Learn Self-Help From a 2nd-Century Roman Emperor

One of my favorite and most personally influential philosophers — who I’ve written about before — has just become the subject of an article at HuffPo, where his timeless wisdom is being shared for its relevance two thousand years later.

In 167 AD, [Marcus] Aurelius wrote The Meditations, a 12-book compendium of personal writings, originally written in Greek, that reflect his extensive study of Stoic philosophy. Aurelius is now regarded as one of the most famous proponents and philosophers of Stoicism, an ancient Greek and Roman school of thought originating in the Hellenic period concerned with how to cultivate a mindset to deal effectively with any events or emotions.

Meditations is based around a single, simple precept: “You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

The last of the Five Good Emperors, Aurelius ruled over Rome for 20 years until the time of his death in 180 AD. He is widely regarded as one of the most respected emperors in Roman history.

“Marcus Aurelius was a true paradox — an emperor with almost unlimited power to control his world and circumstances, who nevertheless had a deep understanding that happiness and peace do not lie in the outside world,” Arianna Huffington writes in her forthcoming book, Thrive: The Third Metric To Redefining Success And Creating A Life Of Well-Being, Wisdom And Wonder.

Meditations is “undoubtedly one of history’s most effective formulas for overcoming every negative situation we may encounter in life,” Ryan Holiday writes in The Obstacle Is The Way.

If you haven’t read The Meditations, which I strongly recommend, the article shares five key tidbits to keep in mind:

1. Your own happiness is up to you.

Life’s happiness, Aurelius said, “depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”

The crux of his philosophy is the notion that while we cannot control what happens to us, we can control our reactions to the events of our lives — and this gives us immense strength and freedom.

It’s easier said than done, yes, but Aurelius’s own life is proof positive of this maxim. The emperor faced great struggles throughout his life, and his reign was marred b ynear-constant warfare and disease. His brother and parents also died at a young age.

Aurelius learned how to live within his soul — or “inner citadel,” as he put it — a place of peace and equanimity. Living from this space, he believed, gave him the freedom to shape his own life by controlling his thoughts.

2. Life may not give you what you want, but it will give you what you need.

Aurelius accepted that trials and challenges were an unavoidable part of life, but his belief that life and the universe were fundamentally good helped him to accept the tough stuff. The argument goes like this: Because life as a whole is as good as it can be, the parts of life are as good as they can be, so we should love, or at least accept, every part of life.

But Aurelius took it even one step further, arguing that obstacles are actually our greatest opportunities for growth and advancement. They force us to re-examine our path, find a new way, and ultimately empower ourselves by practicing virtues like patience, generosity and courage.

“The impediment to action advances action,” he wrote. “What stands in the way becomes the way.”

3. There is good in everyone.

Aurelius isn’t expressing blind optimism when he advises his readers to find common ground with others and seek the good in every person they encounter. In politics and life, Aurelius had experienced how people could be selfish and hurtful to others — he lived through wars and uprisings — and yet, he chose not to let the actions of others get to him. Instead, he always remembered that there is some of the “divine” in each of 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. 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. And so none of them can hurt me.

 Aurelius believed that all men are made to cooperate with one another, like the “rows of the upper and lower teeth.”

4. True peace comes from within.

Many of us live frantic, high-octane lives — and we may fantasize about getting away from it all by going on a meditation retreat or taking time off from work to travel. But, as Aurelius strongly believed, you don’t need to escape your environment to find a sense of calm. We can access serenity any time in our own minds.

“People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills,” Aurelius wrote. “There is nowhere that a man can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind … So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.”

Taking a “mental retreat” through a meditation practice — or simply by bringing more mindfulness into your day — has been linked to mental health benefits. Meditation has been shown to improve memory and attentionlower stress levels, enhance emotional well-being and sleep quality and boost creativity and productivity.

5. Treat life as an “old and faithful friend”. 

Perhaps the most memorable passage of Meditations encourages us to view life as being, in the words of the poet Rumi, “rigged in [our] favor.” It’s a powerful way of reframing any obstacle we encounter. Aurelius wrote:

True understanding is to see the events of life in this way: ‘You are here for my benefit, though rumor paints you otherwise.’ And everything is turned to one’s advantage when he greets a situation like this: You are the very thing I was looking for. Truly whatever arises in life is the right material to bring about your growth and the growth of those around you. This, in a word, is art — and this art called ‘life’ is a practice suitable to both men and gods. Everything contains some special purpose and a hidden blessing; what then could be strange or arduous when all of life is here to greet you like an old and faithful friend?

As you can see, these prescriptions remain as applicable and necessary now as they were in Aurelius’ time, which says a lot about the human condition and our inherent struggle to improve it. As many of you may have noticed, there are many similarities between the philosophy of the Stoics and those of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and other Eastern faiths (for that matter, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam each have schools of thought that overlap with Stoicism, especially with regards to mindfulness).

I think that the universal nature of these ideas further underlines their accuracy and importance to everyone; in any case, many of you may find such approaches to be intuitive or even already present in your lives without realizing it. Regardless, they’re vital, and while there’s obviously more to improving ourselves — as individuals and as a species — than just practicing meditation or creating an inner citadel of the soul, it’s a great and valuable step that should nonetheless be studied and implemented.

As always, share your own thoughts and opinions.

2 comments on “Learn Self-Help From a 2nd-Century Roman Emperor

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