Stillness Is the Key

Stillness Is the Key

by Ryan Holiday

Stillness Is The Key is for everyone who seeks balance in their life. It connects the peace of our mind, soul and body. Ryan Holiday uses the teachings of Buddhism next to Stoicism that to go forward sometimes we need to slow down. When we can do that, we can exclude unnecessary information from our life, we can focus only on the essentials, and we can find stillness. That stillness will help us through anything.

Summary Notes

Introduction

“Stillness is what aims the archer’s arrow. It inspires new ideas. It sharpens perspective and illuminates connections. It slows the ball down so that we might hit it. It generates a vision, helps us resist the passions of the mob, makes space for gratitude and wonder. Stillness allows us to persevere. To succeed. It is the key that unlocks the insights of genius, and allows us regular folks to understand them.”

Striving for stillness can be found among many philosophies like Buddhism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, Christianity, and Hinduism. Being in stillness means being steady while the world spins around you. It means to act without frenzy. To hear only what needs to be heard. To possess quietude—exterior and interior—on command.

Stillness is the key…

To think clearly.

To see the whole chessboard.

To make tough decisions.

To manage our emotions.

To identify the right goals.

To handle high-pressure situations.

To maintain relationships.

To build good habits.

To be productive.

To physical excellence.

To feel fulfilled.

To capture moments of laughter and joy.

The aim is simple: do more with less effort. Accomplish more but need less. Not just feel but be better. This is true stillness.

The domain of the mind

“Our job is not to “go with our gut” or fixate on the first impression we form about an issue. No, we need to be strong enough to resist thinking that is too neat, too plausible, and therefore almost always wrong.”

Each of us will, in our own lives, face crises. A business on the brink of collapse. A sudden divorce. A decision about the future of our career. A moment where the whole game depends on us. These situations will call upon all our mental resources. An emotional, reactive response—an unthinking, half-baked response—will not cut it. Not if we want to get it right, or want to perform at our best.

What we will need then is stillness, which means being calm, open-minded, empathic, and having clarity about what really matters.

Actions to take

Be present

“That’s the nice thing about the present. It keeps showing up to give you a second chance.”

We do not live in this moment. In fact, we try desperately to get out of it—by thinking, doing, talking, worrying, remembering, hoping, whatever. We pay a huge amount of money to have a device in our pocket to ensure that we are never bored. We sign up for endless activities and obligations, chase money and accomplishments, all with the naïve belief that at the end of it will be happiness.

This moment we are experiencing right now is a gift (that’s why we call it the present). Even if it is a stressful, trying experience—it could be our last. That’s why we need to develop the ability to be in it, to put everything we have into appreciating the plentitude of the now.

Actions to take

Limit your inputs

“If you want good output, you have to watch over the inputs.”

We are afraid of silence, of looking stupid, of missing out, of being the bad guy who says, “nope, not interested.” However, in order to maintain our stillness and focus on what really matters, sometimes this is exactly what we should do.

Basically, we should filter all information coming into our lives and only let in the essentials.

Actions to take

Empty your mind

“No pressure. Just presence. Just happy to be there.”

Thinking is essential. Expert knowledge is undoubtedly key to the success of any leader, athlete, or artist. The problem is that we think too much. The wild and whirling words of our subconscious get going and suddenly, there’s no room for our training (or anything else). We’re overloaded, overwhelmed, and distracted – by our own minds.

If we can clear space in our heads, if we can consciously empty our minds, we will experience a breakthrough and gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world we inhabit.

Actions to take

Slow down, think deeply

“The world is like muddy water. To see through it, we have to let things settle. We can’t be disturbed by initial appearances, and if we are patient and still, the truth will be revealed to us.”

We have to get better at thinking, deliberately and intentionally, about the big questions. About the complicated things. We need to try harder to understand what’s really going on with a person, a situation, or with life itself.

We can reach satori – which is when the inscrutable is revealed and an essential truth becomes obvious and inescapable.

However, no one will reach it by going a million miles a minute. No one gets there by focusing on what’s obvious, or by sticking with the first thought that pops into their head. To see what matters, we really have to look. To understand it, we have to really think. It takes real work to grasp what is invisible to just about everyone else.

