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.

A Stoic Journey Begins

Nicholas Keene taking notes from book
Nicholas Keene taking notes from book

I can’t tell you when I first became aware of stoicism, was it in PHIL 002 (entry level philosophy), was it while watching a history program, I’m not sure. What I can tell you is when it first began to click with me. That was when I saw my first YouTube video by Ryan Holiday in late 2018. Ryan Holiday is a writer, coach, speaker, and YouTuber focused on stoicism in the modern world. Next, I received a copy of “The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius” for Father’s Day in 2019. That copy was difficult to read because it was an early translation to English. I tried my best to read it. Ultimately, that version proved too difficult for me to read and fully comprehend.

While my first reading adventure into stoicism was difficult, it did not stop me from wanting to learn more. So, I subscribed to “The Daily Stoic” YouTube channel and newsletter (both run by Ryan Holiday). I found other videos on the topic by different content creators and then the pandemic hit.

The Pandemic, Stoicism, and Me

The pandemic changed the lives of everyone. My first day working from home was Friday, March 13, 2020. Yes, Friday the 13th. I remember picking up my daughter from school and joking with the other parents that we would see them next year. Maybe it was just a joke or maybe it was the part of me that studied history, in particular the early Twentieth Century history that came out. I didn’t realize how true that joke would be. But suddenly, I was a husband, father of two, an employee, and a teacher all at once and all the time.

And like for so many others, it became too much.

Humans have suffered through many pandemics throughout our history, but we have a short memory span when it comes to remembering them. Every time a pandemic hits, it changes us. We were lucky that this one was not as bad as previous ones. If you’re interested in learning how the world reacted to the 1918 Pandemic, I highly recommend watching this playlist by “Extra Credits History” (“The 1918 Flu Pandemic“).

Working from home was difficult for all of us at first. I was still new at my job when the pandemic started and didn’t know everyone well. The team I was part of was tiny. My wife and I were both working and different hours at that! How and where we worked all had to be figured out. Virtual classes for my daughter and then daughters had to be balanced in between meetings and calls. We figured things out, bought an extra desk, and just like that we found a new routine.

So what does the pandemic and stoicism have in common?


As I mentioned above, it was too much for me and I needed to find a way to communicate to myself what was going on, how I was seeing the world, and how I was going to remain mentally strong. That’s where stoicism came in. Unlike the English meaning of “stoic”, stoicism is not about ignoring your emotions and being cold, it is about controlling how you see the events and the world around you. It is about practicing control over yourself. You are still allowed to experience all of the happiness, beauty, and sadness, but not losing yourself to them. Remembering that you control how you view and understand what is happening. It’s about clarity.

That last bit is the important one, you control how you view and understand what is happening around you.

As the Roman Emperor and stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius put it, “Choose not to feel harmed — and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed — and you haven’t been.” “Meditations” Gregory Hayes, page 39.

You have control over your mind, so you have control over your actions. You can control how you see what’s happening. It is within you to apply meaning to what you are seeing, hearing, and experiencing.

This was extremely helpful for me. So I grabbed a copy of “Meditations” by Gregory Hayes. I bought his translation because it was in modern English which made it much easier to appreciate. I also checked out a copy of “The Obstacle is the Way” by Ryan Holiday from my local library. (Yes, I use my local library and so should you!) I found that I enjoyed Holiday’s style of writing and breaking things down.

I began journaling again, including starting each work day writing down three things that I am thankful for. In the beginning they were simple sentences without much thought in them (e.g., I’m thankful for my family. I’m thankful that I’m alive, etc.). I was thankful for these things, but I wasn’t thinking about why I was thankful. Later, I created an Apple Shortcut on my iPad to run in the mornings. It gets my meetings, my to do items, and create a new note in Notes for me. This Shortcut helps me capture what I had planned and have to do for the day. The first prompt is “What are you thankful for”. It was a great start!

Companion books, "The Daily Stoic" and "The Daily Stoic Journal"
Companion books, “The Daily Stoic” and “The Daily Stoic Journal”

My Stoic Journey Begins

I would like to explain quickly the difference between a personal routine and a personal ritual. A routine is a set of tasks that are something you think about. This makes them flexible. A personal ritual is something you do without thinking about it. An example of a personal ritual is brushing your teeth or washing your face. You do it without thought. Routines can turn into rituals over time, so be mindful of what you choose to make routine.

I start my days early for work, but I decided to start even earlier in order to make time for this. So, I started waking up 30 minutes earlier to make sure I have time to prepare lunches for my daughters, my own breakfast (see my savory oatmeal article here), read, and write in my journal. Once my morning routine became ritual, things went better. Then I noticed my problem was at the end of the day with writing my evening reflection. There were many mornings where I was writing my evening reflection from the previous day first and then my new morning reflection. I changed this, by creating a new routine, for ending my day and immediately picking up my journal to write then and there. I would take a few minutes to collect my thoughts, think about the day and return to the assignment.

This wasn’t great because I really didn’t decompress and think about my actions clearly.

The point of a reflection is to have time to look over the long haul, and truly absorb what happened and your actions to it. So, I started trying a few different approaches. What seems to be working for me right now, is ending my day and doing a small writing task for a few minutes. Usually, it’s coping notes that I’ve scribbled in books or GoodReads on to note cards. This helps improve my memory of what I’ve read, and gives me the time and space to clear my head a little. This little change allows me to be more reflective on my day. After I write down a few notes, I come back to the evening reflection, and can reflect more clearly.

Now honestly, the evening reflection should be written before going to bed. But I can’t always stick to that because I have three children and it’s a mad rush to get everyone to bed on time! So as a parent, you learn to steal a few minutes here and there where you can.

I have nearly a full year to go on this project. What I can tell you right now, is that I feel better and even have a clearer sense of myself. I look at what is happening around me differently because I am thinking about it both more and less. I think about things more in that I ask myself, how this impacts me? Is this something I can control? If it is not something that impacts me (or my family directly) then I put it aside. If it’s something that impacts me, but I can’t control it, then I accept it, prepare for it, and let it go. This is where thinking less about things comes in. Once I’ve sorted out what I can control, I stop worrying about the rest. There is a great freedom in that.

This is only the beginning. So, I plan to write follow up posts on my progress throughout the year. In December, I’ll conclude this project and share my retrospective on findings. In the meantime, I hope you are all having a great start to 2023 and wish you the best on your journey this year!