Stillness Is the Key by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday provides a framework for learning how to slow down and better deal with the overwhelming amount of information that’s coming at us. Leveraging stories, he shows us how mastering our minds, souls, and bodies can help us create more stillness and equanimity in our lives. Once we’re more “still,” we can think more clearly, more easily make decisions, form better relationships, feel better, and focus on what matters.
Stillness is the key
The central idea of this book is that we should all seek more stillness in our lives. In the modern world, most of us are “overfed and undernourished, overstimulated, overscheduled, and lonely.” Pursuing stillness is the antidote to this modern condition. With stillness, you can:
- Think clearly
- Make hard decisions
- Manage your emotions
- Identify the right goals
- Deal with high-pressure situations
- Maintain relationships
- Develop good habits
- Stay in good shape
- Feel fulfilled
- Enjoy life
If we want more stillness, we must master the domains of the mind, soul, and body.
Part 1: Mind
Focus on today
Worrying about the future does you no good. You have enough going on right now, so get that right before dreaming up big plans or worrying about events that have not yet happened. Focusing on today allows you to take on what’s in front of you, instead of drowning in overwhelm about what’s ahead.
Drowning in information & the CNN Effect
“A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
We have access to more information than ever, and it’s killing us. Our attention is spread in too many directions, and we don’t know how to separate the signal from the noise. To think clearly, we all need to figure out how to separate the inconsequential from the essential. Unless we intentionally create space for reflection or deep thought, we will never get it.
“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.”
CNN brought on the era of 24-hour media coverage (the CNN Effect), which has become the norm over the last few decades with the internet. Rather than making us more informed, this environment has made us more reactive. We convince ourselves that we need to be “on top of things.” So we spend lots of time trying to stay informed, only to not have learned very much and feel overwhelmed by everything that’s going on.
If we want to be able to be strategic, focused, and clear, we need to learn to manage our content diets. What we allow in is what we get out, so be intentional about what you read or listen to. And if content takes you away from what you value most, drop it. For example, you can survive without reading the news.
Journaling is a useful mechanism for clearing your mind, solving problems, and reflecting on what needs to be done. Unlike other forms of reflection, journaling allows you to ask the tough questions and be honest:
“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?”
Answering these questions may not solve all of your problems, but it can help. At the very least, you’ll be more clear about what’s going on.
When journaling, a lot of people get caught up in “how to do it.” The “how” doesn’t matter too much. The more important piece is “why” you’re journaling – do you want to get your messy thoughts on paper? Do you want to solve a specific problem? Do you want to learn something about yourself over time?
If you’re stuck, just start. Write down your thoughts every morning. Even a paragraph or two will do. Don’t worry about structure. Say anything that comes to mind, and go from there.
“People aren’t thinking about you. They have their own problems to worry about.”
Getting caught up in your own sense of self-importance or the opinions of others is a great way to be unhappy. You can’t control these things. Plus, people think of you much less than you think. They’re focused on their own problems – what they’re going to eat, a big presentation they have, and so on.
This is a liberating idea. Once you accept that people don’t notice or remember most of what you do or say, you can more freely be yourself and avoid an unhealthy attachment to your ego.
Part 2: Spirit
From a young age, Tiger Woods (and his parents) trained hard to master the game of golf. The result? He eventually became one of the greatest and most electric golfers of all time. But despite his mastery of golf and the excellence he demonstrated on the course, Tiger ended up blowing up his own life. He partied with celebrities, cheated on his wife, and got addicted to painkillers. In the end, he destroyed his family life and the wholesome image that he had cultivated for himself? Why did he do this? He had an inner void.
“His mind was strong, but his soul ached.”
The reality is that we can all easily end up like Tiger. We can achieve a lot, but have empty souls. And when your soul is empty, you’ll look to fill it, sometimes via actions that end up making things a lot worse. That’s why we need to take care of our inner worlds on the path to stillness.
