Meditations

I re-read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations a couple days ago, a New Year’s tradition. I also spent some more time digging in the appendices in this book, and comparing my notes from 2013. And, as I did last year, I tweeted some quotes and paraphrases that struck me as I read it this time around. A few of those, with book/chapter references:

Expecting nothing, shirking nothing, […] and a heroic truthfulness in all that you say and mean – then you will lead a good life. And nobody is able to stop you. (3.12)

Whenever you want to cheer up, think of the admirable qualities and virtues of your friends. (6.48)

That last one makes me think of Seneca, especially, and some other good stuff filed under my friends tag.

Do not be ashamed of being helped. […] It is human nature to love even those who trip and fall.“ (7.7 and 7.22)

Without frenzy, without apathy, without pretense. (7.69)

Prayer about things you want in the world < Prayer to be free from fear, desire, regret. (9.40)

Kindness is invincible. (11.18.9)

I appreciated his personal journaling this year as much as ever, but also felt like some things were missing – because, selfishly, he’s writing for himself and not for me specifically. But I take some comfort in seeing him grapple with his own shortcomings as I work on my own, and try to live well despite them.

Be sure to check out Austin Kleon’s thoughts from his own re-reading. I’ve got another re-read coming up shortly, just as soon as the postman delivers the Hays translation that Ryan Holiday recommends. Filed under: Stoicism.

The Antidote (review)

As the Buddha said two and a half thousand years ago, we’re all out of our fucking minds! That’s just the way we are. – Albert Ellis

What a fine book. If, like me, you have ongoing interest in stoicism, happiness, mindfulness meditation, thinking about death and failure, and tend to be a skeptical of your Rhonda Byrne/Tony Robbins types (but are at the same time, kind of amused by them), you’ll probably like Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. In every chapter, there’s some kind of personal connection–an interview, an experiment, field research–but it doesn’t turn preachy or antagonistic. He’s not much for dishy takedowns or “turns out” revelations. He examines a few traditions or lines of thinking, and connects them with an experience. I think he strikes a good balance between his first-person narrative and his research and exploration.

Early on, Burkeman suggests that one weakness in happy thinking is what you might call a reductionist problem: life is messier than that. Most things aren’t binary. Life is full of uncertainty, there are constant threats to our precarious hold on whatever we’ve got going for us, and, to top it all off, there’s a shitty,  guaranteed end result:

No matter how much success you may experience in life, your eventual story will be one of failure. Your bodily organs will fail, and you will die.

You have to make peace with that. And blinding, sunny optimism doesn’t always afford the opportunity.

Burkeman finds a practical objection to positive thinking that I hadn’t considered: Kind of like the challenge “do not think of a pink elephant”, when you try to live the admonition to “think positive”, you end up with this constant meta-cognitive scanning. Am I thinking happy? Is this a negative thought? Am I successfully not thinking about bad things X, Y, and Z? You naturally think of negative things while policing yourself for negative thoughts. How can you change this? One alternative is a more stoic approach. Avoid or minimize the labeling in the first place, or confront it honestly and let it go. After all,

Nothing outside your own mind can properly be described as negative or positive at all.

It’s a more global perspective. Outside events run through a filter (our beliefs) and then generate some interior reaction. If you really embrace this, you get more power over how you (choose to) feel.

And how bad can it be, really? That’s another more stoic/realist tactic: face the disaster head-on. Imagine, in detail, how bad it could be. One advantage of this worst-case scenario approach: it “turns infinite fears into finite ones”. I love that.

Another practical barrier to positive thinking I thought was interesting was about affirmations: we simply don’t internalize them very well. And when things like “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough…” just don’t ring true with how we already conceive of ourselves, thinking them is only going to make us more anxious. Even positive visualization can make you relax instead of pumping you up. And I love this line about advice and motivation:

Motivational advice risks making things worse by surreptitiously strengthening your belief that you need to feel motivated before you can act. By encouraging an attachment to a particular emotional state, it actually inserts an additional hurdle between you and your goal.

So, the stoic approach is valuable: it’s gonna suck, you don’t feel like it, and you won’t anytime soon, it might be a disaster, but do it anyway. Whatever “it” is.

