Updated: Jun 7, 2022
We all know that chronic stress can be detrimental to our well being, and research abounds confirming this at a physiological level. In my clinical work I see that the effects of unchecked stress - of both psychological and physiological origin - not only detract from mental peace, but are a major factor in the myriad of diseases. Chronic stress can be harmful, yet stressors are seemingly unavoidable in modern life, so what can be done to overcome the negative effects of stress? To reduce sources of stress in the environment is one side of the coin, but what if that simply isn't possible, or worse would create greater difficulty than it solves?
The physiological response to stress is arguably the most important of all survival mechanisms, allowing an organism to adapt to the ever changing environment. Stress in and of itself is not necessarily harmful, but not all stress effects our body and mind the same way.There is a difference between a good stress that leads to growth, and a bad stress which becomes chronic and doesn't serve any purpose. And that difference lies in our perception, our subjective experience of stress. And perception, or interpretation, is at the root of how a stressful thought or situation effects us - for better or worse.
Yet this perception can be shifted, an idea that echoes in the wisdom sayings of a work written nearly 2,000 years ago in Ancient Rome. This treatise of practical philosophy is called The Meditations, written by the legendary Stoic Philosopher, Marcus Aurelius.
In The Meditations, we find practical insights and tools for better understanding our mind and overcoming the unavoidable stresses of life. In this article are four simple truths which ring throughout the meditations, which when understood deeply can transform our relationship with others, ourselves and our environment. The meditations on my first read rang out as profound testament to human wisdom, and a kind tranquility of mind which survives the harshest of conditions. The second time through, I found that the depth in the simplicity of its insights, was something worthy of learning. On my third read, I see the true purpose of the meditations - a book best understood through application. I look forward to what can be found when I later return for a fourth.
Reflecting on the insights in the meditations, one sees how remarkably concise and targeted the aphorisms are. When we apply these understandings, we can see their almost magical effect in bringing our mind into tranquility. A tranquility that is involved in the world, active and connected to the concerns of others. One that doesn't shy away from stress, but rather thrives from overcoming difficulty.
This is a kind of knowledge which philosophers of all ages have sought after, and is not necessarily abstract and theoretical. The Stoic tradition and the Socratic are exemplary of philosophy applied to living a good life - mystical practice, mindfulness and psychotherapy all in one. Stoic philosophy, as exemplified in the writings of Marcus Aurelius is not concerned with explaining the origin of the universe, but rather the origin of a mind settled within itself, tranquil and resolute in action. In other words, an indomitable state of mind that shrugs off stress and thrives because of it.
In our time the word "stoic" often describes someone who doesn't express any emotion, but this is not at all what the stoic philosophers taught. The term stoic comes from the Ancient Greek word Stoa, meaning a covered walkway, spacious and surrounded by columns of marble. These stoic philosophers spent a great deal of time reflecting and discussing the fundamental questions of life in these communal spaces, common in architecture of that time. The Meditations is widely considered to be the most influential of all philosophical writings that fall under the tradition of Stoicism.
In this article I explore four simple truths from the Meditations, which can act as an internal panacea for the mind. In my own life I have found that these insights are of immense benefit in overcoming stress, anxiety and negative mindsets; and I hope you, the reader, finds benefit as well.
"Things have no hold on the soul, they stand there unmoving, outside it. Disturbance comes only from within, from our own perceptions."
( Book 4 Paragraph 3, The Meditations )
Simple Truth #1:
Human life is finite, and therefore precious.
This is the memento mori, the realization of anyone who has witnessed death or contemplated it deeply and honestly. Aurelius returns to this point all throughout the meditations, and many of the greatest philosophies and religions are founded on it. In the Phaedo, Plato described philosophy as meletē thanatou - the practice of death, or the art of dying. Siddartha Guatama spoke on the four signs of conscious life as birth, aging, sickness and death - the unavoidable and fundamental causes of suffering for all living beings. The research on NDE (Near Death Experience) abounds with life transforming insights, all from a realization of mortality. The psychedelic experience in its most transformative aspect is an encounter with this, the ego death or temporary dissolution of everything we think we are; our identity.
One may wonder how it is that remembering death can bring anything other than a morbid fear, or an existential terror. There is a saying, famously attributed to several well known figures who have lived and died: "Live every day as if it is your last, and one day you will be right."
