What is The View From Above in Stoicism?
“Think of the universal substance, of which thou hast a very small portion; and of universal time, of which a short and indivisible interval has been assigned to thee; and of that which is fixed by destiny, and how small a part of it thou art.” – Marcus Aurelius
This “View From Above”is a meditation-type exercise that shifts your perspective from a first-person view to a wider one. You are asked to take a step back to see yourself from the above as part of the whole, and not just an individual disconnected from his surroundings. It is a means of remembering that you are not an entity cut-off from the whole but in fact an integral part of it.
Why practice The View From Above?
The Stoics, and Marcus Aurelius in particular, used the “View from Above” meditation to distance themselves from their narrow and limited everyday perspectives. This practice of viewing the world as a whole is essential for every individual aspiring to living a good and meaningful life. During this practice, you take a neutral and more balanced view of the world, seeing things clearly in their entirety rather than the extremely small and clouded view that each individual is limited to.
This new view of the world can detach you from your worries, allowing you to realise how insignificant they are in the big picture. While at first, you might think that the “View from Above” meditation will make you aware of the hopelessness of life and the passing of time, it actually helps to discover a new profound happiness as you realise your connection with the whole.
Marcus Aurelius claims that you ask questions about the meaning of life because you are only focusing on your limited and finite perspective. Once you learn how to change your viewpoint and embrace eternity, you will be able to find the beauty that lies in everything. The idea of thinking of the world from above, as if you were among the stars, is a recurring theme in the philosopher’s Meditations.
The following quote is a prime example of the Stoic’s beliefs:
“Look round at the courses of the stars, as if thou wert going along with them; and constantly consider the changes of the elements into one another; for such thoughts purge away the filth of the terrene life.”
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.47
What is the main goal?
The goal of the “View from Above” concept and its associated meditation is to finally obtain something that the Stoics called apatheia, a state where the individual is no longer disturbed by the passions of the senses and mind. Apatheia, in essence, means to eradicate the tendency to react to external factors that are out of the individual’s control, a theme present both in Seneca’s and Epictetus’s works.
The shift in the cognitive awareness that you will experience through the “View from Above” meditation has been frequently been compared to the Overview Effect. Many astronauts describe how the view of the Earth from space leads to an intense emotional reaction. They realise how tiny life on Earth really is, as well as how fragile our finite existence is. This sudden awareness of the big picture leads to a shift in their consciousness, where the things that divide people on Earth look insignificant.
Practicing the “View from Above” meditation is sure to create a shift in your viewpoint and your life. As well as relieving your mind and soul from day-to-day anxieties, you will become better at reasoning. You will enjoy a nourishing and cathartic feeling that comes from the realisation that your problems don’t have the significance you have attached to them. As Marcus Aurelius puts it:
“This is a fine saying of Plato: That he who is discoursing about men should look also at earthly things as if he viewed them from some higher place; should look at them in their assemblies, armies, agricultural labours, marriages, treaties, births, deaths, noise of the courts of justice, desert places, various nations of barbarians, feasts, lamentations, markets, a mixture of all things and an orderly combination of contraries.”
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.48
A short, written meditation practice
The View From Above doesn’t have to be a formal practice and it doesn’t have to be the same every time. The contemplation can last only a few short minutes if you want it to. This will still be enough to produce the desired effects.
1. Find a comfortable, quiet place to sit. Ensure that it is somewhere you won’t be disturbed.
2. Pay attention to the breath naturally moving in and moving out on its own. Thoughts may grab your attention for a moment. Don’t worry about this. Gently return to the breath each time that you notice this has occurred.
3. Begin to visualise yourself where you are, as if from a third-person perspective. See yourself from one of the corners of the room that you are sat in.
4. Begin to ascend in your visualisation even higher. See the roof of your house below you. Begin to imagine and see the movement going on in your street right now. All of the comings and goings.
5. Continue to ascend. You start to see your town and city as a whole as if from a low-flying aeroplane. You might see a few of the landmarks of your city. Although you might picture cars and people moving about on the ground level of your city right now, they are just like ants moving about in a much bigger territory. The city itself is still.
6. As you continue to rise, entire countries, continents, seas and oceans come into view. It feels like you are an astronaut looking down on earth. You are so high that the movement of clouds, tides of the sea, the movement of cars and the busyness of everyday life can no longer be seen. From this height, everything is remarkably still.
7. As you look down upon this current snapshot of earth, remember that everyone you have ever heard of, everyone you have ever loved, every great achievement, every human life and every human death has taken place on this giant, vibrant space-rock as it passes through endless space. It was here long before you, and it will be here long after you.
8. Realise that no matter what personal problems people are wrapped up in on the ground level, this zoomed-out, live picture of the earth is always the same: peaceful, still, unaffected by the small troubles of the people that it temporarily provides a home to.
9. Whenever you are ready, gently begin to descend back down to earth. Slowly allow all of the details to come back into focus: oceans, continents, seas, countries. Then back above your city or town, back down into your street, your room and finally, back to your body.
10. Take a moment to take a few conscious breaths. Remember that although you are ‘back in your body’, all of the perspectives you visited were perspectives of right Now, just from ones other than the very limited perspective of an individual.
11. Remember these perspectives and revisit them whenever you feel overwhelmed by the narrow perspective of an individual. This meditation is always here to help you reset, re-centre and get a clear view on things again…
The View From Above Medallion
Looking to constanly be reminded to take “The View From Above”? We designed a View From Above Medallion to help you keep this perspective fresh as you move about your day-to-day activities. The coin features an eagle soaring over mountains on the front, and a “Zoom Out To See Life As It Really Is” reminder on the back.