Actions to take

Start journaling

“This is what the best journals look like. They aren’t for the reader. They are for the writer. To slow the mind down. To wage peace with oneself.”

Journaling allows us to put the baggage in our heads or hearts down on paper. Instead of letting racing thoughts run unchecked or leaving half-baked assumptions unquestioned, we force ourselves to write and examine them.

Putting your own thinking down on paper lets you see it from a distance. It gives you objectivity that is so often missing when anxiety and fears and frustrations flood your mind.

How you journal is much less important than why you are doing it: To get something off your chest. To have quiet time with your thoughts. To clarify those thoughts. To separate the harmful from the insightful. There’s no right way or wrong way. The point is just to do it.

Actions to take

Seek wisdom

“We want to sit with doubt. We want to savor it. We want to follow it where it leads. Because on the other side is truth.”

Each philosophical school has its own take on wisdom, but the same themes appear in all of them: The need to ask questions. The need to study and reflect. The importance of intellectual humility—to not think that we know everything. The power of experiences—most of all failure and mistakes—to open our eyes to truth and understanding. In this way, wisdom is a sense of the big picture, the accumulation of experience, and the ability to rise above the biases, the traps that catch lazier thinkers.

Actions to take

Find confidence, avoid ego

“Don’t feed insecurity. Don’t feed delusions of grandeur. Both are obstacles to stillness. Be confident. You’ve earned it.”

Confident people know what matters. They know when to ignore other people’s opinions. They don’t boast or lie to get ahead (and then struggle to deliver). Confidence is the freedom to set your own standards and unshackle yourself from the need to prove yourself. A confident person doesn’t fear disagreement and doesn’t see change—swapping an incorrect opinion for a correct one—as an admission of inferiority.

Ego, on the other hand, is unsettled by doubts, afflicted by hubris, exposed by its own boasting and posturing. And yet it will not probe itself—or allow itself to be probed—because it knows what might be found.

But confident people are open, reflective, and able to see themselves without blinders. All this makes room for stillness, by removing unnecessary conflict and uncertainty, and resentment.

Actions to take

Let go

“Only through stillness are the vexing problems solved. Only through reducing our aims are the most difficult targets within our reach.”

Have you ever noticed that the more we want something, the more insistent we are on a certain outcome, the more difficult it can be to achieve it? Sports like golf and archery are the perfect examples of this. When you try to hit the ball really hard, you end up snap-hooking it. If you look up to follow the ball, you jerk the club and slice it into the woods. The energy you’re spending aiming the arrow—particularly early on—is energy not spent developing your form. If you’re too conscious of the technical components of shooting, you won’t be relaxed or smooth enough. As marksmen say these days, “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.”

Stillness, then, is a way to superior performance. Looseness will give you more control than gripping tightly—to a method or a specific outcome.

Actions to take

The domain of the soul

“Our soul is where we secure our happiness and unhappiness, contentment or emptiness—and ultimately, determine the extent of our greatness.”

Since ancient times, people have strived to train and control the forces that reside deep inside them so that they can find serenity, so that they can preserve and protect their accomplishments. What good is it to be rational at work if our personal lives are a hot-blooded series of disasters? How long can we keep the two domains separate anyway? You might rule cities or a great empire, but if you’re not in control of yourself, it is all for naught.

The work we must do next is less cerebral and more spiritual. It’s work located in the heart and the soul, not in mind. Because it is our soul that is the key to our happiness (or our unhappiness), contentment (or discontent), moderation (or gluttony), and stillness (or perturbation).

Actions to take

Choose virtue

“And from virtue comes good decisions and happiness and peace. It emanates from the soul and directs the mind and the body.”

There’s no question it’s possible to get ahead in life by lying and cheating and generally being awful to other people. This may even be a quick way to the top. But it comes at the expense of not only your self-respect but your security too.

Virtue, on the other hand, as crazy as it might seem, is a far more attainable and sustainable way to succeed.

Recognition is dependent on other people. Getting rich requires business opportunities. You can be blocked from your goals by the weather just as easily as you can by a dictator. But virtue? No one can stop you from knowing what’s right. Nothing stands between you and it but yourself.

Actions to take

Heal the inner child

“The functional adult steps in to reassert and reassure. To make stillness possible.”

