Think Carefully: Marcus Aurelius on How to Control the Mind

“The things you think about determine the quality of your mind,” stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD) wrote in Meditations. “Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.”

Our mind is perhaps one of the greatest assets we have, spawning the creativity and ingenuity behind nearly all of man’s creations. It is what allows us to think and feel, perceive and judge, holding within it the power of imagination,language and consciousness.

But, our mind can also be one of our greatest enemies; a battlefield where some of the fiercest wars are waged. 

How, then, are we to protect ourselves from getting caught in the crossfire?

For Aurelius, considered one of the most respected emperors in Roman history, it all comes down to our perception – how we choose to perceive the things that do or do not happen to us. 

Written in the later years of Aurelius’ life (170s AD), Meditations – a collection of individual entries, varied in style, that repeatedly reframe and reinforce his own convictions – offers practical guidance for navigating the trials and misfortunes that can so often wreak havoc on the mind.

While never intended for publication, it is, itself, a brilliant exercise of the mind, substantiating the title Aurelius earned as “The Philosopher” or “The Wise.”

We must begin by (1) not blaming external factors for our unhappiness:

“External things are not the problem. It’s your assessment of them. Which you can erase right now. If the problem is something in your own character, who’s stopping you from setting your mind straight? And if it’s that you’re not doing something you think you should be, why not just do it? – But there are insuperable obstacles. Then it’s not a problem. The cause of your inaction lies outside you. – But how can I go on living with that undone? Then depart, with a good conscious, as if you’d done it, embracing the obstacles too.”

(2) Not allowing others to affect us:

“Discard your misperceptions. Stop being jerked like a puppet. Limit yourself to the present. Understand what happens – to you, to others. Analyze what exists, break it all down: material and cause. Anticipate your final hours. Other people’s mistakes? Leave them to their makers.”

And (3) taking control of how we perceive things:

“It’s all in how you perceive it. You’re in control. You can dispense with misperception at will, like rounding the point. Serenity, total calm, safe anchorage.”

But, we should also submit to nature’s order:

“Just as you overhear people saying that ‘the doctor prescribed such-and-such for him’ (like riding, or cold baths, or walking barefoot…), say this: ‘Nature prescribed illness for him’ Or blindness. Or the loss of a limb. Or whatever. There ‘prescribed’ means something like ‘ordered, so as to further his recovery.’ And so too here. What happens to each of us is ordered. It furthers our destiny.”

Without resisting what does or does not happen to us:

“Have you ever seen a severed hand or foot, or a decapitated head, just lying somewhere far away from the body it belonged to…? That’s what we do to ourselves – or try to – when we rebel against what happens to us, when we segregate ourselves. Or when we do something selfish.

You have torn yourself away from unity – your natural state, one you were born to share in. Now you’ve cut yourself off from it.”

But if we do, God always welcomes us back:

“But you have one advantage here: you can reattach yourself. A privilege God has granted to no other part of no other whole – to be separated, cut away, and reunited. But look how he’s singled us out. He’s allowed us not to be broken off in the first place, and when we are he’s allowed us to return, to graft ourselves back on, and take up our old position once again: part of a whole.”

So here’s what we should tell ourselves:

“Let it happen, if it wants, to whatever it can happen to. And what’s affected can complain about it if it wants. It doesn’t hurt me unless I interpret its happening as harmful to me. I can choose not to.”

In different words:

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

This applies to every circumstance:

“Everywhere, at each moment, you have the option:

-to accept this event with humility

-to treat this person as he should be treated

-to approach this thought with care, so that nothing irrational creeps in.”

Ultimately, it comes down to (1) redirecting our mind:

“Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole. Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, ‘Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?’ You’ll be embarrassed to answer.”

(2) Focusing on the present moment:

“Then remind yourself that past and future have no power over you. Only the present – and even that can be minimized. Just mark off its limits. And if your mind tries to claim that it can’t hold out against that…well, then, heap shame upon it.”

And (3) exercising the agency we have:

“To live a good life: We have the potential for it. If we can learn to be indifferent to what makes no difference. This is how we learn: by looking at each thing, both the parts and the whole. Keeping in mind that none of them can dictate how we perceive it. They don’t impose themselves on us. They hover before us, unmoving. It is we who generate the judgments – inscribing them on ourselves. And we don’t have to. We could leave the page blank – and if a mark slips through, erase it instantly.

Remember how brief is the attentiveness required. And then our lives will end.

Why is it so hard when things go against you? If it’s imposed by nature, accept it gladly and stop fighting it. And if not, work out what your own nature requires, and aim at that, even if it brings you no glory. None of us is forbidden to pursue our own good.”

Because mastering the mind is vital to living well:

“If you can cut yourself – your mind – free of what other people do and say, of what you’ve said or done, of the things that you’re afraid will happen, the impositions of the body that contains you and the breath within, and what the whirling chaos sweeps in from outside, so that the mind is freed from fate, brought to clarity, and lives life on its own recognizance – doing what’s right, accepting what happens, and speaking the truth –

If you can cut free of impressions that cling to the mind, free of the future and the past – can make yourself, as Empedocles says, ‘a sphere rejoicing in its perfect stillness,’ and concentrate on living what can be lived (which means the present)…then you can spend the time you have left in tranquility. And in kindness. And at peace with the spirit within you.”

So just remember:

“How the mind conducts itself. It all depends on that. All the rest is within its power, or beyond its control – corpses and smoke.”

In conclusion:

“Your ability to control your thoughts – treat it with respect. It’s all that protects your mind from false perceptions – false to your nature, and that of all rational beings. It’s what makes thoughtfulness possible, and affection for other people, and submission to the divine.”

quotes from Marcus Aurelius

Considered one of the greatest spiritual works ever written, Meditations offers timeless wisdom and practical guidance for living well, covering everything from how to get out of bed in the morning to how to deal with challenging people.

Even with this particular theme – the mind – there is so much more to share. I merely chose passages I thought to be particularly revealing. A full reading – and continual rereading – of Meditations certainly does the mind well.

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  • Hi Katharine,

    From now on „Meditations” is on my must-read list.

    Nowadays I’m dealing with awareness and how to increase it. I find it very important to improve our nonjudgmental awareness and understand how our mind judges events unconsciously. These self-judgments mostly become self-fulfilling prophecies that must be positive if we want to improve our life quality – as far as I’m concerned.

    I read some interesting books on this topic, but it seems there is one more left at least.

    Thank you for your recommendation and summary.

    • Hi Peter, thank you for your comment. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. Yes, I highly recommend “Meditations.” It has always been one of my favorite books. I think you’re right…the unconscious mind controls a lot more than we realize, and learning to create positive self-narratives is so important. I’d love any book recommendations on this topic! Thanks again. Blessings to you, Katharine

  • For instance, I really enjoyed reading „The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey”.

    It is about increasing your concentration, willpower, and confidence. An amazing book that deals with thinking and the power of the mind.

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