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Stillness is the Key

Ryan Holliday

Personal Thoughts

Summary Notes

To Seneca and to his fellow adherents of Stoic philosophy, if a person could develop peace within themselves—if they could achieve apatheia, as they called it—then the whole world could be at war, and they could still think well, work well, and be well. “You may be sure that you are at peace with yourself,”

To achieve stillness, we’ll need to focus on three domains, the timeless trinity of mind...

This is, in fact, the first obligation of a leader and a decision maker. 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. Because if the leader can’t take the time to develop a clear sense of the bigger picture, who will? If the leader isn’t thinking through all the way to the end, who is?

Keep strong, if possible. In any case, keep cool. Have unlimited patience. Never corner an opponent, and always assist him to save face. Put yourself in his shoes—so as to see things through his eyes. Avoid self-righteousness like the devil—nothing is so self-blinding.

Careful as someone crossing an iced-over stream. Alert as a warrior in enemy territory. Courteous as a guest. Fluid as melting ice. Shapable as a block of wood. Receptive as a valley. Clear as a glass of water.

An artist is present. And from this stillness comes brilliance. 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. So let’s develop the ability to be in it, to put everything we have into appreciating the plentitude of the now. Don’t reject a difficult or boring moment because it is not exactly what you want. Don’t waste a beautiful moment because you are insecure or shy. Make what you can of what you have been given. Live what can be lived. That’s what excellence is. That’s what presence makes possible.

As a general, Napoleon made it his habit to delay responding to the mail. His secretary was instructed to wait three weeks before opening any correspondence. When he finally did hear what was in a letter, Napoleon loved to note how many supposedly “important” issues had simply resolved themselves and no longer required a reply.

“If you wish to improve,” Epictetus once said, “be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters.” Napoleon was content with being behind on his mail, even if it upset some people or if he missed out on some gossip, because it meant that trivial problems had to resolve themselves without him. We need to cultivate a similar attitude—give things a little space, don’t consume news in real time, be a season or two behind on the latest trend or cultural phenomenon, don’t let your inbox lord over your life.

In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius says, “Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?’” Knowing what not to think about. What to ignore and not to do. It’s your first and most important job.

Thich Nhat Hanh: Before we can make deep changes in our lives, we have to look into our diet, our way of consuming. We have to live in such a way that we stop consuming the things that poison us and intoxicate us. Then we will have the strength to allow the best in us to arise, and we will no longer be victims of anger, of frustration.

How different would the world look if people spent as much time listening to their conscience as they did to chattering broadcasts? If they could respond to the calls of their convictions as quickly as we answer the dings and rings of technology in our pockets? All this noise. All this information. All these inputs. We are afraid of the silence. We are afraid of looking stupid. We are afraid of missing out. We are afraid of being the bad guy who says, “Nope, not interested.” We’d rather make ourselves miserable than make ourselves a priority, than be our best selves. Than be still . . . and in charge of our own information diet.

It seems crazy, but it isn’t. “Man is a thinking reed,” D. T. Suzuki, one of the early popularizers of Buddhism in the West, once said, “but his great works are done when he is not calculating and thinking. ‘Childlikeness’ has to be restored with long years of training in the art of self-forgetfulness. When this is attained, man thinks yet he does not think.”

Zhuang Zhou, the Chinese philosopher, said, “Tao is in the emptiness. Emptiness is the fast of the mind.” Marcus Aurelius once wrote about “cutting free of impressions that cling to the mind, free of the future and the past,” to become the “sphere rejoicing in its perfect stillness.”

...if we can clear space, if we can consciously empty our mind, ... There is a beautiful paradox to this idea of void. The Daodejing points out that when clay is formed around emptiness, it becomes a pitcher that can hold water. Water from the pitcher is poured into a cup, which is itself formed around emptiness. The room this all happens in is itself four walls formed around emptiness. Do you see? By relying on what’s not there, we actually have something worth using.

Epictetus talked about how the job of a philosopher is to take our impressions—what we see, hear, and think—and put them to the test. He said we needed to hold up our thoughts and examine them, to make sure we weren’t being led astray by appearances or missing what couldn’t be seen by the naked eye.

So much of the distress we feel comes from reacting instinctually instead of acting with conscientious deliberation. ... Your job, after you have emptied your mind, is to slow down and think. To really think, on a regular basis.  . . . Think about what’s important to you.  . . . Think about what’s actually going on.  . . . Think about what might be hidden from view.  . . . Think about what the rest of the chessboard looks like.  . . . Think about what the meaning of life really is.

