Marcus Aurelius: Mindfulness

Mindfulness is another overlap between Stoicism and Buddhism.

A Joshua tree in western Arizona

From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

External things aren’t the problem

Don’t be driven this way and that, but always to behave with justice and see things as they are (4.22).

The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts (5.16).

The mind is roused and directed by itself. It makes of itself what it chooses (6.8). The mind has no needs except for those it creates. It is undisturbed, except for its own disturbances. It knows no obstructions, except those from within (7.16). The mind without passions is a fortress. No place is more secure. Once we take refuge there we are safe forever (8.48).

It’s not external things that trouble you but your judgement of them – and this you can erase immediately (8.47). Blot out your imagination. Turn your desire to stone. Quench your appetites. Keep your mind centered on itself (9.7).

Focus

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. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. You can if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable. You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life? If you can manage this, that’s all even the gods can ask of you (2.5).

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, understanding where our duty 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 (3.1).

Stick to what’s in front of you — idea, action, utterance (8.22). Focus on what is said when you speak, and the results from each action. Know what the one aims at, and what the other means (7.4).

You need to avoid certain things in your train of thought: everything random, everything irrelevant. And certainly everything self-important or malicious. You need to get used to winnowing your thoughts, so that if someone says, “What are you thinking about?” you can respond at once (and truthfully) that you are thinking this or thinking that. And it would be obvious at once from your answer that your thoughts were straightforward and considerate ones — the thoughts of an unselfish person, one unconcerned with pleasure and with sensual indulgence generally, with squabbling, with slander and envy, or anything else you’d be ashamed to be caught thinking (3.4).

Avoid misperceptions

Discard your misperceptions. Stop being jerked like a puppet. Limit yourself to the present. Understand what happens — to you, to others. Analyze what exists, break it all down material and cause. Anticipate your final hours. Other people’s mistakes? Leave them to their makers (7.29).

A healthy pair of eyes should see everything and not say, “No! Too bright!” A healthy sense of hearing or smell should be prepared for any sound or scent. So too a healthy mind should be prepared for anything. Worries such as, “Are my children all right?” or “Everyone must approve of me” are like eyes that can only stand pale colors, or teeth that can handle only mush (10.35).

Four habits of thought to watch for, and erase from your mind when you catch them: Thoughts that are unnecessary, destructive to those around you, saying something you don’t really believe, and allowing self-indulgence to override the more divine part of you (11.19).

If you set yourself to the present task in a principled way, with diligence, energy and patience; if you keep yourself free from distractions, and keep the spirit inside you standing strong (as if you might have to give it back at any moment); if you can embrace this without fear or expectation — content with each action as nature intended, with heroic truthfulness in all you say and mean — then you will lead a good life. No one can prevent that (3.12).

Keep calm and carry on

If someone asked you how to write your name, would you clench your teeth and spit out the letters one by one? Or would you just spell out the individual letters? Remember that 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 (6.26).

Things that happen to the body are meaningless. It cannot discriminate among them. Nothing has meaning to my mind except its own actions, which are within its own control. And it’s only the immediate ones that matter. Its past and future actions too are meaningless (6.32).

Don’t worry about what other people think

Don’t pay attention to other people’s minds. Look straight ahead, where nature is leading you (7.55). No one ever came to grief from ignoring what goes on in other people’s souls. But you’ll be unhappy if you don’t keep track of your own soul’s doing (2.8).

Don’t waste the rest of your time here worrying about other people — unless it affects the common good. It will keep you from doing anything useful. You’ll be too preoccupied with what so-and-so is doing, and why, what they’re saying, what they’re thinking, what they’re up to, and all the other things that throw you off and keep you from focusing on your own mind (3.4).

Nothing is more pathetic than people who run around in circles, “delving into the things that lie beneath,” and conducting investigations into the minds of other people, never realizing that all you have to do is to be attentive to the power inside you and give it true service. This keeps it from being muddied with passion, triviality, or being discontented with nature (2.13).

