So far in our study of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, we have discussed that self-mastery results from mastering one’s thoughts, and that in living according to one’s own nature, our greatest respite from the world becomes turning inward into our own self.
The need for equanimity is stressed throughout the Meditations, and we now find that our greatest obstacle to our inner calm is ourselves.
“You can strip away many unnecessary troubles which lie wholly in your own judgment.”
Frustration occurs when reality does not meet one’s expectations. Reality is never the source of our discomfort, we are. All inner turmoil results from holding a belief which our immediate experience rejects, and rather than question our mental models we meet the external world with aggression, when simply removing the thought about the experience removes the suffering due to the experience.
This is the true value of Stoic philosophy, becoming indifferent toward that which we have no control.
“Live through life in the best way you can. The power to do so is in a man’s own soul, if he is indifferent to things indifferent. And he will be indifferent if he looks at these things both as a whole and analyzed into their parts, and remembers that none of them imposes a judgment of itself or forces itself on us. The things themselves are inert.”
When we understand that events themselves are neutral, and that nothing holds any meaning which we ourselves do not ascribe, we are no longer at the mercy of circumstance. Our well-being becomes independent of what happens in the world around us and we become free. For a man who persecuted the Christians, one of the major tenets of his philosophy echoes the Serenity prayer:
“Calm acceptance of what comes from a cause outside yourself, and justice in all activity of your own causation.”
This simple concept can prove as a sound starting point for the construction of one’s own personal philosophy. We take an honest audit of that which we can and cannot control, doggedly working for the former and learning to accept the latter. Hopping into the river of life, we allow the current to take us down stream (which it will anyway), but we never stop paddling to direct our course, becoming the arbiters of our own experience.
Consider, for example, the common practice of driving.
We drive on the same roads, with the same traffic consisting of the same terrible drivers, each day. Operating under the tacit belief that everyone should drive as we do, when they inevitably don’t, our blood boils. People can’t drive!, we tell ourselves.
Thanks to an unconscious mental model, we create a visceral emotional response to events outside of our control, willfully causing our own discomfort.
“Today I escaped from all bother circumstances- or rather I threw them out. They were nothing external, but inside me, just my own judgments.”
This is the beauty of our single human life. We have complete control over what experiences mean. We shape our own world. John Milton was right; the mind really can make a heaven of hell and a hell out of heaven. The quality of our lives will be dependent upon the quality of our thoughts.
When we learn to accept fortune as it comes, we are no longer forced to simply respond to circumstance. We act upon our own accord and the world reacts to us.
As is often the case, we get a better grip by letting go.