Kicking and screaming, or willingly a time will come when this life will end. We do not know what is on the other side of this, or whether there is anything at all - but one thing seems certain, all that begins has an end. Reflect on whether you agree with this statement, and note your first reaction to it. It is only natural to recoil at this grim truth, to avoid it at any cost, clawing tooth and nail; to "rage, rage against the dying of the light" as that famous poem expresses powerfully. But in the end, change is inevitable and its manifestation that we call death.
Once we acknowledge this deeply, realize the truth of it, we begin a process of self discovery which is not likely in a life where death is not considered. First through fear, anxiety, even a kind of nihilism: "what is the point of anything if it all ends, and nothing lasts?" I will not offer some platitude to soothe that worry, the way to deeper life through an understanding of death is a mystery that we all answer for ourselves, or perhaps not at all. Yet Marcus Aurelius, as if with a sword of wisdom cuts to the very heart of that fear of death; that fear at the root of all the anxieties and worries of life. In Book 2 of The Meditations, he writes:
"The present is the same for everyone, its loss is the same for everyone and it should be clear that a brief instant is all that is lost. For you can't lose either the past or the future; how could you lose what you don't have?"( 2:14)
Death does not take away the past; it already has been taken away, and it doesn't take away the future; it doesn't exist yet. All that we experience is this very moment, ever changing - whether one lives for 10 years or 100,000 years, there is no fundamental difference. Death is not something that happens later, but in this very moment which changes through time. The same present moment we experienced yesterday, the same present that we may experience tomorrow. When tomorrow comes, it is today and so on. That is where we always are, yet we forget and therefore we suffer away the only thing that matters.
"The present is the same for everyone, its loss is the same for everyone and it should be clear that a brief instant is all that is lost.
What Aurelius points out here is that almost nothing is lost by death, just an infinitely small sliver of that experience we call now. And in the moment it took to see a single letter, that is the only thing lost by death. In the most bleak of realities where there is nothing after death, in the worst possible scenario we can imagine - all that death takes away occurs in the blink of an eye. We have already lost the past, it is gone never to return. It remains as a memory, a phantom of imagery in our reminiscing. We are like a boat moving through the ocean that leaves ripples behind it, as Alan Watts pointed out it is our supreme silliness to think that the ripples drive the boat. A focus on our memory is incredibly useful for learning from what has been, but it can also become a subtle trap that hinders our movement forward in the present.
This is a deep perceptual truth of past and future simply being a memory of what was and a projection of what will be, yet the past was experienced in this moment, and the future too will be in this moment. This does not mean that planning for the future isn't useful, it is at the heart of strategy of any kind, of planning ahead and being prepared. Our perceptual error is to believe in the reality of what is a tool of consciousness. If you put a cup on your kitchen counter, chances are tomorrow it will be there - this is the physical reality, but whenever you look at the cup is always experienced now. If you do something now, tomorrow likely that event will have rippled and transformed some other aspect of now. However to believe in the certainty of our memory, or the accuracy of our projection of the future, and even worse to live in it takes us away from the only time that matters, now.
That is what is lost by death, it is always just a loss of the duration of now. Forever is an abstract notion, all we know of existence is experienced in this evolving moment. Contemplate this deeply and you will see that fearing death is the same as fearing life in this moment. What we see of death is the external, the processes of decay and skeletons that point to a grim future. Yet by the time this occurs, if there is no consciousness after death - we will not be there to experience it. So death in some sense is not something that in its grimmest aspects happens to you, but only to those who see it. And the now is steadily approaching, where like a ripe fruit from a tree, we will fall back into nature from which we arose. This is the great mystery, of which Aurelius suggests a thought experiment:
"Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life.
Now take what's left and live it properly." (7.56)
The fear of death is at its root the fear of an idea, in truth who knows what that experience truly is or is not. Perhaps it could be one of great bliss, or hardly experienced at all as the senses dissolve into unconsciousness (as described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead). In fact, in the Tibetan tradition it is believed that prior to passage into other realms or reincarnation, most are not even aware that they have died, existing in a kind of dream realm.