Sit alone in a room and let your thoughts go wherever they will. Do this for one minute. . . . Work up to ten minutes a day of this mindless mental wandering. Then start paying attention to your thoughts to see if a word or goal materializes. If it doesn’t, extend the exercise to eleven minutes, then twelve, then thirteen . . . until you find the length of time you need to ensure that something interesting will come to mind. The Gaelic phrase for this state of mind is “quietness without loneliness.”

Journaling is a way to ask tough questions: Where am I standing in my own way? What’s the smallest step I can take toward a big thing today? Why am I so worked up about this? What blessings can I count right now? Why do I care so much about impressing people? What is the harder choice I’m avoiding? Do I rule my fears, or do they rule me? How will today’s difficulties reveal my character?...

According to one study, journaling helps improve well-being after traumatic and stressful events. Similarly, a University of Arizona study showed that people were able to better recover from divorce and move forward if they journaled on the experience.

We were given two ears and only one mouth for a reason, the philosopher Zeno observed. What you’ll notice when you stop to listen can make all the difference in the world

The writer Franz Kafka, the son of an overbearing and disapproving father, likened imposter syndrome to the feeling of a bank clerk who is cooking the books. Frantically trying to keep it all going. Terrified of being discovered. Of course, this insecurity exists almost entirely in our heads. People aren’t thinking about you. They have their own problems to worry about!

“The mind tends toward stillness,” Lao Tzu said, “but is opposed by craving.”

The premise of this book is that our three domains—the mind, the heart, and the body—must be in harmony. The truth is that for most people not only are these domains out of sync, but they are at war with each other. We will never have peace until that civil war Dr. King described is settled.

“On the surface of the ocean there is stillness,” the monk Thich Nhat Hanh has said of the human condition, “but underneath there are currents.”

Marcus Aurelius would ask himself, “What am I doing with my soul? Interrogate yourself, to find out what inhabits your so-called mind and what kind of soul you have now. A child’s soul? An adolescent’s? . . . A tyrant’s soul? The soul of a predator—or its prey?” We need to ask ourselves these questions, too, especially as we become successful.

One of the best stories in Zen literature is a series of ten poems about a farmer and his trouble with a bull. The poems are an allegory about conquering the self, and the titles of each one map out the journey that each of us must go on: We search for the bull, we track the footprints, we find it, we catch it, we tame it, we ride it home.

Develop a strong moral compass. Steer clear of envy and jealousy and harmful desires. Come to terms with the painful wounds of their childhood. Practice gratitude and appreciation for the world around them. Cultivate relationships and love in their lives. Place belief and control in the hands of something larger than themselves. Understand that there will never be “enough” and that the unchecked pursuit of more ends only in bankruptcy.

Life is meaningless to the person who decides their choices have no meaning.

What is virtue? Seneca would ask. His answer: “True and steadfast judgment.” 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.

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. Each of us must cultivate a moral code, a higher standard that we love almost more than life itself. Each of us must sit down and ask: What’s important to me? What would I rather die for than betray? How am I going to live and why?

Sigmund Freud himself wrote about how common it is for deficiencies, big and small, at a young age to birth toxic, turbulent attitudes in adulthood. Because we weren’t born rich enough, pretty enough, naturally gifted enough, because we weren’t appreciated like other children in the classroom, or because we had to wear glasses or got sick a lot or couldn’t afford nice clothes, we carry a chip on our shoulder. ... It’s dangerous business, though, creating a monster to protect your wounded inner child.

As Freud explained, “We all demand reparation for our early wounds to our narcissism,” thinking we are owed because we were wronged or deprived.

As Thich Nhat Hanh has written: After recognizing and embracing our inner child, the third function of mindfulness is to soothe and relieve our difficult emotions. Just by holding this child gently, we are soothing our difficult emotions and we can begin to feel at ease. 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. When we see the roots of things, our suffering will lessen. So mindfulness recognizes, embraces, and relieves.

Take the time to think about the pain you carry from your early experiences. Think about the “age” of the emotional reactions you have when you are hurt or betrayed or unexpectedly challenged in some way. That’s your inner child. They need a hug from you. They need you to say, “Hey, buddy. It’s okay. I know you’re hurt, but I am going to take care of you.”

