Rule 1:

You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength.

One of the most important, if not the most important practices of Stoic philosophy is the understanding that there is very little within the reach of our control. Almost everything that goes on around us will happen despite our efforts to stop it, and it’s up to us to come to terms with the things we can change and the things we can’t.

Aurelius points out that we really only have control over the workings of our mind, our thoughts, beliefs, and actions. When we focus our effort here we become resilient, responsible, effective, and we work towards mastering our inner world and in doing so we learn to master how we respond to the outer world, often for the better.

When we focus on outside events, we’re spending our time and energy trying to control the things in life we don’t have full control over, in doing so we risk becoming frustrated, ineffective, and our well being becomes less stable. On this same topic, the Stoic philosopher Epictetus said:

Working within our sphere of control, we are naturally free, independent, and strong. Beyond that sphere, we are weak, limited, and dependent. If you pin your hopes on things outside your control, taking upon yourself things which rightfully belong to others, you are liable to stumble, fall, suffer, and blame both gods and men.

Rule 2:

It’s silly to try to escape other people’s faults. They are inescapable. Just try to escape your own.

On the topic of control, other people and their behaviour falls on the side of what’s outside the reach of our power. Some argue that a person can control another through power, strength, blackmail or other means, but in reality a person always has the ability to decide how to act at any moment and will never truly be controlled.

The behaviours, beliefs, values, biases and perceptions of other people are outside the reach of our control, and as such they are things that we need to learn to accept. Marcus Aurelius explains that we can’t escape these things, we can’t escape contact with people we disagree with, we can’t escape people we find rude or abrasive, all we can do is learn to accept them so that they lessen the impact on our peace of mind, while at the same time working on developing ourselves to act in a way that aligns with who we want to be.

To add more context; in his lectures, the Stoic philosopher Epictetus speaks of a fig tree – the person who expects the fig tree to bear oranges instead of figs should be thought of as a fool, it is the nature of the fig tree to bear figs, and should be accepted as such. Similarly, it is in the nature of the individual to behave in alignment with their values and beliefs, and should be accepted as such.

Rule 3:

The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.

Whatever stands in our way does not have to be seen as an obstacle but a new way. With this perspective we lessen the burden of the things ahead of us that seem to be obstructions, and we see them as a path forward, often with useful lessons, helpful experiences and difficulties that can make us stronger people.

The full passage is as follows:

In one respect man is the nearest thing to me, so far as I must do good to men and endure them. But so far as some men make themselves obstacles to my proper acts, man becomes to me one of the things which are indifferent, no less than the sun or wind or a wild beast. Now it is true that these may impede my action, but they are no impediments to my affects and disposition, which have the power of acting conditionally and changing: for the mind converts and changes every hindrance to its activity into an aid; and so that which is a hindrance is made a furtherance to an act; and that which is an obstacle on the road helps us on this road.

Rule 4:

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.

The Stoics believed that one of the main sources of suffering is caused not by what happens around us, but how we interpret what happens around us. For example, if we’re stuck in traffic there are people who will complain and work themselves into a state of suffering because they expect to be moving, not standing still. However it is not the traffic that is causing them to suffer, it’s the belief that they should be moving, the expectation that they shouldn’t encounter traffic, and the belief that arriving late to whatever they are driving to will be a terrible thing, all of which adds to the experience of suffering.

In reality the traffic is neutral, it’s not good or bad, it’s simply a reality of driving. Sometimes we’ll encounter it, and sometimes we won’t. We can either accept that the standstill is outside of our control and make a decision on how to pass the time, or we can sit and project our expectations and beliefs onto it and suffer.

This example can extend to anything, from driving to job interviews, to the weather, the economy, other people, and almost everything external outside the reach of our control. The person who understands that their interpretation of events will dictate how they respond to it is not only better able to change their perspective in the moment but as a result is likely to suffer less.

Rule 5:

You always own the option of having no opinion. There is never any need to get worked up or to trouble your soul about things you can’t control. These things are not asking to be judged by you. Leave them alone.

This is a lesson from Marcus Aurelius that seems to be becoming more and more relevant in the modern world. Social media and the amount of information we have access to means that we’re constantly being exposed to different views, world events, news articles, human rights issues, belief systems, natural disasters, social causes and a whole host of other things going on in the world around us. Not only this but we’ll have more direct things happen around us in the form of our jobs, relationships, health, finances, mental health, and general life.

We don’t have to have an opinion about everything around us, we don’t have to judge everything we see. We can be deliberate about how we focus our time and energy. If we don’t guard this we risk both spreading ourselves too thin and holding opinions that are not very well thought out and simply based on the small pieces of information we’ve come across, both of which have their own problems.

Being deliberate with what we have strong opinions about and what we choose to care about not only helps us protect our wellbeing, it allows us to focus on a select few areas competently rather than everything poorly.

Rule 6:

Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil. But for my part I have long perceived the nature of good and its nobility, the nature of evil and its meanness, and also the nature of the culprit himself, who is my brother (not in the physical sense, but as a fellow creature similarly endowed with reason and a share of the divine); therefore none of those things can injure me, for nobody can implicate me in what is degrading. Neither can I be angry with my brother or fall foul of him; for he and I were born to work together, like a man’s two hands, feet or eyelids, or the upper and lower rows of his teeth. To obstruct each other is against Nature’s law – and what is irritation or aversion but a form of obstruction.

Throughout meditations Aurelius shows remarkable compassion and empathy for other people, here he demonstrates his ability to see the ignorance in others as a cause for negative behaviour, it’s not that some people are deliberately destructive, its that their values, beliefs and experiences unconsciously result in destructive behaviour and they don’t know another way. People whose behaviour is unconscious are products of their environment until they’re aware of how their past is influencing their present actions.

Rule 7:

Time is like a river made up of the events which happen, and a violent stream; for as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away too.

A running theme in mediations is that of change – the universe is change, the nature of everything around us is to change from one thing to something else over time. Firewood needs to change to provide heat, food needs to change to nourish us, people change over time, and events change. To expect things not to change is to resist the nature of the universe we live in, and as Aurelius writes; as soon as something has come, it will be gone and replaced with another. All we can do is learn to accept change as it is, and enjoy the good it brings us.

The last few lessons don’t need much of a description so I’ve added them to the end as quotes passages.

Rule 8:

At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work — as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for — the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?”

So you were born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?

You don’t love yourself enough. Or you’d love your nature too, and what it demands of you.

Rule 9:

When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive-to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.

Rule 10:

If any man despises me, that is his problem. My only concern is not doing or saying anything deserving of contempt.

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