100 billion humans have lived and died before us, and with luck 100 billion+ humans will live and die after us. We suffer this fear of death only when we forget that our life isn't ours to begin with. From nature, from stars, from our parents and their parents, all that we are has been passed on to us. This life is purely a gift, if from a God then it is a blessing, if from Nature it is also a blessing. When we truly love a gift you have been given, what is the best response? Do we thank the giver, and show appreciation - or clutch on and hold on for dear life in desperation.
Yet in either case the existence of the gift is the same, in the first case we feel deep love and appreciation - our own feeling of gratitude is a gift upon a gift. In the second case we are filled with frantic fear, an, a gnawing reminder that the giver always returns to pass the gift on. Therefore what difference is there in a long life versus a short one, when;
"The present is the same for everyone, its loss is the same for everyone and it should be clear that a brief instant is all that is lost."
Birth and death are inextricably linked, they are the same process in different stages. We do not remember our birth, where was it and who experienced it? Was it a blackness, or a void? Was it nothing? What was the experience, and would we know it even happened if there wasn't others to tell us about it, or to show us baby photographs? It is almost as if it never happened at all, when we have no memory of an event.
At its very worst death is nothing at all, an illusion of fear which helps to preserve life, something we see externally. At the very best, death is a kind of transformation into another form of experience, so in either case what remains worthy of fearing? From death comes life in another form, the death of animals nurtures plants, which later nurture animals. Perhaps what we fear most of death is how it reminds us of how far we have disconnected from the world of Nature.
Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what's left and live it properly.
To fear death, to avoid acknowledging it, is to miss out on the greatest treasure we have; this moment. Why hold one's breath, or tense ones muscles for something which is inevitable, unavoidable - whether a visceral fear such as death, or a mild one like stress - when all it does is distract us from an experience of the blessing of the moment. This moment is our life, and that is precious beyond words. When you let your guard down you can be at ease, live fully expressing that gift that is your life. Words fail to describe the mystery of our lives, and the gifts which exist all around us and within us - that we fail to see, blinded by fears which change nothing other than our experience.
In the movie Gladiator, the protagonist quotes Marcus Aurelius as having said: "Death smiles at us all; all a man can do is smile back." Yet what we find when we smile at "death" is that what we actually smile on is life, and understand that human life is finite, and therefore precious.
Simple Truth #2:
We are harmed by our perception, not the experience itself.
"Things have no hold on the soul, they stand there unmoving, outside it. Disturbance comes only from within - from our own perceptions." (4.3i)
Stress is a natural reaction to an external threat, mobilizing the bodies energies to react in a way that preserves life; whether that is a threatening person, a deadline at work, or a car that cuts in front of us unexpectedly. That same stress reaction occurs when blood sugar gets too low (hypoglycemia), we relive a terrible event in our memory (post-trauma), we feel nervous about a perceived/potential threat (anxiety), or we identify with our past (depression). Stress can be triggered from a potential danger we perceive in the environment, or from a thought pattern we accept without question, in either case the physiological impact is the same.
When stress comes from a physiological source like low blood sugar, the body interprets it as a threat and mobilizes epinephrine (adrenaline) from the adrenals to rapidly increase blood sugar levels. Epinephrine signals the liver to convert stored glucagon into glucose, to rapidly spike blood glucose - useful for both hypoglycemia and an external threat alike. Cortisol has a similar function, but is a longer term adaptation to continual stressors. The complete picture of the stress response, and chronic stress adaptation is remarkably complex, and in most cases useful - that is when it is a real stressor.
The stress response helps our body/mind to adapt to the environment, in fact without any stress response we would have very little energy to do anything at all. This occurs in Addisons disease, a kind of adrenal insufficiency characterized by lack of cortisol production which results in significant fatigue, nausea, dizziness on standing, low blood pressure and a host of other symptoms. It is relatively rare, and not synonymous with the functional syndrome of "adrenal fatigue" or general adaptation syndrome as in Dr. Hans Seyle pioneering work. This does however illustrate a key point, cortisol is not inherently bad, it is a signaling hormone that mobilizes our energies (blood sugar primarily) to adapt to the environment.
When you are at work rushing to meet a deadline, in a flow state and feeling energized - epinephrine and cortisol are functioning optimally. The stress response in and of itself can be a pleasant experience, as when we are well conditioned to running or a sport and both stimulating and relaxing simulatenously. This response often activates when we are about to do something with risk or more generally face an unknown. Like give a presentation at school or work, or ask a person you like out for a date. Whether the stress response hinders or motivates is largely determined by our perception, and our reaction to it.
