Seeing Opportunity

In The Obstacle is the Way, Ryan Holiday explains the ways in which we can take our thoughts and ideas and build new paths from the challenges we face. By using the obstacles we face to grow and learn we build our own paths to become the best people we can be.  Holiday uses Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor in the second century, as an example of growing and becoming a more well rounded individual by facing the obstacles in our lives. Speaking of Aurelius he discussed the many challenges he faced as emperor from a major plague, betrayal from his allies, and working alongside his step-brother-co-emperor who was greedy and incompetent. Amidst all these challenges Aurelius sought reason, clarity, and self-improvement, and Holiday writes, “From what we know, he truly saw each and every one of these obstacles as an opportunity to practice some virtue: patience, courage, humility, resourcefulness, reason, justice, and creativity.”

 

Faced with challenges Aurelius did not blame others or complain about his luck. He never wondered why he faced such obstacles when others did not, and through self-reflection and practices of awareness, he was able to see the commonality of struggle in the lives of all people.

 

Aurelius was an ardent stoic, believing that he held the ultimate power over the faculties of his mind, allowing his thoughts to be strong, his intentions to be unwavering, and his reason to be sound in all situations.  The recognition that no one controls our thoughts, and that we can control our opinions and reactions to the world gives us the strength that we need to face our challenges. When we lament over the difficulties we face and decide that the obstacles are too great, we limit our future and prevent ourselves from growing. Looking at that which blocks our path and learning to shoulder our burdens opens new possibilities for us. Facing our challenges and learning to adapt to them makes us more capable of succeeding in the world.

Impediments to Action

In his book, The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph, Ryan Holiday looks at how we can reach our goals and find success in the face of hardship. Holiday focuses on the challenges we face, how we can overcome those challenges, and how the act of surpassing obstacles shapes us into better people. He follows in the tradition of stoic philosophers focusing on building mental fortitude through awareness and reflection, placing the control of our ability to overcome impediments in our own hands, or more accurately, in our own minds. Holiday begins his book by quoting Marcus Aurelius,

 

“Our actions may be impeded…but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

 

Holiday continues, interpreting the short paragraph, “In Marcus’s words is the secret to an art known as turning obstacles upside down. To act with a “reverse clause,” so there is always a way out or another route to get to where you need to go. So that setbacks or problems are always expected and never permanent. Making certain that what impedes us can empower us.”

 

His writing focuses on how we can grow and find new opportunities when we change the way we look at obstacles. Aurelius recognized that obstacles and impediments created opportunities for those who were brave enough and creative enough to approach them rather than run from them. Holiday explains that perseverance and a unique approach to the world can turn new opportunities into defining moments. When we see a challenge we should not back away from it, but we should study that obstacle and work to fully understand what we are presented with and what it would look like to overcome it.

 

By facing challenges and striving to reach the other end of the path we grow and develop a greater understanding of the world. We may not always be successful in our actions, but we can still learn and grow. Our path forward will be defined by the lessons we learn and the skills we develop by scaling the mountains that block our path.

Proud of Pride

“For the pride which is proud of its want of pride is the most intolerable of all.” Marcus Aurelius wrote near the end of his common place book published as Meditations. He wrote this after encouraging a simple lifestyle, free from desires for material possessions or fame, and instead ruled by reason and virtue.  What Aurelius throughout his book encourages us to do is live a life where we are not striving to reach the goals of others or to seek success for the purpose of impressing others. He encourages us to abandon that pride, think deeply about others, and to live a humble life, recognizing that our time on Earth is finite. For Aurelius the most important thing we can develop is our relationships, and things like pride get in the way of becoming a truly connected and compassionate person in the lives of those around us.

 

Before the quote above Aurelius writes, “Think of the eager pursuit of anything conjoined with pride; and how worthless everything is after which men violently strain.” By encouraging us to avoid pride and to seek relationships, he is encouraging us to live well with those around us and to recognize the needs of our society. Striving to be great is not a negative thing on its own, but when it is combined with a desire to obtain great wealth and material possessions, or to impress to others, the goal of greatness becomes a trap that we cannot escape.

