On Adversity

Michael Singer on Why Happiness is a Choice

TheUntetheredSoulThe cause of unhappiness is not the situations we find ourselves in, it’s the way we think about those situations.

In The Way To Love, Anthony de Mello offered this advice for dealing with those who annoy us:

“Every time you find yourself irritated or angry with someone, the one to look at is not that person but yourself. The question to ask is not, “What’s wrong with this person?” but “What does this irritation tell me about myself?”

In The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer suggests taking the same approach to all our problems:

“When a problem is disturbing you, don’t ask, “What should I do about it?” Ask, “What part of me is being disturbed by this?” If you ask, “What should I do about it?” you’ve already fallen into believing that there really is a problem outside that must be dealt with… If you want to achieve peace in the face of your problems, you must understand why you perceive a particular situation as a problem.”

Perhaps we can fix one problem. But then another comes along, and we must fix that too. Then another. And another. External changes are not a long-term solution because they don’t address the root of the problem.

“For example, if you feel loneliness and insufficiency within your heart, it’s not because you haven’t found a special relationship. That did not cause the problem. That relationship is your attempt to solve the problem…

If you try to find the perfect person to love and adore you, and you manage to succeed, then you have actually failed. You did not solve your problem. All you did was involve that person in your problem. That is why people have so much trouble with relationships. You began with a problem inside yourself, and you tried to solve it by getting involved with somebody else. That relationship will have problems because your problems are what caused the relationship.”

Instead of spending our lives battling one problem after another, Singer advocates learning to not see them as problems at all.

Singer argues that we perceive a situation as a problem when it violates some expectation we have. This explains why one person may consider something a problem and another may not: the two have different expectations about what should be.

Expectations are simply conditions we have decided must be met for us to be happy. We have a model of reality and become angry and frustrated when life doesn’t conform to it. Instead, we should adjust our model, just as a scientist would adjust a theory that was contradicted by a new observation. This may not be easy: some of our assumptions are deeply programmed into us by our life experiences and may be difficult to change. But because they are not inherent in the situations we find ourselves in, letting go of them is not impossible.

We can identify our expectations by watching for the times we feel anxious. Instead of fearing these situations, Singer argues we should welcome them as opportunities to practice letting go of our expectations. Singer likens it to a dog approaching an invisible fence:

“An invisible limit was there, and when the dog approached that limit, it gave him a little shock. It hurt. It was uncomfortable enough so that now the dog feels fear whenever he approaches the boundaries…

Since that particular dog was used to roaming free, it’s a sad day when he stops trying to get out of the yard. The only reason he would stop trying to go beyond his little space is that he’s afraid of the edges. But what if we’re dealing with a very brave dog that’s determined to be free? Imagine that the dog has not given up. You find him sitting there, right at the place where the collar starts vibrating, and he is not backing off. Every minute he’s stepping forward a little bit more in order to get used to the force field. If he continues, he will eventually get out. There’s not a chance in the world that he won’t. Since it’s just an artificial edge, he can get through if he can learn to withstand the discomfort. He just has to be ready, willing, and able to handle the discomfort.”

Singer argues that we just need to make one decision: do we want to be happy or not? Happiness is in our control, provided we refuse to place any preconditions on it.

“When everything is going well, it’s easy to be happy. But the moment something difficult happens, it’s not so easy. You tend to find yourself saying, “But I didn’t know this was going to happen. I didn’t think I’d miss my flight. I didn’t think Sally would show up at the party wearing the same dress that I had on. I didn’t think that somebody would dent my brand-new car one hour after I got it.” Are you really willing to break your vow of happiness because these events took place?

Billions of things could happen that you haven’t even thought of yet. The question is not whether they will happen. Things are going to happen. The real question is whether you want to be happy regardless of what happens. The purpose of your life is to enjoy and learn from your experiences. You were not put on Earth to suffer. You’re not helping anybody by being miserable. Regardless of your philosophical beliefs, the fact remains that you were born and you are going to die. During the time in between, you get to choose whether or not you want to enjoy the experience. Events don’t determine whether or not you’re going to be happy. They’re just events. You determine whether or not you’re going to be happy. You can be happy just to be alive.”

Choosing happiness will not always be easy, says Singer, but it is always a choice.

Would it Help?

Bridge of Spies is the true story of an American lawyer, James Donovan (played by Tom Hanks), recruited to defend Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) during the Cold War.

Abel's refusal to worry, despite the risk that he might be sent to the electric chair or shot by his own people, baffles Donovan. Abel's explanation is simple, and inspiring:

"Would it help?"


Anthony De Mello on Attachment and How to Love

TheWayToLoveAttachment is the cause of all suffering. It’s the central tenet of Buddhism and the recurring theme of Anthony de Mello’s The Way to Love.

