writes (emphasis mine),
“Every moment think steadily as a Roman and a man to do what though hast in hand with perfect and simple dignity, and feeling of affection, and freedom, and justice; and to give thyself relief from all other thoughts. And thou wilt give thyself relief, if thou doest every act of thy life as if it were the last, laying aside all carelessness and passionate aversion from the commands of reason, and all hypocrisy, and self-love, and discontent with the portion which has been given to thee.”
What he is explaining is that a greater state of mindfulness can guide a person to be more diligent and effective in the work they do, in the efforts they make outside of work, and in the activities in which they participate throughout their life. In his passage he is advocating for an abandonment of desires and passions which distract people from living peacefully with the things they have. He is not telling us to abandon our comforts or live with injustice, but he is urging us to channel our feelings into meaningful actions to move forward. By failing to control our passions we spin about and are pulled in multiple directions with our time and effort.
Aurelius at the end of his quote says that we cannot be discontented with our difficult lives, nor compare our lives to those who seem to have more than us. When we do, we fail to channel our energies in the right direction, and instead sit without direction as we complain about the poor hand that life has dealt us. His advice is that we take an honest look at our life and find ways to move forward by accepting the challenges ahead of us, and using reason to open a new path. Mindfulness will guide us on this journey by helping us recognize the advantages and disadvantages that we have, and by giving us the ability to persevere without complaint.