February 26, 2020

Book notes from Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday

If you follow Tim Ferriss, Ryan Holiday or other successful individuals, you will know that all of them have some meditation or silent practice. Hal Elrod, in his book, The Miracle Morning, has ‘silence’ as one of his S’s for his acronym SAVERS, which outlines how people should be spending their first hour.

The one story that really convinced me that meditation was something that I should adopt was a story by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who said that he had practiced transcendental meditation for some time and even though he has since stopped, found the benefits of TM to last much longer even after he had stopped.

Ryan Holiday’s new book talks about silence or ‘stillness’ as being incredibly important in our lives. Even not thinking about meditation, we want some sort of stillness in our lives. If you have kids, the stillness that comes from your kids sleeping and you not having to watch over them all the time can be a sigh of relief. If you have an open office workspace, the quiet that comes from not having coworkers chatter about their weekends can be a great boost to your concentration. If you have a lot of things going on, the stillness that comes from having a weekend or a day where you have no plans can be a great way to reset.

Ryan covers stillness in three sections: mind, spirit and body. My notes that follow are the things that I thought about as I read the book:

Stillness is important when thinking about hard problems

I thought a lot about Deep Work by Cal Newport as I read about John F. Kennedy’s approach the Cuban Missile Crisis. Essentially, the Russians had set up missiles in Cuba that were operational, and they wanted to see what the U.S. would do. John F. Kennedy’s advisors told him that they should invade right away, respond with violence as the Russians did, and show that the Americans would not be toyed with. But Kennedy had a different approach and this approach would not have been found if he did not cultivate a sense of stillness so that he could be alone with his thoughts and really think about what the Russians were trying to do with the missiles.

Stillness is important when trying to be in the moment

Whenever I watch basketball, I am always astounded at how the basketball players seem to shoot their foul shots amidst people in the background yelling, waving their balloons or foam hands, and generally trying to distract the player from making the shot. The players always have a sense of intensity and concentration to them that I have tried to cultivate when I am in high pressure situations such as exams, sporting events, or speaking in front of crowds.

I think that’s what meditation helps with though. Meditation is the practice of clearing your head and being in the moment. It’s about listening to the sounds around you and then letting those feelings and sensations pass through you. Whenever anyone encounters others in stressful situations, their first statement is typically “take a deep breath”. Why a deep breath? It gives you the stillness to really think.

Stillness to prevent impulses

On the Minimalist podcast, one of the co-hosts talks about his rule of 30 whenever making purchases. Any time he is considering purchasing something over $30, he waits 30 days. Why?

By waiting 30 days, he avoids making impulse buys that often happen when you are in a stressed state of mind. Maybe you just passed an exam and you feel like rewarding yourself. Or you got an unexpectedly high tax return and want to take some of that money for yourself. Whatever the reason, these impulse buys are not always good. Taking 30 days can help you really understand if this is something that you want or something that you need. It will also give you time to do research and to really consider if this particular item is for you.

Stillness to conquer anger

Recently, on a project, the team was having a meeting and I was trying to share my thoughts and get heard within the team. Being an introvert, this was a bit of a challenge, but I was trying my best to not appear like an idiot and at the same time, try to contribute to the overall meeting. In a moment of impulse, one of my teammates challenged me and I lost it. I very much regret losing my cool in that situation.

Part of the reason why I think I let it happen was because I didn’t give myself a moment to compose my thoughts and feelings. I didn’t take a chance to be still and to really think about why I was feeling so angry.

That’s what stillness can do. Sometimes, if you feel like you are about to get into a situation where you will lose your cool, the best thing to do is to walk away and take a break.

Stillness from material things

One of my regular monthly practices is to take a look at the things that I own (books, clothing, electronics) and to donate the items that I don’t use. I am always frustrated at the clutter that I have and by getting rid of things that I don’t use, I’m going to get more use out of the things that I do enjoy and at the same time, I won’t feel like my house (and my mind) is so cluttered with ‘stuff’.

Remember that when we pass into the afterlife, we are unable to bring anything that we purchased, created or acquired in our lives. And also ask yourself, do you own the things that you own? Or do they own you? How often have we turned around to grab our smartphones after not finding it in our pockets? How often have we gotten mad at someone for accidentally spilling something onto our shirt or pants even though it could easily be cleaned off? I’ve certainly got mad at people for mistreating my books. Ridiculous?

Stillness to rest

Arianna Huffington’s book The Sleep Revolution documents the struggle that many ambitious professionals have had between working as hard as they can and getting the rest that they need. Arianna was one of those ambitious professionals who thought that she could get away with getting as little rest as possible, but she ended up passing out in the bathroom, hitting her head and losing consciousness from a lack of sleep.

We all need to rest. We all need to get sleep at night. When you are doing weight training, you cannot constantly lift weights day after day. In fact, all of the gains that you get from weight training come from your days of rest and not on the days that you work out.

Stillness to be alone

It is easy for me to say as I am an introvert, but I do feel that even extroverts need alone time for themselves. We need the time to be alone with our thoughts and to do our own things. For me, when I spend a lot of time around friends or other social events, I always have to ‘recharge’ after by just being alone.

As you can see, stillness is an incredibly important concept that has far reaching impact no matter who you are or what you do. How do you cultivate stillness in your life? What are your practices?


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