The source of our anxiety and worry, the frustrations that seem to suddenly pop out in inappropriate situations, the reason we have trouble staying in relationships or ignoring criticism—it isn’t us. Well, it is us, just not adult us. It’s the seven-year-old living inside us. The one who was hurt by Mom and Dad, the sweet, innocent kid who wasn’t seen.

Each of us on occasion had surprised ourselves with a strong reaction to someone’s innocuous comments or thrown a fit when some authority figure tried to direct our actions. Or felt the pull of attraction to a type of relationship that never ends well. Or to a type of behavior that we know is wrong. It’s almost primal how deep these feelings go—they’re rooted in our infancy.

When we embrace our strong emotions with mindfulness and concentration, we’ll be able to see the roots of these mental formations. We’ll know where our suffering has come from. And when we see the roots of things, our suffering will lessen. Mindfulness recognizes, embraces, and relieves.

Actions to take

Beware desire

“Only those of us who take the time to explore, to question, to extrapolate the consequences of our desires have an opportunity to overcome them and to stop regrets before they start. Only they know that real pleasure lies in having a soul that’s true and stable, happy and secure.”

Most desires are at their core irrational emotions, and that’s why stillness requires that we sit down and dissect them. We want to think ahead to the refractory period, to consider the inevitable hangover before we take a drink. When we do that, these desires lose some of their power.

None of us are perfect. We have biologies and pathologies that will inevitably trip us up. What we need then are a philosophy and a strong moral code—that sense of virtue—to help us resist what we can, and to give us the strength to pick ourselves back up when we fail and try to do and be better.

Actions to take

Enough

“More does nothing for the one who feels less than, who cannot see the wealth that was given to them at birth, that they have accumulated in their relationships and experiences.”

Accomplishment. Money. Fame. Respect. Piles and piles of them will never make a person feel content.

If you believe there is ever some point where you will feel like you’ve “made it,” when you’ll finally be good, you are in for an unpleasant surprise. Or worse, a sort of Sisyphean torture where just as that feeling appears to be within reach, the goal is moved just a little bit farther up the mountain and out of reach.

You will never feel okay by way of external accomplishments. Enough comes from the inside. It comes from stepping off the train. From seeing what you already have, what you’ve always had.

Actions to take

Bathe in beauty

“Not that all beauty is so immediately beautiful. We’re not always on the farm or at the beach or gazing out over sweeping canyon views. Which is why the philosopher must cultivate the poet’s eye—the ability to see beauty everywhere, even in the banal or the terrible.”

It is not the sign of a healthy soul to find beauty in superficial things—the worshipping of the crowd, fancy cars, enormous mansions, glittering awards. Nor to be made miserable by the ugliness of the world—the critics and haters, the suffering of the innocent, injuries, pain, and loss. It is better to find beauty in all places and things. Beauty does surround us. It will nourish us if we let it.

Don’t let the beauty of life escape you. See the world as the temple that it is. Let every experience be uplifting. Marvel at the fact that any of this exists—that you exist. Even when we are killing each other in pointless wars, even when we are killing ourselves with pointless work, we can stop and bathe in the beauty that surrounds us, always.

In our own search for beauty and what is good in life, we would do well to head outside and wander around. In an attempt to unlock a deeper part of our consciousness and access a high level of our mind, we would do well to get our body moving and our blood flowing. 

Actions to take

Accept a higher power

“But still, you have to believe in something. You just have to. Or else everything is empty and cold.”

When nearly all the wise people of history agree, we should pause and reflect. It’s next to impossible to find an ancient philosophical school that does not talk about a higher power (or higher powers). Not because they had “evidence” of its existence, but because they knew how powerful faith and belief were, how essential they were to the achievement of stillness and inner peace.

But we struggle with skepticism, with an egotism that puts us at the center of the universe. That’s why the philosopher Nassim Taleb’s line is so spot on: It’s not that we need to believe that God is great, only that God is greater than us.

Actions to take

Enter relationships

“By ourselves, we are a fraction of what we can be.”

Relationships indeed take time. They also expose and distract us, cause pain, and cost money. We are also nothing without them. Bad relationships are common, and good relationships are hard. Being close to and connecting with other people challenges every facet of our soul, especially when our inner child is there, acting out. Or, we are pulled away by lust and desire. Or, our selfishness makes little room for another person.

