Stoic Self-Awareness

The last couple of years for me have been a journey to better understand my thoughts, motivations, desires, beliefs, and assumptions. I began working on self-awareness after I realized that I did not fully understand the world and what was happening around me. Podcasts helped open my eyes and helped me see that there were many things that I did not fully understand and viewed from only one perspective. From that realization I began to see the importance of self-awareness.  I have continued to make self-awareness a major focus in my life, and Marcus Aurelius echoes my thoughts and feelings of reflection in his writings Meditations.

 

“Those who do not observe the movements of their own minds must of necessity be unhappy,” Marcus Aurelius wrote in regards to self-awareness.  By not focusing on ourselves and by not looking inwards, we are allowing ourselves to move through life without guidance and direction.  The way we think about the world and our position in the world is something we can change and control, but it is also something that can move and fluctuate on its own if we  are not careful. Aurelius is encouraging us to master our thoughts and explore those parts of us which make us who we are.

 

A powerful metaphor that I came across to better explain the importance of self-awareness and reflection came from a young author named Paul Jun. In his book Connect the Dots, Jun described the following metaphor. Think of self-awareness and focus like a flashlight in a dark room.  Your flashlight can illuminate a certain space, and the more narrow the focus of your flashlight the clearer the item you shine it at becomes.  But while you are focused in one area, everything else is obscured. When you begin to take a step back and shine that flashlight at a greater area you will see things that were hidden before.

 

For me, this idea of self-awareness and shining a flashlight of focus on areas that had been dark to my conscious helped me better understand many of the expectations and pressures that I lived with. I thought deeply about what my ideas were regarding success, and where those ideas came from.  I thought about what I expected myself to do as part of the identity I had developed for myself, and I thought about why I had those expectations.  Through a journey of self-awareness I was better able to understand my own morals, values, and principles which gave me the ability to see what things fit in with who I wanted to be and act accordingly.
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Marcus Aurelius on Being Present

The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius kept a common place book during his time as ruler between 160 and 180 AD. In his common place book he recorded his thoughts and ideas about life, compiling a wealth of stoic knowledge.  Aurelius commonly focused on the way we reacted to external events, and how our perceptions shape our lives as we moved through our days.  For him, being in the moment and present was a key part of his philosophy, and his thoughts of presence combined with his ideas about maintaining a level emotional state.

 

“Do the things external which fall upon thee distract thee?” Aurelius wrote, “Give thyself time to learn something new and good, and cease to be whirled around.  But then thou must also avoid being carried about the other way.  For those too are triflers who have wearied themselves in life by their activity, and yet have no object to which to direct every movement, and, in a word, all their thoughts.”

 

In this passage Aurelius is writing about the importance of staying present and grounded when external events seem to be shaping our world or pushing us in wild directions.  When things in life seem to be outside of your control, Aurelius is urging us to hold strong and to be focused on our goals.  He also speaks about the importance of focusing on growth and learning, and how a positive focus for the future can help up survive the turbulent nature of our daily lives.  The external things which distract us can be taken away if we build a practice of mindfulness and presence. Giving ourselves time to learn something new and good can be accomplished if we are determined to grow and have a goal of better understanding ourselves,  an aspect of our society, or if we are focused on becoming something better.

 

He does caution us as we move toward our goals not to become isolated in our focus. He writes that focus is a bad thing when we are purely driving toward one goal at the expense of our presence and our interactions with the world around us.  Our mental fortitude should not be shaken every time the world around us becomes turbulent, but we must be aware enough to recognize those moments which are truly deserving of our focus and attention.

Building Steady Thought

Marcus Aurelius focused on mindfulness in every action and every decision that he made as Emperor of Rome, and his writings in Meditations reflect his approach toward mindfulness.  He stresses the importance of doing every action with meaningful intent so that no time is wasted, and so that no effort is half-hearted.  By becoming more focused and making sure that every action is undertaken with focus and intent we are able to build more awareness into our lives, and we can focus on not just what we do, but how we think about what we do throughout the day. Aurelius writes (emphasis mine),

 

“Every moment think steadily as a Roman and a man to do what though hast in hand with perfect and simple dignity, and feeling of affection, and freedom, and justice; and to give thyself relief from all other thoughts.  And thou wilt give thyself relief, if thou doest every act of thy life as if it were the last, laying aside all carelessness and passionate aversion from the commands of reason, and all hypocrisy, and self-love, and discontent with the portion which has been given to thee.”