We are programmed from a young age - by our parents, our friends, our culture, our religion – with certain beliefs. Because these beliefs are established while we’re young, and because many of them are widely held, it rarely occurs to us to question them.

However, says De Mello, many of these beliefs are false. Foremost among them is the belief that we need certain things to be happy:

“Everywhere people have actually built their lives on the unquestioned belief that without certain things—money, power, success, approval, a good reputation, love, friendship, spirituality, God—they cannot be happy. What is your particular combination? Once you swallowed your belief you naturally developed an attachment to this person or thing you were convinced you could not be happy without. Then came the efforts to acquire your precious thing or person, to cling to it once it was acquired, and to fight off every possibility of losing it. This finally led you to abject emotional dependence so that the object of your attachment had the power to thrill you when you attained it, to make you anxious lest you be deprived of it and miserable when you lost it. Stop for a moment now and contemplate in horror the endless list of attachments that you have become a prisoner to.”

These attachments cause almost all of our negative emotions:

“Each time you are anxious and afraid, it is because you may lose or fail to get the object of your attachment, isn’t it? And each time you feel jealous, isn’t it because someone may make off with what you are attached to? And almost all your anger comes from someone standing in the way of your attachment, doesn’t it? And see how paranoid you become when your attachment is threatened—you cannot think objectively; your whole vision becomes distorted, doesn’t it? And every time you feel bored, isn’t it because you are not getting a sufficient supply of what you believe will make you happy, of what you are attached to? And when you are depressed and miserable, the cause is there for all to see: Life is not giving you what you have convinced yourself you cannot be happy without.”

To be happy, we have to change our programming. We have to rid ourselves of our attachments. “You must choose between your attachment and happiness. You cannot have both,” says De Mello.

De Mello is careful to distinguish between happiness, which cannot co-exist with attachment, and pleasure, which can. Pleasure is what we feel when things are going our way. It is different from happiness because it is short-lived and accompanied by the fear that it will not last (which it never does).

“What you call the experience of happiness is not happiness at all but the excitement and thrill caused by some person or thing or event. True happiness is uncaused. You are happy for no reason at all.”

However, the pursuit of happiness cannot be our goal, because that, in itself, would be an attachment:

“If you desire happiness you will be anxious lest you do not attain it. You will be constantly in a state of dissatisfaction; and dissatisfaction and anxiety kill the very happiness that they set out to gain.”

Rather, happiness arises naturally when attachment has been eliminated, like the blue sky that is revealed when the clouds clear.

De Mello stresses that ridding ourselves of attachment does not stop us loving people and things and enjoying them thoroughly. Nor does it prevent us preferring that a favourable situation continue or savouring the enjoyment we are experiencing right now. It simply means not worrying about prolonging the experience because we know we don’t need it to be happy.

“If you just enjoy things, refusing to let yourself be attached to them, that is, refusing to hold the false belief that you will not be happy without them, you are spared all the struggle and emotional strain of protecting them and guarding them for yourself. Has it occurred to you that you can keep all the objects of your attachments without giving them up, without renouncing a single one of them and you can enjoy them even more on a nonattachment, a nonclinging basis, because you are peaceful now and relaxed and unthreatened in your enjoyment of them?”

Letting go of our attachments and beliefs and expectations is difficult because they have often been part of us for a long time. They feel like statements of absolute truth rather than an arbitrary set of inherited values.

However, we need only look at other people to see this cannot be true. We are all programmed differently. We know that many people are perfectly happy without a thing or person that we have convinced ourselves we cannot live without. We know that there are people who would not be irritated by the things that annoy us. “You see persons and things not as they are but as you are,” says De Mello. Our negative emotions are not caused by external things but by our programming. And this is something we can change (although doing so may not be easy).

Attachment is not only the cause of our negative emotions. It also discourages us from seeking out other people or things:

“If you learn to enjoy the scent of a thousand flowers you will not cling to one or suffer when you cannot get it. If you have a thousand favorite dishes, the loss of one will go unnoticed and leave your happiness unimpaired. But it is precisely your attachments that prevent you from developing a wider and more varied taste for things and people.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in romantic love. Our culture promotes monogamy, encouraging us to attach ourselves to a single person, to the exclusion of all others.

Most of us seek love because we want to be special to someone. However, most people will only care for us if we please them in some way. This requires us to modify our behaviour to gain and keep their approval. And thus we lose our freedom to be ourselves.

