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Tag: self-help

The cover of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, translated by Gregory Hays

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, Translated by Gregory Hays

The cover of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, translated by Gregory HaysTitle: Meditations
Author: Marcus Aurelius
Translator: Gregory Hays
Publisher: Random House, Modern Library Classics
Format: eBook
Rating: 4 out of 5
How I got a copy: I purchased it from Kobo

I need to admit something: the books I’ve been reading so far are not for pleasure. I’m not hoping to enjoy them and escape from the world for a bit.

I’m using them as armour and weapons.

Staying strong and being hopeful while fighting for change is a form of armour. Understanding history and trying to find patterns behind past political movements in order to know what to expect is a weapon.

So is learning equanimity and steadiness, the art of how not to let change throw you off-balance. And that’s why I just read Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

The circumstances surrounding how the Meditations became public knowledge are happenstance. Marcus Aurelius originally wrote these notes as a form of solace and guidance while wearing the heavy mantle of Roman emperor; during his military campaigns and time at court, he wrote down his thoughts so that he could keep Stoic philosophy front and centre in his mind. They were not intended for public consumption, and the repetitive, disjointed nature of the passages within the book are ample proof.

How his writing reached the wider world is a mystery. But when it re-entered the historical record in the 10th century and was published more widely in the 16th century, Meditations by Marcus Aurelius became a seminal text for many political leaders due to its focus on living a life guided by self-restraint, justice, austerity and detachment.

I went with the Gregory Hays translation because some basic research online revealed it was one of the most readable and highly regarded versions. Looking back, I have to say it was an excellent choice.

I should note first off that the Hays version has an extensive introduction placing Marcus Aurelius and Stoicism in context, with commentary on his childhood, education, and ascension to the throne, as well as on central concepts of Stoic thought. The introduction is probably about half as long as Meditations itself.

Throughout reading the book, I was struck by several things in particular.

One is that Stoicism’s focus on detachment, humility, and accepting the will of nature/logos has a strong similarity to Buddhist thought. Or at least, it bears a strong similarity given my extremely basic, extremely Western understanding of Buddhism. For example:

And if you can’t stop prizing a lot of other things? Then you’ll never be free — free, independent, imperturbable. Because you’ll always be envious and jealous, afraid that people might come and take it all away from you. Plotting against those who have them — those things you prize. People who need those things are bound to be a mess — and bound to take out their frustrations on the gods. Whereas to respect your own mind — to prize it — will leave you satisfied with your own self, well integrated into your community and in tune with the gods as well — embracing what they allot you and what they ordain. (Book 6, section 16)

From my extremely untutored perspective, this sounds very similar to the Buddhist conceit that desire (“those things you prize”) is the source of suffering (“you’ll always be envious and jealous, afraid that people might come and take it all away from you”).

On the other hand, Aurelius says quite often that the source of our unhappiness lies in our perceptions and willingness to believe that we’ve been wronged:

External things are not the problem. It’s your assessment of them. Which you can erase right now. (Book 8, section 47)

This to me, sounds an awful lot like the kind of thing Stephen Covey talks about in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People — specifically the sections on proactivity vs reactivity.

Connecting those two books and authors may be valid, but it makes me feel skeevy somehow, because the contexts I associate with each of them are so different — the noble, long-dead philosopher king vs. the epitome of corporate self-help gurus.

Speaking of kings, one of the other things that I really had to come to terms with in Meditations by Marcus Aurelius is that, to modern readers, Aurelius’s words are imbued with a high amount of unexamined privilege:

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. (Book 8, section 16)

I mean, yes, it’s important to stay strong and try to withstand hardship. But, as a Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius had resources available to mitigate the worst things that could happen to him: the most competent administrators, the best food, the highest quality medical care. So much of his advice focuses on agency and action, but, given the time and place in which he lived, he had an exceptional amount of latitude to exercise his agency in the first place.

Try telling an Indigenous protester at Standing Rock to accept destruction with tranquility and see how far that gets you. The people who do that with a straight face either don’t understand the risks involved or aren’t negatively affected by said destruction. In other words, they just wouldn’t care.

