Stillness Is The Key By Ryan Holiday

Updated: November 1, 2022 Reading Time: 9 minutes rating: 8
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This book felt like a summary of lots of ideas that Holiday has put forward in his weekly and daily emails and his other books, The Obstacle Is The Way and Ego is the Enemy.

I enjoyed it a lot. It is filled with practical and deep advice. It connects diverse philosophies and schools of thought to make you understand one thing: stillness, the art of being at ease, at peace even in the most difficult situations is a necessary condition to produce good work and live a good life.

Nothing that Holiday says is new or revolutionary in itself, but he has the capacity to condense hundreds of years of collective wisdom and provide advice that is both actionable and timeless.

I also enjoyed the format of the physical book. It is smaller in size than most books and everything about it, the cover, the typography, the table of contents, gave me a sense of tranquility. It reminded me of the attention to detail of Robert Greene’s books, most notably The 48 Laws of Power. The typography of that book is one that I haven’t found anywhere else.

The struggle is great, the task divine—to gain mastery, freedom, happiness, and tranquility. - Epictetus

Notes and Highlights

[Stillness] is 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.

  • Be fully present.
  • Empty our mind of preconceptions.
  • Take our time.
  • Sit quietly and reflect.
  • Reject distraction.
  • Weigh advice against counsel of our convictions.
  • Deliberate without being paralyzed.

Tolstoy observed that love can’t exist off in the future. Love is only real if it’s happening right now. If you think about it, that’s true for basically everything we think, feel, or do. The best athletes, in the biggest games, are completely there. They are within themselves, within the now.

An artists 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.

“If you wish to improve,” Epictetus once said, “be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters.”

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.

If we want more revelations—more insights or breakthroughs or new, big ideas—we have to create more room for them. We have to step away from the comfort of noisy distractions and stimulations. We have to start listening .

If Zeno and Buddha needed teachers to advance, then we will definitely need help. And the ability to admit that is evidence of not a small bit of wisdom!

Find people you admire and ask how they got where they are. Seek book recommendations. Isn’t that what Socrates would do?

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 standard 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.

Lust is a destroyer of peace in our lives: Lust for a beautiful person. Lust for an orgasm. Lust for someone other than the one we’ve committed to be with. Lust for power. Lust for dominance. Lust for other people’s stuff. Lust for the fanciest, best, most expensive things that money can buy.

The need for of progress can be the enemy of enjoying the process .

That was the Way. Nature. The cultivated soil. The growing of crops. The satisfaction of good hard work. The poetry of the earth. As it was in the beginning, as it will be forever.

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.

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.

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. And in acknowledging these higher powers, they accessed a kind of stillness and peace (most simply because it meant less fighting battles for control!) that helped them run empires, survive slavery or exile, and ultimately even face death with great poise.

“I cannot and I will not retract, for it is unsafe for a Christian to speak against his conscience. Here I stand, I can do no other: so help me God. Amen” - Martin Luther

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? What interest would they have in monuments or in fearful pleas of forgiveness? At the purest level, the only thing that matters to any father or mother—or any creator—is that their children find peace, find meaning, find purpose. They certainly did not put us on this planet so we could judge, control, or kill each other.

It is true that relationships take time. They also expose and distract us, cause pain, and cost money.

We are also nothing without them.

The world hurls at us so many hurricanes. Those who have decided to go through existence as an island are the most exposed and the most ravaged by the storms and whirlwinds.

Even if we apologize or the good we do outweighs the harm, 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.

The Greeks spoke of sympatheia, the kind of mutual interdependence and relatedness of all things, past, present, and future.

The truly philosophical view is that no only originality is necessary, but everyone is necessary. Even the people you don’t like. Even the ones who really piss you off. Even the people wasting their lives, cheating, or breaking the rules are part of the larger equation. We can appreciate—or at least sympathize with—them, rather than try to fight or change them.

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

In addition to the importance of hard work, Johnson said the other four lessons from Churchill’s remarkable life were to aim high; to never allow mistakes or criticism to get you down; to waste no energy on grudges, duplicity, or infighting; and to make room for joy.

Each morning, Churchill got up around eight and took his first bath, which he entered at 98 degrees and had cranked up to 104 while he sat (and occasionally somersaulted) in the water. Freshly bathed, he would spend the next two hours reading.

In a little book title Painting as a Pastime, Churchill spoke eloquently of a reliance on new activities that use other parts of our minds and bodies to relieve the areas where we are overworked.

“To be really happy and really safe, one ought to have at least two or three hobbies, and they must all be real.”

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.

Kierkegaard believe that sitting still was a kind of breeding ground for ilness. But walking, movement, to him was almost sacred. It cleansed the soul and cleared the mind in a way that primed his explorations as a philosopher. Life is a path, he liked to say, we have to walk it.

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.

Done enough time, done with sincerity and feeling, routine becomes ritual. The regularity of it—the daily cadence—creates deep and meaningful experience. To one person, taking care of a horse is a chore. To Simón Bolívar it was a sacred, essential part of his day. When the body is busy with the familiar, the mind can relax.

The best house for you is the one that feels most like home. Don’t use your money to purchase lonleliness, or headaches, or status anxiety.

Solitude allows you to reflect while other are reacting. We need solitude to refocus on prospective decision-making, rather than just reacting to problems as they arise.

If solitude is the school of genius, as the historian Edward Gibbon put it, then the crowded, busy world is the purgatory of the idiot.

Simón Bolívar too found dancing a helpful tool in balancing the affairs of state and the burdens of revolution.

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.

Those who think thy will find solutions to their problems by traveling far from home, perhaps as they stare at the Colosseum or some enormous moss-covered statue of Buddha, Emerson said, are bringing ruins to ruins. Wherever they go, whatever they do, their sad self comes along.

  • Essentialism. Pair the two books and you have a very good combination of wisdom and practical advice that you can start using any time.
  • Deep Work. Deep work is the art of cultivating time for uninterrupted thought. Stillness makes for a very good pairing. Without one we can’t achieve the other.