Marcus Aurelius On The 5 Ways Our Soul Is Harmed

It seems like talking about the soul is going out of fashion. We don’t often hear people debating or discussing the topic of the soul anymore. Perhaps that has to do with the rise of Science or the ever-slowing death of Philosophy. However, philosophy has and also will be one of the topics I hold dear to my soul. 

Speaking of which, how do I see the soul? 

I don’t believe in the cartoonish interpretation of the word where when we die, a part of our soul floats out of our body and rises to the heavens. I also don’t believe that our soul is an actual essence, something separate from our body.

Instead, I relate the soul to our conscience. The inner voice inside our head, which influences our actions and thoughts and in turn, we influence its disposition. Cultivating this two-way relationship is necessary for having a good, healthy outlook on life. 

And I believe that’s what Marcus Aurelius was trying to relay all those hundreds of years ago. Starting with his first point.

The soul of a man harms itself, first and foremost, when it becomes (as far as it can) a separate growth, a sort of tumour on the universe: because to resent anything that happens is to separate oneself in revolt from Nature, which holds in collective embrace the particular natures of all other things.

Friedrich Nietzsche is famous for coining the term, Amor fati which can be translated to “love of fate” or “love of one’s fate”. The idea is that no matter what happens in your life, you have to accept it because all of those incidents and moments make up your personal unique experience in this world. 

The use of love can throw some people off of this concept because how can you truly love the passing of a child or a loss of a parent? I don’t believe we are capable of fully loving this type of tragedy. However, I think we can get to a point where we no longer resent it, so we are able to accept the tragic moments of our life and figure out ways to move forward. 

It’s this movement that is akin to nature. 

Where a piece of land can be flooded or burned or abandoned completely and sooner or later, we can see parts of nature reclaiming it. Weeds growing through the concrete. Flowers blossoming where there once was a desert. Of course, nature has patience on its side. Nature can wait hundreds and hundreds of years but we don’t have this luxury. We have patience in our own way but with a timer on it. So, maybe we can’t move past something tragic right away, and perhaps it will take a few years to accept one’s fate, but we are capable of following nature’s guidance and being one with it, as Marcus Aurelius suggests. 

And through this acceptance, we can harmonize with our inner voice. 

Secondly, when it turns away from another human being, or is even carried so far in opposition as to intend him harm — such is the case in the souls of those gripped by anger.

Not everyone is blessed with loving relationships. Those who are, understand how that’s one of the greatest joys life has to offer. Even those who weren’t raised in loving environments can cultivate a loving community. However, it is easier to cut ties and embrace a solitary life than put yourself out there because when you do that, you open yourself to more heartbreak.

I believe heartbreak is worth it compared to the soul-enriching benefits of healthy relationships. 

One of the dangers of heartbreak is that we can turn hateful. Spiteful. We can become angry at everyone, at the world, and at our circumstances. However, this harms us more than anyone. 

Not only do we miss out on healthy relationships but we also poison our inner mind with negativity and as I said before, it’s a two-way street. The more negativity you feed your mind, the more negative it becomes, and in doing so, that negativity compounds to the point you can jeopardize living a healthy life. 

So, you have to have this balancing act where you’re open to love but don’t allow the negative consequences to isolate and anger you. Part of the way you can manage this tightrope walking is through the Amor fati concept. 

The third point Marcus Aurelius makes is: 

A soul harms itself, thirdly, when it gives in to pleasure or pain.

This boils down to immediate gratification and the inability to tolerate discomfort. All animals move toward pleasure and avoid pain, so I don’t think Marcus Aurelius meant to blanket these terms. Rather, we harm our soul by giving in to immediate gratification. 

When we’re bored, it’s almost instinctual to pull out our phone and start scrolling. When we feel the slightest hunger sensation we run to the fridge. When it comes to picking between entertainment and work, our initial reaction and action tend to favour entertainment. It’s this type of pleasure that harms the soul because it weakens our resolve, focus, and discipline.