Despite these challenges reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, what I connected with most strongly was the sense that it was written primarily for private use. The thoughts within are intimate, personal. Aurelius’s thoughts are not polished, but the fact that he returns to the same ideas so often — justice, restraint, impermanence, mortality — is evidence of just how thoroughly they occupied his mind. In a way, it reminds me of my own existential scribblings from high school. And anyone who can remind me of that aspect of my teenage years without making cringe deserves to be read.

Double Review: A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett and Mini-Habits by Stephen Guise

Alright, so my plan to read and and get book reviews ready to go for 2016 kinda fell with a thud when I didn’t post anything last Tuesday. However, I have read two books, so let’s do a capsule review for both.

But! I also want to mention that last week I was interviewed by Jonah Sutton-Morse of the Cabbages and Kings podcast about my book reviewing habits and my reading goals for 2016. Wanna hear me talk about diversity, SFF, and Watership Down? Have a listen!

A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett

a_hat_full_of_sky_coverI came to Pratchett very late in his career — the first book of his I read was Good Omens about a decade ago, but I didn’t start delving into Discworld until about three years ago. Since then, I’ve read only a few Discworld books, but I loved The Wee Free Men when I read it last year. My husband, who is very wise, bought me the last three Tiffany Aching books for Christmas, so I decided to prepare by reading A Hat Full of Sky.

A Hat Full of Sky happens about two years after The Wee Free Men, when Tiffany Aching rescued her brother from the Queen of Fairyland. Now, she’s been officially apprenticed as a witch to Miss Level, a caring but eccentric older witch. But when Tiffany uses a particular magical skill without understanding its rarity or its full import, her body gets taken over by a ravenous collective consciousness called a “hiver”. Tiffany, trapped within her own body, must find a way to regain control. Luckily, the Nac Mac Feegle and Granny Weatherwax are there to help.

I found the climax of A Hat Full of Sky to be very similar to its predecessor — Tiffany overcomes the antagonist of each book by tapping in to her witchy powers and “opening her eyes” twice to figure out its true weaknesses and desires. Both books also had a very cosmic quality to them — in The Wee Free Men, she became an incarnation of her homeland in order to cast an invader out to the alternate world where they came from, while in A Hat Full of Sky, she gave the hiver the ability to die by opening a doorway into the realm of death, something it didn’t know how to access on its own. In both instances, Tiffany ends the book by feeling empowered but also more aware of just how much of her power resides in her sense of empathy and humanity.

One thing I’m hoping that the remaining Tiffany Aching books will expand upon is Tiffany’s tendency towards egotism, and how that tendency could get exacerbated as she goes through adolescence. The hiver is a creature of untrammelled id, and its possession of Tiffany is a way for Pratchett to look at things like peer pressure, but I think there’s a lot more territory to explore here.

Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results by Stephen Guise

mini_habits_coverAh, and now we come to the obligatory It’s-New-Years-Which-Means-It’s-Time-To-Read-A-Self-Help-Book book. I found out about Mini Habits through a podcast by Ed Gandia, a popular online coach and mentor for freelancers. One of his podcast episodes talked about how it’s often productive for freelancers (like me) to switch from making goals to building habits. One of the resources he recommended towards making this shift was this very book.

I will agree that the premise of Guise’s book is sound: that to create long-term, durable habits, you need to start small. I also appreciate that the book contains several references to both current and past neurological research regarding willpower and habit formation.

However, like many self-help books, Guise’s prose is so full of hyperbole that I had a hard time finishing the darned thing. It doesn’t help that he spends a full chapter of Mini Habits talking about how depending on “willpower” and “motivation” to achieve goals will result in failure but he fails to define what he means by those two terms. To someone like me who doesn’t keep track of the latest neuroscience research, “willpower” and “motivation” sound synonymous, but Guise makes it clear that he considers these two concepts to be at odds with each other. A quick paragraph on what his personal definitions of those words are would have been helpful. This book could have easily been improved by shortening it even further from its already-short count of 127 pages.

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