Marcus Aurelius believed in the power of the mind and our ability to control our thoughts to overcome our challenges and find peace with ourselves and the situations we find ourselves in. In his book Meditations he wrote down his personal thoughts and struggles so that he could return to what he had learned from philosophers and life experience. He kept the book as a journal that he could use to help himself learn and grow through difficult situations, and one topic he returns to throughout Meditations is the idea of being present in the current moment. Aurelius wrote,
“Do not disturb thyself by thinking of the whole of thy life. Let not thy thoughts at once embrace all the various troubles which thou mayest expect to befall thee: but on every occasion ask thyself, What is there in this which is intolerable and past bearing? for thou wilt be ashamed to confess. In the next place remember that neither the future nor the past pains thee, but only the present. But this is reduced to a very little, if thou only circumscribest it, and chidest thy mind, if it is unable to hold out against even this.”
His paragraph speaks about recognizing our present moment and taking our mind off events in the past that we cannot change and away from the possibilities of the future that we cannot predict. He also recognizes that our present moment is the only moment that can truly impact where our life is heading, and reminds the reader to look at the present moment with all the clarity possible. Seeing each moment as it exists right now helps us change the way we think and ultimately change our perception of the present moment.
Living in the present is a challenge because we are constantly pulled toward the history of our past while simultaneously pushed toward a future that we cannot see. We bring the lessons, pains, emotions, and fears of our past with us as we move toward a future that we desire and wish to be better than our current circumstance. All of this, Aurelius would argue, ultimately fails us on our quest to become the best version of ourselves possible. Worrying about what has befallen us allows our past to impact our future, and stressing the future takes us away from the present, preventing us from being able to maximize our current actions. For Aurelius, in stoic fashion, there is only the present, and it is up to us to recognize the present and take all the necessary steps to create the perfect present for ourselves regardless of our history or future plans.
What the Roman emperor also builds into his thoughts about the present moment is our ability to choose how we wish to experience the present. We can decide that the present action, fortune, or obstacle in front of us is insurmountable or an aid for us on our journey. If we approach life shying away from our challenges and looking only for what is comfortable, then we will never achieve our fullest potential. What Aurelius in his quote above urges us to do is forget our past and future and focus on our ability to be great in this current moment. It is only our opinion which determines whether anything is good for us or negative, and it is in our power of mind to decide how we will react to challenges and behave when faced with arduous tasks. Ultimately, we create the reality of our present moment.