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Marcus Aurelius on How to Control the Mind

It all comes down to our perception, or how we choose to perceive the things that do or do not happen to us

how to control your thoughts

“The things you think about determine the quality of your mind,” stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD) wrote in Meditations, considered one of the greatest spiritual works ever written. “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?

According to Aurelius, otherwise known as “The Philosopher” or “The Wise”, it all comes down to our perception, or how we choose to perceive the things that do or do not happen to us:

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 negatively 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.”

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) accepting instead of resisting:

“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.”

(2) 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.”

(3) 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 (4) 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.”

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.”

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.”

This piece was adapted from the original piece published on The Inward Turn.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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