Are you in need of some soul-searching and direction in life? Then maybe you’d appreciate a little guidance from an ancient philosopher who had some seriously life-changing ideas – Marcus Aurelius.
He was a Roman emperor from 161-180 AD and was known for his wisdom as a Stoic philosopher.
But don’t think his thoughts are outdated; on the contrary, his wisdom is just as relevant – and necessary – today as it was over 2, 000 years ago.
So, let’s take a look at how his words can lead us to a life of purpose and contentment. Here are nine lessons from Marcus Aurelius – which largely come from his iconic book “Meditations” – that will definitely change your life.
1) “Nowhere can man find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in his own soul.”
Let’s start at the root of it all – the self. Marcus Aurelius believed that we can handle much of the world’s noise and chaos by the mere act of self-reflection.
As an introvert, I truly love those moments where I can sit quietly with my thoughts. But I know that it isn’t as easy for many people.
For some, the thought of digging deep into their own soul can be uncomfortable – it forces them to confront their fears, insecurities, and weaknesses.
But as Marcus Aurelius reminds us, it’s through this honest introspection that we gain true understanding and acceptance of ourselves.
So, the next time the world feels too overwhelming, take a breather and listen to what your own soul is whispering. It will reveal the path to take; you only need to listen.
2) “Life is but what you deem it.”
Simply put, life is all about choices. It’s not about what happens to you, but how you choose to perceive it.
This is one of Marcus Aurelius’ major life lessons. His book “Meditations” is peppered all throughout with his thoughts on choice and proactivity.
In fact, he adds, “Life is opinion.”
That’s interesting, isn’t it? It drives home the point that our lives are what we make it.
If we choose to see it from a victim mindset, then we are indeed victims. The reverse is true as well – if we choose to see ourselves as empowered beings, then yes, we are indeed powerful.
So what to do then? If you want to live a life that feels positive and grounded no matter your circumstances, then CHOOSE to think about it that way.
3) “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
Here’s another way Marcus Aurelius reminds us to be careful about our perspective. It’s particularly useful for dealing with failure and disappointment.
Let’s say you’ve had a presentation at work that didn’t go as well as you’d hoped. The event has passed, but you’re still caught in a storm of fear, embarrassment, and frustration.
And that’s normal, of course. But if you were to take Marcus Aurelius’ wisdom to heart, you’d see that the distress you’re feeling isn’t due to the presentation itself.
It’s due to your interpretation of the event. You’re perceiving it as a disaster, a professional catastrophe. But is it, really?
It’s all about perception and perspective. What if you chose to reframe the situation? What if you chose to see it like, yes, maybe things didn’t go as planned, but it showed you some valuable insights that you can apply to the next one?
That way, failure won’t look like failure, but like an avenue for growth. This kind of perspective still puts you in the driver’s seat where you’re in control, not the circumstances.
If that wasn’t clear enough, here’s another reminder from Marcus Aurelius: “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
4) “‘If thou wouldst know contentment, let thy deeds be few,’ said the sage…”
What? Doing less makes us more contented? Impossible!
You heard it right. According to Marcus Aurelius, doing a few things and doing them well give us more satisfaction than doing a lot and being all over the place.
How so? Two words – purpose and focus.
Aurelius further exhorts us to tell ourselves at every step, “Is this one of the things that are superfluous? Unnecessary action will not ensue.”
If you ask me, that’s a great way to filter out the non-essentials and a lovely reminder of the beauty in simplicity.
Not to mention the precious nature of time. We’ve got only a limited number of hours here on earth, so why waste it on things that don’t bring us a sense of fulfillment?
5) “The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.”
Another thing we should never waste time on is holding a grudge and thinking about revenge. Marcus Aurelius suggests a different route: the best response to injury is not to become like the one who hurt you, but to rise above.
I know how hard it can be to “go high when they go low,” as Michelle Obama, another role model of mine, says.
A close friend of mine once betrayed my trust. It cut deeply, and for a while I thought of ways I could retaliate. But fortunately, I realized early enough that I was burdening myself with all of this negative energy.
So I chose to express what I felt, forgive the person who hurt me, and leave it at that.
This doesn’t mean you should let people walk all over you. You do forgive but you learn a lesson about setting better boundaries. I forgave that friend of mine, but I’ve also maintained a comfortable distance since then.
6) “Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?”
While we’re on the topic of grudges, here’s another lesson from Marcus Aurelius. It’s all about empathy.
I’m pretty sure we’ve all had something nasty (or at least not-so-nice) to say about someone. Finding fault is very much part of human nature.
That said, we don’t have to succumb to this weaker side of our nature. Aurelius helps us overcome it by asking us to do this:
Before you judge, take a step back, look within, and try to find a similar flaw in yourself.
The benefit of this approach is two-pronged. First, it helps us understand others better. And second, we learn to become more self-aware.
The bottomline: we cultivate a deeper sense of empathy for others. There’s a realization that hey, we all have our own flaws and messiness. But we’re all in the same boat, just trying to live life as best as we can.
7) “I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others.”
At the opposite end of judging and fault-finding lies another trap we all fall into at one point or another – people-pleasing and comparison.
This quote from Marcus Aurelius is basically saying: “You do you.” Don’t let other people’s opinions dictate your self-worth. It’s your life, not theirs.
It’s taken me a long time to overcome my own people-pleasing tendencies. I would often try to put other people’s opinions above my own.
But eventually, I felt like I wasn’t really here, like I wasn’t really living my life according to the stirrings of my soul.
When I started listening – and following – those stirrings more, I felt a sense of freedom. I was no longer as bothered when people disagreed with my decisions.
8) “Never esteem anything as of advantage to you that will make you break your word or lose your self-respect.”
Speaking of decisions, how do you feel about your life decisions? Have you ever felt like you’ve compromised a core value or a huge part of yourself? Do you say one thing and do another?
Marcus Aurelius says that the path to an honest life involves keeping your word and maintaining your self-respect. If a promise or a decision is going to compromise your values or self-esteem, it’s not worth making.
Do you get what it’s about yet? It’s about this: integrity.
When you can look in the mirror and respect the person you see, trust me, you’re living an honorable life.
9) “Do not indulge in dreams of having what you have not, but reckon up the chief of the blessings you do possess, and then thankfully remember how you would crave for them if they were not yours.”
Lastly, let’s talk about gratitude. In our success-driven cultures, it’s easy to get caught in a cycle of always wanting more.
But Marcus Aurelius reminds us to appreciate what we already have. This might sound like a throwaway piece of advice, but believe me, it’s life-changing.
Because an attitude of gratitude can turn your life around and make you see how good you actually have it, even though you might not feel that way.
Here are some ways to develop and practice gratitude:
- Practice mindful meditation to focus on the positives in your life.
- Keep a gratitude journal.
- Set gratitude reminders on your phone to pause and name something you’re thankful for.
- Acknowledge other people for the difference they make in your life.
These are just a few examples to develop an attitude of looking at the silver lining. It’s not about ignoring problems, but about finding the pros in a difficult situation.
Marcus Aurelius’ words might seem at odds with the frenetic energy of the modern world. But that’s precisely why they are helpful. When life gets too overwhelming, the simplicity of his teachings feel like a balm to our lost and frazzled souls.
These principles remind us of the fundamentals we should never forget – integrity, empathy, gratitude…all the basics of being a good human being.
In the timeless words of Marcus Aurelius himself, “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”