Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

When’s the last time you upgraded your brain’s software?  A lot of us lose our inquisitive spark to be curious of the world around us, but there’s a way to get it back.

Since leaving my engineering job back in 2013, life has been one big uncertainty.  But with uncertainty comes the ability to question all my assumptions of the world and see which hold true and which can be let go.

When you are at a time in your life full of uncertainty, it’s important to read books that help mold your perspective to face the challenges set to come your way.  Recently I was in this state, and the book that helped me the most was Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

What’s the big idea?

Change your lens to change change your world.  By interpreting and reacting to the stimuli that enters your brain, you can effectively live a better life.  And let’s be real, you only get one life, so you better make it count.

You have a mind? —Yes.  Well, why not use it? Isn’t that all you want—for it to do it’s job?

How does the author know?

Marcus was the Roman Emperor from 161-180 AD.  Quite possibly one of the most powerful figures in all of history.  Meditations can be thought of as his personal journal, for his eyes only.  If the most powerful ruler has issues that we all face today, it’s worth putting into perspective just how significant our issues really are.

Why should you care?

You can’t change what the world throws your way, but you can change how you react to it.  Figure out what’s in your locus of control and focus your efforts on making the necessary changes that benefit your life.

What should you do?

First, commit to a life where you learn something new every day.  Make this a daily habit from now until you die. Think about compound interest and how it relates to your retirement account.  Dollars today over time will turn into a fortune you can live on after you retire. Same holds true with knowledge, the small lessons you learn every day will add up over your life and the outcome will help you get to where you ultimately want to be.

The past has been lived, the future unknown, today you breathe.

Understand that you can’t predict the future and you can’t relive the past.  You only have today. You can get hit by a bus walking for all we know. Be present in the moment.  Find a way to really feel it. I suggest meditation.

Get some control over your life by doing less, better.  Ask yourself at every moment, “is this necessary?” If it’s not, stop doing it.  Something helpful I learned from Derek Sivers was to adopt a “Fuck yes, or no” mentality.  Don’t get sucked into things you kind of want to kind of don’t want to do. It’s a waste of time, where time is a finite resource.

You’ll only be happy if you’re happy on the inside.  This is something you’ll discover in time if you put in the necessary work.  No amount of material goods are going to shortcut true lasting happiness. You don’t need much to be happy.

You can lead an untroubled life, provided you can grow, can think and act systematically.

We are all connected.  You, me, animals, the planet, and the universe.  This system is far more complicated for our little brains to comprehend fully.  Be at peace knowing that you won’t know everything and weren’t designed to, but know that your decisions affect others and other things.

If bad things come your way, let them, but just rest assured that you did as much as you could ahead of time to prepare for it.

Nuggets to chew on:

  • Work as a human being.  Frame a way to enjoy it because it’s what you’re meant to be doing.  Work is only bad when you’re not doing the work you want to be doing.  Find something interesting and stick with it until you’re great at it.
  • Give without expecting things in return.  Giving feels good, just be aware of your intentions for giving.  Is it to help those in need or are you doing it to feel better about yourself?
  • Don’t assume something is impossible because you find it hard.  Recognize that if it’s humanly possible, you can do it too.
  • Good fortune = good character + good intentions + good actions.

The best revenge is not to be like that.

I can’t tell you how many times this quote has saved me from making a bad, rash decision out of frustration or anger at someone’s actions to me.

Don’t be afraid to change your mind.  If we are constantly learning and upgrading our views of the world, we’re going to change our minds constantly.  Get used to it and don’t be afraid to adopt a better way of thinking.

It’s quite possible to be a good man without anyone realizing it.  Remember that.

This concept was a perspective shifter for me.  We are caught up in a world where full of gurus, experts and idols who are brought to our attention through their propaganda type marketing.  But there are so many good people that go unheard doing their daily lives to the best of their abilities. For every person thrust into the spotlight, there are many more not …..

Why care what others think of you when they don’t even care for themselves.

When you try and tackle anything that’s not in the “norm,” you’ll have to deal with a bunch of people who are naysayers.  It’s important to ask yourself why they’re a naysayer in the first place. Did they have dreams that they never acted on and are bitter?  Are they afraid they might loose you after you grow? Whatever the reason is, it’s not something you can control. What you can control is how you feel and what you put your mind to.