Give more. Give what you didn’t get. Love more. Drop the old story. Try it, if you can.

Epicurus, again the supposed hedonist, once said that “sex has never benefited any man, and it’s a marvel if it hasn’t injured him.” He came up with a good test anytime he felt himself being pulled by a strong desire: What will happen to me if I get what I want? How will I feel after?

...most desires are at their core irrational emotions, and that’s why stillness requires that we sit down and dissect them.

If wanting something makes you miserable while you don’t have it, doesn’t that diminish the true value of the reward? If getting what you “want” has its consequences too, is that really pleasurable? If the same drive that helps you achieve initially also leads you inevitably to overreach or overdo, is it really an advantage?

To have an impulse and to resist it, to sit with it and examine it, to let it pass by like a bad smell—this is how we develop spiritual strength. This is how we become who we want to be in this world. 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 people never learn that their accomplishments will ultimately fail to provide the relief and happiness we tell ourselves they will. Or they come to understand this only after so much time and money, so many relationships and moments of inner peace, were sacrificed on the altar of achievement. We get to the finish line only to think: This is it? Now what?

...the mentality that gets an athlete to the top so often prevents them from enjoying the thing they worked so hard for. The need for of progress can be the enemy of enjoying the process.

Solving your problem of poverty is an achievable goal and can be fixed by earning and saving money. No one could seriously claim otherwise. The issue is when we think these activities can address spiritual poverty.

Now, there is a perfectly understandable worry that contentment will be the end of our careers—that if we somehow satisfy this urge, all progress in our work and in our lives will come to a screeching halt. If everyone felt good, why would they keep trying so hard? First, it must be pointed out that this worry itself is hardly an ideal state of mind. No one does their best work driven by anxiety, and no one should be breeding insecurity in themselves so that they might keep making things. That is not industry, that is slavery.

What do we want more of in life? That’s the question. It’s not accomplishments. It’s not popularity. It’s moments when we feel like we are enough.

Anne thought to herself, “this sunshine and this cloudless sky, and as long as I can enjoy it, how can I be sad?” She would later write in her diary that nature was a kind of cure-all, a comfort available to any and all who suffer.

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 adulation of the crowd, fancy cars, enormous estates, 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. Because it does surround us. And will nourish us if we let it.

The Japanese have a concept, shinrin yoku—forest bathing—which is a form of therapy that uses nature as a treatment for mental and spiritual issues. Hardly a week passed, even when he was president, that Roosevelt didn’t take a forest bath of some kind.

Get out now. Not just outside, but beyond the trap of the programmed electronic age so gently closing around so many people. . . . Go outside, move deliberately, then relax, slow down, look around. Do not jog. Do not run. . . . Instead pay attention to everything that abuts the rural road, the city street, the suburban boulevard. Walk. Stroll. Saunter. Ride a bike and coast along a lot. Explore.

Don’t let the beauty of life escape you. See the world as the temple that it is. Let every experience be churchlike. 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.

Acknowledging a higher power is difficult because submitting to anything other than their own desires is anathema to what one addict describes as the “pathological self-centeredness” of addiction.

While addiction is undoubtedly a biological disease, it is also, in a more practical sense, a process of becoming obsessed with one’s own self and the primacy of one’s urges and thoughts. Therefore, admitting that there is something bigger than you out there is an important breakthrough. It means an addict finally understands that they are not God, that they are not in control, and really never have been. By the way, none of us are.

The twelve-step process is not itself transformative. It’s the decision to stop and to listen and to follow that does all the work.

To the Stoics, their higher power was the logos—the path of the universe. They acknowledged fate and fortune and the power these forces had over them.

In Chinese philosophy, dao—the Way—is the natural order of the universe, the way of a higher spirit. The Greeks not only believed in many different gods, but also that individuals were accompanied by a daemon, a guiding spirit that led them to their destiny.

The Confucians believed in Tian, 天—a concept of heaven that guided us while we were here on earth and assigned us a role or purpose in life. The Hindus believed that Brahman was the highest universal reality. In Judaism, Yahweh () is the word for Lord. Each of the major Native American tribes had their own word for the Great Spirit, who was their creator and guiding deity. Epicurus wasn’t an atheist but rejected the idea of an overbearing or judgmental god. What deity would want the world to live in fear? Living in fear, he said, is incongruent with ataraxia.

