I find it impossible to summarize this book. The title Stillness is the Key says it all.
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.
And it’s not just the Stoics.
It’s a powerful idea made all the more transcendent by the remarkable fact that nearly every other philosophy of the ancient world—no matter how different or distant—came to the exact same conclusion.
Ryan Holiday illustrates the ideas around stillness this very entertainingly and convincingly, looking at stillness from the perspective of Mind, Spirit and Body.
Stillness is mastering your mind to stay equanimous during the most difficult moments in our life.
We must cultivate mental stillness to succeed in life and to successfully navigate the many crises it throws our way.
To achieve this, we must control our thoughts, and always be aware of what is going on inside us. And that is very hard.
Being present demands all of us. It’s not nothing. It may be the hardest thing in the world.
That space between your ears—that’s yours. You don’t just have to control what gets in, you also have to control what goes on in there.
Stillness is clear is also That seems contradictory to emptying our minds to be fully present. It is. And we have to accept that.
There is, on the surface, a contradiction here. On the one hand, the Buddhists say we must empty our minds to be fully present. We’ll never get anything done if we are paralyzed by overthinking. On the other hand, we must look and think and study deeply if we are ever to truly know (and if we are to avoid falling into the destructive patterns that harm so many people). In fact, this is not a contradiction at all. It’s just life.
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.
Holiday is very practical too. For example, he tells us to journal, as it helps to clear the mess in our head.
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.
Journaling and clear thinking allow us to create awareness of what is really going on in our heads.
Wrestle with big questions. Wrestle with big ideas. Treat your brain like the muscle that it is. Get stronger through resistance and exposure and training.
Find mentors, in persons, in books.
Find people you admire and ask how they got where they are. Seek book recommendations.
We achieve wisdom, but it poses another contradiction we have to live with.
Wisdom does not immediately produce stillness or clarity. Quite the contrary. It might even make things less clear—make them darker before the dawn.
To achieve stillness, we must master our imposter sydrome, and replace it with confidence. With confidence your can know what matters. We know when to ignore other people’s opinions, and when to listen.
It’s a nagging, endless anxiety that you’re not qualified for what you’re doing—and you’re about to be found out for it.
Of course, this insecurity exists almost entirely in our heads. People aren’t thinking about you. They have their own problems to worry about!
[Confidence] is an honest understanding of our strengths and weakness that reveals the path to a greater glory: inner peace and a clear mind.
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.
Achieve Mastery through openness. Mastery drives the greatest productivity, through creativity and collaboration.
Entrepreneurs don’t walk the streets deliberately looking for opportunities—they have to open themselves up to noticing the little things around them.
The closer we get to mastery, the less we care about specific results. The more collaborative and creative we are able to be, the less we will tolerate ego or insecurity. The more at peace we are, the more productive we can be.
We let virtue drive what we do. We must ask ourselves essential questions. And we must overcome the wounds from our youth.
Which is why each of us needs to sit down and examine ourselves. What do we stand for? What do we believe to be essential and important? What are we really living for? Deep in the marrow of our bones, in the chambers of our heart, we know the answer.
Free yourself from wounds of your youth. That was you. You are now your adult you, not the scary child from your youth.
Each of us must break the link in the chain of what the Buddhists call samsara, the continuation of life’s suffering from generation to generation.
Overcome desire. Follow Epicurus’ test, you develop spiritual strength. Be content with what you have.
What will happen to me if I get what I want? How will I feel after?
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.
There is no stillness for the person who cannot appreciate things as they are, particularly when that person has objectively done so much. The creep of more, more, more is like a hydra. Satisfy one—lop it off the bucket list—and two more grow in its place.
Appreciate the beauty of life. Be open to experiences.
The term for this is exstasis—a heavenly experience that lets us step outside ourselves. And these beautiful moments are available to us whenever we want them. All we have to do is open our souls to them.
There is peace in this. It is always available to you. Don’t let the beauty of life escape you. See the world as the temple that it is. Let every experience be churchlike.
Realise there is a higher power. Not everything is centered around you.
… 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 common language for accepting a higher power is about “letting [Him or Her or It] into your heart.” That’s it. This is about rejecting the tyranny of our intellect, of our immediate observational experience, and accepting something bigger, something beyond ourselves.
Attend to your relationships. Relationships give meaning to your life. It let’s you focus others instead of yourself.
Life without relationships, focused solely on accomplishment, is empty and meaningless (in addition to being precarious and fragile). A life solely about work and doing is terribly out of balance; indeed, it requires constant motion and busyness to keep from falling apart.
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?
Which is why stillness requires other people; indeed, it is for other people.
Tame your anger. Anger is counterproductive in the long run. Seneca already came to this conclusion. And so did the Bhuddists.
Seneca’s argument was that anger ultimately blocks us from whatever goal we are trying to achieve. While it might temporarily help us achieve success in our chosen field, in the long run it is destructive. How excellent is excellence if it doesn’t make us feel content, happy, fulfilled?
