The magic formula of Marcus Aurelius
The secret to getting what you want - right now
The magic formula
If someone told you that it is possible for you to have everything that you have been trying so hard to get, right now, you should probably head for the nearest exit. I certainly would. We all know the pitch of snake-oil salespeople. Their products never work.
But what if the person who told you this is the beloved Stoic emperor, Marcus Aurelius? Just listen to him.
You have been trying to reach many things by taking the long way around. All these things can be yours right now if you stop denying them to yourself. All you have to do is let go of the past, trust the future to providence, and direct the present to reverence and justice. — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 12.1
Now, that’s different. Marcus Aurelius is not given to making wild statements. Even if we find it difficult to believe, we should examine whether there is any truth to his claim.
Where do our problems come from? Mostly from our worries about the past and anxieties about the future - something that already has happened or something that might happen in the future. Neither of them exists right now. Again, what has already happened is not under your control now. Neither is what is going to happen in the future. Who could have predicted the effects of COVID? Or the Ukraine-Russia war or the Israeli-Hamas conflict? When the past and the future are not under our control, what purpose is served by worry or anxiety? As Marcus points out,
You only live in the present, this fleeting moment. The rest of your life is already gone or not yet revealed. — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 3.10
A simple exercise
If you want to see how much of our life we waste involves living in the future and the past, try this simple exercise.
Close your eyes. Think of anything that is bothering you. See it clearly in your mind’s eye. See how bad it makes you feel.
After a minute, open your eyes. Look around you. Observe what you see. Look out. Maybe the sun is shining. Or it may be raining. Maybe you hear some sounds, maybe not. But no matter what it is, it has nothing to do with the turmoil of your mind. Your worries and anxieties are happening entirely in your mind. It is because your mind is wandering away from the present, into the past or into the future.
Why we should live in the present
Our present worries have a short shelf life. But we prolong them and create our own misery. Seneca describes this very vividly:
Wild animals run from the dangers they actually see, and once they have escaped them worry no more. We however are tormented alike by what is past and what is to come. A number of our blessings do us harm, for memory brings back the agony of fear while foresight brings it on prematurely. No one confines his unhappiness to the present.— Seneca, Letters From A Stoic: Epistulae Morales AD Lucilium, Letter 13
Similarly, when we decide to be unhappy now because we are anxious about the future, our mind is telling us that, because we may have problems in the future, we should start being unhappy right now.
What I advise you to do is, not to be unhappy before the crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers… will never come upon you. They certainly have not yet come. Accordingly, some things torment us more than they should, and some torment us when they should not torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.— Seneca, Letters From A Stoic: Epistulae Morales AD Lucilium, Letter 13
Let me give the last word to Epictetus:
There is only one way to be happy. Keep this thought ready for use morning, noon, and night. Give up the desire for things not under your control. — Epictetus, Discourses 4.4
There you have it. The only way to get what you want out of life is not to worry about the past, or be anxious about the future, but to handle what is right in front of us. And it can be done right now. It is the magic formula for getting what you want out of your life.
The ancient Stoics offered simple and effective solutions to everyday problems. And yet, just knowing the basics will not get you far. Neither will random reading of Stoic literature. To achieve happiness and freedom, you must consistently commit yourself to practicing Stoicism. Every day. Practice is key. Musicians do it. Athletes do it. No excellence can be achieved without practice. We are here to help you all the way. So, fellow Prokoptons, we are glad you joined us by committing to practicing Stoicism daily! Watch your mailbox for more instructions in the coming days!