 

Aurelius would not have argued that we should never feel pride, but that we should redirect that pride away from selfish desires. By focusing on others and helping others we can develop a sense of pride that results from becoming a more connected and well rounded human being, and we can enjoy the self-confidence that flows with that pride. Ultimately however, we must make sure that we are not feeding that pride for our own self-interests and we must ensure that our pride is generated from actions that are benevolent toward all.

Actions

Marcus Aurelius guided his life with rational thought and reason developed from self-awareness and deep reflection of the world around him. As the Roman Emperor he recorded his thoughts in a journal that would be published as the book Meditations, giving us a chance to see the world through the eyes of a stoic focused on better understanding himself and his place in the world.  The advice he left himself is advice we can still use today. His recommendations surrounding the actions and decisions we make is simple, but can have powerful impacts in our lives.

 

“First, do nothing inconsiderately, nor without a purpose. Second, Make thy acts refer to nothing else than to a social end.” Aurelius explains in this brief section that our actions should be well thought out, intentional, and meant to in one way provide a societal benefit. Actions that we make in a rash manner or actions that only benefit ourselves are not going to help us grow and improve, and they will not better those around us.

 

When Aurelius uses the word inconsiderately, he refers to the idea of thoughtfully thinking through our actions. He is not just advising us to avoid actions that are not nice for other people, but rather he is encouraging us not to act without first thinking deeply. Building this into our lives today could mean something along the lines of thinking about why we want to eat a bag of chips before we grab one, whether we will just walk past an empty water bottle in the street, or if we will spend our time watching television or doing something more productive. His encouragement to be considerate equates to us being more thoughtful and less impulsive in our actions, and to us spending more time finding ways to help others.

 

Continuing with this quote and the Emperor’s idea that all of our actions should be done with a purpose and toward a social end, we begin to reshape our purpose on this planet. Our actions should be performed with the greatest focus and intent, and the end result should benefit not just ourselves, but our entire society. When we look for ways to help out everyone and not just ourselves it becomes easier to put a full effort into our work. If our work is incomplete or poorly executed, it is not just us but society that suffers. Aurelius’ advice is to think about the actions and decisions we are making at any moment, reflect to see how our actions could be more beneficial for society, and to execute on our actions.

Placing Blame

The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius had a very interesting way of looking at other people and thinking about those around us. He held others in high regard, and looked at their actions in a very open way. Compared to the way we often think of others today, Aurelius was very generous and forgiving, and he worked hard to see the good in others rather than the negative. When it came to finding fault in others he wrote, “With respect to that which happens conformably to nature, we ought to blame neither gods, for they do nothing wrong either voluntarily or involuntarily, nor men, for they do nothing wrong except involuntarily. Consequently we should blame nobody.”

 

I really enjoy this quote because it softens the way we look at others and their actions or decisions. In our society today we are overrun with cynicism and oftentimes the first thing we look for in another person is their faults. When we enter into business agreements, receive some sort of advice, or are given an opportunity, it is hard to keep from thinking about possible ulterior motives of the other individual. When we see negative situations arise from the mistakes of another person we are very quick to blame their moral character and to assume they acted with intent to do bad.  Aurelius would encourage us to slow down in our judgments about others, and to step back to consider the situation, how we would act if we were the other person, and what could have been influencing the individual who is in the wrong.

 

In my post from July 21st, 2016, I wrote about Aurelius’ thoughts on where our mental focus should be in regards to others. He encourages us to see the positive and negative in the actions and lives of those around us, but so that we may then turn inward to reflect on whether or not we have the same shortcomings in our own life. By pausing to reflect in this way we do not blame others, but we learn from them to improve our own lives. The section above shows that the faults of others is not a result of their direct failure, but on everything that has occurred to shape them into the person they are now. In one way or another, their current actions seem defensible to them. Understanding where their thought process went wrong and how they came to discount the negative will help us improve our lives and better understand those around us who seem to be headed down the wrong path. With this new perspective, we may be able to better assist others and work toward positive change as opposed to simply living cynically and criticizing the people and institutions around us.

