On World Meditation Day, Madeleine Bower contemplates the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and their continuing relevance in the context of our year-long global pandemic
2020 was a year like no one had experienced in recent times. After lockdowns, closed borders, an uncertain vaccine rollout and a tragic global fatality rate it is no wonder that our mental wellbeing has taken a steep decline. We are more anxious, uncertain, and isolated. As a result, many people have been looking for solutions to alleviate these stresses. For some it’s copious amounts of wine, for others it’s mindfulness and meditation.
Whilst meditation brings to mind a bunch of people in yoga pants breathing deeply and sipping almond lattes, the act of mindfulness is in fact thousands of years old. Modern meditation is the act of directing attention to the present moment whilst having a non-judgemental awareness of thoughts and feelings. In the 2nd century CE, Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius espoused this exact mindset. During the last 14 years of his reign, the Roman Empire was hit by one of the worst plagues in European history. As the Antonine Plague (it was named after him) ravaged the empire, Roman historian Dio Cassius (155-235 CE) estimated 2,000 deaths in Rome per day during the height of the outbreak with carts leaving the city piled high with bodies. Lucius Verus, co-emperor with Marcus Aurelius succumbed to the disease in 169CE, leaving Marcus to rule the empire alone. No wonder he needed to meditate.
During this period Marcus wrote his ‘Meditations’, or as it was called in the Greek, ‘To Himself’. In what could be described as a reflective journal, he wrote himself psychological advice on how to cope with anxiety and loss as well as moral advice on how to be a good leader. In a Covid-19 context, ‘Meditations’ is a manual to mindfulness during our protracted pandemic. Marcus was of the stoic school of philosophy and would use the teachings and ideas as the cornerstone of his writing.
Stoicism originated in Athens in the early 3rd century BC and centred around the notion that happiness or peace can only be found in accepting the present. Pleasure and pain can only harm us if we allow them to. All things outside of our control cannot affect us until we inwardly decide to be harmed or benefited. Therefore, “if you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it”. It is from this intentional indifference to pain that the modern meaning of the word ‘stoic’ is derived.
This non-judgemental awareness of the bad things that happen in our lives can be hard to achieve. Marcus himself admitted that he often struggled to live as a philosopher. For the Stoic philosopher, part of being able to influence how you think comes from acknowledging that we are mostly not in control of the things that happen in our lives. All we can control is how we think and feel.
This logic could not be more relevant. How we live our lives is constantly changing based on decisions outside of our control; the uncertainty of being able to travel to see loved ones, or whether we’ll be locked down again by another outbreak. Knowing that the pandemic is outside of our control but our response to it is, goes a little way to alleviating anxiety.
Another stoic strategy often used in modern mindfulness, is to focus on the things that you are grateful for. In the very first chapter of ‘Meditations’ Marcus opened with a list of the family, friends and teachers he admired. He commented on the value of their teachings, from the Greek scholar who taught him not to nit-pick at other people’s use of incorrect grammar, to his tutor who taught him not to patronise his least favourite gladiator on the sporting field. No matter how simple the gratitude, Marcus made a note of it.
The benefits of gratitude to our mental health have been so widely recorded that gratitude meditation is often practiced as its own subcategory with clear links to increased wellbeing. If it’s good enough for the Roman emperor, it’s good enough for us.
While Marcus wrote about being grateful for the little things, he was by no means unaware of our place in the bigger picture. He wrote extensively about accepting our insignificance in the vastness of the universe and time. By putting his own short life into context, he grasped the absurdity of the idea that the cosmos can be bent to the will of an individual. Even one as powerful as an emperor. By acknowledging that we are a small part of a greater whole, we must also recognise that our demise is inevitable and nothing to worry about. Marcus wrote:
“ Go through one by one and those whom you personally knew: one bury one, the other — the other, and then they die themselves — and all this for a short period of time. In general, one should look at everything human as fleeting and short-lived — that which was yesterday still in its infancy, tomorrow is a mummy or dust. So, spend this moment of time in harmony with nature, and then part with life as easily as a ripened olive falls: praising the nature that gave birth to it, and with thanks to the tree that produced it. ” (IIIV, 48).
In a nutshell, life is short, and death is inevitable so focus on the present and be grateful. While this is easier said than done, there are lessons that can be learnt from reading the ‘Meditations’. As Stoic philosophy helped Marcus Aurelius mindfully navigate the pandemic of the 2nd century, likewise it can help us navigate the pandemic of the 21st century.
Madeleine Bower is an AAIA volunteer and an undergraduate student at the University of Sydney where she is studying a Bachelor of Media and Communications, majoring in Archaeology. When she’s not writing she loves diving historical wrecks and telling people off for removing things they’re not supposed to.