Requiring someone to satisfy our expectations of how they should behave isn’t love, argues De Mello. We cannot truly love another person without giving them the freedom to be themselves:

“Now say to this person, “I leave you free to be yourself, to think your thoughts, to indulge your taste, follow your inclinations, behave in any way that you decide is to your liking.” The moment you say that you will observe one of two things: Either your heart will resist those words and you will be exposed for the clinger and exploiter that you are; so now is the time to examine your false belief that without this person you cannot live or cannot be happy. Or your heart will pronounce the words sincerely and in that very instant all control, manipulation, exploitation, possessiveness, jealousy will drop. And you will notice something else: The person automatically ceases to be especial and important to you. And he/she becomes important the way a sunset or a symphony is lovely in itself, the way a tree is especial in itself and not for the fruit or the shade that it can offer you. Your beloved will then belong not to you but to everyone or to no one like the sunrise and the tree.”

Love, according to De Mello, is about seeing and appreciating another person for the person they are. It is not about finding someone to meet our needs. Love demands nothing. It is unconditional.

And this means we cannot love unless we are comfortable with solitude. “To love persons is to have died to the need for persons and to be utterly alone,” says De Mello.

Planet My Baby Died

TinyBeautifulThingsWhen my marriage broke up, I was fortunate to be able to lean on several people for support. Some were old friends, who I'd known since my school days. One was just an acquaintance, yet became - unexpectedly, humblingly - one of my greatest allies. But what shocked me was how many other supposed friends, and even family members, offered little or no support at all. 

Some offered a few sympathetic words the first time they saw me, but then I never heard from them again. Some avoided me. Many pretended as if nothing had happened. A year later, while I was still struggling to deal with my pain, even some of the more supportive ones were suggesting it was time I moved on. 

"Oh these little rejections, how they add up quickly," as Alanis Morissette once sang. I never understood the way these people behaved until I read some advice given by Cheryl Strayed to a woman who had miscarried eighteen months previously and was still struggling to deal with her grief. In Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, Strayed writes:

"Don’t listen to those people who suggest you should be “over” your daughter’s death by now. The people who squawk the loudest about such things have almost never had to get over anything. Or at least not anything that was genuinely, mind-fuckingly, soul-crushingly life altering. Some of those people believe they’re being helpful by minimizing your pain. Others are scared of the intensity of your loss and so they use their words to push your grief away. Many of those people love you and are worthy of your love, but they are not the people who will be helpful to you when it comes to healing the pain of your daughter’s death.

They live on Planet Earth. You live on Planet My Baby Died."

Be Realistic

"When the wind's blowing at gale force, there's no point in sailing against it."

- Frank Underwood (House of Cards, season 3)

On Hope

When life is hard, we often turn to hope. 

Hope allows us to believe that our predicament is only temporary, that things will get better again. Having hope is usually considered a good thing. According to Psychology Today, “As long as a patient, individual or victim has hope, they can recover from anything and everything”.

“Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear,” agrees Thich Nhat Hanh in Peace Is Every Step. “If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.”

But, he continues, there’s a catch:

“But that is the most that hope can do for us - to make some hardship lighter. When I think deeply about the nature of hope, I see something tragic…

Hope is for the future. It cannot help us discover joy, peace, or enlightenment in the present moment… I do not mean that you should not have hope, but that hope is not enough. Hope can create an obstacle for you, and if you dwell in the energy of hope, you will not bring yourself back entirely into the present moment. If you re-channel those energies into being aware of what is going on in the present moment, you will be able to make a breakthrough and discover joy and peace right in the present moment...”

Instead of hoping for things to get better in the future, we should learn to appreciate what we have right now.

His advice is echoed by Pema Chodron in When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice For Difficult Times:

“Without giving up hope – that there’s somewhere better to be, that there’s someone better to be – we will never relax with where we are or who we are...

Abandoning hope is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning. You could even put “Abandon hope” on your refrigerator door instead of more conventional aspirations…”

Give up hope? This advice may seem indefensibly defeatist.

Yet sometimes hope leads to more anxiety and stress, not less. We pay a price for hope: fear. If I am diagnosed with cancer, I hope I will be able to fight it off – but I fear that I will not. If I lose my job, I hope I will soon find another – but I fear that I will not. If my partner tells me they are unhappy in our marriage, I hope we can work together to save it – but I fear that we will fail.

Fear, not hopelessness, is the opposite of hope. In Everyday Zen, Charlotte Joko Beck writes

“…what happens with you when you begin to feel uneasy, unsettled, queasy? Notice the panic, notice when you instantly grab for something. That grabbing is based on hope. Not grabbing is called hopelessness...

A life lived with no hope is a peaceful, joyous, compassionate life.”

Hopelessness does not mean that we do not care about our situation. It does not mean that we should never strive for anything. We can have goals, and if we achieve them that is fine. However, if we fail to achieve them that is fine too. In the words of the Serenity Prayer, it's about having the serenity to accept the things that we recognise we cannot change. It does not excuse us from the need to find the courage to change the things we can.

