Rating: 9 / 10
I generally like Ryan's works. This one was no exception. I expected to see stillness through the lens of Stoicism - and I was not disappointed. It was a positive surprise to see stillness examined through other schools of philosophy, too.
Ryan presents stillness, and how one may pursue it, through three domains. The mind, the spirit, and the body. In each domain there are described traits which help us cultivate stillness in our lives. These traits draw upon examples from historic events, actions of famous characters, and ideas from philosophers from various schools, cultures, and time periods.
Most of these traits are, to be honest, common sense - or, at least, traits that most of us know are good. It is the way they are presented that makes them stand out. Each trait is presented concisely. They make you think. Reflect upon your life. They are simple, yet take the most strength and courage to live by. At least, it is much too easy not to.
The book is not very long. I spent more time thinking and reflecting than actually reading. That is, as I see it, the central trait of a good book.
For those looking to do more reading on Eastern or Western philosophy, Ryan recommends the following:
Then, an examination of the three domains — the mind, the spirit, and the body — and how these can help us attain stillness.
When faced with a difficult situation. When we must make a difficult choice.
Those who seek stillness must come to...
Mens sana in corpore sano - a strong mind in a strong body.
To be productive yet still joyful and still, we must...
The struggle is great, the task divine—to gain mastery, freedom, happiness, and tranquility. — EPICTETUS
This is, in fact, the first obligation of a leader and a decision maker. Our job is not to “go with our gut” or fixate on the first impression we form about an issue. No, we need to be strong enough to resist thinking that is too neat, too plausible, and therefore almost always wrong. Because if the leader can’t take the time to develop a clear sense of the bigger picture, who will? If the leader isn’t thinking through all the way to the end, who is?
"Keep strong, if possible. In any case, keep cool. Have unlimited patience. Never corner an opponent, and always assist him to save face. Put yourself in his shoes—so as to see things through his eyes. Avoid self-righteousness like the devil—nothing is so self-blinding." — B. H. Liddell Hart
JFK quoted this. It's from a book by B. H. Liddell Hart on nuclear strategy.
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’re taking a picture of it. We are not present . . . and so we miss out. On life. On being our best. On seeing what’s there.
By not being present, we miss out on so much of what life has to offer.
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. We sign up for endless activities and obligations, chase money and accomplishments, all with the naïve belief that at the end of it will be happiness.
Much of what we do in modern life is to avoid living in the present.
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.
It seems obvious, yet we don't live by it.
Don’t reject a difficult or boring moment because it is not exactly what you want. Don’t waste a beautiful moment because you are insecure or shy. Make what you can of what you have been given. Live what can be lived. That’s what excellence is. That’s what presence makes possible.
Make the best of what is given to you.
You have plenty on your plate right now. Focus on that, no matter how small or insignificant it is. Do the very best you can right now. Don’t think about what detractors may say. Don’t dwell or needlessly complicate. Be here. Be all of you. Be present. And if you’ve had trouble with this in the past? That’s okay. That’s the nice thing about the present. It keeps showing up to give you a second chance.
Do the best you can in this moment.
A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention. — Herbert Simon
How is anyone supposed to make space for what matters when they're trying to keep on top of a barrage of news. Make time for signal, avoid noise. It's more than okay to be behind in these extraneous matters. What matters is that you focus on what's important.
We must manage inputs and make time to see the big picture. To step back for a moment.
“If you wish to improve,” Epictetus once said, “be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters.”
Maybe you don't need to follow every piece of news. Every new show or film.
That which is truly important will still be so when you get to 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. — Thich Nhat Hanh
Really, he wasn’t thinking at all. Instead, he repeated an old Zen proverb to himself: Chop wood, carry water. Chop wood, carry water. Chop wood, carry water. Don’t overanalyze. Do the work.
Don't overanalyze. Do the work. Chop wood, carry water.
Keep your mind clean and clear.
L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux. What’s essential is invisible to the eye.
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.
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.
The choreographer Twyla Tharp provides an exercise for us to follow: Sit alone in a room and let your thoughts go wherever they will. Do this for one minute. . . . Work up to ten minutes a day of this mindless mental wandering. Then start paying attention to your thoughts to see if a word or goal materializes. If it doesn’t, extend the exercise to eleven minutes, then twelve, then thirteen . . . until you find the length of time you need to ensure that something interesting will come to mind. The Gaelic phrase for this state of mind is “quietness without loneliness.”
