28 Ways to Find the Stillness You Need to Thrive
A guest post from Ryan Holiday for Tim Ferris' blog. Ryan is one of the world’s foremost thinkers and writers on ancient philosophy and its place in everyday life. He is a sought-after speaker and strategist and the author of many bestselling books, including The Obstacle Is the Way, Ego Is the Enemy, and The Daily Stoic. His books have been translated into more than 30 languages and have sold more than two million copies worldwide.
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 that quiet moment when inspiration hits you. It’s that ability to step back and reflect. It’s what makes room for gratitude and happiness. It’s one of the most powerful forces on earth. We all need stillness, but those of us charging ahead with big plans and big dreams need it most of all.
Still, the word “stillness” can feel vague or ephemeral. It doesn’t need to be. There are, in fact, concrete and actionable ways to bring it into your life. It doesn’t just happen. You have to put in the work. You have to follow the guidance of the masters.
For many years, I have been a student of, and writer about, Stoicism, an ancient philosophy popular in the Roman Empire. Tim published my first two books about Stoicism as part of his Tim Ferriss Book Club (The Obstacle Is the Way and Ego Is the Enemy). For my latest book, Stillness Is the Key, I looked at not just Stoicism, but Buddhism, Confucianism, Epicureanism, Christianity, Hinduism, and countless other philosophical schools and religions, and I found that the one thing all these schools share is a pursuit of this inner peace—this stillness—and a belief that it’s the key to a happy and meaningful life. As a result, here are 28 proven exercises from across all the wisdom of the ancient world that will help you keep steady, disciplined, focused, at peace, and able to access your full capabilities at any time, in any place, despite any distraction and every difficulty.
These steps will work… if you work them.
Journal. Michel Foucault called the journal a “weapon for spiritual combat.” According to her father, Otto, Anne Frank didn’t write in her journal every day, but she always wrote when she was upset or dealing with a problem. One of her best and most insightful lines must have come on a particularly difficult day. “Paper,” she said, “has more patience than people.” I journal each morning as a way of starting the day off fresh—I put my baggage down on the page so that I don’t have to carry it to meetings or to breakfast with my family. I start the day with stillness by pouring out what is not still into my journal. But there’s no right way or wrong way to journal. The point is just to do it.
See The World Like An Artist. Marcus Aurelius, who is supposedly this dark, depressive Stoic, seems to have seen beauty everywhere. Why else would he write so vividly of the ordinary way that “baking bread splits in places and those cracks, while not intended in the baker’s art, catch our eye and serve to stir our appetite,” or of the “stalks of ripe grain bending low, the frowning brow of the lion, the foam dripping from the boar’s mouth”? While other people are oblivious to (or overwhelmed by) what surrounds them, we want to practice really seeing. Try to notice the little things. Look at that tree like you’re a painter and trying to understand its essence. Observe that interaction with your parents like you were a stand-up comedian looking for material. An artist must be present. An artist must notice. An artist is still.
Manage Your Inputs. As a general, Napoleon instructed his secretary to wait three weeks before opening any mail or correspondence. He wanted to see what would handle itself. One way I do this is with email filters. If I see an email is not urgent or not from a trusted source, I put it in a folder and sit on it (I like to reply on airplanes, without Wi-Fi, weeks or months later). Another way to do this is through gatekeepers. Having an assistant or an agent or a chief of staff means that trivial things have a harder time getting to you. You’re the boss—and the boss’s time must be protected! So that with stillness, you can give what matters your full attention.
Take Walks. 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. The cantankerous philosopher Søren Kierkegaard walked the streets of Copenhagen nearly every afternoon, as he wrote to his sister-in-law: “Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being.” I take a two-to-three mile walk each morning with my son—ideas for this very post came to me there.
Detach From Outcomes. Archery master Awa Kenzo spent little time teaching his students how to deliberately aim and shoot. What Kenzo wanted students to do was to put the thought of hitting the target out of their minds. He wanted them to detach even from the idea of an outcome. “The hits on the target,” he would say, “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.” This is something writers know well: You can’t think about the bestseller lists or awards or even the act of publishing. You must focus only on the page in front of you. You must learn how to let go and let the process take over.