While we can’t control what other people do or even what happens to us, we can control our response. And the easiest way to choose your response is to have a clear set of virtues or values that you follow. Perhaps you’re always patient in difficult conversations. Perhaps you’re always honest, even when it’s hard. Perhaps you find courage in times when you’re scared. Choose a set of values, and live by them.
“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.”
Virtue is within your control, which is why it’s so powerful and useful for creating a still inner world. When you live by your code, you sleep better at night, even if your external world is filled with chaos.
“There is no stillness for the person who cannot appreciate things as they are, particularly when that person has objectively done so much.”
High achievers often have the problem of achieving everything they want, only to continue to want even more or to feel empty inside. That’s because material achievement does not solve spiritual poverty. Continuing to pursue more does not solve the existential vacuum within.
The antidote to this problem is to recognize when you have enough. When do you have enough fame, followers, money, accomplishment, friendships, etc.? And once you have that, what can you focus on to create more stillness within?
Bathe in beauty
The natural world has a powerful ability to cleanse the soul. Seeing a beautiful mountain or animals running across a valley can remind you of what life is all about. These experiences can also give you moments of exstasis – heavenly experiences that let you step outside of yourself. In Japan, they even prescribe forest baths (shinrin yoku) as a form of therapy. Basically, people are told to go walk in the forest as a way to heal. Time in nature can heal you in surprising ways.
Choose love and gratitude over anger
Learning to be grateful and kind toward others is also good for the soul. Instead of practicing schadenfreude (active wishing of ill will), we should practice mitfreude (active wishing of good will). We should even do this for our enemies. We all end up dead anyway. Don’t leave room for hate or resentment in your soul.
Part 3: Body
Spend time on hobbies
If you constantly exercise your mind, your mind will get exhausted. You’ll be unable to think critically or deeply. You need to find ways to recharge the mind. Rest is one way, but engaging in other activities that use different parts of your mind is another way. Winston Churchill used this idea in his life – he would spend a lot of time painting, a hobby he enjoyed and that relaxed his overused mind. It’s useful for all of us to find at least two to three hobbies that can restore us.
“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.”
You don’t get another body, so burning it out is a bad idea. You can’t be successful with a broken body. And the body keeps the score. So don’t sacrifice your health so that you can get a little more done.
Part of prioritizing your body involves making it a non-negotiable focus. The other part is learning how to say no to the endless requests that take up your time and drain you. Often, when we’re considering something, we’re not really thinking about what we’re being asked to give. But often it’s a piece of our lives.
“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.”
What’s worse than trading our limited time for rewards that we don’t even need or want?
Go on walks
“It is only ideas gained form walking that have any worth.” – Nietzsche
Going on a walk can help restore the body and let ideas flow.
“The more details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.”
If you automate parts of your life via tools or even habits and routines that you do everyday, you begin to find the time and space to think creatively and access the deeper parts of your mind. But if you refuse to adopt routines and always “go with the flow,” you’re unlikely to be able to access these states of mind. That’s because you’re constantly trying to figure something out and not able to relax.
Leisure includes activities that you enjoy that have no purpose. By definition, leisure cannot have a purpose. But how often do we engage in leisure? Many people rarely engage in it because there’s no clear ROI or they feel like they have to do something else. But Seneca pointed out how often we take risks or invest time with uncertain payoffs in our career, but we’re scared to take even one minute of time for leisure.
It’s what you do that matters
“High-minded thoughts and inner work are one thing, but all that matters is what you do. The health of our spiritual ideals depends on what we do with our bodies in moments of truth.”
In the end, all that matters is what you do. It doesn’t matter if you have the best ideals or have thought your way into the best solution for something if you don’t act. A lot of people get caught up in the abstract world of thought, competing in virtue and thinking olympics, only to spend very little of their time actually creating positive change in the world. Don’t be like this.
“To see people who will notice a need in the world and do something about it…Those are my heroes” – Fred Rogers
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