In my first non-introductory post, I wrote that many passages in the philosopher Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations are relevant to physical fitness. Today, I share a second passage, from Book 8, number 51:
“No carelessness in your actions. No confusion in your words. No imprecision in your thoughts. No retreating into your own soul, or trying to escape it. No overactivity.
They kill you, cut you with knives, shower you with curses. And that somehow cuts your mind off from clearness, and sanity, and self-control, and justice?
A man standing by a spring of clear, sweet water and cursing it. While the fresh water keeps on bubbling up. He can shovel mud into it, or dung, and the stream will carry it away, wash itself clean, remain unstained.
To have that. Not a cistern but a perpetual spring.
How? By working to win your freedom. Hour by hour. Through patience, honesty, humility.”1
Lately, going to the gym and lifting weights has been a struggle for me. Even after eight years of doing this, I am experiencing a period of ennui and apprehension, even fear. Weightlifting is hard, if you challenge yourself sufficiently—hard physically, mentally, and emotionally. Mentally: why am I not progressing? What do I need to do differently? Emotionally: what if I fail? What is the point of this? Now, my struggle is not a severe one. It’s not like it’s all I can do to drag myself around the gym, or like I start crying after a less than ideal set of reps. But I am definitely not at the best point of my workout career.
I like this passage from Meditations because it is something I can focus on to carry me through this time. “No carelessness in your actions,” it begins. Whatever I may be feeling as I do an exercise, at least I can be attentive to proper form. “No retreating into your own soul, or trying to escape it,” it continues. In other words, I should accept what I feel, and focus on the task at hand. I shouldn’t wallow in my anxiety, but I shouldn’t pretend like it doesn’t exist, either. This is compatible with the Buddhist principle of Right Mindfulness, from the Noble Eightfold Path.2
“They kill you, cut you with knives, shower you with curses. And that somehow cuts your mind off from clearness, and sanity, and self-control, and justice?” Here “they” might be thought of as the exercises themselves, or equipment. A few weeks ago, I did one repetition too many on the bench press without a spotter (not smart), and had to call across the room for help. The bench press bar is not the guilty party—clearly, I was at fault—but the point remains that something adversarial happened. Moving on must follow. Continued focus must occur.
“A man standing by a spring of clear, sweet water and cursing it. . . . He can shovel mud into it, or dung, and the stream will carry it away, wash itself clean, remain unstained. To have that. Not a cistern but a perpetual spring. How? . . . Hour by hour. Through patience, honesty, humility.” This is a powerful image when I’m doing the same exercise for the hundredth time, and doing it badly. Shovel mud at me, Universe of lactic acid and sweat and fatigue. Shovel shit at me, seated row and Roman chair. My perpetual spring of effort and vision and strength will meet you.
Source: Karen Brzys
The common theme here, one that shapes most of Marcus Aurelius’ work, is Stoicism. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states, “The later Stoics of Roman Imperial times, Seneca and Epictetus3, emphasise the doctrines (already central to the early Stoics' teachings) that the sage is utterly immune to misfortune and that virtue is sufficient for happiness. Our phrase ‘stoic calm’ perhaps encapsulates the general drift of these claims.”4
These words certainly align with this passage from Meditations. I’m not sure it is possible to be “utterly immune to misfortune,” nor am I sure that “virtue is sufficient for happiness.” Nevertheless, during a period of self-doubt and dread, the Stoic philosophy is a good one to keep in mind, and strive to maintain. Strength—whether physical, mental, or emotional—comes and goes. Maybe everything comes and goes. But a core mindset of concentrated effort and composure seems a bit more stable than most things.
1. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, trans. Gregory Hays (New York: Modern Library, 2004), 99.
2. Thomas Knierim, “The Noble Eightfold Path,” n.d., accessed Sept. 6, 2012, http://www.thebigview.com/buddhism/eightfoldpath.html#Right_Effort.
3. Both died before Marcus Aurelius was born.
4. “Stoicism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, last modified Oct. 4, 2010, accessed Sept. 4, 2012, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/stoicism/.