One of the greatest philosophers of his time was also the most powerful man in the world. His name was Marcus Aurelius, emperor of Rome and the author of the remarkable book, Meditations. It is a book for the ages. In rereading it, I came across a passage where Marcus details habits of thought.
 
First he wrote that one could make clear to oneself that a thought is unnecessary by simply stating to oneself, “this thought is unnecessary.” We look for all sorts of practices to create mindfulness: paying for meditation classes, flying across the ocean to participate in a spiritual retreat, sitting each morning on a cushion. What if instead I were to simply inquire within throughout my day, and ask of myself again and again the question, “is the thought I am just now thinking necessary?” What might be the result of that? In trying out his advice, one first might wonder, what does he mean by “necessary”? I cannot say for certain what he meant, but for me a necessary thought is one that is useful. Not only in a practical way, but useful in a larger context. To think kindly of someone I know is a thought that, if practiced often enough, expands the heart. No other usefulness is needed. Thoughts that cause me to expand my creative ability seem just as useful as a thought about remembering to get milk at the store. Maybe more so. 
 
What thoughts, then, are not useful; what thoughts are unnecessary? If I look at my thoughts as I go about my day, I see that an awfully large number are simply a kind of background noise of associations and hypothetical musings, or, even worse, detailed scenarios about me or people I know and our imagined actions. They are a complete waste of my mental energy, of which I only have a limited quantity. Worse, they crowd out the thoughts that could be arising, thoughts useful and necessary. As well, they crowd out the stillness. The stillness that we are trying all sorts of techniques to come to. Why not discard all the extra baggage I have around mindfulness and, when I observe myself thinking in such a way say to myself, “this thought is unnecessary”? When I do that, I don’t try to stop the thought; instead it just seems to collapse on its own accord. Like a Coronavirus particle when I wash my hands with soap and water. 
 
In addition to inquiring as to whether a thought is necessary, Marcus also went on to say that one should ask if a thought “is destructive to the people around you.” To see that I am thinking such a thought and to simply remark to myself that it is destructive is like putting a stick in the spokes of a spinning bicycle wheel. There is no blame, simply observation of the quality of the thought, causing it to stop turning in one’s mind. In thinking about what he wrote, I am tempted to instead say, “this thought is destructive to myself or those around me.”  I very much need to see that when I am a habitual target of my blame and judgement I do myself real harm. So I want to include myself equally with the others around me. Finally, one might object that a thought without any speech or action cannot be destructive, but of course that is not so, as the kind of person I become is an outgrowth of what it is I think and feel.  
 
I have been trying to put into practice each day these injunctions of Marcus Aurelius. They seem to be remarkably powerful tools, always at hand and sharpened by regular use. They are deceptively simple. The two sentences: “this thought is unnecessary” and “this thought is destructive to myself or those around me” constitute a practice in and of themselves. Like Manjushri’s sword of discriminating wisdom, the two statements cut through ignorance and mental entanglements, thus allowing space for a deeper inner life.   
 
May you be well both in body and in spirit in these difficult times.

 

 
 

2 Comments

  1. The automatic thinking machinery chances upon a special scene to “think about”: the memorial service after my death. A pictured friend appears, choking up while addressing what a fine person I was, how they loved my sense of humor.

    Around the edges of more fully articulated “thoughts,” are fragmentary half- and quarter-thoughts, packed with attitudes. To awaken to attitude-revealing mini-thoughts is to be stopped by them, toward seeing into dark interior corners, otherwise invisible to me. I need to awaken; do I not also need automatic thoughts, to awaken to?

  2. Jim, I like what you say, and yes, everything could perhaps be food, if we could only digest it. As far as the value of my associations, I think of the the words of the physician, Paracelsus, who taught that the dose makes the poison. It seems that enough associative thoughts will surface in my mind to fill a bookcase, regardless. Finally, my only quibble with what you wrote is that at your actual funeral there will be so many people who will speak kindly about you that it will last for hours. Be well!

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