If you can cut your mind free of what other people do and say, of what you’ve said or done, of the things that you’re afraid will happen, the impositions of the body that contains you and the breath within, and what the whirling chaos sweeps in from outside, so that the mind is freed from fate, brought to clarity, and lives life on its own recognizance — doing what’s right, accepting what happens, and speaking the truth. If you can cut free of impressions that cling to the mind, free of the future and the past — then you can spend the time you have left in tranquillity and kindness, at peace with the spirit within you (12.3).

They kill you, cut you with knives, shower you with curses. But how is that relevant to self-control — keeping your mind clear, sane, and just? It’s like 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 or dung into it, but the stream will carry it away, wash itself clean, and remain unstained. How can you secure not a cistern but a perpetual spring? By keeping yourself intent on freedom at all times, and staying kind, simple, and decent (8.51).

Self-control

Resist your body’s urges. Things driven by reason and thought have the capacity for detachment — to resist impulses and sensations, both of which are merely corporeal. Thought seeks to be their master, not their subject. Avoid rashness and credulity. (7.55).

No carelessness in your actions. No confusion in your words. No imprecision in your thoughts. Don’t let your mind settle into depression or elation. Allow some leisure in your life (8.51).

Do external things distract you? Then make time to learn something worthwhile. Stop letting yourself be pulled in all directions. But make sure you guard against the other kind of confusion. People who labor all their lives but have no purpose to direct their thoughts and impulses are wasting their time, even when hard at work (2.7).

An undisciplined mind is degrading

The human soul degrades itself when it becomes an abscess, a kind of detached growth on the world:

  • To be disgruntled at anything that happens is a revolt against nature (the nature of all things).
  • When it turns its back on another person or sets out to do it harm, as the souls of the angry do.
  • When it is overpowered by pleasure or pain.
  • When it puts on a mask and does or says something artificial or false.
  • When it allows its action and impulse to be without purpose, to be random and disconnected. Even the smallest things ought to be directed toward a goal. But the goal of rational beings is to follow the rule and law of the most ancient of communities and states (2.16).

How to act: Never under compulsion, out of selfishness, without forethought, or with misgivings. Don’t dress up your thoughts — no surplus words or unnecessary actions. Let the spirit in you represent a man, an adult, a citizen, a Roman, a ruler. Taking up his post like a soldier patiently awaiting his recall from life, needing no oath or witness. Keep a cheerful demeanor without requiring other people’s help for serenity. Stand up straight — not held straightened (3.5).

Let philosophy guide you

People try to get away from it all — to the country, to the beach, to the mountains. Which is unphilosophic: you can get away from it anytime you like by going within. Nowhere you can go is more peaceful — more free of interruptions — than your mind (4.3).

Human life:
Duration: momentary.
Nature: changeable.
Perception: dim.
Condition of Body: decaying.
Soul: spinning around.
Fortune: unpredictable.
Lasting Fame: uncertain.
Summary: The body and its parts are a river, the soul a dream and mist, life is warfare and a journey far from home, lasting reputation is oblivion (2.17).

Then what can guide us? Only philosophy. Which means making sure that the power within stays safe and free from assault, superior to pleasure and pain, doing nothing randomly or dishonestly; and with integrity, not dependent on anyone else’s doing something or not doing it. And making sure to accept what happens and what is dealt as coming from the same place it came from. And above all, that it accepts 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 then why are people afraid of all of them changing and separating? It’s a natural thing. And nothing natural is evil (2.17, see also 4.2 & 12.20).

___________________

Summary

Metaphysics

Nature & the universe

The gods

The soul

Justice & Providence

Impermanence

Death

Reason & Virtue

Reason & the mind

Mindfulness

Virtue, good, & evil

Psychology

Pleasure & pain

Praise & criticism

Anger & fear

Kindness

___________________

I’ve shortened and arranged the quotations for readability. Quotations are from Gregory Hays translation published by Modern Library, a translation by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor and published by the Liberty Fund, Inc, and the Penguin Classics translated by Martin Hammond.

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Author: Dave DuBay

Dave is a social worker from Phoenix, Arizona. He blogs at thepaintedporch.net. He's also at twitter.com/Dave_DuBay.

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