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. 

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)

Reflections On Love

Love is boundless. Its affection blankets people, objects, animals, ideas, the self moments in time, and moments yet to come. Love has no limits. It doesn’t discriminate. It’s a feeling which can create bodily reactions like the quickening of breath, a faster heartbeat, the rising of heat through you, and in that moment, you are present. Love is then what makes you present in the moment. Makes you live in the now. 

To love is to be present.

But love is also in the past and the future. The commitment you made in the past which stemmed from love, a commitment to love someone, a commitment to work towards a goal, a commitment to become someone, it steers your movements still, in the now. The same commitment can cause you to sacrifice for the future. You come to sacrifice your own needs and wants for someone or something outside of you.

To love is to sacrifice.

But that sacrifice can hurt you. You may give love but not receive it. It isn’t an equal exchange. So you give for the sake of giving, but the pain is still there when you don’t get it back. When your sacrifices are used up, disregarded, wasted, misplaced, the pain is bitter and so love balances with hate and if you’re not careful, love becomes hate. So, love is something to be wary of.

To love is to expose yourself to pain.

But it’s in the giving that you feel love. The dichotomy. It’s when you are willing to be vulnerable that you step closer to loving because vulnerability reveals your deep care and affection. You are willing to get hurt, feel pain, even tip towards hate for the sake of love. And to be vulnerable is a mindset. You know consciously you are giving or exposing a part of yourself.. Love is a mindset. You see life through the eyes of love, and it both frees you and binds you. Frees you in the manner that you are seeking goodness when you look at life through loving eyes. But, it can be binding too because when your love is reciprocated and you lose it, then you lose a part of you and are bound to that loss, searching for it, knowing you can’t replace it but need to do so, need to find it, need to be whole again and so, you’re bound to search.

To love is to accept loss.

What do I think of love?

I think love is tainted by romantic ideals. Those ideals are just the surface level.

I think love is in discipline. Disciplined towards viewing life with love. Disciplined towards someone or something.

I think love is in the everyday task. Love allows you to see the uniqueness in the mundane.

I think love is fleeting and needs to be recaptured over and over like any other feeling.

I think love is a mindset. A conscious effort to act with love.

I think love is in denial. To commit to someone or something rather than everything.

I think love goes beyond humans. Love of work. Love of nature. Love of life.

I think to love means to love your fate. The good and the bad. The pleasure and the pain. The success and the disappointment. Heartbreaks and tragedy. Moments of elation and richness. All of it is yours. 

All of it you must love. 

Lessons From Michel De Montaigne (Part One)

The Essays by Michel De Montaigne cover a vast variety of topics centered around human nature. At his core, Montaigne was a Humanist, and so the aim of The Essays was to explore the individual and to describe humans as truthfully as possible. Montaigne’s work is rich and yet, he could make complex topic seem simple as he discussed things like death, emotions, friendships, love, fame, the purpose of life, the meaning of life, the lack of control an individual has, ego, the mind, psychology, Stoicism and so on.

The following is part one of the series of lessons derived from his work.

From the Essay, On Sadness, Guard Yourself Against Extreme Emotions:

Emotions themselves are neither good nor bad, but when pushed to the extreme, they can harm us. Extreme anger can cause us to act irrationally and out of character. Extreme sadness can lead to depression but the opposite emotion, extreme excitement and joy, can cause harm too as Montaigne relates in the antidote about a mother’s inability to handle the joy she felt when she saw her son return home from battle and ended up passing away. Extreme happiness can also be a catalyst to sadness as our overwhelming joy is temporary and we can fall into the trap of comparing our present times to those extremely happy ones.

Violent emotions like these have little hold on me. By nature my sense of feeling has a hard skin, which I daily toughen and thicken by arguments.

Two practices to toughen one’s skin towards these emotions: 

Reminders: When good times or bad times occur, remind yourself they are temporary and they too shall pass. 

Reflection: Often when we set goals and take action, we think only of success. So, when the failure or disappointment happens, it intensifies the feelings associated with it. So, it is better to reflect on the worst-case scenario as well, in case it comes true. This way we have already built some resistance to the emotions which will accompany it. 

From the Essay, Our Emotions Get Carried Away Beyond Us, How To Deal With One Form Of Anxiety:

Wretched is the mind anxious about the future.

