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A Roman Emperor on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations

“Your ability to control your thoughts—treat it with respect. It’s all that protects your mind from false perceptions—false to your nature, and that of all rational beings. It’s what makes thoughtfulness possible, and affection for other people, and submission to the divine.”

- Marcus Aurelius - Meditations

In my own life, I have found a lot of resonance with the words of the Roman Emperor, and stoic philosopher Marcus of Aurelius’ as written in his Meditations. Though written around 160 AD, his words seem to feel just as true now as in the years past. Perhaps this ability he has to write something so relevant today as it was almost 1900 years ago - is what makes his writing so intriguing to me. Though some of his statements appear a bit cliché or banal, he seems to have struck upon something deep within himself since in his day there were no self-help books discussing such concepts.

If one reads his Meditations, it is easy to find similarities between it and many present Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) Techniques. For example, the ‘Cognitive’ aspect of CBT is all about maintaining an awareness and also a vigilance about one’s thoughts. In DBT the concept of ‘wise mind’ is all about recognizing cognitive distortions that can occur, such as ‘all-or-nothing-thinking’ and ultimately control over our mind. Personally, I can think of many examples in which I have felt such concepts to be quite pivotal in changing my own state from sadness, anger, irritation to a more focused state. Certainly, I can think of even more where I was not able to move from a challenging feeling, however, I still feel that I have much to gain by reflecting on these deceptively “simple” concepts such as our control over our own thoughts. Many self-help books also seem to allude back to this primary power we have to control our thoughts as a central tenant such as Eckhart Tolle in The Power of Now.

I have at times been surprised by the power that such meditations have at times to sharpen my own focus or have heard this to be the case with clients I have worked with. His words urge us to control our thoughts and to:

“Concentrate every minute like a Roman—like a man—on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions.”

The words sound simple, yet how challenging it sometimes is to free ourselves from the distractions and concentrate on what is in front of us – even when these things in front of us are quite positive. He continues with acknowledgement of the challenge to actually apply these urgings:

Yes, you can—if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable. You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life? Forget everything else. Keep hold of this alone and remember it.”

The imperative, urgency to free ourselves from this inner bonds comes across, and the framing to act as though it were the “last thing you were doing in your life” evokes a sense of the ephemerality and unimportance of these illusory distractions when seen in the greater context of one’s life.

While I feel it is hard to fully grasp the deeper meanings in this and other meditations of Marcus Aurelius, I feel it is important to recognize that there are also neurobiological factors at work in our moods and thoughts. When struggling with a major depressive disorder or a generalized anxiety disorder, it is sometimes not possible and self-defeating to try and control our thoughts without seeking other intervention. That is not to say we should give up or not try, but it is important not to feel too angry or disappointed in ourselves when we do not attain the freedom and clarity that his words seem to promise. After all, perhaps Marcus Aurelius would consider such disappointment or anger in ourselves as a prime example of the minds ‘distractions’ that he is seeking here to help us to avoid.

(nice to listen to while doing dishes)

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