Stop whatever you’re doing for a moment and ask yourself: Am I afraid of death because I won’t be able to do this anymore?

This should be the ultimate litmus test of what you’re currently working on.  I don’t think enough people answer this question truthfully. If you are stuck doing something that’s not bringing you some kind of joy or benefit, ask yourself, would I be upset if I died today because I couldn’t finish this activity?  If the answer is no too many times, maybe it’s time to look for something else to work on.

Learn to ask of all actions, “Why are they doing that?”  Starting with your own.

When dealing with anyone in life, think about their incentives.  If you’re working with a client, think hard what they’re trying to get in life outside of just a better deal.  Are they shooting for a promotion? Are they trying to not work much because they have a family. Once you create a model to the best of your abilities thinking about all of the possible incentives of why they do what they do can you start to get things done more effectively.

If you’re still interested in Meditations, here are my raw notes:

  • Written by Marcus Aurelius.  Translated by Gregory Hays
  • Stoic worldview: unwavering conviction that the world is organized in a rational and coherent way.
  • Logos operates both in individuals and in the universe as a whole. define logos
  • All events are determined by the logos, and follow in an unbreakable chain of cause and effect.
  • Man is like a dog tied to a moving wagon.  If the dog refuses to run along with the wagon he will be dragged by it, yet the choice remains his: to run or be dragged.
  • Chrysipus divided knowledge into three areas: logic, physics, and ethics, concerned, respectively, with the nature of knowledge, the structure of the physical world, and the proper role of human beings in that world.
    • Ethics were important to Marcus: “just because you’ve abandoned your hopes of becoming a great thinker or scientist, don’t give up on attaining freedom, achieving humility, serving others…”(7.67)
  • Maintain absolute objectivity of thought: that we see things dispassionately for what they are.
  • Perception: it’s not objects and events but the interpretations we place on them that are the problem.  Our duty therefore to exercise stringent control over the faculty of perception, with the aim of protecting our mind from error.
  • We are made not for ourselves but for others, and our nature is fundamentally unselfish.  In our relationships with others we must work for their collective good, while treating them justly and fairly as individuals.
  • Our duty to act justly does not mean that we must treat others as our equals, it means that we must treat them s they deserve.
  • Discipline of will vs discipline of action.
    • Discipline of action: governs our approach to things in our control, those that we do.  We are responsible for our actions.
    • Discipline of will: governs our attitude to things that are not within our control, those that we have done to us (by others in nature).  Things outside our control have no ability to harm us. How we choose to see them dictates if they are harmful or not.
  • Alexander Pope: “whatever is, is right”
  • Everywhere, at each moment, you have the option:
    • to accept this event with humility [will];
    • to treat this person as he should be treated [action];
    • to approach this thought with care, so that nothing irrational creeps in [perception].
  • “Objective judgement…Unselfish action…Wiling acceptance…of all external events.”
  • Socratic paradox, the claim that no one does wrong willingly, and that if men were able to recognize what is right, they would inevitably do it.”
  • “Time is a river, a violent current of events, glimpsed once and already carried past us, and another follows and is gone.” (4.43, 2.17, 6.25).
  • Death is not to be feared.
  • “Reason told Marcus that the world was good beyond improvement, and yet it constantly approved to him evil beyond remedy.”
  • Human beings are social animals.
  • Meditations is a defensive philosophy.
  • His admiration with Rustics: To read attentively – not to be satisfied with “just getting the gist of it.”  And not to fall for every smooth talker.
  • Long list of attributes and admiration for people in his life.  LIST?
    • Maximus: self-control and resistance to distractions.  Optimism in adversity – especially illness. Doing your job without whining.  That no one could ever have felt patronized by hime — or in a position to patronize him.  Sense of humor.
    • Adopted father: Indifference to superficial honors (Feynman).  Willingness to yield the floor to experts—in oratory, law, psychology, water—and to support them energetically, so that each of them could fulfill his potential.  He looked at what needed doing and not the credit to be gained from doing it.
  • The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly.
  • Whatever this is that I am, it is flesh and a little spirit and an intelligence.