Stop Watching The News. The number one thing to filter out if you want more equanimity in your life? The news! “If you wish to improve,” Epictetus said, “be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters.” Not only does the news cost us our peace of mind, but it actually prevents us from creating real change, right now. Being informed is important… watching the news in real time is not how you get there.
Ask Questions. As in, do I need this? If I get what I want, what will actually change? Why do I care what they think? What am I working on in myself today? Will this matter in five years? What if I did nothing? Questions like these help us calm the anxieties in our head and help us slow down—allowing room for stillness. It’s important to question our beliefs and our instincts. Tim has some awesome “impossible questions” that will also lead to stillness: “What are the worst things that could happen?” “What’s the least crowded channel?” “Do I need to make it back the way I lost it?” “What if I could only subtract to solve problems?” “Could it be that everything is fine and complete as is?”
Read Books. “Turn off your radio,” Dorothy Day, the Catholic nun and social activist, wrote in her diary in 1942, “put away your daily paper…and spend time reading.” She meant books. Big, smart, wonderful books. If you’re stressed, stop whatever you’re doing and sit down with a book. You’ll find yourself calming down. You’ll get absorbed into a different world. William Osler, the founder of Johns Hopkins University, told aspiring medical students that when chemistry or anatomy distressed their soul, to “seek peace in the great pacifier, Shakespeare.” It doesn’t have to be plays—any great literature will do. Books are a way to get stillness on demand.
Put Your Phone Away. Remember, your phone is designed for one thing: to make you want to use it. And the apps on your phone have the same motivation too. That’s two very motivated ecosystems that are not aligned with your stillness. My screen time reducing rules: I don’t sleep in the same room as my phone. I don’t check my phone for at least the first hour of the day. I turn off all alerts and notifications. And if there is something I can do with a device other than my phone, I use that (example: don’t journal on your phone—get a paper journal).
Get Rid Of Stuff. Xunzi said, “The gentleman makes things his servants. The petty man is servant to things.” Every month, we go through our house and fill up bags for Goodwill and the Salvation Army. If we aren’t using it, it doesn’t need to take up space in our house. If it is causing us anxiety or worry (“Be careful or you’ll break it!”), we get rid of it. The less you have, the less you have to be worked up about. The less you are precious about, the less that can be taken from you by swings of fate or bad luck.
Seek Solitude. “If I was to sum up the single biggest problem of senior leadership in the Information Age,” four-star Marine Corps general and former secretary of defense James Mattis has said, “it’s lack of reflection. Solitude allows you to reflect while others are reacting.” Bill Gates schedules “think weeks” where he goes off by himself and just reads and thinks. I like to do my thinking while running and swimming and taking walks—and many of my book ideas have come from these activities. Randall Stutman, who for decades has been the behind-the-scenes advisor for many of the biggest CEOs and leaders on Wall Street, once studied how several hundred senior executives of major corporations recharged in their downtime. The answers were things like swimming, sailing, long-distance cycling, listening quietly to classical music, scuba diving, riding motorcycles, and fly fishing. All these activities, he noticed, had one thing in common: an absence of voices. If you’re surrounded by others constantly, you’re likely to think and act as they do. To be original, you have to spend time alone. To have peace, you need solitude too.
Slow Down — Look Deeper. Framed on the wall of Fred Rogers’s production studio was a snippet from one of his favorite quotes: L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux. What’s essential is invisible to the eye. Appearances and first impressions are misleading—we are so often deceived by what’s on the surface. It is in Stoicism and Buddhism and countless other schools that we find the same analogy: 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.
Enjoy the Small Pleasures. You know, Epicurus was not a glutton or a depraved maniac. On the contrary, he advocated that we enjoy the simple pleasures. There is a letter from Epicurus asking one of his rich supporters and friends for a gift. He wasn’t asking for money or exotic goods. He asked for a small pot of cheese. That’s it! That’s all the famous epicurean wanted. If you can teach yourself to be grateful for and enjoy the ordinary pleasures, you will be happier than just about everyone. A bowl of cereal. A good sunset. A nice conversation with friends. These are the moments to treasure. Not far-flung vacations or fancy cars or prestigious honors.