Realism is important. Pragmatism and scientism and skepticism are too. They all have their place. But still, you have to believe in something. You just have to. Or else everything is empty and cold.

It is probably not a coincidence that when one looks back at history and marvels at the incredible adversity and unimaginable difficulty that people made it through, you tend to find that they all had one thing in common: Some kind of belief in a higher deity. An anchor in their lives called faith. They believed an unfailing hand rested on the wheel, and that there was some deeper purpose or meaning behind their suffering even if they couldn’t understand it. It’s not a coincidence that the vast majority of people who did good in the world did too.

Nihilism is a fragile strategy. It’s always the nihilists who seem to go crazy or kill themselves when life gets hard. (Or, more recently, are so afraid of dying that they obsess about living forever.) Why is that? Because the nihilist is forced to wrestle with the immense complexity and difficulty and potential emptiness of life (and death) with nothing but their own mind.

Fundamentalism is different. Epicurus was right—if God exists, why would they possibly want you to be afraid of them? And why would they care what clothes you wear or how many times you pay obeisance to them per day? ... They certainly did not put us on this planet so we could judge, control, or kill each other.

...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.

And even if, as some have argued, maintaining these relationships reduces a person’s material or creative success, might the trade be worth it? “Who is there who would wish to be surrounded by all the riches in the world and enjoy every abundance in life and yet not love or be loved by anyone?” was Cicero’s question some two thousand years ago. It echoes on down to us, still true forever.

The notion that isolation, that total self-driven focus, will get you to a supreme state of enlightenment is not only incorrect, it misses the obvious: Who will even care that you did all that? Your house might be quieter without kids and it might be easier to work longer hours without someone waiting for you at the dinner table, but it is a hollow quiet and an empty ease. To go through our days looking out for no one but ourselves?

Robert Greene, known for his amoral study of power and seduction, actually writes in his book The Laws of Human Nature about the need to practice mitfreude, the active wishing of goodwill to other people, instead of schadenfreude, the active wishing of ill will. We can make an active effort to practice forgiveness, especially to those who might have caused those inner-child wounds we have worked to heal.

To understand all is to forgive all. To love all is to be at peace with all, including yourself.

Take something you care about deeply, a possession you cherish, a person you love, or an experience that means a lot to you. Now take that feeling, that radiating warmth that comes up when you think about it, and consider how every single person, even murderers on death row, even the jerk who just shoved you in the supermarket, has that same feeling about something in their lives. Together, you share that. Not only do you share it, but you share it with everyone who has ever lived. It connects you to Cleopatra and Napoleon and Frederick Douglass.

We share a planet with billions of other sentient beings, and they all have their own complex ways of being whatever they are. All of our fellow animal creatures, as Aristotle observed long ago, try to stay alive and reproduce more of their kind. All of them perceive. All of them desire. And most move from place to place to get what they want and need.

A body that is overworked or abused is not only actually not still, it creates turbulence that ripples through the rest of our lives. A mind that is overtaxed and ill-treated is susceptible to vice and corruption. of Churchill’s best biographers, would write, “The balance he maintained between flat-out work and creative and restorative leisure is worth study by anyone holding a top position.”

Churchill himself would write that every prophet must be forced into the wilderness—where they undergo solitude, deprivation, reflection, and meditation. It’s from this physical ordeal he said that “psychic dynamite” is made.

Epicurus once said that the wise will accomplish three things in their life: leave written works behind them, be financially prudent and provide for the future, and cherish country living. That is to say, we will be reflective, we will be responsible and moderate, and we will find time to relax in nature.

Rise above our physical limitations. Find hobbies that rest and replenish us. Develop a reliable, disciplined routine. Spend time getting active outdoors. Seek out solitude and perspective. Learn to sit—to do nothing when called for. Get enough sleep and rein in our workaholism. Commit to causes bigger than ourselves.

Somebody who thinks they’re nothing and don’t matter because they’re not doing something for even a few days is depriving themselves of stillness, yes—but they are also closing themselves off from a higher plane of performance that comes out of it.

We should look fearfully, even sympathetically, at the people who have become slaves to their calendars, who require a staff of ten to handle all their ongoing projects, whose lives seem to resemble a fugitive fleeing one scene for the next. There is no stillness there. It’s servitude.

In every situation ask: What is it? Why does it matter? Do I need it? Do I want it? What are the hidden costs? Will I look back from the distant future and be glad I did it?