  • The world is maintained by change.
  • Interesting: Discard your thirst for books, so that you won’t die in bitterness, but in cheerfulness and truth, grateful to the gods from the bottom of your heart.
  • There is a limit to the time assigned to you, and if you don’t use it to free yourself it will be gone and will never return.
  • Concentrate every minute like a Roman – like a man – on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice.
  • People who labor all their lives but have not purpose to direct every thought and impulse toward are wasting their time — even when hard at work.
  • Ignore what’s going on with other people and focus on you.  That leads to happiness.
  • The sins committed out of pleasure deserves a harsher rebuke than the one committed out of pain.  The angry man is more like a victim of wrongdoing, provoked by pain to anger. The other man rushes into wrongdoing on his own, moved to action by desire.
  • Material goods are worthless in the end.
  • Even if you’re going to live forever, remember: you cannot loose another life than the one you’re living now.  The present is the same for everyone, and it should be clear that a brief instant is all that is lost. For you can’t lose either the past or the future; how can you lose what you don’t have?
  • Remember two things:
    • Everything has always been the same and keeps recurring.  Makes no difference whether you see the same things recur in 100 years, 200 years, or infinite.
    • the longest-lived and those who will die soonest lose the same thing.  The present is all that they can give up, since that is all you have, and what you do not have, you cannot lose.
  • “Everything is just an impression.” -Monimus the Cynic
  • Human life.  Duration: momentary. Nature: changeable. Perception: dim. Condition of Body: decaying. Soul: spinning around. Fortune: unpredictable.  Lasting fame: uncertain. Sum Up: The body and it’s parts are a river, the soul a dream and mist, life is warfare and a journey far from home, lasting reputation is oblivion.  Then what can guide us? Only philosophy.
    • Above all: accept death in a cheerful spirit, as nothing but the dissolution of the elements from which each living thing is composed.  If it doesn’t hurt the individual elements to change continually into one another, why are people afraid of all of them changing and separating?  It’s a natural thing. And nothing natural is evil.
    • ME: No matter what, you only get one life.  The way you look at it will get you through it.  Change your lens and change your world.
  • If we live longer, can we be sure our mind will still be up to understanding the world?
    • If our mind starts to wander, we’ll still go on breathing, go on eating, imagining things, feeling urges and so on.  But getting the most out of ourselves, calculating where our duties lies, analyzing what we hear and see, deciding whether it’s time to call it quits—all the things you need a healthy mind for…all those are gone.  So we need to hurry. Not just because we move daily closer to death but also because our understanding—our grasp of the world—maybe gone before we get there.
  • Anyone with a feeling for nature—a deeper sensitivity— will find it all gives pleasure.
  • Don’t waste the rest of your time here worrying about other people—unless it affects the common good.
  • Caring for all human beings is part of being human.
  • If you come across anything better than justice, honesty, self-control, courage—than a mind satisfied that it has succeeded in enabling you to act rationally, and satisfied to accept what’s beyond it’s control—if you find anything better than that, embrace it without reservation…
  • Never regard something as good for you if it makes you betray a trust, or lose your sense of shame, or makes you show hatred, suspicion, ill will, or hypocrisy, or a desire for things best done behind closed doors.
  • Each of us lives only now, this brief instant.  The rest has been lived already, or is impossible to see.
  • Nothing is so conducive to spiritual growth as this capacity for logical and accurate analysis of everything that happens to us.
  • In everything you do, even the smallest thing, remember the chain that links them.
  • Stop drifting.  Your not going to reread your books in your old age. Sprint for the finish, write off your hopes, and if your well-being matters to you, be your own savior while you can.
  • ME: Small activities add up to something greater.  The past has been lived, the future unknown, today you breathe.
  • Nowhere you can go is more peaceful—more free of interruptions—that your own soul.
  • What’s to complain about?  People’s misbehavior? But take into consideration:
    • that rational beings exist for one another;
    • that doing what’s right sometimes requires patience;
    • that no one does the wrong thing deliberately;
    • and the number of people who have feuded and envied and hated and fought and died and been buried.
  • Disturbance comes only from within—from your own perceptions.