Take Mindless Mental Wanderings. The choreographer Twyla Tharp gives us this exercise: “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.’” You have to let your mind explore if you want it to discover new things.
Empty Your Mind. The paradox of Zen is that they want you to think very deeply… and also clear your mind. But it’s not a paradox. Life requires both. Yogi Berra famously said that it’s impossible to think and hit at the same time. It’s true. A major league baseball player has only 400 milliseconds to swing at a pitch. There’s no room for thinking. Chances are whatever you do is only made harder by the whirling thoughts of your inner monologue. Emptying our minds is especially important when we are upset. Push those nasty thoughts out—or let them float by like a cloud. Don’t get attached to them. Don’t let them take root.
Seek Wisdom. Did you know that Buddha had a mentor? Two actually. His first teacher was Alara Kalama. His second was Uddaka Ramaputta. Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, studied under a philosopher named Crates. Who do you turn to for wisdom? Who is teaching you how to be better, calmer, and more still? For me, it was the author Robert Greene. From him, I was able to learn what it takes to be a writer, and I was able to learn how long the path to wisdom is. Having a mentor lets you see a version of yourself in the future. It teaches you not to be in such a hurry to get there, to know that it will take time (and most of all, lots of hard work). As Xunzi said: “Learning must never cease. … The noble person who studies widely and examines himself each day will become clear in his knowing and faultless in his conduct.”
Be Present. They call it “the present” for a reason. Because each moment is a gift. Just stop. Breathe this in. Forget the past. Ignore the future. Just be. We are human beingsafter all.
Cultivate Relationships. Life without relationships, focused solely on accomplishment and success, is empty and meaningless. Love, Freud said, is the great educator. I’ve never understood the idea that monks and priests should turn away from relationships. No, it’s through loving and being loved that we reach a higher plane of stillness and understanding. My wife hasn’t held me back from anything—on the contrary, she’s not only made me better, she’s made all the work worthwhile. “There is no enjoying the possession of anything valuable,” Seneca said, “unless one has someone to share it with.”
Develop Your Values — Memorialize Them. No one has less serenity than the person who does not know right from wrong. No one is more exhausted than the people who must belabor every decision and consider every temptation. Try sitting down and writing your own Ten Commandments—what you do and don’t do. Put it up somewhere in your house. Use it as a guide. Let it help you settle yourself down. Personally, I keep a list of what Marcus Aurelius called “epithets for the self” in a list on my desk. They are: “Honest. Calm. Fair. Father. Brave. Generous. Still.” Those are my priorities.
Beware Desire. John F. Kennedy stared down the Cuban Missile Crisis with incredible stillness. In those same 13 days, he also cheated on his wife with a college girl. That doesn’t sound like stillness (or strength)—the world was ending, and instead of being with the people he loved, he was chasing a thrill. Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita calls desire the “ever-present enemy of the wise…which like a fire cannot find satisfaction.” Think about when you feel your best. It’s not when you are pining away. It’s not when you get what you pined for either. Stillness is when you are in control of your urges.
Realize You Have Plenty. Kurt Vonegut was once at a party with Joseph Heller, the author of Catch 22. Vonegut was teasing him about how a billionaire they both knew made more money that week than Catch 22 would make in a lifetime. “I have something he’ll never have,” Heller replied. “Enough.” Accomplishment. Money. Fame. Respect. No amount of them will ever make a person feel content. “When you realize there is nothing lacking,” Lao Tzu says, “the whole world belongs to you.” It’s not that you shouldn’t have goals and that you shouldn’t strive for more; it’s that you have to learn how to appreciate what you have right now. Remind yourself each morning, as I try to do, that you have enough.
Zoom Out. When astronaut Edgar Mitchell was launched into space in 1971, he stared down at the tiny blue marble and felt something wash over him: a sense of connectedness and compassion for everyone and everything, “an instant global consciousness.” With the realization that we are all one, that we are all in this together, and that this fact is the only thing that truly matters, we lose the selfishness and self-absorption at the root of much of the disturbance in our lives. Remind yourself of this each time you look down out of an airplane window or from a high floor in a tall building or each time you look up at the stars. You are small but also part of something big.