Nikola Tesla discovered the rotating magnetic field, one of the most important scientific discoveries of all time, on a walk through a city park in Budapest in 1882. When he lived in Paris, Ernest Hemingway would take long walks along the quais whenever he was stuck in his writing and needed to clarify his thinking. Charles Darwin’s daily schedule included several walks, as did those of Steve Jobs and the groundbreaking psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman...

The key to a good walk is to be aware. To be present and open to the experience. Put your phone away. Put the pressing problems of your life away, or rather let them melt away as you move. Look down at your feet. What are they doing? Notice how effortlessly they move. Is it you who’s doing that? Or do they just sort of move on their own? Listen to the sound of the leaves crunching underfoot. Feel the ground pushing back against you.

It was Eisenhower who defined freedom as the opportunity for self-discipline. In fact, freedom and power and success require self-discipline. Because without it, chaos and complacency move in. Discipline, then, is how we maintain that freedom.

The gentleman makes things his servants. The petty man is servant to things.

The best car is not the one that turns the most heads, but the one you have to worry about the least. The best clothes are the ones that are the most comfortable, that require you to spend the least amount of time shopping—regardless of what the magazines say. The best house for you is the one that feels the most like home. Don’t use your money to purchase loneliness, or headaches, or status anxiety.

It was a habit of Leonardo da Vinci’s to write little fables to himself in his notebooks. One tells the story of a good-sized stone that rested in a pleasant grove, surrounded by flowers, perched above a busy country road. Despite this peaceful existence, the stone grew restless. “What am I doing among these herbs?” he asked. “I want to live in the company of my fellow stones.”

“solitude without purpose” is a killer of creativity.)

Michael Phelps prematurely ended his swimming career due to burnout—despite all the gold medals, he never wanted to get in a pool again. It’s hard to blame him either; he’d put everything, including his own sanity and health, second to shaving seconds off his times.

“Sleep is the interest we have to pay on the capital which is called in at death. The higher the interest rate and the more regularly it is paid, the further the date of redemption is postponed.”

A 2017 study actually found that lack of sleep increases negative repetitive thinking. Abusing the body leads the mind to abuse itself.

Anders Ericsson, of the classic ten-thousand-hours study, found that master violinists slept eight and a half hours a night on average and took a nap most days. (A friend said of Churchill, “He made in Cuba one discovery which was to prove far more important to his future life than any gain in military experience, the life-giving powers of the siesta.”) According to Ericsson, great players nap more than lesser ones.

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.

But 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. It can be, as it was for Churchill, painting or bricklaying.

Sitting alone with a canvas? A book club? A whole afternoon for cycling? Chopping down trees? Who has the time? If Churchill had the time, if Gladstone had the time, you have the time. Won’t my work suffer if I step away from it? Seneca pointed out how readily we take risks with uncertain payoffs in our career—but we’re afraid to risk even one minute of time for leisure.

...the difference between leisure and escapism. It’s the intention. ... The problem is that you can’t flee despair. You can’t escape, with your body, problems that exist in your mind and soul. You can’t run away from your choices—you can only fix them with better choices. ... Sure, the rush of traveling, the thrill of surfing, or the altered state of a psychedelic can relieve some of the tension that’s built up in our lives. ... The one thing you can’t escape in your life is yourself.

A plane ticket or a pill or some plant medicine is a treadmill, not a shortcut. What you seek will come only if you sit and do the work, if you probe yourself with real self-awareness and patience.

The next time we feel the urge to flee, to hit the road or bury ourselves in work or activity, we need to catch ourselves. Don’t book a cross-country flight—go for a walk instead. Don’t get high—get some solitude, find some quiet. These are far easier, far more accessible, and ultimately far more sustainable strategies for accessing the stillness we were born with. Travel inside your heart and your mind, and let the body stay put. ... Tuning out accomplishes nothing. Tune in.

Dive in when you hear the cry for help. Reach out when you see the need. Do kindness where you can. Because you’ll have to find a way to live with yourself if you don’t

So I just stand there, resting against some cedar, looking up at the first croppings of the Violet Crown—the Texas sunset that settles over Austin—that is coming toward the horizon. In this moment, I am at peace. It doesn’t matter how tough things have been lately. It doesn’t matter what’s going on in the world. My breathing is slowing down.

Stillness is the Key

Ryan Holliday
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