The View from Above Meditation
One of the spiritual exercises of Stoicism is known as the "view from above." With this exercise, Marcus Aurelius implores us to
"Constantly reflect on how swiftly all that exists and is coming to be is swept past us and disappears from sight. For substance is like a river in perpetual flow, and its activities are ever changing, and its causes infinite in their variations, and hardly anything at all stands still; and ever at our side is the immeasurable span of the past and the yawning gulf of the future, into which all things vanish away. Then how is he not a fool who in the midst of all this is puffed up with pride, or tormented, or bewails his lot as though his troubles will endure for any great while?" (5.23)
It is easy to think of our present circumstances in life as final and permanent. However, by using the view from above, we gain a propensity to view the present moment as a brief scene in the movie of life. If you think about most films, the scenes change numerous times. As the scenes change, different nuances arise; the plot changes in ways that we once thought impossible or even unimaginable. Looking at life from the "view from above" is impactful because it reminds us that while we are quick to evaluate our current circumstances negatively, such rash evaluations are disingenuous in respect to the totality of our life.
In my experience, keeping the totality of my life in mind is extremely helpful. It is so easy for all of us to ride the euphoric wave of triumph or sink into the pits of failure. When I ended a long-term relationship last year, it was tempting for me to fall headlong into a fissure of blackness. The feelings still come and go, but I've trained myself to keep in mind the Stoic "view from above." One of the things that helps me in that situation is to think of the broader story: maybe some successes that I've made in spite of great odds, or other times when I thought I did an amazing job but found out later that my performance was sub-par at best (I still think about one of my chemistry exams during my undergrad years). These reflections remind me to look at the bigger picture — the bigger journey — of life.
Here is a helpful script to help you during your view from above meditation:
1. Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit. Close your eyes and relax.
2. Pay attention to your breathing, calmly notice each in and out breath.
3. Let thoughts come and go, don’t make an effort to engage with them – just observe them in a detached manner.
4. Now begin to imagine you are looking at yourself from outside your body, as if you are a kind of spirit floating just above it.
5. Allow yourself to gently float higher and higher, noticing your perspective continuing to widen.
6. Observe the world as you ascend higher. Contemplate the people going about their lives, oblivious to your heightened perspective.
7. As you slowly rise higher you gain a view of cities, countries, oceans – the smaller details become less distinguishable.
8. Eventually you make it high enough to see the whole planet the way astronauts see it, as a spinning marble suspended in the abyss.
9. As you look at Earth, contemplate the millions of years that have been lived by the countless organisms that have inhabited it.
10. Think about your life within this bigger picture, think about how we’re a small dot on the full timeline of existence.
11. Think about how your nagging worries no longer seem important when put into perspective, think about what is important to you.
12. When you’re ready, conclude the meditation by gently floating back to Earth, noticing as the details become clearer and clearer until eventually you have returned to your body.
13. Stay calm, notice your breathing again and open your eyes. Hopefully this new perspective will help you as you go about your day. Remember, you can return to this meditation whenever you need it.
(Meditation adapted from https://whatisstoicism.com/category/stoicism-resources)