Daniel's working notes

Stillness is the Key

Author: Ryan Holiday



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.

The Buddhist word for it was upekkha. The Muslims spoke of aslama. The Hebrews, hishtavut. The second book of the Bhagavad Gita, the epic poem of the warrior Arjuna, speaks of samatvam, an “evenness of mind—a peace that is ever the same.” The Greeks, euthymia and hesychia. The Epicureans, ataraxia. The Christians, aequanimitas. In English: stillness. To be steady while the world spins around you. To act without frenzy. To hear only what needs to be heard. To possess quietude—exterior and interior—on command.

Stillness is the key to, well, just about everything. To being a better parent, a better artist, a better investor, a better athlete, a better scientist, a better human being. To unlocking all that we are capable of in this life.

Anyone who has walked out alone on a quiet street at night as the snow fell, and watched as the light fell softly on that snow and is warmed by the contentment of being alive—that too is stillness.

“People don’t understand that the hardest thing is actually doing something that is close to nothing,”

Being present demands all of us. It’s not nothing. It may be the hardest thing in the world. As we stand on the podium, about to give a speech, our mind is focused not on our task but on what everyone will think of us.

As we struggle with a crisis, our mind repeats on a loop just how unfair this is, how insane it is that it keeps happening and how it can’t go on. Why are we draining ourselves of essential emotional and mental energies right when we need them most?

We do not live in this moment. We, in fact, try desperately to get out of it—by thinking, doing, talking, worrying, remembering, hoping, whatever. We pay thousands of dollars to have a device in our pocket to ensure that we are never bored.

Remember, there’s no greatness in the future. Or clarity. Or insight. Or happiness. Or peace.

The real present moment is what we choose to exist in, instead of lingering on the past or fretting about the future.

This moment we are experiencing right now is a gift (that’s why we call it the present).

A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention. —HERBERT SIMON

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.

In order to think clearly, it is essential that each of us figures out how to filter out the inconsequential from the essential.

There is ego in trying to stay up on everything,

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

The point is, it’s very difficult to think or act clearly (to say nothing of being happy) when we are drowning in information.

Don’t overanalyze. Do the work.

We’ll never get anything done if we are paralyzed by overthinking.

Your job, after you have emptied your mind, is to slow down and think. To really think, on a regular basis.

Keep a notebook. Travel with it, eat with it, sleep with it.

“if at the end of the day they were to review their own behavior and weigh up the rights and wrongs. They would automatically try to do better at the start of each new day, and after a while, would certainly accomplish a great deal.”

He called the journal a “weapon for spiritual combat,” a way to practice philosophy and purge the mind of agitation and foolishness and to overcome difficulty. To silence the barking dogs in your head. To prepare for the day ahead. To reflect on the day that has passed.

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?

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.

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.

Find people you admire and ask how they got where they are. Seek book recommendations.

Add experience and experimentation on top of this. Put yourself in tough situations. Accept challenges. Familiarize yourself with the unfamiliar. That’s how you widen your perspective and your understanding.

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.

Of course, this insecurity exists almost entirely in our heads. People aren’t thinking about you. They have their own problems to worry about!

Note: Imposter syndrome

Confidence is the freedom to set your own standards and unshackle yourself from the need to prove yourself.

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.”

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?

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.

It is also true that the single best decision you can make in life, professionally and personally, is to find a partner who complements and supports you and makes you better and for whom you do the same. Conversely, choosing partners and friends who do the opposite endangers both career and happiness.

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.

It is instead just a manifestation, an embodiment of the concepts of presence, of detachment, of emptying the mind, of noticing and appreciating the beauty of the world around you. Walk away from the thoughts that need to be walked away from; walk toward the ones that have now appeared.

Routine, done for long enough and done sincerely enough, becomes more than routine. It becomes ritual—it becomes sanctified and holy.

It was Eisenhower who defined freedom as the opportunity for self-discipline. In fact, freedom and power and success require self-discipline.

For this, we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague.

“If a man can reduce his needs to zero,” he said, “he is truly free: there is nothing that can be taken from him and nothing anyone can do to hurt him.”

Living outside your means—as Churchill could attest—is not glamorous. Behind the appearances, it’s exhausting.

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.

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.

Abusing the body leads the mind to abuse itself.

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.

Action is what matters. Pick up the phone and make the call to tell someone what they mean to you. Share your wealth. Run for office. Pick up the trash you see on the ground. Step in when someone is being bullied.

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 we want to be good and feel good, we have to do good.

It’s ironic that we spend so much of our precious time on earth either impotently fighting death or futilely attempting to ignore the thought of it.

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