The temptations of the world lead us amiss, and our tempers hurt the ones we love. A good relationship requires us to be virtuous, faithful, present, empathetic, generous, open, and willing to be a part of a larger whole. Real surrender is required for growth.

Actions to take

Conquer your anger

“The point is that people who are driven by anger are not happy. They are not still. They get in their own way. They shorten legacies and short-circuit their goals.”

Anger is counterproductive. The flash of rage here, an outburst at the incompetence around us there—this may generate a moment of raw motivation or even a feeling of relief, but we rarely tally up the frustration they cause down the road. Even if we apologize or the good we do outweighs the harm, the damage remains—and consequences follow. The person we yelled at is now an enemy. The drawer we broke in a fit is now a constant annoyance. The high blood pressure, the overworked heart, inching us closer to the attack that will put us in the hospital or the grave.

We can pretend we didn’t hear or see things that were meant to offend. We can move slowly, giving extreme emotions time to dissipate. We can avoid situations and people (and even entire cities) where we know we tend to get upset or pissed off. When we feel our temper rising up, we need to look for insertion points (the space between stimulus and response). Points where we can get up and walk away.

Actions to take

All is one

“No one is alone, in suffering or in joy. Down the street, across the ocean, in another language, someone else is experiencing nearly the exact same thing. It has always been and always will be thus.”

When you step back from the evilness of your own immediate experience you are able to see the experience of others and either connect with them or lessen the intensity of your own pain. We are all strands in a long rope that stretches back countless generations and ties together every person in every country on every continent. We are all thinking and feeling the same things, we are all made of and motivated by the same things. We are all stardust. And no one needs this understanding more than the ambitious or the creative since they live so much in their own heads and in their own bubble.

Finding the universal in the personal, and the personal in the universal, is not only the secret to art and leadership and even entrepreneurship, it is the secret to centering oneself. It both turns down the volume of noise in the world and tunes one into the quiet wavelength of wisdom that sages and philosophers have long been on.

Peace is when we realize that victory and defeat are almost identical spots on one long spectrum. Peace is what allows us to take joy in the success of others and to let them take joy in our own. Peace is what motivates a person to be good, to treat every other living thing well, because they understand that it is a way to treat themselves well.

Actions to take

The domain of the body

“No one can afford to neglect the final domain in our journey to stillness. What we do with our bodies. What we put in our bodies. Where we dwell. What kind of routine and schedule we keep. How we find leisure and relief from the pressures of life.” 

The body keeps score. If we don’t take care of ourselves physically, if we don’t align ourselves properly, it doesn’t matter how strong we are mentally or spiritually.

We can’t simply think our way to peace. We can’t pray our soul into better condition. We’ve got to move and live our way there. It will take our body—our habits, our actions, our rituals, our self-care—to get our mind and our spirit in the right place, just as it takes our mind and spirit to get our body to the right place.

Actions to take

Say no

“When we know what to say no to, we can say yes to the things that matter.” 

Maybe it’s not the most virtuous thing to say “No, sorry, I can’t” when you really can but just don’t want to. But can you really? Can you really afford to do it? And does it not harm other people if you’re constantly stretched too thin?

A pilot gets to say, “Sorry, I’m on standby,” as an excuse to get out of things. Doctors and firemen and police officers get to use being “on-call” as a shield. But are we not on call in our own lives? Isn’t there something (or someone) that we’re preserving our full capacities for? Are our own bodies not on call for our families, for our self-improvement, for our own work?

Always think about what you’re really being asked to give. Because the answer is often a piece of your life, usually in exchange for something you don’t even want. Remember, that’s what time is. It’s your life, it’s your flesh and blood, that you can never get back.

Good decisions are not made by those who are running on empty. What kind of interior life can you have, what kind of thinking can you do when you’re utterly and completely overworked? It’s a vicious cycle: We end up having to work more to fix the errors we made when we would have been better off resting, having consciously said no instead of reflexively saying yes. We end up pushing good people away (and losing relationships) because we’re wound so tight and have so little patience.