 

What he is explaining is that a greater state of mindfulness can guide a person to be more diligent and effective in the work they do, in the efforts they make outside of work, and in the activities in which they participate throughout their life.  In his passage he is advocating for an abandonment of desires and passions which distract people from living peacefully with the things they have.  He is not telling us to abandon our comforts or live with injustice, but he is urging us to channel our feelings into meaningful actions to move forward.  By failing to control our passions we spin about and are pulled in multiple directions with our time and effort.

 

Aurelius at the end of his quote says that we cannot be discontented with our difficult lives, nor compare our lives to those who seem to have more than us.  When we do, we fail to channel our energies in the right direction, and instead sit without direction as we complain about the poor hand that life has dealt us.  His advice is that we take an honest look at our life and find ways to move forward by accepting the challenges ahead of us, and using reason to open a new path.  Mindfulness will guide us on this journey by helping us recognize the advantages and disadvantages that we have, and by giving us the ability to persevere without complaint.

Cooperating With Others

Marcus Aurelius wrote about the importance of accepting others and working with others in his collection of thoughts, Meditations. In his writing he addresses the importance of accepting the shortcomings of others and being willing to cooperate with them in part of a functioning society. No matter how much we strive to be great, we will always be around those who do not share the same goals as us, and do not try to live up to the same principles that we do.  Aurelius writes that we should understand this and be willing to meet with them and work with them even though it can be a challenge for us. He writes,

 

“Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil…I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.  For we are made for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth.  To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting agains one another to be vexed and to turn away.”

 

In this passage Aurelius is accepting that people will approach and see the world differently than he does, and he attributes their shortcomings to their ignorance.  It is important that we read this and do not think that we can place ourselves above others by criticizing them for being ignorant.  Aurelius would argue that we must treat them with the same respect with which we treat ourselves, because we are oftentimes guilty of the same type of ignorance and misunderstanding in our own life. I think it is also important to say that we should not go about life trying to educate others and show them of their ignorance. The best way to combat the misunderstandings of others is to build relationships with them, gain their trust, and engage with them to better understand their points of view while sharing your understanding of the world.

 

Aurelius is arguing that we must accept others because we need to cooperate with them in all that we do in society.  We cannot hate others or try to avoid interactions with them as our society depends on our participation as a unit.  We must find a way to mesh with others and adept to those who are ignorant of their actions and behaviors. If we do not, then we shut out those with whom we happen to be working with.  By overcoming the pitfalls of our own personalities and the behaviors and actions of others, we can better align to improve the lives of all in society.

I had originally written this post prior to reading Corey Booker’s book United in which he retells his life story and explains his perspectives of the world. Booker’s thoughts go hand in hand with Aurelius’ quote above. He sees us as a united people despite how different we may look and behave, and despite how different our country has treated people throughout our history.  As a senator from New Jersey, Booker is striving to better our country from a platform of togetherness in which we must find ways to cherish the power of our connectedness and lift each other up. In Booker’s mindset, despite our differences in thought, appearance, culture, and beliefs, we all share our common humanity, and when we work to improve the experiences and lives of one, we improve the universe for all.

Reputation

In his collection of thoughts, Meditations, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote about the lessons he learned from those around him when he was growing up and maturing into an emperor who would be known for his wiseness.  In his writing he dedicates a long section to the lessons he learned from his father. One of his lessons deals with reputation and how we see our reputation. Aurelius writes, “He was a man who looked to what ought to be done, not to the reputation which is got by a man’s act.” I highlighted this section because I think that it is an idea and perspective that I want to cultivate, but that I find difficult to live out.

 

The lesson that Aurelius learned from his father and focused on as he wrote this section is to think of others and to think of society before thinking of oneself.  To truly commit to the causes at hand requires a certain selflessness that cannot be fostered if your main focus is on what you will receive by taking part in acts that are beneficial to the whole.  It is not a bad thing to recognize that benevolent actions and social engagement will have positive outcomes for you as an individual, but it is a bad thing to participate in outreach programs if you are only doing so to enhance your own reputation.

 

As a whole, our society in the United States recognizes that it is not always a bad thing to volunteer time, effort, or money toward positive causes with a thought of a reward at the end. We offer tax write-offs, provide t-shirts and donuts, and dedicate space to the names of volunteers on plaques or buildings as a way to encourage and recognize those who do good in our society.  Benefitting from the good you do for others is not a bad thing, and offering small rewards may help others move in a direction where they become more generous with their time and money and are more willing to help others.

 

The real challenge is finding a way to do good acts without expecting some sort of reward or recognition.  The more we can focus on doing good because we feel that it is our social responsibility or because we understand that it gives our lives internal meaning, the more we can engage in social causes and become fully committed to our actions. Participating to be noticed and recognized means that our full energy and effort is not being brought to the table, and as a result we are not doing the most good we can do.