Stop, Wait, Say No? The great baseball hitter Sadaharu Oh learned from his Zen Master and hitting coach, Hiroshi Arakawa, the power of waiting, the power of precision, the power of the void, the power of wu wei, or nonaction. Think of Fabius, the Roman general who defeated Hannibal by not attacking, but letting him defeat himself, far from home. You must protect your time and hold something back. Do not swing at every opportunity. Do not rush into action without thinking. I have a picture in my office of Oliver Sacks and behind him is a large sign that says “NO!” It’s a reminder to me to consider each opportunity and each ask carefully. What’s at stake is my stillness and my finite resources. So are yours!
Build A Routine. It’s strange to us that successful people, who are more or less their own boss and are clearly so talented, seem prisoners to the regimentation of their routines. Think about Jocko waking up at 4:30 a.m. every morning. Isn’t the whole point of greatness that you’re freed from trivial rules and regulations? That you can do whatever you want? 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. It was Eisenhower who defined freedom as the opportunity for self-discipline. Without it, chaos and complacency move in.
Pace Yourself. The main cause of injury for elite athletes is not tripping and falling. It’s not collisions. It’s overuse. Pitchers and quarterbacks throw out their arms. Others just get tired of the grinding hours and the pressure. Michael Phelps prematurely ended his swimming career for this reason—despite all the gold medals, he never wanted to get in a pool again. Life is much more of a marathon than a sprint. Last year, I got mono because I wore my immune system down. Ironically, my fear of missing out on work caused me to miss a bunch of work! Don’t burn out. Relax. Be still, so you can be strong over the long term.
Sleep. The bloodshot engineer six Red Bulls deep has no chance of stillness. Nor does the recent grad—or not-so-recent grad—who still parties like she’s in college. Nor does the writer who plans poorly and promises himself he’ll finish his book in a sleepless three-day sprint. Think of Arianna Huffington, who passed out from lack of sleep and shattered her cheekbone as she hit the bathroom floor. Shudder when you think about that—because it’s a cautionary tale. Believe it or not, I’ve never pulled an all-nighter, despite writing 10 books in less than a decade. Abusing the body leads the mind to abuse itself. Sleep is the recharging of the internal batteries, whose energy stores we recruit in order to do our work. Guard it carefully.
Make Time For Hobbies. “If action tires your body but puts your heart at ease,” Xunzi said, “do it.” Winston Churchill loved to paint and lay bricks on his country estate; his predecessor William Gladstone loved to chop down trees by hand. Even Jesus liked to go fishing with his friends! Assembling a puzzle, struggling with a guitar lesson, sitting on a quiet morning in a hunting blind, steadying a rifle or a bow while we wait for a deer, ladling soup in a homeless shelter, a long swim, lifting heavy weights—these are all great hobbies. Mine are running and swimming and working on my farm. Engaged in these activities, my body is busy but my mind is open. My heart is too.
Do Good. Marcus Aurelius spoke of moving from one unselfish action to another—“Only there,” he said, can we find “delight and stillness.” If you see a fraud and do not say fraud, the philosopher Nassim Taleb has said, you are a fraud. If we want to be good and feel good, we have to do good. Remember the Boy Scout slogan: Do a good turn daily. It can be big, or it can be small. It can be picking up trash you find on the ground or rushing to the scene of an accident. Doing good creates spiritual stillness. It makes the world a better place.
Each of our paths to stillness will be unique, but the outcome will be the same: quiet, strength, insight, peace, happiness. Most of all, we will be surprised to learn that the stillness we sought is not found outside us but within us. It’s been ours all along. We just needed to unlock it. To access it. And to hold it close. Stillness is the key. To everything we want in life.
Ryan Holiday (@RyanHoliday) is the the author of many bestselling books, including The Obstacle Is the Way, Ego Is the Enemy, and The Daily Stoic. His new book, Stillness Is the Key, is coming out October 1, 2019.