Think back to those times when you felt those "butterflies in the stomach" or your "heart race" in excitement. What occurs physiologically in a performer about to sing a song, or in a job interview is the stress response - the body adapting to a challenge in the environment. When that challenge is overcome, the feeling is satisfaction. When the stress response is unmitigated or based on false perception, it is felt as an overwhelming anxiety that hinders action. What matters most is the interpretation, the internal dialogue which frames the response and alters its expression. The difference is in how that stress is perceived, how we choose to interpret the situation, and how we adapt to the needs of the moment.
Let us explore an instance to illustrate this difference: A performer feels their heart begin to race before they get on stage, and say to themselves internally "why is this happening, this will ruin my performance, this always happens, I'm anxious, etc.". The stress response begins to overwhelm, nerves are shaky and it hinders their ability to perform well. After the performance, the failure weighs heavily on them, and they begin to feel a sense of hopelessness and guilt for who they are. Repeated many times over a pattern begins to form, and an acute stressor becomes chronic stress.
Take this same instance, but instead the performer reacts internally to the initial stress in a different way - they feel their heart begin to speed up and think "I'm ready, I can do this, this is what I trained for, I am here to share something beautiful, etc." They focus their mind in the moment, and resist accepting the limiting thoughts which automatically rise up in their perception. And then when they start their performance the anxious feeling becomes a feeling of excitement and energy. As their stress response is mitigated the jitters melt away into an experience of a flow state, and they are at their very best.
"Choose not to be harmed - and you won't feel harmed. Don't feel harmed - and you haven't been."(4.7)
In the second case what occurs is an adaptive stress response, one where a situation is perceived from a state of positive possibility. This kind of stress is called eustress and is the key ingredient in growth of any kind. This type of stress does not cause harm, as soon after the stressor is overcome, stress levels return to baseline and the body has a new benchmark of what is possible.
In the first case the stress response is "bad", or distress, as the response didn't help adaptation and in fact hindered proper action. What if I told you that in the majority of stress responses, there is no real threat - just a perception based on past experiences or negative internal dialogue. Aurelius speaks to the heart of this with a deep insight:
"Nothing that goes on in anyone else's mind can harm you. Nor can the shifts and changes in the world around you...
Then where is harm to be found?
In your capacity to see it." (4.39)
To the nervous system, a real threat and one remembered or imagined is not significantly different. What you choose to think you become, how you perceive an event influences how it effects you. In many cases this comes about through a reflection after the fact, when it becomes clear a negative thought or memory is causing distress.
Our perception of the event, and how we react to it is the difference between helpful eustress and chronic distress - all from the same stressor. How often do we incorrectly interpret something someone said or did, and how often do we think an event will happen one way only to recognize it turned out completely different than expected? Almost always.
"Progress for a rational mind means not accepting falsehood or uncertainity in its perceptions." (8.7)
We go to bed on a Sunday feeling dread for the next day of work, rather than gratefulness to be employed, to have a chance to help someone, or just simply to be alive. We experience this dread when we accept the perception as truth, rather than questioning it's validity. It may turn out that the dread has truth to it, but only in reflection can know if best to change course or to change our view.
If not reflected on deeply, the best aspects of our lives can become sources of distress, and the worst aspects are tolerated unnecessarily. This is something more than affirmations, it is the mental technique of examining events and people in a truer and more honest light. In other words, perceiving through the lens of wisdom, the best of what we know to be true.
Simple Truth #3:
Knowing what is in your control, frees you from what is not.
"I can control my thoughts as necessary; then how can I be troubled? What is outside my mind means nothing to it." (7.2)
Our greatest tool of mind is knowing what we can control and what we cannot, what needs to be changed and what needs to be accepted. This is something with no black and white, no generally right answer. It is a reflection within that questions what is taken for granted as true, particularly in regards to our thoughts, feelings, interpretations and beliefs about the world, ourselves and others.
How often do we become overcome from stress from situations we cannot control? Adrenaline and fury surge internally when caught in a traffic jam that couldn't have come at a worse time. Stress from the uncertainty of what's going on in a significant others mind, or stress from the worst of outcomes that our minds conjure about the future. A whole book can be written on the uncontrollable situations which spark stress, and a single paragraph on what is within our control in these situations.
