Therapeutic Journaling Part 3: Meditations on Marcus Aurelius

For the past couple of months, I have been reading some Stoic philosophy, and I am starting to see how the intended goal for therapy is to help people become Stoic. And I’m talking about the real kind of Stoic, not the lower case s stoic that is attached to the common misconception of what the state of being entails. A Stoic isn’t entirely devoid of emotion, rather a Stoic is hyperaware of their emotions, but not let their emotions guide their actions. A Stoic chooses and controls how they react to their feelings, along with what ever external stimuli and circumstances they are exposed to.

One of the most prominent Stoic philosophers is Marcus Aurelius, the author of the world renown collection of books called Meditations. The funny thing about these books that so many people have read to ease their minds and gain wisdom from is that it was never meant to see publication even at the time of Marcus’ lifetime. They were personal journals that he wrote to himself in order to keep his ego in check being the most powerful man in the known world at the time.

What we can glean from Marcus’ example beyond his rare and virtuous being as an emperor, and of course his powerful and punchy philosophy, is what journaling can mean for not just the individual, but for the whole world at large. These books are so short and few in number, but their wisdom transcends the ages and remain universally acclaimed to better those who read it, especially repeatedly.

After all, he wrote these books while he was in campaign for a decade, and being the busy guy that he was, had very little time to himself to write, and so made the best use of his time when he found possible.

You too, could follow in his example, especially if you lead a very busy life that leaves very little time to yourself. If the Emperor of Rome can do it, so can you. Just a few lines a day is all it takes. You don’t even have to recount your entire day if you don’t want to, what you can do is reflect on it as you live it, then by the end of the day, write what insights you can glean from the failures and successes of today.

That’s what Marcus did.

Barely ever did he detail the minutiae of everyday life and little events he experienced. Instead, he wrote the words that would remind him on how to be a better man based on all the philosophical teachings he had been blessed with throughout his life. He could have easily sank into his power and enjoy endless luxury, but he understood the responsibility of power he held and how important it was for him to lead a good example for his people.

It’s really interesting to think that something a man wrote 2000 years ago that was deeply personal would end up becoming something that would universally understood. Most philosophers wrote books with the audience in mind, be it their students, the general public, or even letters that they wrote to each other. But Marcus wrote solely to and for himself.

The beautiful irony is that even though he was the Emperor of Rome, what he wrote to himself can easily apply to us naughty future readers who are prying into his personal diary. We may not have had his friends or family, nor his power, fame, or wealth, but what we do have as he would call it, is kinship of the mind. We are all humans who share the same emotions and desires like everybody else. We all seek to love and be loved, and love requires virtue. And so Marcus’ Meditations are fundamentally reminders and demonstrations of virtue.

One way to give and receive such love is shown in the very first pages of Book One in Meditations, where Marcus lists off all the important people in his life and what kinds of blessings and virtues he has received from them. In turn, you can write about the people in your life whose virtues inspire you to become a better person and express your gratitude for their role in your life.

Another prominent theme in Meditations is mortality. It’s a scary thing to think about, but it is a reality we must accept that we will all become dust one day. It’s already cliché enough as it is to say that life is short and how you should make the most of it while you can. Even more pressing is Seneca’s rebuttal to that which is life isn’t all that short, a lot of us just choose to squander a huge fraction of it on trivial things.

In either case, we are given ample time to live and we must not waste too much of it if we can help it. Every day, nay every moment, should be spent consciously in the present moment with intentional purpose. That means less complaining and more action taking. Less worrying and more pondering. Less wasted moments and more fulfilling days.

It can all be swept up in an instant so whatever you do or say should carry the weight of someone who only has one day left to live. See each day you live as your last and be thankful to wake up every morning because you can consider that a bonus.

And if you’ve been journaling, reflecting on your way of being and how to improve it, then each day can stack on to the last providing everlasting change and fulfillment for you.

While we sure as hell hope that our personal journals never end up in the hands of the public, it doesn’t hurt to have stern dialogues with ourselves within them. Okay, I’m lying, sometimes said dialogues can hurt and that’s fine, that’s all part of the process. Consider it a slew of growing pain. But nonetheless, perhaps our very own personal insights can have universal appeal, and while you may not want to share your journal with everyone you meet, you can instead embody the kind of person you present on the page.

Stick around for Therapeutic Journaling Part 4 where I will briefly touch upon a huge variety of different journaling techniques you can awaken the Marcus Aurelius within!