Meditations: A Roman Emperor’s Guide to Letting Go of Jealousy and Possessiveness

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During a recent interview, I was asked to recommend just one book that every man should read.

I chose to recommend a book I think everyone can benefit from, regardless of their gender: the classic Meditations by the ancient Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Marcus Aurelius is one of the fathers of Stoicism, the ancient school of Hellenistic philosophy

The writer Nassim Taleb described the Stoics as “Buddhists with an attitude problem.” Pretty spot-on.

Stoics emphasize the virtues of resilience, honour, humility, and integrity, maintaining that destructive emotions arise from errors in judgment. When we can learn to dispassionately identify these errors in judgment for what they really are, destructive emotions lose their grip on us. (Readers of my guidebook on overcoming retroactive jealousy should be well acquainted with this way of thinking.)

Meditations was written by Marcus Aurelius between 161 and 180 AD as a series of personal writings and private notes. It is unknown whether or not Aurelius ever wanted these essays to be published; it seems more likely that he wrote the book simply to keep a record of his own life lessons and personal development.

Today, Meditations is one of the most celebrated works of ancient philosophy–and just as relevant and valuable today as it was when it was written nearly 2000 years ago.

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As I was reading Meditations and highlighting various passages, I realized how valuable this book could be for sufferers of retroactive jealousy.

Although Aurelius doesn’t explicitly mention jealousy in relationships, his fundamental message of taking responsibility for your mental well-being, embracing the present, and letting go of imaginary problems is inspiring for anyone stuck in a loop of negative thinking.

Below I’ve included my highlights from Meditations that are most relevant to sufferers of retroactive jealousy.

(My advice? Save this post, read it slowly, take time to pause and reflect, and return to it when necessary.)

Here’s Marcus Aurelius, from Meditations:

Your ability to control your thoughts—treat it with respect. It’s all that protects your mind from false perceptions—false to your nature, and that of all rational beings. It’s what makes thoughtfulness possible, and affection for other people, and submission to the divine.

Concentrate every minute like a Roman—like a man—on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. Yes, you can—if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable. You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life?

Forget everything else. Keep hold of this alone and remember it:

Each of us lives only now, this brief instant.

The rest has been lived already, or is impossible to see. The span we live is small—small as the corner of the earth in which we live it. Small as even the greatest renown, passed from mouth to mouth by short-lived stick figures, ignorant alike of themselves and those long dead.

People try to get away from it all—to the country, to the beach, to the mountains. You always wish that you could too. Which is idiotic: you can get away from it anytime you like. By going within. Nowhere you can go is more peaceful—more free of interruptions—than your own soul.

So keep this refuge in mind: the back roads of your self. Above all, no strain and no stress. Be straightforward. Look at things like a man, like a human being, like a citizen, like a mortal. And among the things you turn to, these two:

i. That things have no hold on the soul. They stand there unmoving, outside it. Disturbance comes only from within—from our own perceptions…

ii. That everything you see will soon alter and cease to exist. Think of how many changes you’ve already seen. “The world is nothing but change. Our life is only perception.”

If you seek tranquillity, do less… Ask yourself at every moment, “Is this necessary?

Don’t be disturbed. Uncomplicate yourself. Someone has done wrong . . . to himself. Something happens to you. Good. It was meant for you by nature, woven into the pattern from the beginning. Life is short. That’s all there is to say. Get what you can from the present—thoughtfully, justly. Unrestrained moderation.

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. Stop doing that and everything will be fine.

Let the part of you that makes that judgment keep quiet even if the body it’s attached to is stabbed or burnt, or stinking with pus, or consumed by cancer. Or to put it another way: It needs to realize that what happens to everyone—bad and good alike—is neither good nor bad.

Remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune.

Just as the world forms a single body comprising all bodies, so fate forms a single purpose, comprising all purposes. Even complete illiterates acknowledge it when they say that something “brought on” this or that. Brought on, yes. Or prescribed it. And in that case, let’s accept it—as we accept what the doctor prescribes. It may not always be pleasant, but we embrace it—because we want to get well.

Nothing happens to anyone that he can’t endure. The same thing happens to other people, and they weather it unharmed—out of sheer obliviousness or because they want to display “character.” Is wisdom really so much weaker than ignorance and vanity?

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

Keep in mind how fast things pass by and are gone—those that are now, and those to come. Existence flows past us like a river: the “what” is in constant flux, the “why” has a thousand variations. Nothing is stable, not even what’s right here. The infinity of past and future gapes before us—a chasm whose depths we cannot see. So it would take an idiot to feel self-importance or distress. Or any indignation, either. As if the things that irritate us lasted.

Pride is a master of deception: when you think you’re occupied in the weightiest business, that’s when he has you in his spell.

