Marcus Aurelius was the emperor of Rome during the 2nd century, and while he was leader he wrote down his thoughts in what would later be published as the stoic philosophy guide book, Meditations. A reoccurring thought for Aurelius and something he focused on from multiple perspectives, is the way in which we think about ourselves, those around us, and how we relate to others. For Aurelius, comparing ourselves and our fortunes to that of others and those around us was one of the most dangerous things we could do. In Meditations he wrote down multiple notes reminding himself that he should focus inward and practice self-awareness as opposed to looking outward at others. His point is well explained by the following quote, “Do not waste the remainder of thy life in thoughts about others, when though dost not refer thy thoughts to some object of common utility.”
What he is explaining in this quote is the importance of focusing your thoughts toward useful and meaningful objects or goals. When we look at other people and spend our time wondering what they are thinking, feeling, or trying to accomplish, we are losing an opportunity to do something meaningful and powerful with our own thoughts. Rather than finding a useful outlet for our focus, we are dialing in on forces we cannot control and cannot ever know. Thoughts about others should be centered around ways in which you can interact with them to reach toward a common goal, to improve society, or to do something that benefits the other.
To build Aurelius’ advice into our lives today, a practice of self-awareness is necessary. For me, I try to focus inward and understand my thoughts while I am exercising or writing. A reflective focus during these times helps me build a habit of being more present in my thoughts throughout the day so that I can better recognize when my thoughts are drifting into negative or wasteful areas. It is a constant practice, and I need to be continually reminded to refocus my thoughts and outlook. I believe that Aurelius would have felt the same way in his life, after all, he felt the need to write these ideas down time and time again in his common place book. Once we begin to better recognize our thoughts and feelings we can pause throughout our day to ask ourselves why we are thinking a certain way about those around us. We can begin to change those thoughts and to adjust during times when we sense our focus drifting toward gossip.