Actions to take

Build a routine

“A master is in control. A master has a system. A master turns the ordinary into the sacred. And so must we.”

Most people wake up to face the day as an endless barrage of bewildering and overwhelming choices, one right after another. What do I wear? What should I eat? What should I do first? What should I do after that? What sort of work should I do? Should I scramble to address this problem or rush to put out this fire?

Needless to say, this is exhausting. It is a whirlwind of conflicting impulses, incentives, inclinations, and external interruptions. It is no path to stillness and hardly a way to get the best out of yourself.

When we not only automate and routinize the trivial parts of life but also make automatic good and virtuous decisions, we free up resources to do important and meaningful exploration. We buy a room for peace and stillness and thus make good work and good thoughts accessible and inevitable.

Actions to take

Get rid of your stuff

“You were born free—free of stuff, free of burden. But since the first time they measured your tiny body for clothes, people have been foisting stuff upon you. And you’ve been adding links to the pile of chains yourself ever since.”

Have you ever seen a house torn down? A lifetime of earning and saving, countless hours of decorating and accumulating until it was arranged just right, the place of so much living—and in the end, it is reduced to a couple of dumpsters full of debris. Even the incredibly wealthy, even the heads of state showered with gifts throughout their life, would only fill a few more bins.

Yet how many of us collect and acquire as if the metric tonnage of our possessions is a comment on our worth as individuals? Just as every hoarder becomes trapped by their own garbage, so too are we tied down by what we own. Every piece of expensive jewelry comes with an insurance bill, every mansion with a staff of groundskeepers, every investment with obligations and monthly statements to review, every exotic pet and plant with a set of responsibilities.

More money, more problems, and also more stuff, less freedom.

Actions to take

Seek solitude

“Breakthroughs seem to happen with stunning regularity in the shower or on a long hike. Where don’t they happen? Shouting to be heard in a bar. Three hours into a television binge. Nobody realizes just how much they love someone while they’re booking back-to back-to-back meetings.”

It is difficult to think clearly in rooms filled with other people. It’s difficult to understand yourself if you are never by yourself. It’s difficult to have much in the way of clarity and insight if your life is a constant party and your home is a construction site.

Sometimes you have to disconnect in order to better connect with yourself and with the people you serve and love.

People don’t have enough silence in their lives because they don’t have enough aloneness. They don’t get enough aloneness because they don’t seek out or cultivate silence. It’s a vicious cycle that prevents stillness and reflection and then stymies good ideas, which are almost always hatched in aloneness.

Actions to take

Go to sleep

“If you want peace, there is just one thing to do. If you want to be your best, there is just one thing to do. Go to sleep.”

The bloodshot engineer six Red Bulls deep has no chance of stillness. Nor does the recent grad who still party like she’s in college. Nor does the writer who plans poorly and promises himself he’ll finish his book in a sleepless three-day sprint. A 2017 study actually found that lack of sleep increases negative repetitive thinking. Abusing the body leads the mind to abuse itself.

Sleep is the other side of the work we’re doing—sleep is the recharging of the internal batteries whose energy stores we recruit in order to do our work. It is a meditative practice. It is stillness. It’s the time when we turn off. It’s built into our biology for a reason.

Actions to take

Find a hobby

“Make the time. Build the discipline. You deserve it. You need it. Your stillness depends on it.”

A hobby – or leisure – is a physical state – a physical action – that somehow reloads and strengthens the soul. Leisure is not the absence of activity, it is activity. What is absent is any external justification – you can’t do leisure for pay, you can’t do it to impress people.

You have to do it for you.

The good news is that leisure can be anything. It can be cutting down trees, or learning another language. Camping or restoring old cars. Writing poetry or knitting. Running marathons, riding horses, or walking the beach with a metal detector.

Actions to take

Beware escapism

“The one thing you can’t escape in your life is yourself.”

You have to be still enough to discover what’s really going on. You have to let the muddy water settle. That can’t happen if you’re jetting off from one place to another, if you’re packing your schedule with every activity you can think of in order to avoid the possibility of having to spend even a moment alone with your own thoughts.

If true peace and clarity are what you seek in this life—and by the way, they are what you deserve—know that you will find them nearby and not far away. Stick fast. Turn into yourself. Stand in place.

Actions to take

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