In “The Princess Bride,” while disguised as the Dread Pirate Roberts, Westley delivers one of writer William Goldman’s classic lines: “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”
The Stoic philosophers weren’t trying to sell us anything. If you believe Stoicism is a superficial idea that encourages us to suck up our pain and get on with it, you are missing their point.
The Stoics didn’t promise freedom from disturbing emotions and hardships. They promised the freedom to have emotional well-being despite our problems. The Stoics didn’t teach us to resist our feelings or pretend they don’t exist. To the Stoics, sucking it up was a waste of a learning opportunity.
In this essay, I’m taking a deep dive into “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius via classics professor Gregory Hays’s magnificent translation. Aurelius didn’t expect that anyone but himself would ever read his aphorisms. He wrote for himself a guide to living a life consistent with his highest values.
To get the most out of reading “Meditations,” do as Aurelius did: Examine your reactions to your day-to-day experiences. Challenge your reactions, not other people, to uproot your conditioned responses.
Each of us is responsible for removing the judgments, mistaken beliefs, and conditioned responses that we hold in our minds.
You won’t free yourself from experiencing troubling thoughts and feelings by reading the classic Stoic texts. Instead, you can learn an understanding that will change your relationship with your thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
If you are fed up with trying to control the world to secure your sense of self, then become a student, as Aurelius did, of all the ways you block your true nature and thus deprive yourself of peace of mind. As you do, you will experience the freedom to make better choices.
Our True Nature
Aurelius’s reasoning follows from his first principles, so let’s begin there. The Stoics had an “unwavering conviction that the world is organized in a rational and coherent way.” The animating force behind it all is “logos.” Logos is not easily translated, but Hays provides helpful pointers:
“Logos operates both in individuals and in the universe as a whole. In individuals it is the faculty of reason. On a cosmic level it is the rational principle that governs the organization of the universe. In this sense it is synonymous with ‘nature,’ ‘Providence,’ or ‘God.’”
Logos animates our true nature. A fundamental characteristic of logos is an unbroken interconnected web of relatedness. In “Meditations,” Aurelius instructs us:
“Keep reminding yourself of the way things are connected, of their relatedness. All things are implicated in one another and in sympathy with each other. This event is the consequence of some other one. Things push and pull on each other, and breathe together, and are one.
Everything is interwoven, and the web is holy; none of its parts are unconnected. They are composed harmoniously, and together they compose the world.”
If you reject Aurelius’s belief that “everything is interwoven,” you won’t gain the full benefit of his wisdom. Today, like most days, it will appear as though you are separate from everyone and everything. Perception is mediated through thought.
Nature of the World
Why do we need to keep reminding ourselves of the nature of the world? When we walk away from our true nature, suffering begins. When you encounter another, do you size them up as for you, against you, or irrelevant to you? If so, given your understanding of life, most days will be stressful.
Consider this. You are made of molecules that are made of atoms that are constantly shedding and collecting electrons with all the other atoms in your field. Don’t you then have a material connection to everything around you? And all that you perceive, isn’t it all just sensory stimuli constructed in your brain? Where does the outside world begin when your perception of it happens only inside you?
Aurelius often reminded himself,
“No one can prevent you from speaking and acting in harmony with [nature], always.”
Aurelius examined his perceptions with the intention to protect his mind from error. How do we know we are in error? Suffering is a signal of our confusion about our true nature. “Nothing is good,” Aurelius wrote, “except will to fairness, and self-control, and courage, and free will.”
About 10 years ago, George, an MBA leadership student of mine, observed that he could make a different choice about his perception and behavior. George reported being cut off by another driver as he was on his way home after class. George’s first thought was, “How dare he pass me like that?” George had always found it reasonable to speed up and cut off the offending driver. But then, for George, something out of the ordinary happened:
“Slowly, I remembered the professor’s words about ego and true nature. Without realizing it, I was driving at the speed limit. Not a mile above (which is unusual for me). I even went to the point of putting on my seatbelt. It took me a few minutes to realize what happened, what I did, and what was going through my mind. After I stopped the car, I remembered what had happened as if I was watching a movie.”
George took back his power of choice by becoming mindful, not mindless, of his mental activity. As you begin to be more mindful, like George, you are no longer fused with the character you’ve scripted for yourself, with the help of this world and its varied influences. The power of choice, inner freedom, has been restored.
There is nothing wrong with using Aurelius’s ideas to have a better experience of life, but don’t stop there. The real prize is the experience of your true nature.