  • “The world is nothing but change.  Our life is only perception.”
  • It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character.  Otherwise it cannot harm you — inside or out.
  • Your conversation should always rest on a conviction that it’s right, or benefits others — nothing else.  Not because it’s more appealing or more popular.
  • You have a mind? —Yes.  Well, why not sue it? Isn’t that all you want—for it to do it’s job?
  • The tranquility that comes when you stop caring what they say.  Or think, or do.
  • Praise is extraneous.
  • “If you seek tranquility, do less.” Or (more accurately) do what’s essential.  To do less, better.
    • Because most of wha we say and do is not essential.  If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquility.  Ask yourself at every moment, “Is this necessary?”
    • You’re better off not giving the small things more time than they deserve.
  • Constant awareness that everything is born from change.
  • Go deeper.
  • That wisdom is justice.
  • The world as a living being —one nature, one soul.
  • Look into their minds, at what the wise do and what they don’t.
  • Human lives are brief and trivial. Yesterday a blob of semen; tomorrow embalming fluid, ash.
  • To be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over.  It stands unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it.
  • So remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune.
  • ME: You’ll only be happy if you’re happy on the inside.  Do the essentials amazingly. We are all connected.
  • At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have work— as a human being.  What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for—the things I was brought into the world to do?  Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?”
      • —But it’s nicer here….
    • So you were born to feel “nice”?  Instead of doing thins and experiencing them?  Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can?  And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?
      • —But we have to sleep sometime….
    • Agreed.  But nature set a limit on that—as it did on eating and drinking.  And you’re over the limit. You’ve had more than enough of that. But not of working.  There you’re still below your quota.
  • If it’s right to say or do it, then it’s the right thing for you to do or say.
  • Some people, when they do someone a favor, are always looking for a chance to call it in.  And some aren’t but they’re still aware of it—still regard it as a debt. but others don’t even do that.  They’re like a vine that produces grapes without looking for anything in return.
  • Anywhere you can lead your life, you can lead a good one.
  • Nothing happens to anyone that he can’t endure.
  • When you think you’ve been injured, apply this rule:
    • If the community isn’t injured by it, neither am I.  And if it is, anger is not the answer. Show the offender where he went wrong.
  • Remember:
    • Matter. How tiny your share of it.
    • Time. How brief a fleeting your allotment of it.
    • Fate. How small a role you play in it.
  • Remember, nothing belongs to you but your flesh and blood—and nothing else is under your control.
  • You can lead an untroubled life, provided you can grow, can think and act systematically.
  • Two characteristics shared by gods and men (and every rational creature):
    • Not to let others hold you back.
    • To locate goodness in thinking and doing the right thing, and to limit your desires to that.
  • ME:
    • Work as a human being.
    • Give without expecting things in return.
    • You can overcome anything from within.
    • Only be concerned if it harms the community.
    • Untroubled life = grow, think systematically
    • good fortune = good character + good intentions + good actions
  • The best recent is not to be like that.
  • The mind is that which is roused and directed by itself.  It makes of itself what it chooses. It makes what it chooses of it’s own experience.
  • The way people behave.  They refuse to admire their contemporaries, the people whose lives they share.  No, but to be admired by Posterity—people they’ve never met and never will—that’s what they set their hearts on.  You might as well be upset at not being a hero to your great-grandfather.
  • Not to assume it’s impossible because you find it hard.  But to recognize that if it’s humanly possible, you can do it too.
  • If anyone can refute me—show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective—I’ll gladly change.  It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.
  • Remember—your responsibilities can be broken down into individual parts as well.  Concentrate on those, and finish the job methodically—without getting stirred up or meeting anger with anger.
  • When you get angry at someone’s misbehavior, remember they are drawn to what they think is good for them.  When it’s not good for them, show them that. Prove it to them instead of loosing your temper.
  • Treat everything around you as a dream.
