by Zat Rana
Marcus Aurelius was adopted. It
made him heir to the throne of Rome...
Born into a wealthy family, Aurelius was primarily raised in the
household of his grandfather. Both his parents passed away
relatively early in his life.
From the start, his defining characteristic was his pursuit of
He was drawn to
philosophy, and he was particularly interested in
Stoicism - a subset based on the
notion that behaviors, not thoughts or words, should define virtue.
According to legend, the old Emperor Hadrian took notice of
him after a brush with death, and impressed with a young Aurelius,
Hadrian adopted him into his line of succession.
Aurelius upheld his duty to the state for over 20 years, through the
death of Hadrian and throughout the rule of Antoninus Pius,
until the day he became the Emperor of Rome.
The Image of
There's much uncertainty regarding the details of Marcus Aurelius'
It's almost 2,000 years
old, and most sources are questionable at best. The clearest image
of the man is painted through a series of notes he wrote to himself,
known by the name of 'Meditations' (The
Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus).
'Meditations' is one the most influential works of Stoicism. There
isn't much left to be said about it that hasn't been said before.
It's a timeless manual for living a balanced life.
More than a philosophy, however, it also gives us insight into the
clarity with which Marcus Aurelius thought. He very much saw
the world as it was rather than as he hoped it would be. That may
not sound like an accomplishment, but it's rarer than most of us
would like to think.
The application of this kind of awareness pays dividends in every
aspect of life, and we can dissect Aurelius' story to break down how
it can be deliberately nurtured.
First, the hurdle.
The Problem of
Having an Efficient Brain
Every day, we're loaded with external stimuli, and if we were to
absorb each one of these stimuli, we wouldn't be able to function
It would overwhelm our
brain, and we would cease to operate in a way that would allow us to
attend to our daily responsibilities.
As a result,
the brain has efficiency filters.
It's good at figuring out what information we need and when. It
knows that if you're in a busy restaurant, for example, the sound of
the person you're talking to is more important than the background
noise, so it adjusts.
This mechanism, however, unfortunately also comes with an unintended
The byproduct is that,
sometimes, attention isn't fully deployed to certain areas of
importance unless we're active in directing it there. With
efficiency, there's compromise.
Michael Kane is a cognitive psychologist at The University of
North Carolina who studies the interaction between memory and
In one of his experiments, he sampled students for their thoughts at
eight random times in a day for a week. Out of 124 participants, he
found that, on average, people were thinking about something
entirely different to what they were doing about 30% of the time.
This is a conservative number compared to the results turned up by
similar work, and it shows how easy it is to neglect relevant
information and fall into the trap of our brain's default setting.
There are three ways to fight this:
Train Yourself to Fight the Autonomous Loop
Throughout 'Meditations,' Aurelius is active in pointing out the
value of looking beyond what we intuitively see on the surface
in daily life to better understand the world.
In his own words:
"Nothing has such
power to broaden the mind as the ability to investigate
systematically and truly all that comes under thy
observation in life."
doesn't automatically lend itself to each relevant piece of
information, we can train our brain to be more proactive.
By keeping this fact
at the top of our mind, we can paint a more representative
picture of the world. That's where awareness and clear thinking
Set a few times in your day to really look and to listen. Be
deliberate in seeking to bypass the compromise made by the
There's a lot out
there, and a lot of it matters.
Objectivity Through Another Pair of Eyes
One of the cornerstones of awareness is objectivity.
It's a kind of
neutrality that aims to see the world as it is and not through
personal judgment and bias. It's not easy to cultivate.
By design, our senses absorb information in relation to where we
are, what we're doing, and how we feel. The world bombards us
with stimuli, and these stimuli follow a different neural
pathway in each of us. We all make sense of them differently.
We predominantly go through life understanding the world and
influencing our behavior like we're at the center of reality,
and that everything around us derives its importance according
to how it fits into our narrative.
It warps our
perception of our surroundings and how they unfold.
In cosmology, the
Copernican Principle states
that Earth has no privileged position in the universe. In spite
of its importance to us, on a grander scale, it's very
The same reasoning applies to people.
Despite the intensity
with which we feel and sense, much of what happens in the
broader world isn't just about us. There's a larger picture, and
there's more going on. The sooner we can put aside our personal
biases, the sooner we can understand reality for what it is
rather than how we feel about it. It's a crucial distinction.
Throughout his work, one thing that stands out about Aurelius is
his profound ability to step away and out of his own mind and
see the world and himself without emotional attachment. It helps
explain the depth of his insights.
He was able to expand his circle of awareness by tuning himself
out and by aspiring to see things from a pair of eyes with more
than just a singular perspective.
It's a very practical
tactic, and most of us don't use it enough.
Step outside your own shoes, conceptualize your observations as
if you're in the body of someone else around you, and try to
harness objectivity through a different host of eyes.
Routinely Seek out Ways to Declutter the Mind
One of the distinguishing aspects of 'Meditations' is that
Aurelius didn't write it for anyone other than himself.
By all accounts, it
appears to be a very personal journal. There isn't much
coherence or structure to how it's presented.
This tells us that his purpose for writing wasn't necessarily to
share his wisdom, but it was likely to practice clearing out and
organizing his own mind.
There's a lot of
sense in doing that, and a look into the work of Dr. James W.
Pennebaker explains why.
Pennebaker is a pioneer in writing therapy and a professor of
Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. American
Psychological Association has recognized his work on the
benefits of journaling as some of the most important in the
In 1994, Pennebaker and his team split people who had been out
of a job for eight months into three groups:
the first was
asked to write about their layoff and how they felt
was invited to write but about nothing in particular
group was given no writing instructions
The participants that recorded their layoff experiences were notably
more likely to find new jobs in the aftermath of the study.
By writing, they were
able to formally declutter the stress and the noise in their minds
and become more aligned with what they were feeling. It gave them
the push they needed to grasp where they were and where they needed
Similar studies by Pennebaker have shown the benefits of journaling
range from helping people better manage trauma to a bolstered immune
By journaling, Aurelius was able to extract the information
restlessly roaming around in his mind and organize it into concrete
principles he could strive towards. For others, this same effect is
reached through meditation, nature walks, or even certain types of
The human mind is extremely noisy, but by creating a routine that
allows us to clear it up, we can make it less so.
By building a habit that
focuses on ordering our thoughts, we can declutter the complexity
that comes with living in an increasingly busy and crowded world.
All You Need
Awareness is defined as a state of being conscious:
conscious of relevant
knowledge, conscious of surroundings, and conscious of personal
feelings and thoughts.
It's a state of mind that
aims to understand reality as close to the truth as possible.
Marcus Aurelius is known today as what the Greek philosopher
Plato characterized as a Philosopher King:
a political leader
who actively aspired to wisdom and was primarily driven towards
knowledge. A leader who relentlessly asked what it means to live
More than his virtues and
desires, however, what drove Aurelius to successfully lead one of
the most powerful empires in history was his ability to leverage the
clarity of his mind.
The scope of your awareness defines the outer limit of what you can
The more you
know, the more accurately you can understand your
The better you
are at organizing your thoughts, the more possibilities lie
ahead of you.
The ability to think
clearly is a keystone advantage, and it can be acquired like any
other skill. Practice...