As for pain, it’s our inability to manage it properly that can harm our souls. Most things that are worthwhile, most goals you will have in life will be associated with a varying degree of discomfort and pain. Often, it’s those who can handle and manage discomfort in the present that ends up reaping the rewards in the future. So, when we give into discomfort during a task that requires a lot of mental or physical energy we end up hurting our soul. 

Essentially, you want to be able to master the zone of proximal development. Where you are carefully and consciously pushing your discomfort boundaries and through it, enriching your soul. 

Fourthly, whenever it dissimulates, doing or saying anything feigned or false.

Lying is easy. We have been doing it since we were kids. But it’s always difficult to lie to oneself. You know what you intended to do, what you set your mind on doing, which promises you made, and so on. So, when you fail to meet your intentions or promises, when you do something that is opposite of who you wish to be, that’s when the soul is damaged. 

Those lies enrich the negative portion of your inner voice, the one that is full of self-doubt and feeds a negative self-image. But the more often you meet your intentions and stay true to your promises, you water a positive self-image. 

A positive identity.

We are taught not to lie because you can hurt someone else but in reality, the worst aspect of lying is that we hurt ourselves. So, the way of the truth is the way of a good, healthy soul. 

Fifthly, whenever it fails to direct any of its own actions or impulses to a goal, but acts at random, without conscious attention — whereas even the most trivial action should be undertaken in reference to the end. And the end for rational creatures is to follow the reason and the rule of that most venerable archetype of a governing state — the Universe.

For the Stoics, our actions needed to be in line with the Universe. This concept can be hard to grasp in our current day and age, but the concept of not allowing your actions to be dictated by impulses is pretty easy to understand. 

Our impulses are chaotic and random. If you follow them then your actions and in turn, your life will be chaotic and random. It’s difficult to accomplish your goal living like this. It’s also difficult to find a healthy mental and physical space when we’re being pulled around by our impulses.

Rather, our actions should be dictated by reason. 

I believe the best way to accomplish this is to have a big goal, something that will come to fruition a year from now or years even. Once that is set, you trace backward, creating smaller goalposts to reach on the way to your eventual goal. Once these goalposts are set, we being to act in a rational manner that will help you attain the nearest goalpost. And from there, we move on to the next one. This concept can be applied to career goals, mental health goals, physical goals, life goals, and relationship goals. 

Once we act with reason, we are able to focus our being and soul. But without it, the chaotic nature of life can be overwhelming and can end up hurting our soul. 

So, it’s the balance of these 5 things which can cultivate a healthy soul and the good thing about it is that we have some kind of control over each aspect. Whether it’s acceptance or our attitude toward pleasure and pain, the discipline to follow the truth, embracing love rather than anger, or acting in a rational manner. 

All of these combined can lead to harmonizing your inner voice and experiencing life to its fullest. 

Lesson From Atomic Habit: Identify With Your Habit

John is curled up under the blanket. The hum of the nearby fan cools the room and sings him into a deeper slumber. The soft cotton sheets snuggle him in place, keeping him dreaming. Outside, the sun rises ever so slowly. Inching closer and closer, the same as the alarm clock. The clock, with each passing second, nears 6 am and when the time finally comes, the clock strikes 6, the alarm goes off. Without a moment of hesitation, John’s hand slams the snooze button and he drifts back to his dream world. After a few more punches to the clock, John finally stirs awake. He stretches his arms overhead and yawns deeply. Blinking away the sleep, he looks at the clock.

7 am!

He rushes out of bed to get ready for work. Telling himself that he’ll get up at 6 tomorrow instead. And as he frantically brushes his teeth, he tries to reschedule his evening so he can work out, which was planned for the morning the night before. 