  • Some of us work in one way, and some in others.
  • Choose the right person to work for.
  • The only thing that isn’t worthless: to live this life out truthfully and rightly.  And be patient with those who don’t.
  • Nothing is as encouraging as when virtues are visibly embodied in the people around us, when we’re practically showered with them.  Keep this in mind.
  • Accept those placed on your time.
  • Practice really hearing what people say.  Do your best to get inside their minds.
  • What injures the hive injures the bees.
  • ME: The best revenge is not to be like that.
    • What should we prize? Doing.
    • Don’t be afraid to change your mind.
    • Practice listening to what people say.
  • What is outside my mind means nothing to it.
  • Our own worth is measured by what we devote our energy to.
  • Focus on what is said when you speak and on what results from each action.  Know what the one aims at, and what the other means.
  • It doesn’t hurt me unless I interpret its happening as harmful to me.
  • Frightened by change? But what can exist without it?
    • ME: You must change.  It’s vital to nature.
  • To feel affection for people even when they make mistakes is uniquely human.  You can do it, if you simply recognize: that they’re human too, that they act out of ignorance, against their will, and that you’ll both be dead before long.  And, above all, that they haven’t really hurt you. They haven’t diminished your ability to choose.
  • When people injure you, ask yourself what good or harm they thought would come of it.  If you understand that, you’ll feel sympathy rather than outrage or anger. Your sense of good and evil may be the same as theirs, or near it, in which case you have to excuse them.  Or your sense of good and evil may differ from theirs. In which case they’re misguided and deserve your compassion. Is that so hard?
  • Treat what you don’t have as nonexistent.  Look at what you have, the things you value most, and think of how much you’d crave them if you didn’t have them.  But be careful. Don’t feel such satisfaction that you start to overvalue them—that would upset you to lose them.
  • “And why should we feel anger at the world?  As if the world would notice!”
  • [Plato has it right.] If ou want to talk about people, you need to look down on the earth from above.  Herds, armies, farms;weddings, divorces, births, deaths; noisy courtrooms, desert places; all the foreign peoples; holidays, days of mourning, market days..all missed together, a harmony of opposites.
  • Look at the past—empire succeeding empire— and from that, extrapolate the future: the same thing.  No escape from the rhythm of events. Which is why observing life for forty years is as good as a thousand.  Would you really see anything new?
  • Everywhere, at each moment, you have the option:
    • to accept this event with humility
    • to treat this person as he should be treated
    • to approach this thought with care, so that nothing irrational creeps in.
  • Look at who they really are, the people whose approval you long for, and what their minds are really like.  Then you won’t blame the ones who make mistakes they can’t help, and you won’t feel a need for their approval.  You will have seen the sources of both—their judgements and their actions.
  • Epicurus said: that pain is neither unbearable nor unending, as long as you keep in mind it’s limits and don’t magnify them in your imagination.
  • It’s quite possible to be a good man without anyone realizing it.  Remember that.
  • You don’t need much to live happily.  And just because you’ve abandoned your hopes of becoming a great thinker or scientist, don’t give up on attaining freedom, achieving humility, and serving others.
  • You’ve given aid and they’ve received it.  And yet, like an idiot, you keep holding out for more: to be credited with a Good Deed, to be repaid in kind. Why?
  • ME: Your mind determine what you believe is good or bad.
    • material goods won’t make you happy.
    • nothing new happens.
    • you don’t need much to be happy.
  • Those to do with good and evil.  The nothing is good except what leads to fairness, and self-control, and courage, and free will.  And nothing bad except what does the opposite.
  • Ask yourself: Is this the action of a responsible being, part of society?
  • Know your what and why, and how.  Have a mind of your own.
  • First step: don’t be anxious. Nature controls it all.  And before long you’ll be no one, nowhere. Second step: Concentrate on what you have to do.
  • When you have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, remember that your defining characteristic—what defines a human being—is to work with others.  Even animals know how to sleep. And it’s the characteristic activity that’s the more natural one—more innate and more satisfying.
  • Blame no one.  Set people start, if you can.  If not, just repair the damage.  And suppose you can’t do that either.  Then where does blaming people get you?
  • You could be good today.  But instead you choose tomorrow.
