Listen to this story
At 17, Marcus Aurelius was adopted. It made him heir to the throne of Rome.
Born into a wealthy family, Aurelius was primarily raised in the household of his grandfather. Both his parents passed away relatively early in his life.
From the start, his defining characteristic was his pursuit of knowledge. He was drawn to philosophy, and he was particularly interested in Stoicism — a subset based on the notion that behaviors, not thoughts or words, should define virtue.
According to legend, the old Emperor Hadrian took notice of him after a brush with death, and impressed with a young Aurelius, Hadrian adopted him into his line of succession.
Aurelius upheld his duty to the state for over 20 years, through the death of Hadrian and throughout the rule of Antoninus Pius, until the day he became the Emperor of Rome.
The Image of the Man
There’s much uncertainty regarding the details of Marcus Aurelius’ story. It’s almost 2,000 years old, and most sources are questionable at best. The clearest image of the man is painted through a series of notes he wrote to himself, known by the name of Meditations.
Meditations is one the most influential works of Stoicism. There isn’t much left to be said about it that hasn’t been said before. It’s a timeless manual for living a balanced life.
More than a philosophy, however, it also gives us insight into the clarity with which Marcus Aurelius thought. He very much saw the world as it was rather than as he hoped it would be. That may not sound like an accomplishment, but it’s rarer than most of us would like to think.
The application of this kind of awareness pays dividends in every aspect of life, and we can dissect Aurelius’ story to break down how it can be deliberately nurtured.
First, the hurdle.
The Problem of Having an Efficient Brain
Every day, we’re loaded with external stimuli, and if we were to absorb each one of these stimuli, we wouldn’t be able to function properly. It would overwhelm our brain, and we would cease to operate in a way that would allow us to attend to our daily responsibilities.
As a result, the brain has efficiency filters. It’s good at figuring out what information we need and when. It knows that if you’re in a busy restaurant, for example, the sound of the person you’re talking to is more important than the background noise, so it adjusts.
This mechanism, however, unfortunately also comes with an unintended side-effect. The byproduct is that, sometimes, attention isn’t fully deployed to certain areas of importance unless we’re active in directing it there. With efficiency, there’s compromise.
Michael Kane is a cognitive psychologist at The University of North Carolina who studies the interaction between memory and attention.
In one of his experiments, he sampled students for their thoughts at eight random times in a day for a week. Out of 124 participants, he found that, on average, people were thinking about something entirely different to what they were doing about 30% of the time.
This is a conservative number compared to the results turned up by similar work, and it shows how easy it is to neglect relevant information and fall into the trap of our brain’s default setting.
There are three ways to fight this.
1. Train Yourself to Fight the Autonomous Loop
Throughout Meditations, Aurelius is active in pointing out the value of looking beyond what we intuitively see on the surface in daily life to better understand the world. In his own words:
“Nothing has such power to broaden the mind as the ability to investigate systematically and truly all that comes under thy observation in life.”
Although attention doesn’t automatically lend itself to each relevant piece of information, we can train our brain to be more proactive. By keeping this fact at the top of our mind, we can paint a more representative picture of the world. That’s where awareness and clear thinking begin.
Set a few times in your day to really look and to listen. Be deliberate in seeking to bypass the compromise made by the autonomous brain. There’s a lot out there, and a lot of it matters.
2. Harness Objectivity Through Another Pair of Eyes
One of the cornerstones of awareness is objectivity. It’s a kind of neutrality that aims to see the world as it is and not through personal judgment and bias. It’s not easy to cultivate.
By design, our senses absorb information in relation to where we are, what we’re doing, and how we feel. The world bombards us with stimuli, and these stimuli follow a different neural pathway in each of us. We all make sense of them differently.
We predominantly go through life understanding the world and influencing our behavior like we’re at the center of reality, and that everything around us derives its importance according to how it fits into our narrative. It warps our perception of our surroundings and how they unfold.
In cosmology, the Copernican Principle states that Earth has no privileged position in the universe. In spite of its importance to us, on a grander scale, it’s very unimportant.
The same reasoning applies to people. Despite the intensity with which we feel and sense, much of what happens in the broader world isn’t just about us. There’s a larger picture, and there’s more going on. The sooner we can put aside our personal biases, the sooner we can understand reality for what it is rather than how we feel about it. It’s a crucial distinction.
Throughout his work, one thing that stands out about Aurelius is his profound ability to step away and out of his own mind and see the world and himself without emotional attachment. It helps explain the depth of his insights.
He was able to expand his circle of awareness by tuning himself out and by aspiring to see things from a pair of eyes with more than just a singular perspective. It’s a very practical tactic, and most of us don’t use it enough.
Step outside your own shoes, conceptualize your observations as if you’re in the body of someone else around you, and try to harness objectivity through a different host of eyes.
3. Routinely Seek out Ways to Declutter the Mind
One of the distinguishing aspects of Meditations is that Aurelius didn’t write it for anyone other than himself. By all accounts, it appears to be a very personal journal. There isn’t much coherence or structure to how it’s presented.
This tells us that his purpose for writing wasn’t necessarily to share his wisdom, but it was likely to practice clearing out and organizing his own mind. There’s a lot of sense in doing that, and a look into the work of Dr. James W. Pennebaker explains why.
Pennebaker is a pioneer in writing therapy and a professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. American Psychological Association has recognized his work on the benefits of journaling as some of the most important in the field.
In 1994, Pennebaker and his team split people who had been out of a job for eight months into three groups. The first was asked to write about their layoff and how they felt about it, the second was invited to write but about nothing in particular, and the final group was given no writing instructions.
The participants that recorded their layoff experiences were notably more likely to find new jobs in the aftermath of the study. By writing, they were able to formally declutter the stress and the noise in their minds and become more aligned with what they were feeling. It gave them the push they needed to grasp where they were and where they needed to go.
Similar studies by Pennebaker have shown the benefits of journaling range from helping people better manage trauma to a bolstered immune system.
By journaling, Aurelius was able to extract the information restlessly roaming around in his mind and organize it into concrete principles he could strive towards. For others, this same effect is reached through meditation, nature walks, or even certain types of exercise.
The human mind is extremely noisy, but by creating a routine that allows us to clear it up, we can make it less so. By building a habit that focuses on ordering our thoughts, we can declutter the complexity that comes with living in an increasingly busy and crowded world.
All You Need to Know
Awareness is defined as a state of being conscious. Conscious of relevant knowledge, conscious of surroundings, and conscious of personal feelings and thoughts. It’s a state of mind that aims to understand reality as close to the truth as possible.
Marcus Aurelius is known today as what the Greek philosopher Plato characterized as a Philosopher King. A political leader who actively aspired to wisdom and was primarily driven towards knowledge. A leader who relentlessly asked what it means to live well.
More than his virtues and desires, however, what drove Aurelius to successfully lead one of the most powerful empires in history was his ability to leverage the clarity of his mind.
The scope of your awareness defines the outer limit of what you can accomplish. The more you know, the more accurately you can understand your surroundings. The better you are at organizing your thoughts, the more possibilities lie ahead of you.
The ability to think clearly is a keystone advantage, and it can be acquired like any other skill. Practice.