Len Wallace invented the snooze button in 1847. I don’t know if I should thank him or curse his name. Too many times has that button eaten away at my promises to wake up earlier. Promises to start the day off exercising or meditating or reading. No matter how often I told myself that I wanted to start the habit of waking up early, my hand automatically went to hitting the snooze button. Over and over. 

James Clear, the author of Atomic Habit, would instantly point out the mistake in my approach. I was too focused on achieving a habit rather than identifying with it. 

Outcomes are about what you get. Processes are about what you do. Identity is about what you believe. When it comes to building habits that last—when it comes to building a system of 1 percent improvements—the problem is not that one level is “better” or “worse” than another. All levels of change are useful in their own way. The problem is the direction of change. Many people begin the process of changing their habits by focusing on what they want to achieve. This leads us to outcome-based habits. The alternative is to build identity-based habits. With this approach, we start by focusing on who we wish to become.

What Clear is speaking about is a shift in your worldview. Instead of trying to achieve a habit and telling yourself you’ll wake up early tomorrow and start the day off right, you should rather identify as an individual who wakes up early. It’s this mindset shift that alters the way you perceive yourself that brings about the change you’re attempting to enact.  

When the alarm clock goes off and your first thought is “Good” then you know you’re on the right path.

Behavior that is incongruent with the self will not last. You may want more money, but if your identity consumes rather than creates, you’ll continue to be pulled toward spending rather than earning. You may want better health, but if you continue to prioritize comfort over accomplishment, you’ll be drawn to relaxing rather than training. It’s hard to change your habits if you never change the underlying beliefs that led to your past behavior. You have a new goal and a new plan, but you haven’t changed who you are.

How you perceive yourself is key and it works both ways. We’ve all either heard someone say or said it ourselves that “I’m not a morning person,” “I suck at math” or “I just don’t like to work out.” These are identity-creating statements, so when those moments occur in life, you resort to the identity you have chosen. When the alarm clock goes off, you hit snooze because that’s what someone who isn’t a morning person would do. When you have a math problem you panic rather than focusing on figuring out the solution because that’s what someone who sucks at math would do. When it’s time to work out, you’ll either skip it or do it without much effort or intensity because that’s what someone who hates to exercise will do. 

When you have repeated a story to yourself for years, it is easy to slide into these mental grooves and accept them as a fact. In time, you begin to resist certain actions because “that’s not who I am.”

True behaviour change is identity change. You might start a habit because of motivation, but you’ll only stick with one because it becomes part of your identity.

This is who I am and this is what I do now. That’s why small steps are extremely important. We often look at the big picture. The big goal we are trying to achieve but in order to actually achieve that goal, we have to take several thousand small steps.

It’s important to break down the habit you’re trying to implement into small steps as well. Something as simple as doing one push-up adds to your identity as someone who exercises. Or heading to bed at 10 pm instead of 10:30 pm can be a checkmark for someone who wakes up early. And over time, when you have deposited enough tokens toward the person you are aiming to be, you will find that your identity has completely evolved as well.  

Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity. This is one reason why meaningful change does not require radical change. Small habits can make a meaningful difference by providing evidence of a new identity.

So, pick the habits you believe your future self needs in order to be successful and begin identifying with them right now. That way, with time, dedication, and consistency, that future self will become the present you. 

Reflections On Building Confidence 

Confidence can be defined in several ways. One of them is the feeling or belief that one can rely on someone or something. Another is a feeling of self-assurance arising from one’s appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities.

What I find curious about both definitions is the verbiage. Confidence is associated with “Feeling” and “Belief”. Whether it’s feeling like you can accomplish a given task or believing you have the ability to do something. But, we know both feelings and beliefs can change. They aren’t fixed in nature. Both things are constantly changing and evolving. So, in terms of confidence, I infer that it too can change.

We can go from being confident to unconfident and from unconfident to confident. This isn’t revolutionary thinking. Most people understand this at the basic level because part of maturing through your teenage years or early adulthood requires some degree of confidence. 

