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This Is The Key To The Good Life

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Why did Marcus Aurelius study philosophy? What were Seneca or Confucius or Buddha trying to achieve as they pored over their books or sat deeply in thought? What have archery masters and Olympic boxing instructors and generals tried to instill in their students and soldiers?

Their aim was, and always has been, stillness. 

These thinkers and doers and leaders and achievers, they all needed peace and clarity. They need their charges to be centered. They needed them to be in control of themselves. Because what they were doing was really hard! Just as what you do is really hard! It’s not easy to hit a target or wage a battle or lead a country or write a play. Stillness is the way you get there—internally, mostly—because the world in which we attempt to do these things is often incredibly un-still.

Nearly all the schools and disciplines of the ancient world had their own word for stillness. The Buddhists called it upekkha. The Stoics called it apatheia. 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 had euthymia and hesychia. The Epicureans, ataraxia. The Christians and Romans, aequanimitas. In fact, the last word Marcus Aurelius heard from his dying stepfather, Antoninus, was aequanimitas. Equanimity. Stillness.

Picking up where The Obstacle is the Way and Ego is the Enemy leave off, Ryan Holiday’s new book, Stillness is the Key, endeavors to bring this ancient ideal into our modern-day lives. A collection of stories drawn from all walks of life, and all schools of thought, Ryan’s book illustrates practical ways to bring some essential stillness into your life. 

It’s fascinating, both Epictetus and the Daodejing at one point use the same analogy: The mind is like muddy water. To have clarity, we must be steady and let it settle down. Only then can we see. Only then do we have transparency. Whoever you are and whatever you’re doing, you would benefit from having more of this clarity. 

In the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy had to wait and see—he had to be still when everyone wanted him to rush into action—to know if his gambit with the Soviet premier would work. In the midst of a busy public life, Winston Churchill had to find hobbies—painting and bricklaying—that would allow him a chance to rest and restore his mind. The art of Marina Abramovic is defined by her presence, her ability in many cases to sit there and do nothing but be—which is one of the toughest things in the world to do. 

With stillness, we have a shot at greatness. Not just greatness in performance, but also greatness in personhood. In being human. No one can be a great parent when they’re frantic. No one can be a good spouse if their mind is elsewhere. No one can be creative, in touch with themselves, if they are disassociated or detached from their own soul. The key to the good life—to greatness itself, as Seneca said—is stillness. It’s apatheia. Ataraxia. Upekkha. Euthymia

Whatever you call it, you need it. Now more than ever before.

P.S. This was originally sent on October 1, 2019. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism.