Stillness is the key by Ryan Holiday

Rating: 9/10

A good to read for an evening in solitude. Ryan Holidays brings some core concepts of all major philosophy schools and explain it to layman with stories from established figures.

The key ideas is to be present and make your mind empty. You need to conserve your energy for important tasks & decision in life.

History shows that the ability to cultivate quiet and quell the turmoil inside us, to slow the mind down, to understand our emotions, and to conquer our bodies has always been extremely difficult.

To achieve stillness, we'll need to focus on three domains, the timeless trinity of mind, body, soul - the head, the heart, the flesh.

In each domain, we will seek to reduce the disturbances and perturbations that make stillness impossible. To cease to be at war with the world and within ourselves, and to establish a lasting inner and outer peace instead.

"like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It stands, unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it."

Becoming present

Marian Abramovich had a 90 days art show where she sat down and stared at other people's face. "The proposition here is just to empty the self. To be able to be present."

If she began to think of how much time was left in the day's performance, time would slow to an intolerable crawl. So with monk-like discipline and warriorlike strength she ignored these distractions to exists exclusively in the present moment.

"People don't understand that the hardest thing is actually doing something that is close to nothing.... It demands all of you.... there is no object to hide behind. It's just you."

Even during a quiet evening at home, all we're thinking about is the list of improvements that need to be made. There may be a beautiful sunset, but instead of taking it in, we are taking a picture of it.

Tolstoy observed that love can't exist off in the future. Love is only real if it's happening right now.

The less energy we waste regretting the past or worrying about the future, the more energy we will have for what's in front of us.

Don't reject a difficult or boring moment because it is not exactly what you want.

Limit your inputs

"A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention". - Herbert Simon

As a general Napoleon made it habit to delay responding to the mail. His secretary was instructed to wait three weeks before opening any correspondence. In order to be active and aware of what actually mattered, he had to be selective about who and what kind information got access to his brain.

In order to think clearly, it is essential that each of us figures out how to filter out the inconsequential from the essential. It's not enough to be inclined toward deep thought and sober analysis; a leader must create time and space for it.

There is ego in trying to appear the most informed person in the room, the one with all gossip, who knows every single thing that's happening in everyone's life.

Not only does this cost us our peace of mind, but there's serious opportunity cost too.

It's difficult to think clearly when we are drowning in information. It's why lawyers attempt to bury the other side in paper. It's why intelligence operatives flood the enemy with propaganda, so they'll lose the scent of the truth. The goal of these tactics is casually referred as analysis paralysis.

Knowing what not to think about. What to ignore and not to do. It's your first and most important job.

Slow down, think deeply

"With my sighted eye I see what's before, and with my unsighted eye I see what's hidden."

What's essential is invisible to the eye.

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. On the complicated things. We have to do the kind of thinking that 99 percent fo the population is just not doing, and we have to stop doing the destructive thinking that they spend 99 percent of their time doing.

The 18-century Zen master Hakuin often asked students very simple questions: "What is the sound of one hand clapping?", "What did you face look like before you were born?".

These questions defy easy answers, and that's the point. By taking time to meditate on them deeply, in some cases for days and weeks or even years, students put their mind in such a clarified state that deeper truths emerge, and enlightenment commences.

"Suddenly, unexpectedly your teeth sink in. Your body will pour with cold sweat. At the instant, it will all become clear." The word for this was satori - an illuminating insight when the inscrutable is revealed, when an essential truth becomes obvious and inescapable.

Well, no one gets to satori 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, you really have to look. To understand it, you have to really think. It takes real work to grasp what is invisible to just about everyone else.

This will not only be advantageous to your career and your business, but it will also help you find peace and comfort.

If you invest the time and mental energy, you'll not only find what's interesting, you'll find truth. You'll find what other people have missed.

Start journaling

On Anne Frank's thirteen birthday, she was given an autograph book by her parents. Shortly after she wrote her first entry, her family was pushed into a camp by the Nazis. Anna Frank used the book to write. She wrote when she was confused, when she was curious.

She wrote in that journal as a form of therapy.

One of her best and most insightful lines must have come on a particularly difficult day.

Anne used her journal to reflex.

Michel Foucault talked of the ancient genre of hupomnemata (notes to oneself). He called the journal a "weapon for spiritual combat", a way to practice philosophy and purge the mind of agitation and foolishness and overcome difficulty. To silence the barking dog in your head.

That's really the idea. Instead of carrying that baggage around in our heads or hearts, we put it down on paper. Instead of letting racing thoughts run unchecked or leaving half-baked assumptions unquestioned, we force ourselves to write and examine them. Pyouting your own thinking down on paper lets you see it from a distance.

How do I start journaling?

There is no right way or wrong way. You just have to do it.

Seek Wisdom

The core of what we now call the Socratic method comes from Socrates's real and often annoying habit of going around asking questions. He was constantly probing other people's views. Why do you think that? How do you know? What evidence do you have?

This open-minded search for truth, for wisdom, was what Socrates the most brilliant and challenging man in Athens - so much so that they later killed him for it.

Each school of thoughts 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. The power of experiences - most of all failures and mistakes - to open your eyes to truth and understanding.

We must also seek mentors and teachers who can guide us in our journey. Zeno, founder of Stoicism, had a philosopher teacher named Crates. Buddha's first teacher was an ascetic named Alara Kalama.

Find the people you admire and ask how they got where they are.

Wisdom does not immediately produce stillness or clarity. Quite the contrary. It might even make things less clear - make them darker before the dawn.

Let go

The great archery master Awa Kenzo did not focus on teaching technical mastery of the bow. He preferred instead to teach his students an important mental skill: detachment. "What stands in your way is that you have too much willful will."

What Kenzo wanted students to do was to pu the thought of hitting the target out of their minds. He watned them to detach even from the idea of an outcome.

"The hits on the target are only the outward proof and confirmation of your purposelessness at its highest, of your egolessness, your self-abandonment, or whatever you like to call this state."

That state is stillness.

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.

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

What we need in life, in the arts, in sports, is to loosen up, to become flexible, to get to a place where there is nothing our way - including our own obsession with certain outcomes.

Most students go into subject with a strong intention. They are outcome-focused.

In Kenzo's school, it was only when a student had fully surrendered, when they had detached themselves from even the idea of aiming.

If we aim for the trophy in life - be it recognition or wealth or power - we'll miss the target. If we aim too intensely for the target we will neglect the process and the art required to hit it.

What we should be doing is practicing. What we should be doing is pushing away that willful will.

The closer we get to mastery, the less we care about specific results. The more collaborative and creative we are able to be.

On to what's next...

"The mind tends toward stillness but is opposed by craving" - Lao Tzu.


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.

If a person can do this, they are richer than any billionaire, more powerful than any sovereign.

The beauty was that these creations and insights came from a better - a stiller - place inside both men. They weren't doing it to prove anything. They didn't need to impress anyone. They were in the moment. Their motivations were pure. There was no insecurity.

Bathe in Beauty

Anne Frank always managed to find in nature something to boost her spirits and center herself. "Beauty remains, even in misfortune.... If you just look for it, you discover more and more happiness and regain your balance."

The trackless woods. A quiet child, lying on her belly, reading a book. The clouds cutting over the wing of an airplane, its exhausted passengers all asleep. A man reading in his seat. A woman sleeping. A stewardness testing her feet. The rosy fingertips of dawn coming up over the mountain. A song on repeat. That song's beat, lining up exactly with the rhythm of events. The pleasure of getting an assignment in before a deadline, the temporary quiet of an empty inbox.

This is stillness.

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 war, even when we are killing ourselves in pointless work, we can stop and bathe in the beauty that surround us, always.

Accept a higher power

Nihilism a fragile strategy. It's always the nihilist 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 of difficulty and potential emptiness of life with nothing but their own mind. This is a comically unfair mismatch.

Again, 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 higher power. 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.

All is one

Peace is when we realize that victory and defeat are almost identical spots on the long spectrum. Peace is what allows us to take joy in the success of others and to let them take joy in our own.

The domain of the body

"Sir, to what do you attribute your success in life?" - Paul Johnson, biographers of Churchill.

"Conservation of energy. Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down."

Young Churchill loved the written words, but diverging from the traditional path of a writer, he didn't lock himself up with books in a dusty old library. He put his body into action.

As busy and ambitious as Churchill was - as much of a pusher as he was - he was rarely frantic and did not tolerate disorganization.

How can Churchill be a productive writer while holding political office? The answer is physical routine.

Churchill was not a particularly good painter but his pictures reveals how much he enjoyed himself as he worked. Painting was about expression of joy for Churchill. It was leisure, not work.

Painting, like all good hobbies, taught the practitioner to be present. Churchill was happy because he got out of his own head and put his body to work.

Saying No

The Fabius strategy when dealing with Hannibal: doing nothing. Because Fabius knew that Hannibal was far from home and they would lose their men without easily replacing them.

Baseball wu wei strategy: hold the bat back - waiting until the batter sees the perfect pitch. It is the yogi in meditation. They are physically still, so that they can be active on a mental and spiritual level.

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.

Take a walk

How does walking get us closer to stillness? Isn't the whole point of what we're talking about to reduce activity, not seek it out? Yes, we are in motion when we walk, but it is not frenzied motion or even conscious motion - it is repetitive, ritualized motion. It is deliberate. It is an exercise in peace.

The key to a good walk is to be aware, to be present and open to experience. On a good walk, the mind is not completely blank. The point is not to push every thought and observation from your mind. On the contrary, the whole point is to see what's around you.

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.

Build a routine

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.

Complete freedom is a nightmare. Order is a prerequisite of excellence and that in an unpredictable world, good habits are a safe heaven of certainty. It was Eisenhower who defined freedom as the opportunity for self-discipline.

It's also how we get in the right headspace to do our work. The writer and runner Haruki Murakami talks about why he follows the same routine everyday. "The repetition itself becomes the important things. It's a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind."

When our thoughts are empty and our body is in its groove, we do our best work.

When we automate trivial parts of life, we free up resources to do important and meaning exploration.

Seek Solitude

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 insights if your life is a constant party and your home is a construction site.

People don't have enough silence in their lives because they don't have enough solitude. And they don't get enough solitude 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 solitude.

Bill gates often took a week in the forest just by himself. He read hundreds of papers and lots of books. He got away from interruption of work.

If you possess solitude by yourself, you can access it anytime you want.

Be a human being

"Work is what horse die of. Everybody should know that" - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

The main cause of injury for elite athletes is not tripping and falling. It's overuse. Michael Phelps prematurely ended his swimming career due to burnout.

Beware Escapism

You can't flee despair. You can't escape with your body, problems that exist in your mind and soul. You can't always run away from your choices - you can only fix them with better choices.

You cannot escape from yourselves. Don't book a cross-country flight. Get some solitude, find some quiet. Tuning out accomplishes nothing. Tune in.

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