We all want to be better, but it can be tough knowing where to start. What if I told you that the quickest, simplest, truest path to happiness is to be found in not thinking? Let me explain.
Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor known for to his commitment to justice and virtue. Aurelius was also a prolific writer about self-improvement, penning a collection of notes to himself that remain as powerful and transformative today as it did when written some 2000 years ago.
In Meditations, Aurelius instructs himself to look out for 4 specific “habits of thought” - or mental patterns - and when spotted, to immediately work to eliminate them from his mind. Here they are:
Maybe the key idea of Stoicism, continuously observing the mind and eliminating any active concern about the things that we don't control is what the Stoics believed was the surest path to contentment.
What someone thinks of us, whether or not we get the job, when or how we'll die – all of it is ultimately out of our control, so worrying about it, feeling fear or shame about it, does nothing for us. Such worrying is empty calories in the most destructive way.
Thoughts That Are Destructive To Others
In Meditations Aurelius writes:
Let your one delight and refreshment be to pass from one service to the community to another.
Aurelius reminds himself not to just do good every now and again, but to make it the entire purpose of his existence. From one service to another. The most powerful man in the world, instructing himself that his one delight, his one joy, ought to be helping his community.
With that perspective, it's easy to see why Aurelius would oppose any thought pattern that moved him away from love and understanding and towards destructiveness. Whether it's in the physical sense or even just within his own mind, Aurelius' writings show a man uniquely focused on uplifting others, not tearing them down.
Aurelius reminds himself to watch for and eliminate thoughts that betray his true nature: thoughts that are inauthentic or deceitful - be it in his relations with others or when speaking to himself. Lying, putting on appearances, being self-serving, all of these thought patterns can only lead to a life lived in conflict and unhappiness. The answer then is to move towards thoughts and actions that are in line with our highest nature as beings. As he writes:
To say what you don't think, the definition of absurdity.
When You Reproach Yourself
Since Aurelius' Meditations was originally written in Greek, each translation is slightly different in how this part of the passage is written, making an exact interpretation difficult. However, if one were to venture a guess - based on all of Aurelius' writings - this habit of thought could very well refer to the type of thinking that breeds shame, guilt, and self-pity.
Being a human being is tough work, mistakes are inevitable. But wallowing in them? Keeping them in the pit of our stomachs? Carrying them with us, long after any value has been extracted from them?
That - can only ever be the product of poor thinking.
And so, if the goal is to live a calmer and more enlightened life, it only follows that we should make an effort to eliminate any thought patterns that move us away from that ideal. Excavating our mind for unnecessary thoughts, dishonesty and inauthenticity, thoughts that don't serve a member or the whole of our community, and self-defeating thought patterns - is, according to Aurelius, the surest path to a life lived in accordance with our true nature.