On Closure

TheExaminedLifeIn The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves, psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz elegantly illuminates our struggles with love, change and loss through a series of moving anecdotes about some of the patients he's seen during his career.

In "On Closure" Grosz argues that the common belief in "five stages of grief" - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance - is wrong.

"In the 1960s [Elisabeth] Kübler-Ross identified five psychological stages in the experience of terminally ill patients, the last of which is acceptance. About twenty-five years ago, Kübler-Ross and many bereavement counsellors began to use these same five stages to describe the experiences of both the dying and the grieving. I’ve long thought that Kübler-Ross was wrong."

He explains why:

"The ‘psychological stages’ of dying and grieving are wholly different. For the person who dies there is an end, but this is not so for the person who grieves. The person who mourns goes on living and for as long as he lives there is always the possibility of feeling grief."

While acknowledging that the initial shock and fear associated with a loss do decrease with time, Grosz argues that the idea that we can do something to achieve permanent closure is a fantasy.

"Holidays and anniversaries are notoriously difficult. Grief can ebb and then, without warning, resurge...

My experience is that closure is an extraordinarily compelling fantasy of mourning. It is the fiction that we can love, lose, suffer and then do something to permanently end our sorrow. We want to believe we can reach closure because grief can surprise and disorder us – even years after our loss."

This fantasy can have serious consequences for those who fall victim to it.

"They suffer more because they both expect to make progress, to move through certain stages of grief. And when they don’t, they feel that they are doing something wrong, or, more precisely, that there is something wrong with them. They suffer twice – first from grief and then from a tyranny of shoulds: ‘I should have pulled myself out of this,’ ‘I shouldn’t be so angry,’ ‘I should have moved on by now,’ and so forth. There is little room here for emotional exploration or understanding. This way of being leads to self-loathing, despair, depression."

The Examined Life is fascinating in its entirety.

Marcus Aurelius on Impermanence

Meditations is saturated with Marcus Aurelius' thoughts on change, impermanence and death.

In a passage that finds an echo in Bhante Gunaratana's warning about inattention, Aurelius reminds us that change is already happening:

“Bear in mind that everything that exists is already fraying at the edges, and in transition, subject to fragmentation and to rot.” (10.18)

The present moment is all we have...

"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." (3.10)

...and all we can lose:

"The longest-lived and those who will die soonest lose the same thing. The present is all that they can give up, since that is all you have, and what you do not have, you cannot lose." (2.14)

Don’t waste time:

“Stop whatever you’re doing for a moment and ask yourself: Am I afraid of death because I won’t be able to do this anymore?” (10.29)

We may not even be able to enjoy our whole life:

"We need to hurry. Not just because we move daily closer to death but also because our understanding— our grasp of the world— may be gone before we get there." (3.1)

There will be a last time for everything we do, and it may come sooner than we think:

“As you kiss your son good night, says Epictetus, whisper to yourself, “He may be dead in the morning.”” (11.34)

Tomorrow our wife may leave us, we may be diagnosed with a fatal illness, we may lose our job. We may have already done something for the last time and not yet know it.

Not to hope that we will be remembered when we die. Anyone who might remember us will soon be dead too.

“So many who were remembered already forgotten, and those who remembered them long gone.” (7.6)

See also:


Marcus Aurelius on Acceptance

One of the themes of Meditations is our need to accept the things that are outside our control.

To play the hand we’ve been dealt:

“The spot where a person decides to station himself, or wherever his commanding officer stations him— well, I think that’s where he ought to take his stand and face the enemy, and not worry about being killed, or about anything but doing his duty.” (7.45)

To treat misfortune as an opportunity for growth:

"Just as you overhear people saying that “the doctor prescribed such-and-such for him” (like riding, or cold baths, or walking barefoot …), say this: “Nature prescribed illness for him.” Or blindness. Or the loss of a limb. Or whatever. There “prescribed” means something like “ordered, so as to further his recovery.” And so too here. What happens to each of us is ordered. It furthers our destiny." (4.8)

To not worry about what might not happen:

“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.” (8.36)

To not be surprised when people act according to their nature:

“To expect a bad person not to harm others is like expecting fig trees not to secrete juice, babies not to cry, horses not to neigh— the inevitable not to happen. What else could they do— with that sort of character? If you’re still angry, then get to work on that.” (12.16)

To let go:

“Not “some way to sleep with her”— but a way to stop wanting to.
Not “some way to get rid of him”— but a way to stop trying.
Not “some way to save my child”— but a way to lose your fear.” (9.40)

See also:

Marcus Aurelius on Action

In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes about the need to take responsibility for the things in our control.