Be like George: Pull back the curtain and see what beliefs are driving you. Your understanding of how life works is the wizard behind the scenes producing your thoughts and feelings.
Other People Can’t Reach Into Your Mind
A core principle of the Stoics is that the world we perceive is shaped inside-out by our thinking. Aurelius puts it this way: “External things are not the problem. It’s your assessment of them. Which you can erase right now.”
If you allow your emotional well-being to depend on others behaving a certain way, you are trapped.
There is no such thing as perfect circumstances. Today, like most days, will probably reveal some troublesome people. Aurelius reminded himself (and us):
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil.”
Yet, we are all the same. Each of us has a wrong mind and a right mind and the power to make another choice.
“But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine.”
cAurelius writes, “Each of us lives only now, this brief instant. The rest has been lived already or is impossible to see.”
Observation is the central part of Aurelius’s teaching. He saw he had a wild mind and admonished himself.
“Stop allowing your mind to be a slave, to be jerked about by selfish impulses, to kick against fate and the present, and to mistrust the future.
“Stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable.”
If you insist that you are your conditioned responses, Aurelius would say your mind is weak, untrained, and prone to error.
If you don’t expose your beliefs about yourself and the world, lasting behavioral change is impossible. In Aurelius’s words, “We need to eliminate unnecessary assumptions … to eliminate the unnecessary actions that follow.”
Dealing With Anger
Observe yourself when you feel like a victim of others—your fellow drivers on the road, your inconsiderate partner, and ungrateful manager. Aurelius says, stop lying to yourself.
“Nothing that goes on in anyone else’s mind can harm you. Nor can the shifts and changes in the world around you. Then where is harm to be found? In your capacity to see it. Stop doing that and everything will be fine. Let the part of you that makes that judgment keep quiet.”
When it seems like someone made you angry, Aurelius’s correction is to acknowledge that you wanted to be made angry. If not traffic, it would have been the person in the supermarket express line with 20 items, or your noisy neighbor. A talk with your neighbor might be called for, but the conversation will go better if you understand your neighbor can’t reach in your mind and make you angry.
Remind yourself that your experience of the world will be 100 percent correlated with the understanding that you hold in your mind.
Are You Willing to Practice?
The goal is not merely to understand “Meditations;” that is an easy task. The goal is to follow through on a disciplined practice to become more aware of and stop justifying your dysfunctional thinking. Marcus Aurelius was one of humanity’s earliest teachers of mindfulness.
Aurelius made a practice of inquiring into the nature of his thinking. A willingness to examine your thinking will lead to inner freedom as you clear away your misunderstandings about life.
To get the most out of “Meditations,” be willing to disrupt your sense of self. Perhaps you tell yourself you are a person with a short fuse and so justify conditioned responses to certain people and circumstances.
Have you ever tried to change your golf or tennis swing? One’s swing is grooved in, and a new swing often requires an initial period of very clumsy, awkward movements, like learning to drive all over again.
Your habitual responses to life are similarly grooved in. Someone says something to you that violates your self-concept, and their action triggers your belief about how other people should behave toward you. Angry thoughts follow from your beliefs, and your body feels intense emotion that seems to carry you toward behavior you will regret later.
Can you catch yourself in the moment and stand down? Aurelius would say everything depends on your choice.
As you begin your practice, you may not catch yourself in the moment. Can you practice standing down from your secondary responses, the endless repetitions of your story of how you have been wronged?
With practice, a new understanding of how life works takes root. That new understanding will do the heavy lifting.
Today, remember your true nature when a driver cuts you off. Today, listen carefully as a colleague presents an alternative view. Today, have a kind word and a warm meal ready for your partner who comes home cranky from work.
Since your experience is perceived inside-out, as you change, your world will change, too. Those you encounter possess “a share of the divine.” Like you, they may have forgotten the truth; and like you, they can awaken to their true nature.
Mindlessly gripping our conditioned thinking, we have much less free will than we may believe. It seems like we are making a choice when all the while, our thinking has us in its trap.
Aurelius’s “Meditations” instructs us in practices to restore our power of free will. Our behavior follows our beliefs about our self and others. In short, our understanding of how life works is 100 percent connected to our experience of life.
Aurelius reached a fork in the road of his own life:
“You’ve wandered all over and finally realized that you never found what you were after: how to live. Not in syllogisms, not in money, or fame, or self-indulgence.”
If you have come to a similar realization in your life, following Aurelius’s path to inner freedom will serve you well.