In the chapter on Buddhism, non-attachment, and meditation, he brings up Albert Ellis‘ idea of “musturbation”. We become obsessed with things we want. We become absolutist about the results we need. There’s a related idea here: “goalodicy” (coined by Christopher Kayes), where we hang on to and internally defend faulty goals as a way of preserving our identity, because we’ve already invested so much of ourselves in a particular happy outcome. Build things up too much, and you get burned. So meditation is both practice in giving up control, and a way to honestly confront what life brings you. Burkeman quotes a great, great line from Barry Magid:

Meditation is a way to stop running away from things.

A related idea: considering any problems you face, how many of those problems are problems right now? As in, now now. Probably none or few–most problems we have (and our compulsively recycled thoughts about them) are about the past or about the future. Meditation brings you back to this moment, when you can actually do something.

Another way to think about the problem of optimism is that it can turn into a way of chasing security, and fleeing vulnerability. The problem, as Alan Watts says, is that

If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life.

I loved the final sections about death, too. Burkeman talks about memento mori, and mono no aware, and more broadly the idea of failure and “letting death seep back into life”. Carol Dweck comes up in a short discussion of talent and success, specifically her idea that the mindset we have about success tends to be either “fixed” or “incremental”. That is, we see success in terms of innate talent/ability vs. growth/learning, and thus tend to see failure in terms of dread/threat/identity crisis vs. improvement/opportunity/adaptation. (Let’s make better mistakes tomorrow!) So in the midst of a failure-shy, success-worshipping culture, we get a better sense of community and empathy when we acknowledge mess-ups as an expected, normal, more-than-likely-than-not occurrence. And more practically:

Failure is a relief. At last you can say what you think.

his book would pair well with Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations or Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists–I detect similar attitudes in each. For good books on happiness, I recommend Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis, and Mark Kingwell’s In Pursuit of Happiness.

Art thou afeard
To be the same in thine own act and valour
As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that
Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life,
And live a coward in thine own esteem,
Letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would’?

Lady Macbeth, suggesting you be less of a wimp. Cf. Seneca:

You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire.

Meditations (review)

Meditations

Your mind will take on the character of your most frequent thoughts: souls are dyed by thoughts.

Funny to think how I am still very much myself. Same Mark, more detail. If you overlapped all my pattern-stereotypes I had around 1992, you’d get a pretty good picture of me today of what 2012 Mark is like.

Summer of last year, I started reading more works of and about Stoicism, and that led to tumbling a lot of stoicism quotes. This was not a new interest by any means. I remember thinking Stoics were cool back in childhood, when I first learned about them. I think my interest then was more of a tough-guy, counter-culture, I-am-a-rock/island sort of thing. Maybe a way of validating introversion, independence, self-protection.

Men seek retreats for themselves–in the country, by the sea, in the hills–and you yourself are particularly prone to this yearning. But all this is quite unphilosophic, when it is open to you, at any time you want, to retreat into yourself. No retreat offers someone more quiet and relaxation than that into his own mind, especially if he can dip into thoughts there which put him at immediate and complete ease: and by ease I simply mean a well-ordered life. (4.3)

I remember picking up Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations on at least three different occasions, but never finishing. In fact, barely starting each time. Some lessons can’t be learned early, I guess. I still like the independent-minded ideas, but I think now a lot of what gets me are the ideas of acceptance, attitude, gratitude (which is the focus of the entire amazing first chapter). And, yeah, being hard on myself….

They cannot admire you for intellect. Granted–but there are many other qualities of which you cannot say, “but that is not the way I am made”. So display those virtues which are wholly in your own power–integrity, dignity, hard work, self-denial, contentment, frugality, kindness, independence, simplicity, discretion, magnanimity. Do you not see how many virtues you can already display without any excuse of lack of talent or aptitude? And yet you are still content to lag behind. (5.5)

I bookmarked the hell out of it when I was reading and made a bunch of notes to myself (hypomnema!). I’ll probably be turning back to this one for a long time to come. All the quotes below come from Martin Hammond’s translation. The numbers refer to chapter and sub-section, should you decide to pick up this book. Which you should do.


On gossip. (3.4)

Do not waste the remaining part of your life in thoughts about other people, when you are not thinking with reference to some aspect of the common good. Why deprive yourself of the time for some other task? I mean, thinking about what so-and-so is doing, and why, what he is saying or contemplating or plotting, and all that line of thought, makes you stray from the close watch on your directing mind.

