Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday: Book Summary, Key Lessons and Best Quotes

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

 — Blaise Pascal

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.

To the ancient Stoics, if one could develop this stillness, this peace within themselves—if they could achieve apatheia, as they called it—the world could be at war and in complete chaos, but they could maintain their tranquility. They could still think well, work well, and be well. “You may be sure that you are at peace with yourself,” Seneca wrote, “when no noise reaches you, when no word shakes you out of yourself, whether it be flattery or a threat, or merely an empty sound buzzing about you with unmeaning din.”

In Stillness is the Key, the book that completes the trilogy that began with The Obstacle is The Way and Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday argues that stillness is the key to being better at anything you do. Holiday looks at Buddhism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, Christianity, Hinduism, and countless other philosophical schools and religions and shows that it’s all but impossible to find one that doesn’t venerate this inner peace—this stillness—as the highest good and as the key to a thriving, meaningful life. “And when basically all the wisdom of the ancient world agrees on something,” Holiday writes, “only a fool would decline to listen.”

3 Key Takeaway Lessons from Stillness is the Key:

 

In Seneca’s time, to reach stillness meant contending with the cacophony of disturbances that filled the streets of Rome: carriages rumbling through the stone streets, carpenters at work, vendors shouting their offerings, children at play, dogs barking. Today, we can add to that car horns, cell phone alarms and notifications, stereos or headphones, jackhammers, espresso machines, airplanes. The news with its narrative of crisis after crisis finds us on whichever device we happen to be staring at. Emails bombard us. Requests and obligations pour in. We’re completely overstimulated, overscheduled, and overwhelmed. How does anyone find time to think? To do meaningful work? To detach and relax?

History proves that it is from stillness that new insights and ideas spawn. It is with stillness that perspective sharpens. It is by stillness that the ball slows down so that we might hit it. Stillness allows us to persevere. To succeed. It is the key that unlocks genius, happiness, meaning. 

The promise of Ryan Holiday’s book is the location of that key.

Here are our top three takeaways from Stillness Is The Key:

1) LET GO

“Work done for a reward is much lower than work done in the Yoga of wisdom. Set thy heart upon thy work, but never on its reward. Work not for the re- ward; but never cease to do thy work.”

—The Bhagavad Gita

Have you ever noticed that the more we want something, or the more insistent we are on a certain outcome, the more difficult it can be to achieve it? When you try to hit a golf ball as hard as you possibly can, when you really want to belt it down the fairway: that’s exactly when you shank it into the woods, snap-hook it into the water, or barely nudge it out of the tee box. 

In the archery master Awa Kenzo’s school, Holiday relates, he famously never taught students how to deliberately aim and shoot to hit a target. Mastery of the bow, Kenzo knew, only came from mastery of a mental skill: detachment. “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.”

That state? Stillness.

It’s what we need in life, in the arts, in sports—the ability to let go, to loosen up, to release the tension that is our obsession with outcomes. Instead, if we reel it in, focusing on the individual steps, embracing the process, giving up the chase, we’ll think better, clearer, because we aren’t thinking so hard.

And suppose that through letting go, we do find success? When a student hit a bull’s-eye, Kenzo would say, “Go on practicing as if nothing happened.” The closer one is to mastery, the less they care about results. They’re consumed in the process and the actions they control.

2) BATHE IN BEAUTY

In the face of the Sublime, we feel a shiver . . . something too large for our minds to encompass. And for a moment, it shakes us of our smugness and releases us from the deathlike grip of habit and banality.

     — Robert Greene

When the world was at war, while Hitler killed so many millions of people, and as her family spent each day at risk of joining the dead, Anne Frank looked out a small window from the attic above the annex her family hid. “As long as this exists,” Anne thought to herself, “this sunshine and this cloudless sky, and as long as I can enjoy it, how can I be sad?” Some days it was too dangerous to even open the window. Still, in the suffocating heat, the confined quarters, the unrelatable fear, Anne Frank looked out the window and could find in nature the boost she needed. “Beauty remains, even in misfortune,” she wrote. “If you just look for it, you discover more and more happiness and regain your balance.”