“Our own worth is measured by what we devote our energy to.” (7.3)

To tie our well-being to our actions alone:

“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.” (6.51)

To choose our actions based on what’s right, not on what other people think:

"The tranquillity that comes when you stop caring what they say. Or think, or do. Only what you do. (Is this fair? Is this the right thing to do?)" (4.18)

To not respond to hate in kind:

“Someone despises me. That’s their problem. Mine: not to do or say anything despicable. Someone hates me. Their problem. Mine: to be patient and cheerful with everyone, including them. Ready to show them their mistake. Not spitefully, or to show off my own self-control, but in an honest, upright way.” (11.13)

To feel compassion for those who hurt us...

“When people injure you, ask yourself what good or harm they thought would come of it. If you understand that, you’ll feel sympathy rather than outrage or anger. Your sense of good and evil may be the same as theirs, or near it, in which case you have to excuse them. Or your sense of good and evil may differ from theirs. In which case they’re misguided and deserve your compassion. Is that so hard?” (7.26)

...and to act kindly towards them:

“That kindness is invincible, provided it’s sincere— not ironic or an act. What can even the most vicious person do if you keep treating him with kindness and gently set him straight— if you get the chance— correcting him cheerfully at the exact moment that he’s trying to do you harm. “No, no, my friend. That isn’t what we’re here for. It isn’t me who’s harmed by that. It’s you.” And show him, gently and without pointing fingers, that it’s so. That bees don’t behave like this— or any other animals with a sense of community. Don’t do it sardonically or meanly, but affectionately— with no hatred in your heart. And not ex cathedra or to impress third parties, but speaking directly. Even if there are other people around.” (11.18)

To use our problems as fuel:

“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.” (8.35)

To eliminate what’s unnecessary:

"Most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquillity. Ask yourself at every moment, “Is this necessary?” But we need to eliminate unnecessary assumptions as well. To eliminate the unnecessary actions that follow." (4.24)

To act selflessly:

"Some people, when they do someone a favor, are always looking for a chance to call it in. And some aren’t, but they’re still aware of it— still regard it as a debt. But others don’t even do that. They’re like a vine that produces grapes without looking for anything in return." (5.6)

To not be angry:

“How much more damage anger and grief do than the things that cause them.” (11.18)

And as for revenge…

"The best revenge is not to be like that." (6.6)

See also:

Marcus Aurelius on Perception

Writing in Meditations, Marcus Aurelius reminds himself that it's not external events that cause us difficulties, but the interpretation we choose to place on them.

"Choose not to be harmed— and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed— and you haven’t been... It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character." (4.7 and 4.8)

We have our emotions, and we have our thoughts about them. We can't control the former but we can control the latter, and we need to stop them fusing with each other

"The mind is the ruler of the soul. It should remain unstirred by agitations of the flesh— gentle and violent ones alike. Not mingling with them, but fencing itself off and keeping those feelings in their place. When they make their way into your thoughts, through the sympathetic link between mind and body, don’t try to resist the sensation. The sensation is natural. But don’t let the mind start in with judgements, calling it “good” or “bad.”" (5.26)

The only things we should label "good" or "bad" are the things in our control: our own actions.

“You take things you don’t control and define them as “good” or “bad.” And so of course when the “bad” things happen, or the “good” ones don’t, you blame the gods and feel hatred for the people responsible— or those you decide to make responsible. Much of our bad behavior stems from trying to apply those criteria. If we limited “good” and “bad” to our own actions, we’d have no call to challenge God, or to treat other people as enemies.” (6.41)

To be grateful for what we have without allowing ourselves to become dependent on those things:

“Treat what you don’t have as nonexistent. Look at what you have, the things you value most, and think of how much you’d crave them if you didn’t have them. But be careful. Don’t feel such satisfaction that you start to overvalue them— that it would upset you to lose them.” (7.27)

To trust ourselves:

“It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.” (12.4)

To be self-reliant:

"Poor: (adj.) requiring others; not having the necessities of life in one’s own possession." (4.29)

To not worry about praise...