Tolerate Ignorance

In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes about how we should think about those around us to become more benevolent in our thoughts and actions. Specifically, while writing about the way we think of and speak of others who are not as educated as us, he introduces an idea of compassion that is not seen very often in our society today.  When we think about those around us we often paint a negative image of those who have different points of view or seem to have very limited knowledge regarding a particular subject.  We enjoy laughing at others and we enjoy putting them down (usually not to their face). Aurelius writes that he learned a key skill from Sextus, “to tolerate ignorant persons, and those who form opinions without consideration.”  This skill that Aurelius learned translated into the way he thought about others and the jumbled beliefs that arise from a lack of true study of any given subject.

 

Aurelius truly believed that everyone was acting in a way that made the most sense to them. He saw everyone as doing the best that they could to disentangle the world and understand it better, even if that meant that they were relying on faulty reasoning or were guided by misinformation.  His argument is that we should not shame others for holding beliefs that we do not agree with or that we see as counterfactual.  By tolerating ignorance we avoid falling into rage and anger and we do not elevate ourselves beyond others.  When we understand that others are trying to focus their lives in a way that seems the most logical to them, then we understand why they may be ignorant in the ways that they are. Building this perspective also helps us to see that we are not any better than others and that we have our own fields where we are misinformed and ignorant of the true functioning of the world.

 

In our world today we share videos making fun of people that are uneducated, misinformed, or are acting in ways that seem primitive to us.  When we do this we are subconsciously grouping ourselves and reverting back to a tribal mentality. We belong to a camp of more sophisticated people, while the people who we find ignorant belong to a camp of primitive savages. We may get a laugh, but we are not recognizing the value of others while we are asserting our own superiority.  Often times we attack the individuals we laugh at for being misinformed or ignorant rather than asking ourselves how they came to hold the beliefs that they have cultivated.  When we can shift our focus through a practice of tolerance and understanding, we can create safer institutions for sharing positive information, build better connections between ourselves and the portions of society we do not agree with, and help everyone progress in a more meaningful manner.

The Reflections of a Stoic

Meditations is a work by Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD. It is a collection of letters written by Aurelius in his common place book, a journal where he wrote his important thoughts and reflections so that he could return to them and always be cognizant of the lessons life had provided him.

 

Aurelius’ Meditations begins with the emperor reflecting on his childhood, his family, and his upbringing.  He lists lessons that he learned from those around him during his development, and what those lessons meant to him at the time he was writing.  As I return to Aurelius’ thoughts, I am struck by how well his work parallels ideas from Fred Kiel’s book Return on Character. I recently wrote about a study that Kiel completed as part of the research for his business book written over 1,800 years after Aurelius’ meditations, and I am struck by the overlap of the ideas.  Kiel argues that our most successful and responsible business leaders, those who provide the greatest value for those in their lives and the companies they run, are those who have a whole and complete understanding of themselves and the experiences that shaped their lives.  He argues that to be a truly moral and responsible individual you must be able to reflect on the influences that shaped your life, and understand how those influences shaped who you are today.  By understanding and having a complete life story you can better connect with people and be better prepared to lead through having a greater understanding of humanity and your place within society.

 

What Kiel wrote in his book in 2015, Aurelius clearly understood in the 2nd second century.  He explains how he developed the thoughts and ideas that shaped him, and he explains exactly where his character traits and habits come from.

 

The Emperor begins Meditations by writing, “From my grandfather Verus [I learned] good morals and the government of my temper” and he continues, “From my mother, piety and beneficence, and abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich.” Aurelius extends beyond family to show what lessons he learned from people in the society in which he lived, “From my governor…I learned endurance of labor, and to want little, and to work with my own hands…” “From Rusticus I received the impression that my character required improvement and discipline … nor to showing myself off as a man who practices much discipline, or does benevolent acts in order to make a display.”

 

The quotes above are key tenants of stoicism, and they struck me as very powerful when I first read Meditations. Aurelius explains what forces in his life shaped his thoughts and beliefs, and he continues  throughout his work to show how this backing helped him approach the world in a constructive and positive manner as he governed not only the Roman Empire, but his own mind and actions. Incorporating the ideas outlined above in his quotes can be very powerful in the way we approach others and apply ourselves toward the efforts and goals that we all have.  Remembering that character requires discipline and continual improvement helps us stay humbled in our relationships to others, especially if we can practice such discipline without making a great show or display of it.  When we can focus on these key concepts and understand what molded us into the complete individuals that we are today, we will be better prepared to react to a changing world, and we will better understand our role and place within our society.