The meditations of Marcus Aurelius give us a solution to chronic stress, one not requiring anything other than an intentional reflection and transformation of our mindset towards stressors. What is within my control in this situation, and what is not? This question reorients our view to a focus on the only thing within our power to influence, ourselves.
In the traffic jam, what option is there other than to accept the situation, and adapt as needed? What could have been controlled (leaving earlier) has faded away, and frustration and fuss in the moment help little to change anything . We can learn from these experiences only when we have the presence of mind to focus on what we can do about it, whether in the moment or after reflection. This simple insight saves hours of unneeded stress every day, applied with the question: Is this in my control?
If not, what else is there but to accept it, and focus on what is in your control: how you choose to perceive and react to the thought, situation, or person.
What is in our control? Conscious thoughts, actions, decision, reactions and all those phenomena within the sphere we call our self. We always have a potential to react to a situation with awareness, or a thought with awareness. In this lies the greatest power of the human mind. The power to choose our reaction, to choose our internal destiny, to reside in our inner tranquility in the midst of a chaotic environment. When we become unconscious of our internal experience, or react habitually we lose not only our potential to adapt, but are at the whim of past conditioning and external forces upon us. Therefore, Aurelius writes:
"Let it happen, if it wants, to whatever it can happen to. And what's effected can complain about it if it wants. It doesn't hurt me unless I interpret its happening as harmful to me. I can choose not to." (7.14)
You can choose to not be harmed by things out of your control, and you can choose to accept the situation rather than ruining your experience for hours, days, and even years. We cannot control the actions of others, though we constantly try to, we cannot control what happens at work, we cannot control anything other than our perception and our action.
Letting go of what is out of our control is not synonymous with doing nothing, and in fact remembering what is within your control often shows us the best course of action. Next time a thought pattern sparks feelings of stress or anxiety, take a moment reflect on whether you can do something about it. If you find you can do something, then simply do it. If it is outside of your control, accept it or simply let it go. A simple insight, but one which is known only through practice, and application.
Knowing what you can change for the better and acting on it, is the root of discipline and the way out of unnecessary suffering. Our reaction to the internal (within our control) will define whether a challenge is a growth opportunity, or a cause of unmitigated stress. There is always something that can be done, even if it is choosing to do nothing.
Aurelius offers guidance through a change in mindset towards our goals, one which transforms our intentions and thereby our perception. He writes that the rational being focuses on:
"Making unselfish actions its only aim, seeking and shunning only the things it has control over, and embracing what nature demands of it. The nature in which it participates, as the leaf's nature does in the tree's." (8.7)
Much suffering comes when we forget that we are like a leaf in the tree of life, each with our own unique contribution and role within it. And the a tragedy of life is putting off the most important things for a future in which they are not fulfilled. What that important thing is, is as unique as we are and the journey of life seems to be the process of discovering and expressing that.
In centering oneself towards the good, and applying discipline to carrying it out, we find acceptance and peace:
"Love the discipline you know, and let it support you. Entrust everything willingly to the gods, and then make your way through life. No one's master and no one's slave." (4.31)
No one's master and no one's slave, not seeking to control others, nor to allow ourselves to be controlled. The stoic philosopher, Epictetus, spent the first 18 years of his life as a slave to a secretary of Nero. He once wrote: "Whoever wishes to be free, let him neither wish for anything nor avoid anything which depends on others." In the midst of the most crushing external situations, he became free in spite of it all.
Tibetan monks imprisoned when the communists invaded their land, were kept in terrible conditions for years. Yet at night, against the rules of the prison, would practice meditation quietly. In interviews afterwards, they had not a shred of hate towards anyone and used the experiences to become more compassionate, and more at peace. Their reasoning was that they only have control over one thing, their state of mind. And instead of allowing the environment to dictate how they should feel, the rebelled by becoming even more devoted to their practice.
The body may be locked away but the mind always flies as free as it wishes. If it applies to the very worst of circumstances, how much more so to everyday stresses and challenges. We are all prisoners of a mind un-questioned, of allowing the external to influence our internal state unproductively. The good news is that we hold the very key we need to free ourselves from this tyranny of unexamined thoughts. Marcus Aurelius reminds us:
"Don't be anxious, nature controls it all... Concentrate on what you have to do, fix your eyes on it. (8.5)