“The trackless woods. A quiet child, lying on her belly, reading a book. The clouds cutting over the wing of an airplane, its exhausted passengers all asleep. A man reading in his seat. A woman sleeping. A stewardess resting her feet. The rosy fingertips of dawn coming up over the mountain. A song on repeat. That song’s beat, lining up exactly with the rhythm of events as we walk down the street. The pleasure of getting an assignment in before a deadline, the temporary quiet of an empty inbox. This is stillness.” — Ryan Holiday, Stillness Is The Key

We see this kind of observation, this ability to find beauty in what’s often overlooked, in Marcus Aurelius when he writes 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 the “charm and allure” of nature’s process, the “stalks of ripe grain bending low, the frowning brow of the lion, the foam dripping from the boar’s mouth.”

Thomas Aquinas said the philosopher and the poet see the world the same way and engage in the same pursuit: the study of “wonder.” And so must we. While stillness seems so rare and fleeting in our busy lives, the world supplies us with an inexhaustible amount of it. We’re just not looking. We’re not stopping to see all of it. Any of it, for that matter. 

Go outside. Take a walk. Look around. Pay attention. Be curious. Marvel. Wonder. Bathe in the beauty that surrounds us, always. 

3) REMEMBER: HUMAN BEING, NOT HUMAN DOING

“Work is what horses die of. Everybody should know that.”

— Aleksander Solzhenitsyn

Eliud Kipchoge, possibly the greatest distance runner to ever live, actively works to make sure he is not overworking. In training, he deliberately does not give his full effort, saving that instead for the few times per year when he races. Because he knows that 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. Basketball players blow out their knees. Others just get tired and burnt out from the grinding hours.

The Russian proverb: Work just makes you bent over. 

“Yes, we have important duties—to our country, to our coworkers, to provide for our families. Many of us have talents and gifts that are so extraordinary that we owe it to ourselves and the world to express and ful ll them. But we’re not going to be able to do that if we’re not taking care of ourselves, or if we have stretched ourselves to the breaking point…Man is not a machine. Work will not set you free. It will kill you if you’re not careful.” — Ryan Holiday, Stillness Is The Key

When we’re running on empty, when we’re stretched too thin, when we’re utterly overworked, clear thinking can’t possibly happen and good decisions can’t possibly be made. So we make mistakes that we then have to try and fix. We destroy relationships that we then have to try and repair. We burn out and fade away.

Moderation. Pacing. Patience. Knowing your limits.

“Remember: human being, not human doing,” Holiday writes.

3 Favorite Examples from Stillness Is The Key

 

Stillness Is The Key is structured into three parts, the three domains where stillness is achieved: the timeless trinity of Mind, Body, and Soulthe head, the human body, and the heart. As he does in The Obstacle Is The Way and Ego Is The Enemy, Holiday packed Stillness Is The Key with stories from throughout history that illustrate exactly how stillness is the key. Here are our 3 favorites—one from each domain:

1) Empty The Mind

“The mind is restless, Krishna, impetuous, self-willed, hard to train: to master the mind seems as difficult as to master the mighty winds.”

— The Bhagavad Gita

In 2002, Shawn Green was in his third season in the MLB, making $14 million a year, and he could not hit the baseball. It was a hitting slump that had the fans booing him before he even got to the batter’s box and the media abuzz with rumors of trades, benchings, and minor league demotions. All of which were swirling around in Green’s head, and as the critics got louder and louder, the baseball got smaller and smaller. Green could have consulted experts, or redesigned his swing, or lashed out against the media, the fans, and the Los Angeles Dodgers organization. He did none of those things. Instead, Holiday writes, “But it was Buddhism, which he had long practiced, that Shawn leaned on to prevent this vicious cycle from destroying his career. Instead of giving in to those churning, anxious thoughts—instead of trying harder and harder—he tried to clear his mind entirely.”

Green pushed the huge contract, the booing fans, his anger and frustration, and even any thought of how badly he wanted to hit the baseball completely out of his mind. How? He repeated an old Zen proverb to himself: Chop wood, carry water. Chop wood, carry water. Chop wood, carry water.

Don’t think. Hit. Don’t overanalyze. Do the work. 

On May 23 2002, ended the slump in record-setting fashion, becoming just the fourteenth player in history hit four home runs in a single game. In all, he went six for six, with nineteen total bases, and seven runs batted in. He followed it up the next three games, going 11 for 13 with 7 home runs. 

When the mind is clean and clear, when it is still, incredible things happen.

2) Conquer Your Anger

“If we miss contentment, then that is often our own fault—and the fault not of our bodies but of our souls.” — Plutarch

You’ve probably seen the Michael Jordan crying meme. It has its own wikipedia page. The image is Jordan on the podium during his 2009 induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame. In tears from the start, Jordan, a man with nothing to prove and so much to be thankful for, spent a half hour running down the list of every slight he’d received over the course of his basketball career. It was strange, surreal, and uncomfortable for the audience in attendance and watching from home. 

