»Meditations« by Marcus Aurelius
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The »Meditations« are the private notes of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD) who wrote them as reflections and exercises for himself — without any intention for publication. They give an excellent entry into Stoic philosophy and — by re-iterating over the same themes and principles — also serve as a wonderful example on the challenges and constant learning of how to be a good human. There are a lot of deep thoughts and reflections in this book, so I’ll take his advice To read attentively, not to be satisfied with “just getting the gist of it”.
My notes from the book
It is not objects and events but the interpretations we place on them that are the problem. Our duty is therefore to exercise stringent control over the faculty of perception, with the aim of protecting our mind from error.
People who labor all their lives but have no purpose to direct every thought and impulse toward are wasting their time—even when hard at work.
The present is all that they can give up, since that is all you have, and what you do not have, you cannot lose.
Forget everything else. Keep hold of this alone and remember it: Each of us lives only now, this brief instant. The rest has been lived already, or is impossible to see.
The world is nothing but change. Our life is only perception.
Death: something like birth, a natural mystery, elements that split and recombine.
Choose not to be harmed—and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed—and you haven’t been.
It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character. Otherwise it cannot harm you—inside or out.
You have a mind? Yes. Well, why not use it? Isn’t that all you want — for it to do its job?
If you seek tranquillity, do less. Which brings a double satisfaction: to do less, better. Because most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquillity. Ask yourself at every moment, “Is this necessary?” But we need to eliminate unnecessary assumptions as well. To eliminate the unnecessary actions that follow.
The value of attentiveness varies in proportion to its object.
You’re better off not giving the small things more time than they deserve.
Everything transitory—the knower and the known.
Constant awareness that everything is born from change. The knowledge that there is nothing nature loves more than to alter what exists and make new things like it. All that exists is the seed of what will emerge from it. You think the only seeds are the ones that make plants or children? Go deeper.
To be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It stands unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it.
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. A horse at the end of the race … A dog when the hunt is over … A bee with its honey stored … And a human being after helping others. They don’t make a fuss about it. They just go on to something else, as the vine looks forward to bearing fruit again in season. We should be like that.
And that’s what you’re doing when you complain: hacking and destroying.
Not to feel exasperated, or defeated, or despondent because your days aren’t packed with wise and moral actions. But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human—however imperfectly—and fully embrace the pursuit that you’ve embarked on.
The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.
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.
Keep in mind how fast things pass by and are gone—those that are now, and those to come. Existence flows past us like a river: the “what” is in constant flux, the “why” has a thousand variations. Nothing is stable, not even what’s right here. The infinity of past and future gapes before us—a chasm whose depths we cannot see.
Remember: Matter. How tiny your share of it. Time. How brief and fleeting your allotment of it. Fate. How small a role you play in it.
Don’t be irritated at people’s smell or bad breath. What’s the point? With that mouth, with those armpits, they’re going to produce that odor. But they have a brain! Can’t they figure it out? Can’t they recognize the problem? So you have a brain as well. Good for you. Then use your logic to awaken his. Show him. Make him realize it. If he’ll listen, then you’ll have solved the problem. Without anger.
The best revenge 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 its own experience.
Like seeing roasted meat and other dishes in front of you and suddenly realizing: This is a dead fish. A dead bird. A dead pig. Or that this noble vintage is grape juice, and the purple robes are sheep wool dyed with shellfish blood. Or making love—something rubbing against your penis, a brief seizure and a little cloudy liquid.
Whereas to respect your own mind—to prize it—will leave you satisfied with your own self, well integrated into your community and in tune with the gods as well—embracing what they allot you, and what they ordain.
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.
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.
When you need encouragement, think of the qualities the people around you have: this one’s energy, that one’s modesty, another’s generosity, and so on. Nothing is as encouraging as when virtues are visibly embodied in the people around us, when we’re practically showered with them. It’s good to keep this in mind.
Practice really hearing what people say.
Frightened of change? But what can exist without it? What’s closer to nature’s heart? Can you take a hot bath and leave the firewood as it was? Eat food without transforming it? Can any vital process take place without something being changed? Can’t you see? It’s just the same with you—and just as 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.
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.
Then do it, without hesitation, and speak the truth as you see it. But with kindness. With humility. Without hypocrisy.
Remember that to change your mind and to accept correction are free acts too. The action is yours, based on your own will, your own decision—and your own mind.
People find pleasure in different ways. I find it in keeping my mind clear. In not turning away from people or the things that happen to them.
Give yourself a gift: the present moment.
Nothing but what you get from first impressions.
Don’t extrapolate. And nothing can happen to you. Or extrapolate. From a knowledge of all that can happen in the world.
A man standing by a spring of clear, sweet water and cursing it. While the fresh water keeps on bubbling up. He can shovel mud into it, or dung, and the stream will carry it away, wash itself clean, remain unstained. To have that. Not a cistern but a perpetual spring. How? By working to win your freedom. Hour by hour. Through patience, honesty, humility.
What doesn’t transmit light creates its own darkness.
To do harm is to do yourself harm.
And you can also commit injustice by doing nothing.
Today I escaped from anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions—not outside.
To stop talking about what the good man is like, and just be one.
Learn to ask of all actions, “Why are they doing that?” Starting with your own.
A branch cut away from the branch beside it is simultaneously cut away from the whole tree. So too a human being separated from another is cut loose from the whole community. The branch is cut off by someone else. But people cut themselves off—through hatred, through rejection—and don’t realize that they’re cutting themselves off from the whole civic enterprise. Except that we also have a gift, given us by Zeus, who founded this community of ours. We can reattach ourselves and become once more components of the whole. But if the rupture is too often repeated, it makes the severed part hard to reconnect, and to restore. You can see the difference between the branch that’s been there since the beginning, remaining on the tree and growing with it, and the one that’s been cut off and grafted back. “One trunk, two minds.” As the gardeners put it.
To live a good life: We have the potential for it. If we can 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 that none of them can dictate how we perceive it. They don’t impose themselves on us. They hover before us, unmoving. It is we who generate the judgments—inscribing them on ourselves. And we don’t have to. We could leave the page blank—
This advice from Epicurean writings: to think continually of one of the men of old who lived a virtuous life.
It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.
Practice even what seems impossible.
To see things as they are. Substance, cause and purpose.
Everything’s destiny is to change, to be transformed, to perish. So that new things can be born.