The Buddhists believed that anger was a kind of tiger within us, one whose claws tear at the body that houses it. To have a chance at stillness—and the clear thinking and big-picture view that defines it—we need to tame that tiger before it kills us. We have to beware of desire, but conquer anger, because anger hurts not just ourselves but many other people as well.
Our stillness depends on our ability to slow down and choose not to be angry, to run on different fuel. Fuel that helps us win and build, and doesn’t hurt other people, our cause, or our chance at peace.
Realise we are all one. We are unique, but we are all necessary. To understand all is to forgive all. No one is alone is his suffering, or joy. It let’s us know where we can contribute to the larger ecosystem we are part of.
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 in to the quiet wavelength of wisdom that sages and philosophers have long been on.
The less we are convinced of our exceptionalism, the greater ability we have to understand and contribute to our environment…
Learn to say no, and yes.
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? If I never knew about it at all—if the request was lost in the mail, if they hadn’t been able to pin me down to ask me—would I even notice that I missed out? When we know what to say no to, we can say yes to the things that matter.
Develop habits, routines to conquer the uncertainties in life, and limit your option, gain focus.
The truth is that a good routine is not only a source of great comfort and stability, it’s the platform from which stimulating and fulfilling work is possible.
Ah, but the greats know that complete freedom is a nightmare. They know that order is a prerequisite of excellence and that in an unpredictable world, good habits are a safe haven of certainty.
The purpose of ritual isn’t to win the gods over to our side (though that can’t hurt!). It’s to settle our bodies (and our minds) down when Fortune is our opponent on the other side of the net.
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 room for peace and stillness, and thus make good work and good thoughts accessible and inevitable.
Do not hang on to things.
In short, mental and spiritual independence matter little if the things we own in the physical world end up owning us.
It’s also dangerous. The person who is afraid to lose their stuff, who has their identity wrapped up in their things, gives their enemies an opening. They make themselves extra vulnerable to fate.
Take action. Get out from under all your stuff. Get rid of it. Give away what you don’t need.
We need moments of quite and solitude to be able to think and be with our thoughts.
The wise and busy also learn that solitude and stillness are there in pockets, if we look for them. The few minutes before going onstage for a talk or sitting in your hotel room before a meeting. The morning before the rest of the house wakes up. Or late in the evening after the world has gone to sleep. Grab these moments. Schedule them. Cultivate them.
Do not let your work absorb you.
Work will not set you free. It will kill you if you’re not careful.
It’s human being, not human doing, for a reason. Moderation. Being present. Knowing your limits. This is the key. The body that each of us has was a gift. Don’t work it to death. Don’t burn it out. Protect the gift.
Very practical indeed. Get enough sleep.
We have only so much energy for our work, for our relationships, for ourselves. A smart person understands this and guards it carefully. The greats—they protect their sleep because it’s where the best state of mind comes from. They say no to things. They turn in when they hit their limits.
Get a hobby, leisure. It does not mean to do nothing, and to escape from reality. I means doing something that at the same time relaxes us. And it is not our job.
In Greek, “leisure” is rendered as scholé—that is, school. Leisure historically meant simply freedom from the work needed to survive, freedom for intellectual or creative pursuits. It was learning and study and the pursuit of higher things.
To do leisure well—to be present, to be open, to be virtuous, to be connected—is hard. We cannot let it turn into a job, into another thing to dominate and to dominate others through. We must be disciplined about our discipline and moderate in our moderation.
That’s the difference between leisure and escapism. It’s the intention.
Escapism. Don’t delay or flee life. Distance yourself from problems, take a walk, find some room for quietness.
When you defer and delay, interest is accumulating. The bill still comes due . . . and it will be even harder to afford then than it will be right now. The one thing you can’t escape in your life is yourself.
Tuning out accomplishes nothing. Tune in. 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.
Do good. Stillness does not mean living like a hermit. Stillness helps to find what is important.
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.
Do the hard good deeds. “You must do the thing you cannot do,” Eleanor Roosevelt said. It will be scary. It won’t always be easy, but know that what is on the other side of goodness is true stillness.
If you see fraud, and do not say fraud, the philosopher Nassim Taleb has said, you are a fraud. Worse, you will feel like a fraud. And you will never feel proud or happy or confident.
If we want to be good and feel good, we have to do good. There is no escaping this.
It’s scary to think that we will die. As is the fact that we cannot know for certain what will happen when death comes, whenever that is. Is there such a thing as heaven?
It was Cicero who said that to study philosophy is to learn how to die. Most of this book has been about how to live well. But in so doing, it is also about how to die well. Because they are the same thing. Death is where the three domains we have studied in these pages come together. We must learn to think rationally and clearly about our own fate.
We must find spiritual meaning and goodness while we are alive.