Marcus Aurelius on being present, in the present

Marcus Aurelius by Ed Uthman Creative Commons via Flickr

I struggle to focus on my work, for the same reasons most people do: we are surrounded by seemingly never ending distractions (social media, email, phone calls) and it’s difficult to focus on a project without interruptions. I also find that my mind is distracted and wants to escape from being ‘tethered’ to a desk — almost everything that’s not this is more interesting at any given moment (the computer’s dubious status as both work tool and entertainment device provides very effective fodder for my procrastination). Sometimes, I catch myself feeling trapped (in this writing project I have promised myself, and which I don’t owe to anyone other than myself) and experiencing a kind of suffering by my own strict managerial hand.

Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, had many things to say on self-discipline and focus, but this is the standout quote for me:

Don’t panic before the picture of your entire life. Don’t dwell on all the troubles you’ve faced or have yet to face, but instead ask yourself as each trouble comes: What is so unbearable or unmanageable in this? Your reply will embarrass you. Then remind yourself that it’s not the future or the past that bears down on you, but only the present, always the present, which becomes an even smaller thing when isolated in this way and when the mind that cannot bear up under so slender an object is chastened. (Book 8, Section 36)1

As I reread Marcus Aurelius in this new translation, I’m struck again by the profound similarities — sometimes in thought, often in intention — between Stoicism and Buddhism (particularly the early, Pali Canon Urtext). Admittedly, Marcus Aurelius is a late proponent of Stoicism, but some scholars have speculated about the possibility that there may have been geographic cross-pollination between Eastern and Western thought in the 500 years BCE.2

Whether there were any connections between East and West 2,500 years ago will likely remain an unknowable mystery. For me, it’s back to work as I meditate on how my lot is neither unbearable nor unmanageable, but in fact perhaps rather desirable.

  1. Marcus Aurelius, The Emperor’s Handbook: A New Translation of the Meditations by C. Scot Hicks and David V. Hicks, New York: Scribner, 2002. Emphasis added. 

  2. For example, see Steven Batchelor, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2011, p. 116-117 and p. 245-251 

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