Tracing the Outline of Daily Living

While skimming through Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations (the Gregory Hays edition) recently, as it so often happens with his ancient yet applicable wisdom, I came across a section that really struck me.

He says, “Always define whatever it is we perceive, to trace its outline, so we can see what it really is.” 


He goes on further to say, “What is it – this thing that now forces itself on my notice? What is it made up of? How long was it designed to last? And what qualities do I need to bring to bear on it?

This got me thinking.

What if we made an intentional effort to attempt to trace the outline of our daily living, both the positive and the negative?

For example, if you were to take a walk and a car zoomed by without letting you pass at a pedestrian crosswalk, your initial reaction may be to think that they’re an asshole leading to you feeling a bit frustrated or even upset.

We can utilize Marcus’s three questions to trace the outline of this scenario:

1 – What is it and what’s it made of? – It’s an impression, our recognition of the situation. It’s made of simply a thought in our mind and an opinion about what has just occurred.

2 – How long will it last? – This is totally up to us. Its impact can last for hours if we choose to allow it to, or it can be swept away in the wind just as quickly as it came to be.

3 – What qualities are needed to deal with it? – Present awareness of not only what happened but also our immediate impressions and impulses about it. Patience so that we take a moment before we react any further and do something we may regret. Compassion because we don’t know the person’s situation and why they did what they did, it’s possible they are dealing with an emergency or they are just an asshole, either way, you should feel sorry for them versus anger.

This “tracing the outline” exercise takes minimal effort and could be completed within just a few seconds of time if you develop the mindfulness to practice it in the moment.

Just imagine how much unnecessary aggravation and suffering you could save yourself in a circumstance such as the one detailed above or any other that brings about negativity. 

Aside from using it to deal with negativity, it can also be leveraged for positivity. Another example below.

You’re at a family gathering and all the people you love and care about are surrounding you. Everyone is smiling, eating, drinking and having great conversations. One of your family members comes up to hug you.

Marcus’s three questions can be used here to trace the outline of this scenario:

1 – What is it and what’s it made of? A gesture of love is happening, an emotion that can only be felt inside.


2 – How long will it last? The hug will last for no more than a few seconds, the feeling from the hug possibly a few minutes. Although, this could very well be the last time that person hugs you or you get to hug anyone.

3 – What qualities are needed to maximize it? Awareness of the moment. Appreciation for what is happening with the understanding of how fleeting it is. Expressing love for what you still have.

In what would typically be just another family gathering and a hug that you have received countless times before, by tracing its outline you can learn to recognize and strengthen the precious moments in life that really matter.


Give it a try and see what happens.