Keep a notebook. Travel with it, eat with it, sleep with it. Slap into it every stray thought that flutters up into your brain. — Jack London
While there are plenty of people who will anecdotally swear to the benefits of journaling, the research is compelling too. According to one study, journaling helps improve well-being after traumatic and stressful events. Similarly, a University of Arizona study showed that people were able to better recover from divorce and move forward if they journaled on the experience. Keeping a journal is a common recommendation from psychologists as well, because it helps patients stop obsessing and allows them to make sense of the many inputs—emotional, external, psychological—that would otherwise overwhelm them. 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. Putting your own thinking down on paper lets you see it from a distance. It gives you objectivity that is so often missing when anxiety and fears and frustrations flood your mind.
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? Do I rule my fears, or do they rule me? How will today’s difficulties reveal my character?*
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. If you’ve started before and stopped, start again. Getting out of the rhythm happens. The key is to carve out the space again, today.
“Thought will not work except in silence,” Thomas Carlyle said. If we want to think better, we need to seize these moments of quiet. 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.
Imperturbable wisdom is worth everything. — DEMOCRITUS
Each school 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 failure and mistakes—to open our eyes to truth and understanding. In this way, wisdom is a sense of the big picture, the accumulation of experience and the ability to rise above the biases, the traps that catch lazier thinkers.
Generalized traits of wisdom across philosophical schools:
Tolstoy expressed his exasperation at people who didn’t read deeply and regularly. “I cannot understand,” he said, “how some people can live without communicating with the wisest people who ever lived on earth.” There’s another line, now cliché, that is even more cutting: People who don’t read have no advantage over those who cannot read.
Leo Tolstoy on reading.
Find people you admire and ask how they got where they are. Seek book recommendations. Isn’t that what Socrates would do? 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. The wise are still because they have seen it all. They know what to expect because they’ve been through so much. They’ve made mistakes and learned from them. And so must you. 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. Do not mistake the pursuit of wisdom for an endless parade of sunshine and kittens. Wisdom does not immediately produce stillness or clarity. Quite the contrary. It might even make things less clear—make them darker before the dawn.
Seek wisdom. Inquire. Learn.
It’s also inevitable that the diligent student will uncover disconcerting or challenging ideas—about the world and about themselves. This will be unsettling. How could it not be? But that’s okay. It’s better than crashing through life (and into each other) like blind moles, to borrow Khrushchev’s analogy. We want to sit with doubt. We want to savor it. We want to follow it where it leads. Because on the other side is truth.
What you encounter will challenge you. Accept it. You want challenge.
Remember, Socrates looked honestly at what he didn’t know. That’s hard. It’s painful to have our illusions punctured. It’s humbling to learn that we are not as smart as we thought we were.
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 standards 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.
Stillness, then, is actually a way to superior performance. Looseness will give you more control than gripping tightly—to a method or a specific outcome.
On the contrary, after a bull’s-eye, Kenzo would urge them to “go on practicing as if nothing happened.” He’d say the same after a bad shot. When the students asked for extra instruction, he’d reply, “Don’t ask, practice!”
For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? — Matthew 16:26, KJV - Jesus to his disciples
The essence of greatness is the perception that virtue is enough. — Ralph Waldo Emerson
When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you. — Lao Tzu
The greatest misfortune is to not know contentment. The word calamity is the desire to acquire. And so those who know the contentment of contentment are always content. — The Daodejing
Have you ever held a gold medal or a Grammy or a Super Bowl ring? Have you ever seen a bank balance nudging up into the seven figures? Maybe you have, maybe you possess these things yourself. If you do, then you know: They are nice but they change nothing. They are just pieces of metal, dirty paper in your pocket, or plaques on a wall. They are not made of anything strong or malleable enough to plug even the tiniest hole in a person’s soul. Nor do they extend the length of one’s life even one minute. On the contrary, they may shorten it!
How does it feel to get everything you've ever wanted? Like nothing.
If you believe there is ever some point where you will feel like you’ve “made it,” when you’ll finally be good, you are in for an unpleasant surprise. Or worse, a sort of Sisyphean torture where just as that feeling appears to be within reach, the goal is moved just a little bit farther up the mountain and out of reach. 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 that, they are richer than any billionaire, more powerful than any sovereign.
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 wars, even when we are killing ourselves with pointless work, we can stop and bathe in the beauty that surrounds us, always. Let it calm you. Let it cleanse you.
See the beauty in the world. Experience it.
There is no enjoying the possession of anything valuable unless one has someone to share it with. — Seneca
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? Your house might be quieter without kids and it might be easier to work longer hours without someone waiting for you at the dinner table, but it is a hollow quiet and an empty ease. To go through our days looking out for no one but ourselves? To think that we can or must do this all alone? To accrue mastery or genius, wealth or power, solely for our own benefit? What is the point? By ourselves, we are a fraction of what we can be. By ourselves, something is missing, and, worse, we feel that in our bones. Which is why stillness requires other people; indeed, it is for other people.