"Beautiful things of any kind are beautiful in themselves and sufficient to themselves. Praise is extraneous. The object of praise remains what it was— no better and no worse.... Is an emerald suddenly flawed if no one admires it?" (4.20)

...or our reputation:

"Or is it your reputation that’s bothering you? But look at how soon we’re all forgotten. The abyss of endless time that swallows it all. The emptiness of all those applauding hands. The people who praise us— how capricious they are, how arbitrary. And the tiny region in which it all takes place. The whole earth a point in space— and most of it uninhabited." (4.3)

To recognise that we are not responsible for the behaviour of others:

"So other people hurt me? That’s their problem. Their character and actions are not mine." (5.25) 

To not extrapolate from first impressions:

“Nothing but what you get from first impressions. That someone has insulted you, for instance. That— but not that it’s done you any harm. The fact that my son is sick— that I can see. But “that he might die of it,” no. Stick with first impressions. Don’t extrapolate. And nothing can happen to you.” (8.49)

To see no more than is actually there:

“Like seeing roasted meat and other dishes in front of you and suddenly realizing: This is a dead fish. A dead bird. A dead pig. Or that this noble vintage is grape juice, and the purple robes are sheep wool dyed with shellfish blood. Or making love— something rubbing against your penis, a brief seizure and a little cloudy liquid. Perceptions like that— latching onto things and piercing through them, so we see what they really are. That’s what we need to do all the time— all through our lives when things lay claim to our trust— to lay them bare and see how pointless they are, to strip away the legend that encrusts them.” (6.13)

See also:


MeditationsOne of life’s difficulties is remembering our past experiences. We struggle to recall what we were doing a couple of years ago. We read a book or watch a documentary, then a few months later find ourselves barely be able to remember its key points.

Over the years a number of practices have emerged to fight this amnesia. Diaries and journals have long been popular as a record of events. In 17th century Europe, keeping a commonplace book – an intellectual scrapbook of quotes, information, ideas and thoughts – was a recognised practice. Today we might take photos or videos, or write a blog.

Meditations is one such device – a collection of aphorisms, insights and observations written by Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius to remind himself how to live.

Meditations was never intended to be published or read by others. Even the title is unlikely to be original; Aurelius probably gave it no title at all. The short passages that comprise the work are haphazardly spread across twelve books with little to unify them. Nevertheless, a number of themes emerge.

Aurelius was heavily influenced by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, in particular his idea of the “three disciplines” of perception, action and will. The discipline of perception is about remaining aware of the difference between an event and the interpretation we place on it. Translator Gregory Hays provides an example:

“For example, my impression that my house has just burned down is simply that— an impression or report conveyed to me by my senses about an event in the outside world. By contrast, my perception that my house has burned down and I have thereby suffered a terrible tragedy includes not only an impression, but also an interpretation imposed upon that initial impression. It is by no means the only possible interpretation, and I am not obliged to accept it. I may be a good deal better off if I decline to do so. It is, in other words, not objects and events but the interpretations we place on them that are the problem. Our duty is therefore to exercise stringent control over the faculty of perception, with the aim of protecting our mind from error.”

Having seen things for what they are, the discipline of action is about taking responsibility for those things that are in our control. In contrast, the discipline of will is about accepting the things that are outside our control, done to us by nature or by others.

Meditations is not a philosophy of how to enjoy life, but of how to get through it with minimal suffering. Its advice is unflinchingly practical. At times it’s grim and pessimistic, infused with a sense of the shortness of life. Not for nothing did Alexander Percy refer to it as “the unassailable wintry kingdom of Marcus Aurelius”.

See also:

The Obstacle is the Way

TheObstacleIsTheWayWe sometimes make the mistake of thinking that life is supposed to be easy. When difficulties arise we can become angry or frustrated at the interruption to our perfectly planned lives. We forget that problems are inevitable. "Life is difficult," Scott Peck reminded us. For Peck, discipline - specifically delaying gratification, accepting responsibility, dedication to the truth, and balancing - was the key to solving those problems. In The Obstacle Is The Way, Ryan Holiday argues that it's the "three disciplines" of Stoicism that we need.

"The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way," said Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. Holiday argues that the obstacles in our lives are not merely to be seen as things to be overcome but as opportunities to practice some virtue or improve our condition. That with the right approach we can actually emerge on the other side of life's difficulties as better people. We shouldn't avoid difficulties, or learn to put up with them, we should embrace them as the fuel we need for self-growth.

Holiday advocates the Stoic "three disciplines" as the way of doing this: the disciplines of perception, action and will. Or, quoting Aurelius again:

"Objective judgement, now at this very moment.
Unselfish action, now at this very moment.
Willing acceptance - now at this very moment - of all external events.
That's all you need."


To a large degree, our obstacles are only obstacles because that's how we choose to see them. Once we recognise that the situation and how we feel about it are two separate things, we can look for alternative, more constructive interpretations. It's an idea that recurs in many other places, from Buddhism to Shakespeare ("There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so," says Hamlet).

Doing this requires us to learn to control our emotions (or "domesticate" them, to use Nassim Taleb's wonderfully evocative term), neither allowing them to control us nor pretending they don't exist. It requires a shift in perspective, looking for the bigger picture or interpreting the events in a different way. It requires mindfulness, focusing on the present moment, "not the monsters that may or may not be up ahead". It requires us to believe that there is a genuine opportunity here, buried inside the obstacle, and finding it.