Friends were quick to note that Michael intended the speech to be helpful, to show how being overlooked and underestimated created his winning mentality, to illustrate how productive anger could be. But instead of showing that anger is a powerful fuel, Michael proved how anger blows up all over oneself and those around them. Anger wasn’t the fuel or the secret of Jordan’s six NBA championships, it was only a toxic by-product that never allowed him to enjoy anything he accomplished. As Holiday concludes,

“Clearly, basketball was a refuge for Michael Jordan, a game he loved and that provided him much satisfaction. But in the pursuit of winning and domination, he also turned it into a kind of raw, open wound, one that seemed to never stop bleeding or cause pain. One that likely cost him additional years of winning, as well as the simple enjoyment of a special evening at the Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.

That can’t be what you want. That can’t be who you want to be.

Which is why we must choose to drive out anger and replace it will love and gratitude—and purpose. Our stillness depends on our ability to slow down and choose not to be angry, to run on different fuel. Fuel that helps us win and build, and doesn’t hurt other people, our cause, or our chance at peace.”

3) Seek Solitude

“We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones.” — Henry David Thoreau

Leonardo da Vinci habitually wrote fables in his notebooks. One, Holiday relates, is about a stone that resided peacefully in a grove surrounded by flowers above a busy road. Growing restless, the stone asked, “What am I doing among these herbs? I want to live in the company of my fellow stones.” The stoned rolled itself down the hill to join the countless other stones. Its new home was not as wonderful as anticipated. Trodden over by horses and wagons, covered in dirt, chipped and jostled, the stone quickly longed for that solitary peace and quiet it left behind.

“This is what happens,” da Vinci wrote, “to those who leave the solitary and contemplative life and choose to live in cities among people full of countless evils.” The message is not to abandon the world, retreating into a life of complete and utter solitude. No. Holiday’s point is that cultivating moments of solitude, moments alone, moments in silence, moments with only your thoughts are essential. It’s in those moments where clarity and insights are had, where real understanding of ourselves is found, where deep meaning is discovered. Here’s Holiday:

“You have to disconnect in order to better connect with yourself and with the people you serve and love. People don’t have enough silence in their lives because they don’t have enough solitude. And they don’t get enough solitude because they don’t seek out or cultivate silence. It’s a vicious cycle that prevents stillness and reflection, and then stymies good ideas, which are almost always hatched in solitude.”

No matter how loud and busy our lives are for the most part, we must grab, schedule and cultivate those moments of solitude. 

12 Best Quotes from Stillness is the Key:

 

“What do we want more of in life? That’s the question. It’s not accomplishments. It’s not popularity. It’s moments when we feel like we are enough. More presence. More clarity. More insight. More truth. More stillness.”

“We are one big collective organism engaged in one endless project together. We are one. We are the same. Still, too often we forget it, and we forget ourselves in the process.”

“How different would the world look if people spent as much time listening to their conscience as they did to chattering broadcasts? If they could respond to the calls of their convictions as quickly as we answer the dings and rings of technology in our pockets?”

“Take action. Get out from under all your stuff. Get rid of it. Give away what you don’t need.

You were born free—free of stuff, free of burden. But since the first time they measured your tiny body for clothes, people have been foisting stuff upon you. And you’ve been adding to links to the pile of chains yourself ever since.”

“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.”

“Despair and restlessness go together. The problem is that you can’t flee despair. You can’t escape, with your body, problems that exist in your mind and soul. You can’t run away from your choices—you can only fix them with better choices.”

“You were given one body when you were born—don’t try to be someone else, something 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…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.”

“That quiet feels so unnatural is a sign of its importance. Seize it. We can’t be afraid of silence, as it has much to teach us. Seek it.”

“The ticking of the hands of your watch are telling you how time is passing away, never to return. Listen to it.”

“Remember, there’s no greatness in the future. Or clarity. Or insight. Or happiness. Or peace. There is only this moment.”

“That space between your ears—that’s yours. You don’t just have to control what gets in, you also have to control what goes on in there. You have to protect it from yourself, from your own thoughts. Not with sheer force, but rather with a kind of gentle, persistent sweeping. Be the librarian that says “Shhh!” to the rowdy kids, or tells the jerk on his phone to please take it outside. Because the mind is an important and sacred place. Keep it clean and clear.” 

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