Marcus Aurelius gets his share of ink on Medium, and for good reason. A case can be made that he is the wisest ruler in all of history.
Who was Marcus Aurelius? He was the emperor of the Roman Empire for twenty years in the second century AD during the latter stage of the Pax Romana, a period marked by peace, prosperity and territorial growth.
More important for our purposes, Marcus Aurelius was a genuine philosopher and an exponent of stoicism. His book of writings, Meditations, is considered a classic and is one of the principal works of Stoic philosophy.
Meditations contains myriad views on how best to live life. One such view is contained in the following famous quote:
“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”
Yes. And no.
How is this quote true? I’ll state the obvious. The person who spends much of their day, every day, with thoughts like…
“I can’t believe how fortunate I am. I have a wonderful wife, three of the best kids ever, a roof over my head and plenty of food to eat every single day.”
“Sure, I got fired. But I’ll find another job. Things always seem to work out in life.”
“That has to be the most beautiful sunset God ever created.”
…Is going to be far happier than a person with thoughts like…
“I have this massive yacht that cost me a ton, but every time I take it out the weather seems to suck.”
“Why do I always seem to get the short end of the stick in life?”
“My kid got all A’s and a B in math. Why the B? Because the night before his final exam he spent two hours gaming with his idiotic friends!”
No question. The first person will be far happier than the second. Positive thinking trumps negative thinking every time.
So I’m not down on positive thinking. It’s one of the many arrows we carry in our spiritual quiver.
My problem is with thinking that thinking can get us to our highest place. It can’t.
Why? Because we reach our highest place, the awakened state, when we transcend thinking.
The state of no-thought is where the soul lives. Where the deepest beauty that exists lives.
Yogananda’s river of joy
It’s the state that allows us access to that “river of joy running through us” that the great Indian saint Yogananda spoke of.
Let’s take but one of zillions of examples how this is so. That positive person above who is effusive in his thoughts about the beautiful sunset.
I know many people like this. They experience something sublime and they want to voice it, whether to themselves or someone around them.
Well, that person is far better off than someone who says, “That’s the first decent sunset we’ve had in three months. Finally…”
Experiencing with a still mind
But even better off is the person who looks at that sunset and thinks nothing. In doing so they truly experience that sunset. They internalize it. They become one with it, one manifestation of nature (the human being) communing with another, the sunset. The experience then touches the deepest core of that person.
The example of Eckhart Tolle is instructive. I haven’t seen many people who are more content and peaceful than Eckhart. He exudes equanimity. When the ultra-serene Eckhart was asked what his greatest achievement in life was, this was what he said:
“My greatest achievement is that I don’t think when I don’t want to.”
For most of us, getting to that place is a lifetime of hard work. Meditating regularly, practicing mindfulness and other practices that quiet our minds from thinking. But doing so gives us our best shot at experiencing the highest that life has to offer.
So here’s how I would edit Marcus Aurelius’ quote:
“The happiness of your life depends upon keeping your thoughts to the minimum necessary, and when you have them, make them quality thoughts.”