Ancient Self Help from “Meditations”

Art work by David Higbee

What can I say about “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius that hasn’t been said a million times already? While I might not say something new or revolutionary about it, I can share how it’s changing my life. I’ll list out what Meditations is, why you might be interested in it, and some passages with why they have stuck with me. In this article, I’ll cover what Marcus Aurelius has to say about self help from ancient times and how it still applies today.

What is Meditations?

For those of you who do not know Meditations or The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, it is the translated personal journal of Emperor Marcus Aurelius of Rome. He lived and ruled over a turbulent period of Roman History filled with wars and plagues. Aurelius was also a Stoic and he practiced the art of journaling, where he collected his thoughts, reflected on teachings, and practiced gratitude. These were his personal thoughts, his journal and he didn’t expect them to be made public. Nonetheless, his journal has been read by world leaders, generals, captains of industry, and regular citizens for over a thousand years.

Since this is his personal thoughts, you see a very honest and straightforward writing. Notes to himself to remember. Reflections on how to deal with people, especially the more surly of them. You see an actual diary of a Stoic who was the most powerful man in the Roman Empire.

Why should I care about his Meditations?

Taking out the fact that it’s one of the most read books by successful people. That it could be seen as the world’s first self-help book or that it is the insights to the last ‘Philosopher King’ of the Roman Empire. It is a foundational book for anyone looking to improve their lives with a practical philosophy for living.

Stoicism is about living a better life here and now.

Before we go any further on the topic, I want to warn you if you are new to Stoicism, that there is a lot of talk about death. Momento Mori is a phrase that Marcus Aurelius wrote which breaks down to: Remember you will die. It’s not meant to be scary or discouraging. Instead it is meant to rally you, to remind you to act because you won’t live forever. To encourage you to doing tasks that won’t improve yourself, your family, your community, and the world. It is about freeing yourself.

Ancient Self Help

Like I mentioned above, Meditations could be viewed as the first best selling self-help book published. Within Marcus Aurelius’ writings he reminds himself about dealing with others, dealing with yourself, and pushing forward. These were reminders to himself, the emperor of Rome. Even he had to remind himself to be mentally strong.

Respecting yourself

“Everyone gets one life. Yours is almost used up, and instead of treating yourself with respect, you have entrusted your own happiness to the souls of others.”

“Meditations” Marcus Aurelius 2.6 page 19

It’s easy to take the praise of others to increase your self-esteem. It’s equally easy to take someone’s complaints or insults to heart and lower your self-esteem. But, your value and self worth are yours, that is why it starts with ‘self’. Much of the teachings from the Stoic masters is around the “self”. How you view the actions of others, what you can control, and how you view the world. When you allow others to dictate your happiness, you will never find true happiness. This is very true in today’s social media, instant gratification society.

It is not always the immediate people around you that you should be concerned about influencing your happiness. Influencers on social media have too much influence into what people think they should have or want or look like. They spend hours to stage photos and videos that last a few seconds. They paint an unreal reality that too many fall for. To quote Admiral Akbar from Star Wars, “It’s a trap!”. One that you can avoid.

Feeling wronged

“Choose not to feel harmed—and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed—and you haven’t been.”

“Meditations” Marcus Aurelius 4.7 page 39

Have you ever witnessed a toddler take a fall and immediately look around for their parent? The toddler is looking for an adult to help them understand how to react. Should they cry or continue playing? I learned two things early on with my kids. First, if they are not immediately crying, they’re not hurt. Second, if you rush to them with a concerned face, they will start crying. Instead, smile and tell them that everything is ok, and they will be.

The same is true for us when it comes to feeling harmed as adults. There are plenty of times when someone else’s impression of events paint our feelings. The Stoics talk a lot about how we view the world. We control how we see what is happening to us and we control how we respond. You don’t have to feel harmed by someone’s attitude, you can ignore it and continue on. Once you get into the practice of controlling how you see the world, you will feel more at peace.

Don’t talk about it, just do it

“To stop talking about what the good man is like, and just be one.”

“Meditations” Marcus Aurelius 10.16 page 137

It is easy to put off doing something when you have tomorrow. The same is true about doing what is right for yourself, your family, and community. Don’t talk about doing or being someone, do it. Be the best person you can be. Stop to help someone at store reach or lift an item. Be the person that is kind, happy, helpful, and trustworthy. Be who you it is you were meant to me.

More to come

This book is extremely influential and there is so much more to talk about. This could easily become a 20 page book report! So I’ve decided to break this report up and make it a series. This article covered Ancient Self-Help, and in the next one, we’ll look into Working and Endurance.

This year, I’m taking a Stoic journey and seeing if and how it will help me in life. Take a look at my first post about it this year. I’ll be covering this topic more as the year progresses.

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