It was without a hint of self-awareness that Nixon—who hated Ivy Leaguers, hated reporters, hated Jews and so many other people—said these high-minded words to his loyal staffers in his last hours in the White House: “Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself.” He was right. His own downfall proved it.
I like the quote but the context is ironic.
We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones. — Henry David Thoreau
It’s a balance that everyone aspiring to sustained inner peace must strike. Mens sana in corpore sano—a strong mind in a strong body.
And while Kierkegaard was particularly eloquent in his writing about walking, he was by no means alone in his dedication to the practice—nor alone in reaping the benefits. Nietzsche said that the ideas in Thus Spoke Zarathustra came to him on a long walk. Nikola Tesla discovered the rotating magnetic field, one of the most important scientific discoveries of all time, on a walk through a city park in Budapest in 1882. When he lived in Paris, Ernest Hemingway would take long walks along the quais whenever he was stuck in his writing and needed to clarify his thinking. Charles Darwin’s daily schedule included several walks, as did those of Steve Jobs and the groundbreaking psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, the latter of whom wrote that “I did the best thinking of my life on leisurely walks with Amos.” It was the physical activity in the body, Kahneman said, that got his brain going.
All these great thinkers appreciated walking.
The key to a good walk is to be aware. To be present and open to the experience. Put your phone away. Put the pressing problems of your life away, or rather let them melt away as you move. Look down at your feet. What are they doing? Notice how effortlessly they move. Is it you who’s doing that? Or do they just sort of move on their own? Listen to the sound of the leaves crunching underfoot. Feel the ground pushing back against you. Breathe in. Breathe out. Consider who might have walked this very spot in the centuries before you. Consider the person who paved the asphalt you are standing on. What was going on with them? Where are they now? What did they believe? What problems did they have? When you feel the tug of your responsibilities or the desire to check in with the outside world, push yourself a bit further. If you’re on a path you have trod before, take a sudden turn down a street or up a hill where you haven’t been before. Feel the unfamiliarity and the newness of these surroundings, drink in what you have not yet tasted. Get lost. Be unreachable. Go slowly.
The key to a good walk: be present. Explore.
It was Eisenhower who defined freedom as the opportunity for self-discipline. In fact, freedom and power and success require self-discipline. Because without it, chaos and complacency move in. Discipline, then, is how we maintain that freedom. 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 every day. “The repetition itself becomes the important thing,” he says, “it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”
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. Most people wake up to face the day as an endless barrage of bewildering and overwhelming choices, one right after another. What do I wear? What should I eat? What should I do first? What should I do after that? What sort of work should I do? Should I scramble to address this problem or rush to put out this fire? Needless to say, this is exhausting. It is a whirlwind of conflicting impulses, incentives, inclinations, and external interruptions. It is no path to stillness and hardly a way to get the best out of yourself.
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. To make that possible, you must go now and get your house in order. Get your day scheduled. Limit the interruptions. Limit the number of choices you need to make. If you can do this, passion and disturbance will give you less trouble. Because it will find itself boxed out.
A master is in control. A master has a system. A master turns the ordinary into the sacred. And so must we.
The gentleman makes things his servants. The petty man is servant to things. — Xunzi
Grab these moments. Schedule them. Cultivate them.
Seek moments of silence. Like Bill Gates' Think Week
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.
If you want peace, there is just one thing to do. If you want to be your best, there is just one thing to do. Go to sleep.
Prioritize sleep. It's more important than doing "just one more thing".
Sitting alone with a canvas? A book club? A whole afternoon for cycling? Chopping down trees? Who has the time? If Churchill had the time, if Gladstone had the time, you have the time. Won’t my work suffer if I step away from it? Seneca pointed out how readily we take risks with uncertain payoffs in our career—but we’re afraid to risk even one minute of time for leisure. There’s nothing to feel guilty about for being idle. It’s not reckless. It’s an investment. There is nourishment in pursuits that have no purpose—that is their purpose. Leisure is also a reward for the work we do. When we think about the ideal “Renaissance man,” we see someone who is active and busy, yes, but also fulfilled and balanced. Getting to know yourself is the luxury of the success you’ve had. Finding fulfillment and joy in the pursuit of higher things, you’ve earned it. It’s there for you, take it. Make the time. Build the discipline. You deserve it. You need it. Your stillness depends on it.
Get a hobby. Remember Range? How most Nobel prize winners had a hobby? It's important.
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.
You were given one body when you were born—don’t try to be someone else, somewhere else. Get to know yourself. Build a life that you don’t need to escape from.
If we want to be good and feel good, we have to do good. There is no escaping this. Dive in when you hear the cry for help. Reach out when you see the need. Do kindness where you can. Because you’ll have to find a way to live with yourself if you don’t.
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.