"You lost your job or a relationship? That's awful, but now you can travel unencumbered... If someone you love hurts you, there is a chance to practice forgiveness."

The discipline of perception is also about recognising which things we have control over, and which we do not. As the Serenity Prayer says, "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference". The things we can change, we can then subject to action. The things we cannot change require us to exercise our will.


"Once you see the world as it is, for what it is, you must act. The proper perception - objective, rational, ambitious, clean - isolates the obstacle and exposes it for what it is. A clearer head makes for steadier hands. And then those hands must be put to work."

Even if the conditions are not to our liking, we must act - with deliberation, boldness and persistence. We need to make a start, even if we're not sure of ourselves, using our frustration to power our actions. If we try something and it fails, we try something different. We iterate and keep moving forwards, step by step, focused on what is in front of us, dismantling our obstacles piece by piece. Whatever must be done, we do it, and we do it well, but not letting the best become the enemy of the good. What's right is what works.

Attacking problems head-on may not be the best approach. We need to look for opportunities to attack from the flanks, where we may meet less resistance. Or wait to be attacked, using the momentum of our obstacles against themselves. If we are patient, some obstacles may prove only temporary, fizzling out of their own accord.

Sometimes the correct action can be to not attack the problem at all, using the obstacle as an opportunity to explore a different direction altogether:

"There is a certain humility required in this approach. It means accepting that the way you originally wanted to do things is not possible. You just haven't got it in you to do it the "traditional" way. But so what?"


Some problems may be outside our control. These must be endured through the exercise of willpower.

"If Perception and Action were the disciplines of the mind and the body, then Will is the discipline of the heart and the soul... Will is fortitude and wisdom - not just about specific obstacles but about life itself and where the obstacles we are facing fit within it."

Our will is like a fortress inside of us, but it's one we have to build and actively reinforce during the good times so its strength is available to us in the bad. One way to do this is by thinking about what may go wrong before beginning an endeavour: a "pre-mortem" or what William Irvine refers to as negative visualisation.

"Far too many ambitious undertakings fail for preventable reasons. Far too many people don't have a backup plan because they refuse to consider that something might not go exactly as they wish...

About the worst thing that can happen is not something going wrong, but something going wrong and catching you by surprise. Why? Because unexpected failure is discouraging and being beaten back hurts. But the person who has rehearsed in their mind what could go wrong will not be caught by surprise."

When we recognise that something is immune to action, we need to go with the flow, not struggle against it:

"It doesn't always feel that way but constraints in life are a good thing. Especially if we can accept them and let them direct us. They push us to places and to develop skills that we'd otherwise never have pursued."

Acceptance is not sufficient, however:

"The next step after we discard our expectations and accept what happens to us, after understanding that certain things - particularly bad things - are outside our control, is this: loving whatever happens and facing it with unfailing cheerfulness... We have to learn to find joy in every single thing that happens."

Echoing something that one of my schoolteachers once said when a pupil asked him how he could be so cheerful teaching the same material year after year, Holiday observes that if we have to put up with something, we might as well be happy about it. Since we can choose our response to every situation, why choose anything other than cheerfulness?

"See things for what they are. Do what we can. Endure and bear what we must." The Obstacle Is The Way provides an excellent introduction to the ancient philosophy of Stoicism and a practical guide to applying it in modern life.

Scott Peck on Discipline

RoadLessTraveled"Life is difficult."

So begins psychiatrist Scott Peck's exploration of personal growth in The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth. The book considers the role of discipline, love and faith in our mental and spiritual development and as the opening line suggests, is unafraid to remind us of some fundamental truths that our self-centred, pleasure-seeking culture often minimises.

“Most do not fully see this truth that life is difficult. Instead they moan more or less incessantly, noisily or subtly, about the enormity of their problems, their burdens, and their difficulties as if life were generally easy, as if life should be easy…

Life is a series of problems. Do we want to moan about them or solve them?”

Peck goes further, however, asserting that overcoming problems is what gives life meaning:

“Problems call forth our courage and our wisdom; indeed, they create our courage and our wisdom. It is only because of problems that we grow mentally and spiritually.”

Peck begins by looking at discipline, which he defines as a set of tools for solving life’s problems. He identifies four: delaying of gratification, acceptance of responsibility, dedication to the truth, and balancing.

“The problem lies not in the complexity of these tools but in the will to use them. For they are tools with which pain is confronted rather than avoided, and if one seeks to avoid legitimate suffering, then one will avoid the use of these tools.”

Delaying gratification

Delaying of gratification is being willing to tolerate some discomfort today for greater satisfaction later. 