My aim is rather to understand what builds confidence within me and what kind of behaviours and habits zaps my confidence. First and foremost, my confidence is built through action. Inversely, I lose confidence through inaction. For example, the more consistent I am with my writing, the more action I take to put pen on paper and churn out words, the more confident I feel about my abilities. So, when self-doubt strikes, when my confidence falters, I can look at the past month of work, the words written, the pages compiled and strengthen my resolve. 

However, when I was on a more in-consistent schedule where I go several days without taking any action, days which quickly become weeks and several weeks at that, then when self-doubt strikes and my confidence falters, the consequences are a lot more dire because I don’t have actual proof to fall back on. It’s an empty void instead.

Proof is another key ingredient to confidence. You don’t want to hang your hat on the things you have done and become one of those people who always bring up past accomplishments and let everyone know how great he used to be. But, having past accomplishments is important. They are receipts of your actions. They show what you are capable of. And one good thing about this kind of proof is that they depend on the individual.

For example, if you’re comparing yourself to a marathon runner, then running one mile doesn’t seem like a big deal. But if you look back and see the past version of yourself who might not have even been able to walk one mile, then you can see how much of a confidence builder this accomplishment really is. Proof that they can accomplish something their former self thought was impossible.

To someone who reads all the time, finishing a book barely registers. But for someone who is on the path of building a reading habit, they can look back at a finished book and gain confidence that they are moving in the right direction. And when their confidence falters, they have a solid foundation to fall back on. 

Habits are another key ingredient to maintaining confidence. It can often take a long time to see tangible results. So, if you rely too much on results, you can find yourself in the uncomfortable position of wondering whether you’re good enough because the result you’re looking for hasn’t come to fruition. This can cause a major dent in your confidence.

One way to strengthen yourself is by focusing on good habits. Good habits are a whole other topic, but most people instinctively know what are good habits and what are bad habits. Perhaps it’s a bit naive to assume that following good habits will lead you toward your goals in life and following bad ones will lead you away from what you want. Life is rarely that black or white. But at the same time, order is necessary. You have to find these mini-steps that you believe are leading you toward your goals. Good habits happen to just that. 

Perhaps a good analogy is a video game health bar. The health bar is confidence and as you go through your life, that health bar begins to deplete, but each time you perform a good habit, you get a little boost, strengthening your health. Perform enough good habits and you accomplish a result that boosts your bar even more. Accumulate enough results and you add a whole new layer to your bar. One that depletes slower than the previous one.   

One commonality throughout this process is action. Keep moving and keep acting, so your confidence can be refilled over and over again. 

Rainer Maria Rilke On How To Turn Our Thoughts Into Our Best Worker

Tall grass encroached on the patio steps. Weeds burrowed through the cracks in the driveway. The wooden steps creaked an elongated moan as if it were sighing its last breath. The only thing that matched that horrid sound was the front door. Opened, it revealed the dust-covered insides of the once beautiful manor. Cracks slithered along the walls. Bulbs hung limply from above, no longer able to cast their brilliant glow. The furniture inside was looted or broken, torn apart for firewood whose ashes and smoke embedded themselves in the deepest corners of the house.

The memory of his childhood house was all but forgotten, contrasted with the ruined rubble he saw in front of him.

I often imagine our mind as a house, not unlike the one described above. Well, hopefully, the edges are cut, the weed is plucked, the cracks are taken care of and the floors are mopped. But it isn’t so always. Our minds aren’t always orderly. In fact, I’d reckon the opposite is true for most people. I know it has been for me where my thoughts have run wild and broken a few windows here and there, spilled something sticky on the carpet, and maybe even caused a couple of house fires.

This seems to be a law of nature. If you don’t consciously and actively attempt to keep something in order, chaos will eventually take over. Thoughts have a chaotic nature to them. Sometimes they spark up out of nowhere and present you with a life-altering idea and other times they make dents in the preverbal drywall of your mind by telling you that you’re not good enough or distracting you from the uncomfortable and difficult task at hand with comfortable dreams and procrastinating urges.