  • Joy for humans lies in human actions.  Human actions: kindness to others, contempt for the senses, the interrogation of appearances, aberration of nature and of events in natures.
  • Speak in the right tone with the right words.
  • To accept it without arrogance, to let it go with indifference.
  • What does it mater to you if they say x about you, or think y?
  • You want praise from people who kick themselves every fifteen minutes, the approval of people who despise themselves.  (Is it a sign of self-respect to regret nearly everything you do?)
  • ME: Do good work today.
    • Stop complaining.
    • Why care what others think of you when they don’t even care for themselves.
  • Injustice is a kind of blasphemy.  Nature designed rational beings for each other’s sake: to help—not harm—one another, as they deserve.
  • And you can also commit injustice by doing nothing.
  • Everything you believe in is meaningless to those you leave behind.  The only thing that could make us not want to stay alive is the chance to live with those who share our vision.
  • Leave other people’s mistakes where they lie.
  • Every stage of your life is a transformation; a kind of dying.  Was that so terrible?
  • You participate in society by your existence.  Then participate in its life through your actions-all your actions.
  • That to be remembered is worthless.  Like fame. Like everything.
  • You can discard most of the junk that clutters your mind—things that exist only there—and clear out space for yourself:
    • …by comprehending the scale of the world
    • …by contemplating infinite time
    • …by thinking of the speed with which things change—each part of every thing; the narrow space between our birth and death; the infinite time before; the equally time that follows.
  • Isn’t it better to do what’s up to you—like a free man—than to be passively controlled by what isn’t, like a slave or beggar?
  • ME: People are here to help those without expecting payment/reward.
    • Everything is your perspective.
  • You can endure anything you mind can make endurable, by treating it as in your interest to do so.
  • If they’ve made a mistake, correct them gently and show them where they went wrong.  If you can’t do that, then the blame lies with you. Or no one.
  • To stop talking about what the good man is like, and just to be one.
  • Possibilities:
    • To keep on living (you should be used to it by now)
    • To end it (it was your choice, after all)
    • To die (having met your obligations)
    • Those are the only options.  Reason for optimism.
  • Stop whatever you’re doing for a moment and ask yourself: Am I afraid of death because I won’t be able to do this anymore?
  • When faced with people’s bad behavior, turn around and ask when you have acted like that.  When you saw money as a good, or pleasure, or social position.  Your anger will subside as soon as you recognize that they acted under compulsion (what else could they do?)  Or remove the compulsion, if you can.
  • So long as the law is safe, so is the city—and the citizen.
  • None of us have much time.  And yet you act as if things were eternal—the way you fear and long for them…
    • Humans are like leaves on a tree: grow and die, replaced, grow and die.
  • A healthy mind should be prepared for anything.
  • Learn to ask of all actions, “Why are they doing that?”  Starting with your own.
  • Characteristics of the rational soul:
    • Self-perception, self-examination, and the power to make of itself whatever it wants.
  • And with everything—except virtue and what springs from it.  Look at the individual parts and move from analysis to indifference.  Apply this to life as a whole.
  • Have I done something for the common good?  Then I share in the benefits.
  • Art imitates nature, not the reverse.
  • Someone despises me.
    • That’s their problem.
    • Mine: not to do or say anything despicable.
  • Someone hates me.  Their problem.
    • Mine: to be patient and cheerful with everyone, including them.
  • False friendship is the worst.  Avoid it at all costs. If you’re honest and straightforward and mean well, it should show in your eyes.  It should be unmistakable.
  • To live a good life:
    • Learn to be indifferent to what makes no difference.
  • This is how we learn:
    • By looking at each thing, both the parts and the whole.  Keeping in mind hat none of them can dictate how we perceive it.
  • Correct people cheerfully at the exact moment they are trying to harm you.
  • There’s nothing manly about rage.  It’s courtesy and kindness that define a human being.
  • That to expect bad people not to injure others is crazy.  It’s to ask the impossible. And to let them behave like that to other people but expect them to exempt you is arrogant.
  • Your three components: body, breath, mind.  Two are yours in trust; to the third alone you have clear title.
  • It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.
  • So make your exit with grace—the same grace shown to you.