Philosophy, as Ryan Holiday puts it, should be seen as an operating system for making better decisions in our lives. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is a perfect embodiment of that idea.
I read meditations as someone facing confusion after seeing and experiencing the overwhelming freedom we have in our lives. I felt small under the weight of this realisation and the one that naturally follows: I don't know what to do with this freedom.
Forced to take two gap years of sorts to serve in the army after finishing high school, I was taken aback by the absurdity of how dynamic the shifts in our life can be. A week ago I was eating sushi in Tokyo after a month of travelling with friends, the month before that I was cramming at the library everyday for final exams and this week I had enlisted in the army. Three different worlds and three different lives in the span of three months.
A period of widening perspective and ironically freedom in the army gave me the chance to think long and hard for the first time on why I felt so empty with no real obligations or progression in the traditional life script of school, university, work. I was unsure of what to do and I was unsure of what I wanted. Trying to figure out the questions of life and having a lot of time to think brought me to a group of people who devoted their lives to figuring out the questions of life and having a lot of time to think: Philosophers.
Finally reading a book that had been patiently waiting on my reading list for the three years since I had written it down, I was pleasantly surprised by Meditations. Time and time again, the insights of the book made me take a step back and look again at my life and my problems. Reading on the Kindle, I ended up making over 200 highlights and notes, a testament to my poor selective highlighting skills but also to the rich ideas that can be found in Meditations.
What makes Meditations so great in my eyes is that, despite being written by a 2nd century Roman emperor philosopher - a lifestyle that few of us can call familiar, it is full of actionable advice that has stood the test of time. Advice which has value for both emperors and non-emperors alike and which continues to be espoused by great entrepreneurs, thinkers and leaders today. Reading Meditations, or anything for that matter, will not put you on a sure straight path to achieving success and happiness. I do however believe that doing so will help you to make sense of many of the problems we encounter all too often in our lives.
Aurelius didn't offer a solution to the question of freedom that brought me to him, but his words did change me. Meditations gave me a new way to think, a new way to see the world and a framing that allowed me to arrive at a source of meaning for myself. The book is a powerful tool and teacher, offering a mental framework which helps you to make better decisions and feel content with your own actions while ignoring the uncontrollable events and people around you.
Here are 12 examples that get to the heart of this framework. Insights that have taught me about overcoming emotions, facing ‘bad luck’, dealing with others, accepting loss and death and most importantly, choosing to live a life authentic to the core values you have placed at your centre.
On Taking Control of Your Thoughts
"Consider that everything is opinion, and opinion is in thy power."
Stoicism tells us that events, being neither good nor bad in themselves, do not cause us to experience emotions themselves. Instead, emotions we feel from things that take place in our lives have their roots in the way we choose to view those events. It isn't a one-step process from things happen to us and then we feel some way. Events are the input which our mind processes based on both our reflexive and conscious thoughts to produce an output in how we feel. Change the processing mechanism to change the output.
We are harmed not by events themselves but rather by the stories we tell ourselves.
"That which does not make a man worse than he was, also does not make his life worse."
So long as we conform to the values we have chosen to place at the core of who we are, nothing can sway us from feeling fulfilled and doing good. Happiness and contentment comes from practicing our core values. We must first choose what is at the core of our identity and make sure that we choose wisely our goals, aspirations and values. Once we have decided on a core identity we must live our lives committed to embodying this identity in our actions. External events cannot affect our core identity unless we allow for our opinions to let them. Therefore, they cannot make ourselves any worse.
Setbacks don't threaten our pursuits if we maintain our core values and follow the course we have set for ourselves.
"Such as are thy habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of thy mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts."
Making any lasting change in our life requires a change in our identity or beliefs and we have to reprogram our thoughts to change our beliefs. The more times we are exposed to an idea, the more we believe it and this is the same for thoughts about our own identity. Changing the thoughts we repeat to ourselves can change the beliefs we have about ourselves leading to changes in behaviour. As David Schwartz says, “Ok I’ll try it, but I don’t think it’ll work produces failure.” and on the flip side believing in your own success attracts it. By changing the default thoughts that run through our heads, we can change our behaviour and prime ourselves to look for more opportunities as confirmation bias causes us to look for and attract events that prove our beliefs to be true.
Change your thoughts to change yourself.
"man becomes to me one of the things which are indifferent, no less than the sun or wind or a wild beast. Now it is true that these may impede my action, but they are no impediments to my affects and disposition"
View external obstacles (people and events) as indifferent to your course of action and way of life. Obstacles that thwart us physically cannot reach our beliefs and core identity unless we choose to let them and thus they cannot stop our pursuits. We can choose to bemoan things which come in the way of our desires or we can choose to see those challenges as lessons to learn from.
We have the choice to view obstacles as opportunities to derive value and better ourselves.
On Seeing Others
"Men exist for the sake of one another. Teach them then or bear with them."
When dealing with others remember that we belong to a collective human existence. Feel a sense of kinship with those around you. When others make mistakes or do something that harms us, it is because they are misguided in their beliefs.
Either take the effort to inform those that do wrong or don't complain.
"Through not observing what is in the mind of another a man has seldom been seen to be unhappy; but those who do not observe the movements of their own minds must of necessity be unhappy."
Observing our own thoughts allow us to rationalise them, look at their cause and consider their value to us, all things which help us think and do better. Guessing at what others are thinking most often leads to nothing.
Focus on your thoughts and not the thoughts of others.
On Making the Right Choices
"He often acts unjustly who does not do a certain thing; not only he who does a certain thing."
Failing to speak up or stand up for others is a form of injustice just as much as the original injustice. This can also be applied to hesitating and failing to make decisions. When it comes to struggling over competing choices, not making a decision is more often than not the wrong choice.
Inaction is a course of action.
"every man is worth just so much as the things are worth about which he busies himself."
Hard work alone isn't what makes for good work. We can often trick ourselves into thinking that just simply working hard is productive in itself but hard work concentrated in the wrong place isn't useful. The first step to doing good work is choosing good things to do.
Avoid busy work. Choose the right things to do.
On Living in a Universe of Change
"For if a man reflects on the changes and transformations which follow one another like wave after wave and their rapidity, he will despise everything which is perishable."
The world is in a constant state of change that began long before we were born. Everything is governed by the 'dissolution of atoms' as Aurelius describes it. Clinging to and chasing after material items is a pointless endeavour when everything will become dust.
Our lives are fleeting and we take nothing with us when we go.
"Loss is nothing else than change."
Change is the one constant. Do not fear or hate loss for it is nothing other than a change in states from something that was into something that is no more.
"no man loses any other life than this which he now lives, nor lives any other than this which he now loses."
Live in the moment and don't waste the time you have been given. “We have two lives, and our second one begins when we realise that we only have one”
"For the present is the only thing of which a man can be deprived"
Don't spend too much time ruminating or worrying about the future. Be mindful and be present.
Enjoy the moment and take in the beauty around you.
Meditations has and continues to transform the way I look at the problems I face everyday. Having the right framing can make all the difference and philosophy is a great place to look for the right framing to improve your life operating system. For me, I'm looking to Seneca's Letters from a Stoic as the source of such improvements; however, there's still lots to be said on Meditations and you can look forward to more on this book in the future.
If anything you found here resonated with you at all, I encourage you to pick up the book for yourself and explore more of what Meditations can do for you and your life operating system.
Take care and have a good day,