Both of which are so easy to give in to.

And it seems as if the internal housekeeping issue has been relevant as long as people have been around. Rainer Maria Rilke was born in 1875 and before he passed away in 1926, he wrote some of the most brilliant pieces of advice that strike right at the core of what it is like being a human being. One such piece of advice comes from his Letters to a Young Poet where he brings up the importance of taming your thoughts to be your ally instead of an obstacle.

And your doubts can become a good quality if you school them. They must grow to be knowledgeable, they must learn to be critical. As soon as they begin to spoil something for you ask them why a thing is ugly, demand hard evidence, test them, and you will perhaps find them at a loss and short of an answer, or perhaps mutinous.

What Rilke is talking about is that our thoughts can be amateurish. Infantile. They can lack a depth of meaning and yet when we have such thoughts, we believe them.

When our thoughts tell us we’re not good enough as we’re about to attempt something difficult, we allow them to change our actions. When we dream of something grand, our thoughts stick their leg out and try to make us fall over. And we fall for that centuries-old trick. When we plan to change a bad habit, our thoughts immediately dwell on the very thing we are trying to change and we give into it almost immediately.

Or maybe I’m projecting my own missteps and failure to keep a trimmed lawn.

What Rilke says is true, though. When you have thoughts that lean towards breaking something inside of your house, if you just take a moment to observe them and question them, you can make them understand what to do and what not to do.

Like children, our thoughts can be receptive. If approached correctly. You get angry at them and maybe out of fear they might obey for a moment but eventually, they will go back to their disrupting ways. But if you try to make them think, make them answer a few questions, and break down their motives and logic, then perhaps they can also mature, as do most things in nature.

I have a recent anecdote related to this method that might make it easier to understand.

I was set to do a fartlek workout, which is a 20-minute speed play workout where you run at a faster than your normal speed for 3 minutes and to a more comfortable pace for 2 minutes and you do this 4 times. I had just started my workout when a thought popped up in my head.

“Let’s just do two rounds today.”

The offer was pretty enticing, I can’t lie. But when I questioned this thought, the best answer it could come up with was that I still had a few other things on the to-do list for the day and it was already 6 pm.

Not the worst reasoning.

But when I questioned that reasoning further, I found my thoughts had no answer for why I couldn’t complete my workout and do the things left on my to-do list. Their logic was flawed. I would just have to be more time efficient once I was done with the workout. After that was settled between the two of us, my thoughts became more focused on the task at hand and I had one of my best workouts in several weeks.

And afterward, I had plenty of time to tick off the last couple of things I had left to do. With no interference from the noisy roommate.

This maturation through observation, dissection, and questioning can transform our thoughts from causing havoc inside our heads to strengthening the foundation of our home.

But do not give in, request arguments, and act with this kind of attentiveness and consistency every single time, and the day will come when instead of being demolishers they will be among your best workers — perhaps the canniest of all those at work on the building of your life.

I used to have an antagonistic view of my thoughts. I saw them as an enemy to overcome and once I did that, my life would fall into order and all my dreams will come true and I would live happily ever after.

But life isn’t a fairy tale. Or at least not your typical Disney movie.

Instead, a change of perspective helped me view my thoughts in a different light. Each time my mind acts up and tries to persuade me to break a plate or a cup or maybe even throw a football through the window, in other words, wishes for me to skip my routine, or repeat a behaviour I’m trying to break or wants to cut a productive activity short, I see it as a challenge. As if my mind is challenging me to see if I have the discipline and courage to continue down the path that I have set for myself. In that sense, my mind is my ally. It is constantly putting these mini-challenges in my way to make sure I stay firm and ready in case a big, unexpected challenge comes my way.

Before I would have cursed my thoughts. I would have blamed them for making me mess up. I would have given them the responsibility of my life.