What We Think of Ourselves

Marcus Aurelius constantly sought to become more self-aware by reflecting on himself, his actions, and his thoughts.  He recorded his reflections and the lessons he learned from constantly being present and observing himself and others in his book Meditations, and we can use his wisdom to help improve our lives, nearly 2,000 years later.  One of the starting points for Aurelius is how we think about ourselves, and how we think about the thoughts of others. Throughout the book Aurelius reminds us to become humble through self-reflection, and to become empathetic with others who are doing their very best to live their life in a manner that is suitable for them. He encourages us to build our own strong mental fortification while not basing our understanding of the world on the views and beliefs of others. It is in this spirit that he writes, “I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others.”

 

Human beings are social creatures and our tribal evolution has stuck with us, pushing us to find groups to associate with for belonging and meaning. This has allowed us to come together in societies and to achieve more than we ever could on our own, but Aurelius writes about a dangerous side of our social dependence. When we fail to become self-reflective and when we do not live our lives according to our beliefs and rational understanding of ourselves we risk becoming an amalgam of what we perceive others to think of us.  Our lives become vehicles to impress others, and the most important decisions we make are intended to satisfy other people instead of ourselves. Living in this manner places our lives in control of others, and leaves us as hollow shells of individuals.

 

Aurelius would encourage us to think about ourselves in a more profound way to understand what our needs and desires are, and to understand where our motivation for achieving our goals comes from. If we are focused on what other people want us to become, he would argue that we are not living up to our true potential. If we are confident in ourselves and value the faculties of our minds, then we must take time to become self-aware to find a true alignment in our lives. We do not need to discount the opinions of others to a point where they are meaningless to us, but we need to be able to recognize whether our motivation lies in the words of another or whether our motivation is born from our own rational thought and understanding of self.

About Being Mad

Marcus Aurelius in his philosophy of stoicism constantly made an effort to look beyond the surface and make deep considerations of people and events before he made any attempt to sort out what they meant. This practice allowed him to delay pressing judgement onto others and gave him the ability to think clearly about something before letting his opinion bias his thoughts.  Throughout his book Meditations, you see him apply this skill to many areas of life, giving us examples of how we can use deeper thought and the ability to control our impulsiveness in various relationships and situations. In the quote I wish to highlight today, Aurelius discusses our anger in situations where disputes may arise. He writes, “The dispute then, he said, is not about any common matter; but about being mad or not.”

 

This quote to me speaks about our often hidden decision in conversation and social situations to react to something by being offended and angry.

 

At a certain point in a discussion or debate we may recognize that our views conflict with those of another, and we have a choice of how to move forward. In our culture in the United States we do not do a good job of understanding how to meaningfully build conversation from differences of opinion, and we often default to the simple option, argumentative debate. When we begin to notice that our views do not match, something inside us triggers and we allow ourselves to become mad. We fail to be constructive in our discussion and allow our hot mind to push the conversation in a volatile direction. In terms of our discussion, we make the decision to become angry, and that decision derails the path of our conversation. At a certain point when this happens, we are no longer actually discussing the original point, but instead we have staked out our identify, fortified ourselves with rage, and shifted the discussion to something completely different: our moral superiority and right to be angry.

 

This reminds me of a quote from Aurelius that I previously wrote about on August 3rd, 2016:

 

“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!’”

 

We do not become angry with others or with situations because of the effect or impact they have on us, but rather, we become angry by our own choice. We use anger as a defense mechanism that barricades us on the side of righteousness and pierces through the shortcomings of others. Making the decision not to become angry at others allows us to look at people as rational human beings (meaning that they are making decisions based on their own perceived utility), and also allows us to remain humble as we constructively build our relationships and as we cognitively piece together the reality around us. Without developing this ability, we simply entrench our tribal nature, but in a way that is hidden from our consciousness, preventing ourselves from growing and being able to view the world from perspectives beyond our own.

 

As Colin Write wrote to start his book Considerations,

“Few of us take the time to consider.
     It’s not that we’re ‘inconsiderate’ in the sense that we’re rude or brash or one of the other myriad associations we’ve tacked on to the word over the years, but we are often ‘inconsiderate’ in the sense that we act while seeing the world from only one standpoint: our own.”

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.