As Montaigne says, “We are never at home,” meaning that we spend much of our time either in the past or in the future. Lamenting upon the things that have happened or fearfully looking towards the things that might take place. Both realms of life are out of our direct control, and so we feel anxious. In order to remedy this feeling, we have to concentrate on the present moment. This very day, this hour, the minute, this second. When we concentrate on our actions right now, we can escape our mind and come home to the present. The present is where we can actually exert our influence. In the now we can take action and move ourself towards the desired future.

From the Essay, How The Soul Discharges Its Emotions Against False Objects When Lacking Real Ones, Harmful Effect Of The Unruly Mind:

But we shall never utter enough abuse against the unruliness of our minds.

With this singular sentence, Montaigne strikes at the root of many of our problems. The unruly mind and our lack of control over it. It is easier to blame other people or circumstances for our troubles than it is to take ownership of our own thought process and decision making. The unruly mind is rot with procrastination, inactivity, and lack of impulse control. The mind needs to be tamed. It needs to serve the individual instead of the individual serving it. The mind simply wants pleasure. It wants the path of least resistance. But in doing so, you can end up sacrificing things you don’t want to. You can sacrifice your health, your relationships, your goals and aspirations if you follow an unruly mind.

From the Essay, The Hour Of Parlaying Is Dangerous, It Is Not Enough To Achieve Something But What Matters Is How You Achieve It:

This line of thinking is similar to Scott Adams‘ idea of Systems versus Goals, as mentioned in Tim Ferriss‘ book Tools of Titans.

Fundamentally, “systems” could be thought of as asking yourself, “What persistent skills or relationships can I develop?” versus “What short-term goal can I achieve?” The former has a potent snowball effect, while the latter is a binary pass/fail with no consolation prize.

There might be easier, quicker roads to achieving your goals, but sometimes, it is better to take the more difficult route so you can hone particular habits, attitudes, and qualities which will be more beneficial in the long run.

This can require a shift in our perspective. Instead of looking at a goal as something to cross off our list, we can view that as the destination whose journey will help us build more discipline, or healthier relationships, or self-confidence, or simply the ability to persist.

From the Essay, That Our Deeds Our Judged By Our Intentions, Meditate On Your Obituary:

If I can, I will prevent my death from saying anything not first said by my life.

How do you want to live? One way to answer this question could be to meditate on your death, on what you want your loved ones to say about you after you pass. Which qualities do you want them to remember? What moments? Experiences? Achievements? And then work on making sure you will live up to those words. Aim for your life to personify each word and to make each word true. This way, when the end comes, the life you have lived can vouch for the kind of person you were.

From the Essay, On Idleness, Life Requires Aims:

When the soul is without a definite aim she gets lost, as they say, if you are everywhere you are nowhere.

Along with the basic necessities for life, what human beings need are objectives. Aims are like beacons of light, helping the individual navigate life. What is best is to have goals in all areas of your life, health, relationship, career, hobbies, so that you are always moving forward. Having an aim forces the individual to work on his discipline and focus muscles. To stay consistent. All these tools can then further enhance the experience of life. 

From the Essay, On A Ready Or Hesitant Delivery, Achieve The Balance Between Wit And Judgement:

Like most things in life, our thought process also requires a balance. In its case, the balance is between judgement and wit. Meaning, you need to think on your feet and take advantage of sudden opportunities (wit) but also be able to take your time and come up with a proper plan of action, something more long term and structured (judgment). We can apply this kind of thought pattern to other aspects of life. For example, if you are a writer and you are working on a novel, you need to have a structured approach (judgement) but, you need to flow with the present moment and allow yourself to break the structure and discover new possibilities (wit). Even feelings can fall under this umbrella. There is a fine line between overriding lets say the feeling of being tired so you can stick to your routine and needing a break when you’re overworked.

In order to become more proficient at making the right call with judgement or wit, we need to act more in life so more scenarios and possibilities show up where the right balance is needed. This way we can add more repetitions to our decision-making process.

From the Essay, On Constancy, Bear What You Cannot Change Or Influence:

Constancy is an important quality to develop in order to deal with life’s difficulties. Montaigne defines constancy as the ability to bear misfortunes which have no remedy. We can fall into a hopeful trap where we believe every issue or problem has a way out. But some misfortunes are there, and they remain there, and all one can do is bear it with grace. Many aspects of life are out of our control. But one thing we do control is our attitude and reaction. To show constancy during trying times can be a sign of a strong character.

Sometimes the best course of action in the present moment is constancy. So, instead of making a rash decision which may cause us more harm, it’s better to bear the misfortune and in due time alternative possibilities may emerge which can allow us to find a positive in the misfortune.