My Top 5 Takeaways from Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
“Can you recommend a book for…?”
“What are you reading right now?”
“What are your favorite books?”
I get asked those types of questions a lot and, as an avid reader and all-around bibliophile, I’m always happy to oblige.
I also like to encourage people to read as much as possible because knowledge benefits you much like compound interest. The more you learn, the more you know; the more you know, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more opportunities you have to succeed.
On the flip side, I also believe there’s little hope for people who aren’t perpetual learners. Life is overwhelmingly complex and chaotic, and it slowly suffocates and devours the lazy and ignorant.
So, if you’re a bookworm on the lookout for good reads, or if you’d like to get into the habit of reading, this book club for you.
The idea here is simple: Every week, I’ll share a book that I’ve particularly liked, why I liked it, and several of my key takeaways from it.
I’ll also keep things short and sweet so you can quickly decide whether the book is likely to be up your alley or not.
If you’ve already read a book that I recommend or have a recommendation of your own to share, don’t be shy! Drop a comment down below and let me–and the rest of us “book clubbers”–know!
Lastly, if you want to be notified when new recommendations go live, hop on my email list and you’ll get each new installment delivered directly to your inbox.
Okay, let’s get to the featured book: Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.
And I know, this recommendation is pretty “basic” of me as stoicism is all the rage these days, but I’m going to make it anyway because I really do believe everyone can benefit from this book and stoic philosophy.
I feel that’s especially true in today’s zeitgeist, which is moving further and further away from individualism, resilience, and responsibility and toward fear, fragility, and egoism. In fact, many young people in particular are upping the stakes by downright scorning many traditionally admired attitudes and behaviors and blindly celebrating their opposites.
And I fear the consequences of this cultural experiment, which are already unfolding in a number of aways, are going to be severe. In short, I’d bet a lot of shekels that here in the West at least, the scene is going to get a lot worse before it starts getting better.
But hey, hopefully I’m wrong.
Anyway, back to the book—in case you’re not familiar with him, Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor who earned the reputation of “philosopher king” during his lifetime and has since been recognized as one of history’s greatest rulers in both character and deed.
Meditations, originally titled To Myself, contains Aurelius’ reflections on virtue, desire, rationality, emotions, the nature of the gods, and more.
While many of his insights resonated with me, the messages that hit home the most were his views on how to dispassionately and effectively deal with the difficulties of life, the importance of avoiding hate and the intention to harm, and the value of living honestly and with purpose.
A bit of humble self-reflection is good for the soul, and Meditations will take you on a brief, but meaningful (and maybe even cathartic), introspection.
Let’s get to the takeaways.
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My 5 Key Takeaways from Meditations
Choose not to be harmed—and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed—and you haven’t been.
Don’t think you can’t do this. No matter how challenging a situation might be, you can respond to it in one of two ways: you can view it as a challenge or a threat, and that choice can make all the difference in how it affects you.
To quote Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness from their fantastic 2017 book, Peak Performance:
Some individuals learn to assess stressors as challenges rather than threats. This outlook, which researchers call a “challenge response,” is characterized by viewing stress as something productive, and, much like we’ve written, as a stimulus for growth. In the midst of stress, those who demonstrate a challenge response proactively focus on what they can control. With this outlook, negative emotions like fear and anxiety decrease. This response better enables these individuals to manage and even thrive under stress.
One way to do this is choosing to view feelings of anxiety, stress, and fear that accompany uncomfortable situations as natural responses that can be redirected toward positive outcomes.
In fact, you can even view the process of pushing through and reflecting on pain as an opportunity to figure out the lesson or lessons that can be learned. In other words, you can view it as a game of sorts, and the better you get at this game, the more you’ll come to enjoy your struggles and the rewards they provide.
He keeps in mind that all rational things are related, and that to care for all human beings is part of being human. Which doesn’t mean we have to share their opinions. We should listen only to those whose lives conform to nature. And the others? He bears in mind what sort of people they are—both at home and abroad, by night as well as day—and who they spend their time with. And he cares nothing for their praise—men who can’t even meet their own standards.
To attain true happiness and satisfaction in life, I believe it’s necessary to live according to our own observations, ideas, intentions, and inclinations.
In other words, I believe the surest path to a good life is to work to gain as much clarity as we can about who we are, what we perceive and believe, and what we want to do (and why), and then to align everything at our disposal toward goals that reflect our realities.
This is impossible if we can’t escape the desire for praise from others, if we can’t learn to appreciate our own applause above everyone else’s.
To quote Aurelius again:
Then what is to be prized? An audience clapping? No. No more than the clacking of their tongues. Which is all that public praise amounts to—a clacking of tongues. So we throw out other people’s recognition. What’s left for us to prize? I think it’s this: to do (and not do) what we were designed for. That’s the goal of all trades, all arts, and what each of them aims at: that the thing they create should do what it was designed to do. The nurseryman who cares for the vines, the horse trainer, the dog breeder—this is what they aim at.
So that’s what we should prize. Hold on to that, and you won’t be tempted to aim at anything else.
To do harm is to do yourself harm. To do an injustice is to do yourself an injustice—it degrades you.
As John Donne wrote . . .
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
In other words, our wellbeing is inextricably linked with the wellbeing of others, and every time we harm another, we harm ourselves, directly.
Likewise, every time we act wrongly or succumb to an invitation to hate and rage, we weaken ourselves, and every time we show understanding and kindness, we resonate with what Aurelius refers to as the logos, or the divine rationality that pervades and governs the universe.
This is why Aurelius repeatedly exhorts himself to act with kindness, compassion, and tolerance regardless of others’ behavior. That posture, he believed, is invincible, provided it’s sincere.
“Someone despises me,” he wrote. “That’s their problem. Mine: not to do or say anything despicable. Someone hates me. Their problem. Mine: to be patient and cheerful with everyone, including them. Ready to show them their mistake. Not spitefully, or to show off my own self-control, but in an honest, upright way.”
At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work—as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for—the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?”—But it’s nicer here.… So you were born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?
It’s a humbling thought to consider that ants go to work every day for the good of their colonies, so who are we to neglect our duties and demands?
Are we willing to admit that we’re less determined than an ant? That we have less respect for our nature?
As Aurelius said, our worth is measured by what we devote our energy to, and we have to assemble our lives ourselves, action by action.
Thus, every minute of every day is an opportunity to devote ourselves to what’s right, honest, and honorable and to live up our own expectations.
“The Pythagoreans tell us to look at the stars at daybreak,” Aurelius wrote. “To remind ourselves how they complete the tasks assigned them—always the same tasks, the same way. And their order, purity, nakedness. Stars wear no concealment.”
The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.
This line inspired Ryan Holiday’s bestselling book The Obstacle is the Way.
“When you have a goal,” Holiday wrote, “obstacles are actually teaching you how to get where you want to go—carving you a path.”
In other words, the things in our way show us the direction we need to go in and what we need to overcome to win.
Our current society, on the other hand, is becoming obsessed with avoiding and eliminating obstacles instead of learning how to surmount them, and this can only lead to pain, disappointment, and despair.
The sooner we accept the reality that life is an uphill journey that never really gets easier, and that we never really reach a destination, the sooner we can focus on what matters: on doing what’s inside and in front of us with precision, purposiveness, and pride.
Have you read Meditations? What did you think? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
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