But with the change of perspective, and through questioning, I’m grateful for my thoughts and through this gratitude, I find my thoughts working alongside me, strengthening my resolve and aiding me in the household chores.

Source: Letters To A Young Poet By Rainer Maria Rilke

The Value Of Overcoming Our Own Perceived Image

The dinner table is a marvellous mess of empty cups of wine, mostly empty plates save for the bits of salad dressing that linger, and the cheesecake crumbs from the dessert the two of you shared. The candlelight flickers, as you step out onto the balcony to take in the starry night. Somewhere a slow melody plays. The type that urges a couple in love to hold each other and dance.

And that’s what she wants. She wants to dance with you.

But your think: I don’t dance.

And in that instance, you allow your perceived image of yourself to ruin the beautiful moment.

I don’t dance.

I know I have said that to myself plenty of times and it has resulted in me passively watching life while individuals who are willing to feel the moment and allow that feeling to take over their senses enjoy being alive.

And of course, dancing isn’t the only example of the way we think of ourselves and perceive ourselves that can force us into the passenger seat of life and make us passive. For some, it’s the notion that they are the type of person who doesn’t speak in public. For others, it can be the opposite. They might believe that they have to be the centre of attention in order to get the party started. They aren’t the type of person who can sit back and observe.

There are thousands of examples of how our perceived image keeps us in comfortable patterns, which can be important but can rob us of the spontaneity of life.

Once you have set an identity, it can be extremely difficult to break that mould but it is precisely in this breaking and reforming that we can achieve what Nietzsche called the Ubermensch or the Overman.

I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?

Nietzsche believed that our purpose on Earth was to create something that is beyond ourself. Now, this can be a little vague. What exactly classifies as going beyond ourself? For Nietzsche, this Ubermensch was someone who wasn’t concerned with happiness, reason, virtue, or pity. Rather, it was in the replication of lighting where the Ubermensch resided.

I love all those who are as heavy drops, falling one by one out of the dark cloud that hangs over men: they herald the advent of lightning, and, as heralds, they perish. Behold, I am a herald of the lightning and a heavy drop from the cloud; but this lighting is called overman.

One of the wonderful things about Nietzsche’s writing is that we can interpret it in several ways. My interpretation of the text could very well differ from your interpretation, which is why it’s always good to delve into such writing yourself and see what you can pull from it.

What I pulled from this is that lightning is bright, it strikes powerfully, it’s random and chaotic, and the spark dies as quickly as it arrives.

Lightning is spontaneity.

And in order to overcome oneself, you have to be open to life’s spontaneity and those feelings that spark within you precisely before you hear that voice that tells you what you are or who you are.

The feeling that tells you to dance or to run or to embrace a loved one or to listen or to speak or to create.

In short, to be part of life and take action. That is what lightning is. That is my Ubermensch.

What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end: what can be loved in man is that he is an overture and a going under.

Change is the essence of life. Everything changes. You can look out of your window and see the spring flowers blossoming or the auburn hew of fall approaching or even the withering beauty of stark naked trees, knowing that in time those branches will bud with fresh green leaves.

Likewise, you change. Or at least your appearance does along with the people around you. Those who are there and those who used to be there. And while everything is transitioning and changing, one thing that doesn’t change without conscious effort and action on your part is your identity and belief set.

It’s in that sense you are a bridge between who you used to be and who you can be. In order to cross this bridge, you require a flash of lightning, and the spontaneity to take the first step. You require a little bit of chaos.

I say unto you: one must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star. I say unto you: you still have chaos in yourselves.

Don’t think of your image. Don’t think about your preconceived notions. Don’t live in the judgement of your past.

You can become anew through action, through spontaneity, and by embracing the chaotic lightning within you.

So, that perhaps next time there is that urge to dance and be free, you can give into it, fully, completely, without the shackles of your past identity imprisoning you from feeling alive.

Source: Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche (Walter Kaufmann translation)