A desire to deal with problems as quickly as possible, or a belief that we are incapable of dealing with them at all, can indicate an inability to delay gratification. Peck describes a patient who was having difficulty with her children:

“[She] was a basically loving and dedicated but rather helpless mother to her two young children. She was alert and concerned enough to perceive when her children were having some sort of emotional problem or when something was not working out in her child-raising. But then she inevitably took one of two courses of action with the children: either she made the very first change that came to her mind within a matter of seconds—making them eat more breakfast or sending them to bed earlier— regardless of whether such a change had anything to do with the problem, or else she came to her next therapy session with me, despairing: “It’s beyond me. What shall I do?” This woman had a perfectly keen and analytical mind, and when she didn’t procrastinate, she was quite capable of solving complex problems at work . Yet when confronted with a personal problem, she behaved as if she were totally lacking in intelligence.”

The cause?

“The issue was one of time. Once she became aware of a personal problem, she felt so discomfited that she demanded an immediate solution, and she was not willing to tolerate her discomfort long enough to analyze the problem. The solution to the problem represented gratification to her, but she was unable to delay this gratification for more than a minute or two, with the result that her solutions were usually inappropriate and her family in chronic turmoil.”

Similarly, Peck describes the first time he was able to fix a mechanical problem with a car after forcing himself to work through the problem slowly.

“Actually, I don’t begin to have the knowledge or the time to gain that knowledge to be able to fix most mechanical failures, given the fact that I choose to concentrate my time on nonmechanical matters. So I still usually go running to the nearest repairman. But I now know that this is a choice I make, and I am not cursed or genetically defective or otherwise incapacitated or impotent. And I know that I and anyone else who is not mentally defective can solve any problem if we are willing to take the time.”

Another symptom of an inability to delay gratification is a reluctance to tackle problems in the hope that they will go away. Rather than trying to find a quick solution, we try to avoid having to find a solution at all. Rather than trying to minimise the amount of pain, we try to avoid it altogether.

Accepting responsibility

The second tool in the toolbox of discipline is the acceptance of responsibility.

“We must accept responsibility for a problem before we can solve it. We cannot solve a problem by saying “It’s not my problem.” We cannot solve a problem by hoping that someone else will solve it for us. I can solve a problem only when I say “This is my problem and it’s up to me to solve it.” But many, so many, seek to avoid the pain of their problems by saying to themselves: “This problem was caused me by other people, or by social circumstances beyond my control, and therefore it is up to other people or society to solve this problem for me. It is not really my personal problem.”

Sometimes we don't take enough responsibility for our behaviour, usually because we're trying to avoid the painful consequences of that behaviour. Sometimes we take responsibility for more than we should, attempting to solve the problems of others when we should be placing the responsibility on them.

Dedication to the truth

The third tool is dedication to the truth. We cannot hope to solve our problems if we are oblivious of, or lie to ourselves about, their nature. This means constantly examining ourselves, being willing to be challenged, and being completely honest.

We must take care to constantly revise our maps of reality as we acquire new information, however painful that process may be, lest we find ourselves using maps that once served us well but are now outdated. The best way to ensure our maps are accurate is to expose them to the criticism of others.

Dedication to the truth also means not lying to others, although Peck accepts that there are situations where withholding the truth is the kindest thing to do. However:

“The decision to withhold the truth should never be based on personal needs, such as a need for power, a need to be liked or a need to protect one’s map from challenge… [it] must always be based entirely upon the needs of the person or people from whom the truth is being withheld.”


The fourth and final tool of discipline is balancing, the ability to discipline discipline itself, to be flexible and act spontaneously. At its core, balancing is about giving things up, about trading off one thing against another. Sometimes we can become so attached to one thing that it damages our relationship with another. The ability to recognise when we are out of balance, and need to give something up to restore our balance, is essential for a happy life.

Giving something up is painful, but Peck argues that we should see this as a positive thing. To be mentally healthy we must grow, and growth requires the giving up of our old selves. The pain of giving up is thus an indicator that growth is happening.

One important kind of balancing that Peck refers to is "bracketing". He defines this as "the act of balancing the need for stability and assertion of the self with the need for new knowledge and greater understanding", and notes that this must be done "by temporarily giving up one's self so as to make room for the incorporation of new material into the self". Expressed another way, it's the ability to evaluate and assimilate new knowledge on its own terms, separated from our own preconceptions and emotional biases, the ability to view the world as others see it.

To summarise, Peck views discipline as a set of four tools - delaying gratification, accepting responsibility, a dedication to truth, and balancing - that enable us to solve the problems life throws our way. However, using these tools is difficult and requires motivation. Peck believes this motivation is provided by love. I’ll discuss his views on that subject next.