Meditations – Marcus Aurelius

“Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius is a very short book filled with short passages and apothegms. It was never meant to be published, but fortunately it did, because how else can we learn the wisdom of a Roman emperor and a master of Stoicism? Although I could have finished reading it in one afternoon, I read it over 2 months, only a few pages a day, to let the content fully sink in. I can feel transformations in how I think and how I look at the world already, and I want to share some of them with you.

One of the most frequent recurring themes of the book is about ‘willing acceptance’. it emphasize the importance to accept whatever happens to you, without feeling angry or disturbed, or needing to complain about it. One very iconic example: “Whatever happens to you has been waiting to happen since the beginning of time.” Since events happen because Nature intends them to, and that Nature adheres to logos, then there’s no need to escape or complain, “Nothing that can happen is unusual or unnatural. And there’s non sense in complaining.” This is particularly good advice, because after reading these passages, I started to notice how much people around me, including myself sometimes, complain about things. This behavior of spreading out negative energy is not good at all for our relationships with people around us. If we choose to accept the fact that unpleasant things can happen, and also know that “nothing happens to anyone that he can’t endure“, we will be more serene and happy in general. to further calm us, Marcus also said: “Don’t be anxious. Nature controls it all.”

Along the similar train of thought, Marcus also provide us with a good mindset when difficult time comes. “You can endure anything your mind can make endurable, by treating it as in your interest to do so.” So even if you feel like something happening to you is truly horrible, you still have the control to convince yourself that it doesn’t have to be bad. Another way to look at it, to embrace and welcome hardship is to think like this: “it’s fortunate that the thing happened, and I’ve remained unharmed by it. the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune.” This is very true, because nothing great can be achieved very easily. So I think dealing with obstacles is a great way to harness skills that sets you apart from the rest, and thus enabling you to do the extraordinary.

Another kind of acceptance that Marcus iterated many times is the acceptance of death. People have been fearing death since the beginning of time, yet everyone eventually dies. Marcus first teaches us the beauty of aging: “the shadow of decay gives them a peculiar beauty.” Our society is one that fears aging and death, and that is straight up irrational. “Don’t look down on death, but welcome it. It too is one of the things required by Nature. Like youth and old age. Like growth and maturity.” Death is a natural process and it is one component of the cycle of life. If we cannot escape it we might as well accept it, and better yet, welcome it. “To decompose is to be recomposed.” Everything is cyclical in Nature.

When why are we so scared of death? There are many reasons, and Marcus pointed out one that I have never considered before: “the chance to live with those who share our vision.” this is very profound. In the age of the internet, everyone is connected to everyone else, and we have hundreds of friends on Facebook. But really how many of them share our vision? This is the primary reason why I have so few friends in real life, I seek out people who share the same core values as I do, and remove myself away from most others. “What links one human being to all humans: not blood, or birth, but mind.” We cannot choose our family. But to live a fulfilled life, we should surround ourselves with friends and a spouse who share the same vision as we do, and help and support one another to achieve the best versions of ourselves.

However, we cannot complete remove ourselves from the rest of the society. The reality is that at work, or even some of our family members may have value systems that do not align with ours. Marcus also gave us good advice on how to deal with them: “Your sense of good and evil may differ from others. If they are misguided, they deserve your compassion.” Also, since good and evil are so hard to define, we can never be sure that the good we believe in is the absolute good, so we should never impose our idea onto other people. What we can do is “to live this life out truthfully and rightly. And be patient with those who don’t.” What happens if they hurt us? well, “That’s their problem. Their characters and actions are not mine.” Also, we have the ultimate power to decide what may hurt us: “It doesn’t hurt me unless I interpret it as harmful to me. I can choose not to.” Marcus promotes to “be tolerant with others and strict with yourself” and also teaches us to use kindness when facing the bad: “kindness is invincible“.

Similar to kindness, Marcus also emphasize on the importance of humility: “There’s nothing more insufferable than people who boast about their own humility.” He believes that humans are made to help each other, so he said: “help each other and don’t make a fuss about it.” What’s the point of advertising it when you are doing what you are born to do? Isn’t that what every humans have been doing since the beginning of time? When we are helping others, we should also not display any sign of superiority: “To display expertise without pretension.” I have met so many brilliant people, who are so successful and at the top of their fields, but when I ask them questions they became impatient and responded in a way as if they are superior to me. I hope I won’t be like that someday.

There are many other themes that I could write about, for example, spirituality. But I will stop here, and end with two of my favorite quotes from the book: “Not to assume it’s impossible because you find it hard. But to recognize that if it’s humanly possible, you can do it too.” This makes me feel like a superwoman and ready to take on any difficult tasks. Another one, very insightful and particularly interesting to those of us in the field of optics: “What doesn’t transmit light create its own darkness.”


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