A collection of private passages written by former emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius, has been collected and ordered in a book, titled, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. This is one of my favorite passages (Taken from the Penguin Classics translation by Martin Hammond).
What Aurelius describes in this passage shares a similar premise to what W. Timmothy Gallwey describes in The Inner Game of Tennis. In The Inner Game, Gallwey aims to help athletes mentality regarding competition with his premise of “Self 1” and “Self 2”. Self 1 executes, and Self 2 judges. Gallwey devotes many chapters to teach readers how to quiet Self 2 so that Self 1 can better execute. In Aurelius’ private writing, he sums up the premise of quieting the judging self quite directly, stating, “it is not the thing itself that troubles you, but your own judgement of it – and you can erase this immediately.” What Marcus Aurelius details here, things tend to be judged, which tend to cause distress. Obviously. But not so obviously, is that the judgement can be eliminated. By eliminating the judgement, the possibility of distress can be eliminated. What Gallwey outlines in many chapters, Aurelius pinpoints in just the first sentence of his private passage.
Aurelius’ words here can be applied to most any art. For an artist to improve, the practice of eliminating judgement is important. For example, juggling. The aim of juggling is to keep objects tossed in the air for as long as possible. Dropping an object while juggling is bad. Obviously. But if the juggler keeps judging the dropping of the object as bad, improvement eventually stops. How can the juggler improve if they keep scoffing whenever they drop an object? The juggler can remove the judgement, and analyze why the mistake was made. This may beg the question, somewhat paradoxically, “Well, if the juggler analyzed why they dropped the object, which leads to improvement, could the juggler benefit from judging the mistake as good?” If the aim of the juggler is to improve their juggling, the answer is no. If the juggler judges mistakes as good, then it follows that mistakes would then be less bothersome. Good things should be sought after, right? But mistakes should not be sought after. The juggler does not practice deliberately making mistakes. The juggler practices pushing their current ability to its limits, on the verge of making a mistake. So it goes that mistakes should be judged as neither good or bad. Mistakes should not be judged as bad, therefore eliminating any distress. Mistakes should not be judged as good because, well, it just seems silly to purposefully make mistakes. The juggler can only learn from mistakes made accidentally, not purposefully.
Though what about distress caused by oneself? Aurelius answers. “If it is something in your own attitude that distresses you, no one stops you correcting your view.” Aurelius remedies the problem so plainly, so obviously. The power to start changing ones attitude lies within oneself. This, like eliminating judgement of external events, of mistakes, takes practice. It’s difficult. As for art, is the goal then to become a soulless robot, going through the routine, without any emotion? The artist who practices for the sake of their art, for their love of their art, is far from soulless. Just try to find somebody at the top of their craft who lacks love for what they do.
And what about the artist who would rather die than fail? Aurelius restates this question with a mock statement, “But life is not worth living if I fail in this.” His words mirror the trap that many artists may fall into. It is a trap that I have fallen into before. It is not the trap of valuing improvement so much as it is the kind of quality of value placed on improvement. The quality of value that becomes toxic. I can relate to this from my own experience. From around the beginning of 2016 through late 2018, I placed a lot of value on my own improvement in my main art, Smash Bros. Melee. The amount of value I placed on improvement led me to improving eventually, however I began to think that my life would not be worth living if I did not improve. The value I placed on improvement became toxic. What should be done then, should one fall into this trap?Aurelius answers, responding to the mock statement, “Then you must depart this life…” If life is not worth living should one fail, then quit. The artist at the peek of their craft is never in a life or death situation. To get to the peak of their craft, the artist supplies their own pressure. They push their limitations through hours of repetition. They push their understanding through hours of study. They push themselves not to believe that they know all there is to know about their craft. They do this for the sake of the art, for the love of the art.