“You may leave this life in any moment: have this possibility in your mind in all that you do or say and think.”
Another country, another self quarantine. As I touched down in Japan and my two weeks isolation began, I thought to myself, there is no better time to jump into a book or two. Being a Ryan Holiday (Ego Is The Enemy Obstacle Is The Way) fan with a mild interest in stoicism, the next logical step was Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. In terms of content Meditations is more of a marathon than a leisurely stroll between paragraphs. I won’t lie it is a tough read, but the books value resides in the wisdom it provides and its relatability to now/today. For those who aren’t ancient Rome aficionados, Marcus Aurelius was the only Roman emperor philosopher. He ruled Rome for 20 years, through plague, wars and the rise of Christianity. Considered to be the last of Rome’s five good emperors, Marcus’ memoirs contain as series of observations and reflections pertaining to the universe, our existence, duty, morality and human rationality. For a book written nearly two thousand years ago its contemporary relevance is astounding. What follows is a summation of Marcus’ observations and the subsequent application of these musings to help steel ourselves in the face of today’s challenges.
One of the most prominent and reoccurring themes of Meditations is how fleeting our existence is as human beings.
“All that you see will soon perish: those who witness this perishing will soon perish themselves. Die in extreme old age or die before your time – it will all be the same”.
We are all going to die. Young or old, the shortness of life and the inevitability of death is a confronting thought to us all. Reminding ourselves of this encourages us to live our life to the fullest. Everything ends so make the most of what you have.
One might ask how? How do we make the most of what we have? Where do we start? Marcus Aurelius gives us a hint. It’s called accountability and presence.
“No one loses any life other than the one he lives; the present moment is equal for all; what is passing is equal also; No one can lose the past or the future – how could anyone be deprived of what one does not possess?”
This passage reminds us that the only life we are responsible for is our own, that we don’t own the past or the future, and that the only real control we have is over the present. This is more important than ever. There is no mistaking we are living in trying times but that does not mean we should take the easy option, always reminiscing on the past or daydreaming of better days.
Yesterday is gone and tomorrow could never come.
Marcus persistently refers to human rationality. He reminds himself time and time again to reflect on all things good and bad with the expectation that they will reoccur.
“Constantly reflect that all the things which happen now have happened before: reflect too that they will happen again in the future”
I think what Marcus Aurelius is trying to say is that we as a species are emotional and irrational beings. But, to strive for rationality is an attainable and admirable goal. Studies show that we exhibit a series of cognitive biases that defy logic (Tversky and Kahneman 1972). It is through reflection (training ourselves to be unbiased in our judgements of events) that we can behave rationally. To reflect means to weigh up the facts, to pass no judgement and view all events through an unbiased lens.
To be rational is to be composed.
“When circumstances force you to some sort of distress, quickly return to yourself. Do not stay out of rhythm longer than you must; you will master the harmony the more by constantly going back to it.”
The ability to retreat inward and reflect is crucial when times are tough. Stoicism encourages us to tend to our own backyard. We must check ourselves as it is easy to point the blame rather than look inside for your own causes of distress. Remember, we are responsible for ourselves and how we behave in the face of adversity. How you chose to do so will set you up for further encounters with hardships. Returning to harmony is a skill that needs practice. Whether this is attained through meditation, breathing exercises or your own individual processes, these methods require repetition.
The acceptance of one’s lot
Quite often in life we don’t get to choose the cards we are dealt. We do however have control over how we see and play those cards. To accept ones current circumstances is to be free of need, missing nothing, desiring nothing.” This is easier said than done. Often we find ourselves scrolling Instagram and comparing our circumstances to those of some person we have never met, or we measure success by comparing the type of car we drive to that of our colleagues. We live in a materialistic world where we associate new possessions with happiness and success. But, life isn’t a competition of accumulation. This is a dangerous path to tread. Teddy Roosevelt gave us a forewarning when he said “Comparison is the thief of joy.” The act of comparing ourselves to others can leave us with feelings of inferiority and bitterness. Try instead to look for the positives in your life. Write a gratitude diary reminding yourself that you have everything you need.
To be stoic is to take responsibility for our own thoughts and actions, to live life to its fullest, meditate, practice gratitude and accept your current circumstances. The constant assessment of self and our situation supports us in the continual betterment of ourselves.
I hope you enjoyed my post. If you are interested in stoicism here are few reads to get you started.
- Ryan Holiday – Ego Is the Enemy
- Ryan Holiday – The Obstacle Is the Way
- Marcus Aurelius – Meditations