Not to assume it’s impossible because you find it hard. But to recognize that if it’s humanly possible, you can do it too.

When you need encouragement, think of the qualities the people around you have: this one’s energy, that one’s modesty, another’s generosity, and so on. Nothing is as encouraging as when virtues are visibly embodied in the people around us, when we’re practically showered with them.

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Ambition means tying your well-being to what other people say or do. Self-indulgence means tying it to the things that happen to you. Sanity means tying it to your own actions.

You cannot quench understanding unless you put out the insights that compose it. But you can rekindle those at will, like glowing coals. I can control my thoughts as necessary; then how can I be troubled? What is outside my mind means nothing to it. Absorb that lesson and your feet stand firm.

Our own worth is measured by what we devote our energy to.

Don’t be ashamed to need help. Like a soldier storming a wall, you have a mission to accomplish. And if you’ve been wounded and you need a comrade to pull you up? So what?

To feel affection for people even when they make mistakes is uniquely human. You can do it, if you simply recognize: that they’re human too, that they act out of ignorance, against their will, and that you’ll both be dead before long. And, above all, that they haven’t really hurt you. They haven’t diminished your ability to choose.

Everywhere, at each moment, you have the option: • to accept this event with humility • to treat this person as he should be treated • to approach this thought with care, so that nothing irrational creeps in.

In all that happens, keep before your eyes those who experienced it before you, and felt shock and outrage and resentment at it. And now where are they? Nowhere. Is that what you want to be like? Instead of avoiding all these distracting assaults—leaving the alarms and flight to others—and concentrating on what you can do with it all? Because you can use it, treat it as raw material. Just pay attention, and resolve to live up to your own expectations. In everything. And when faced with a choice, remember: our business is with things that really matter.

Dig deep; the water—goodness—is down there. And as long as you keep digging, it will keep bubbling up.

For times when you feel pain: See that it doesn’t disgrace you, or degrade your intelligence—doesn’t keep it from acting rationally or unselfishly. And in most cases what Epicurus said should help: that pain is neither unbearable nor unending, as long as you keep in mind its limits and don’t magnify them in your imagination.

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

If it’s in your control, why do you do it? If it’s in someone else’s, then who are you blaming? Atoms? The gods? Stupid either way. Blame no one. Set people straight, if you can. If not, just repair the damage. And suppose you can’t do that either. Then where does blaming people get you? No pointless actions.

Just as nature takes every obstacle, every impediment, and works around it—turns it to its purposes, incorporates it into itself—so, too, a rational being can turn each setback into raw material and use it to achieve its goal.

Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole. Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, “Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?” You’ll be embarrassed to answer.

Then remind yourself that past and future have no power over you. Only the present—and even that can be minimized. Just mark off its limits. And if your mind tries to claim that it can’t hold out against that . . . well, then, heap shame upon it.

Stop perceiving the pain you imagine and you’ll remain completely unaffected.

Everything that happens is either endurable or not. If it’s endurable, then endure it. Stop complaining. If it’s unendurable . . . then stop complaining.

Just remember: you can endure anything your mind can make endurable, by treating it as in your interest to do so.

None of us have much time. And yet you act as if things were eternal—the way you fear and long for them. . . . Before long, darkness. And whoever buries you mourned in their turn.

“If you don’t have a consistent goal in life, you can’t live it in a consistent way.” Unhelpful, unless you specify a goal.

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Everything you’re trying to reach—by taking the long way round—you could have right now, this moment. If you’d only stop thwarting your own attempts. If you’d only let go of the past, entrust the future to Providence, and guide the present toward reverence and justice.

If you can cut free of impressions that cling to the mind, free of the future and the past—can make yourself, as Empedocles says, “a sphere rejoicing in its perfect stillness,” and concentrate on living what can be lived (which means the present) . . . then you can spend the time you have left in tranquillity.

It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.

To be angry at something means you’ve forgotten: That everything that happens is natural. That the responsibility is theirs, not yours. And further . . . That whatever happens has always happened, and always will, and is happening at this very moment, everywhere. Just like this.

The present is all we have to live in. Or to lose.

I must emphasize that Meditations in its entirety is a great read for anyone caught in a cycle of negative thinking, whether you’re dealing with retroactive jealousy or not.

Click here to pick up Meditations on Amazon. (I’d encourage you to pick up the Gregory Hays translation.)

Bonus:

If you’re curious to learn more about Stoicism, here’s a good introduction from the School of Life:

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About The Author

Zachary Stockill

Hi! I'm a Canadian author and educator whose work has been featured in The Huffington Post, PopMatters, Mic, HuffPost Live, and many other publications. I'm passionate about helping others overcome jealousy in their relationships, and become happier human beings.