On hurt and its source, our compulsion to draw conclusions and render judgement on what has befallen us. (4.7)

Remove the judgement, and you have removed the thought “I am hurt”: removed the thought “I am hurt”, and the hurt itself is removed.

On revenge. (6.6)

The best revenge is not to be like your enemy.

On transience. There were several moments of this kind of beautiful writing that makes you slow down or rest the book and think it over. (6.15)

Some things are hurrying to come into being, others are hurrying to be gone, and part of that which is being born is already extinguished. Flows and changes are constantly renewing the world, just as the ceaseless passage of time makes eternity ever young. In this river, then, where there can be no foothold, what should anyone prize of all that races past him? It is as if he were to begin to fancy one of the little sparrows that fly past–but already it is gone from his sight.

On history repeating and our shared universal experience. (6.37)

He who sees the present has seen all things, both all that has come to pass from everlasting and all that will be for eternity: all things are related and the same.

On adapting to and embracing what is, caring. (6.39)

Fit yourself for the matters which have fallen to your lot, and love these people among whom destiny has cast you–but your love must be genuine.

On composure, comportment, grace, style. (7.60)

The body, too, should stay firmly composed, and not fling itself about either in motion or at rest. Just as the mind displays qualities in the face, keeping it intelligent and attractive, something similar should be required of the whole body. But all this should be secured without making an obvious point of it.

On vice and keeping good company. (7.71)

It is ridiculous not to escape from one’s own vices, which is possible, while trying to escape the vices of others, which is impossible.

On change, being wrong, graciousness. (8.16)

Remember that to change course or accept correction leaves you just as free as you were. The action is your own, driven by your own impulse or judgement, indeed your own intelligence.

On looking back, looking forward, being present, letting go. (8.36)

Do not let the panorama of your life oppress you, do not dwell on all the various troubles which may have occurred in the past or may occur in the future. Just ask yourself in each instance of the present: “What is there in this work which I cannot endure or support?” You will be ashamed to make any such confession. Then remind yourself that it is neither the future nor the past which weighs on you, but always the present: and the present burden reduces, if only you can isolate it and accuse your mind of weakness if it cannot hold against something thus stripped bare.

On simplicity, kindness, perseverance, virtue. Like water off a duck’s back. (8.51)

If a man were to come up to a spring of clear, sweet water and curse it–it would still continue to bubble up water good to drink. He could throw in mud or dung: in no time the spring will break it down, wash it away, and take no color from it. How then can you secure an everlasting spring and not a cistern? By keeping yourself at all times intent on freedom–and staying kind, simple, and decent.

On fame, attention, transience, obsessions, Facebook, death. (10.34)

All things are short-lived–this is their common lot–but you pursue likes and dislikes as if all was fixed for eternity. In a little while you too will close your eyes, and soon there will be others mourning the man who buries you.

On duty, openness, constancy, honesty. (11.27)

The Pythagoreans say, “Look at the sky at dawn”–to remind ourselves of the constancy of those heavenly bodies, their perpetual round of their own duty, their order, their purity, and their nakedness. No star wears a veil.

On dying. (12.36)

It is like the officer who engaged a comic actor dismissing him from the stage. “But I have not played my five acts, only three.” “True, but in life three acts can be the whole play.” Completion is determined by that being who caused first your composition and now your dissolution. You have no part in either causation. Go then in peace: the god who lets you go is at peace with you.

They cannot admire you for intellect. Granted–but there are many other qualities of which you cannot say, “but that is not the way I am made”. So display those virtues which are wholly in your own power–integrity, dignity, hard work, self-denial, contentment, frugality, kindness, independence, simplicity, discretion, magnanimity. Do you not see how many virtues you can already display without any excuse of lack of talent or aptitude? And yet you are still content to lag behind.

All things are short-lived–this is their common lot–but you pursue likes and dislikes as if all was fixed for eternity. In a little while you too will close your eyes, and soon there will be others mourning the man who buries you.

Marcus Aurelius on fame, death, and social media.

The body, too, should stay firmly composed, and not fling itself about either in motion or at rest. Just as the mind displays qualities in the face, keeping it intelligent and attractive, something similar should be required of the whole body. But all this should be secured without making an obvious point of it.

Marcus Aurelius on style, grace, comportment.