This world is a hectic one. Technology only exacerbates the feeling that no matter how quickly we move, how much we accomplish, it’s never enough. To combat this, Ryan Holiday turned to the ancient Stoics. In his 2019 book, Stillness Is the Key, he analyzes how physical, spiritual and mental stillness can save us from the chaos.
What is stillness? It’s the art of finding inner peace.
“If a person could develop peace within themselves—if they could achieve apatheia, as [the Stoics] called it—then the whole world could be at war, and they could still think well, work well and be well,” Holiday writes.
Sound equally beautiful and wildly difficult? It is. Holiday isn’t one to sugarcoat. But like any of the great ways to change our lives, easy isn’t part of the recipe. With practice, patience and dedication, you can reap the benefits.
Stillness of the mind
Stillness starts within the space between our ears. If we can’t quiet our thoughts long enough to think about things bigger and deeper than the daily torrent of thoughts, then we’ll never achieve the kind of stillness that Holiday writes about. He offers seven ways to find mental stillness:
1. Be fully present.
Many of our daily thoughts are concerned with what was and what is to come. We’re thinking about how we handled a past conversation, or we’re planning how to handle a future task or problem. Take time every day to think only of the present moment. Nothing else matters.
2. Empty your mind of preconceptions.
It’s a survival instinct for humans to take past situations and apply knowledge of that experience to the future. We want to anticipate how things might go. The downside, of course, is that we’re unable to accept the present moment for what it is if we’re constantly trying to predict how it will turn out.
3. Take your time.
Stillness isn’t something you’ll learn in a 30-day challenge. Practice patience and repetition. If you’re struggling after the first few days, show yourself some compassion. Real and lasting change takes time.
4. Sit quietly and reflect.
This is especially important during times of big change or stress. Considering a career move? Take some time—as much as you can—to sit with your thoughts and analyze it from all angles. How does this change make you feel? What possible outcomes scare you? Which ones excite you?
5. Reject distraction.
Stillness can’t happen on the couch with Netflix in the background, at least not in the beginning. Stillness is an internal state of being, but it takes time to build up the muscle that allows you to be internally still while external distractions are present.
6. Weigh advice against the counsel of your convictions.
Let’s return to the career example. You’ve likely reached out to peers, family and trusted friends for help making your decision. Although well meaning, much of that advice is likely conflicting, and it represents the perspectives of another person who has lived an entirely different experience from you. Trust your intuition by giving your mind time to deeply analyze the decision.
7. Deliberate without being paralyzed.
A word of caution for the overthinkers: Don’t mistake thoughtful reflection and analysis with action. The decision must be made, and even avoiding a decision is one, too. If you’re feeling paralyzed, set an expiration date for yourself.
Stillness of the spirit
Not to be confused with any religious notions, a still spirit is one that is connected to the brain, body and world. It’s an honest and patient look at how our past has shaped us, allowing us to work through those issues and defects of character that prevent us from growing into our best selves.
8. Develop a strong moral compass.
Our pasts certainly shape us, but they don’t define us. If you grew up amid chaos, deceit, anger or abandonment, spend some time working through your beliefs and question whether they are true to the values that you want to hold. For example, someone with a history of passive-aggressive communication skills might have trouble recognizing those as harmful. Take the time to educate yourself on healthy, direct communication to break old habits and build new ones.
9. Steer clear of envy, jealousy and harmful desires.
Beyond useless, these feelings can tear down our abilities to focus on what’s truly important. If you’re focused on someone else’s life, who is focused on yours?
10. Come to terms with the painful wounds of your childhood.
Everyone has baggage. It’s human nature. To be a victim is to surrender to our childhood wounds and say, “Well, this is just the way it is. I can’t help that I was dealt a bad hand.” You have the power to work through and heal from those wounds. You may not be able to do it alone, and it might take years of dedicated work with a professional, but the person that you’re working to be is on the other side.
11. Practice gratitude and appreciation for the world.
No matter your life situation, there is always something to be grateful for. Wake up and fill a notebook with your gratitude list. Make it specific. Think about small things like hot coffee and the warmth of your pet’s fur as they’re nestled up against you in bed.
12. Cultivate relationships.
You likely have a plethora of friends and social events, but when was the last time you worked to deepen those relationships? Skip the bar scene and head to coffee. Start a book club. Ask deeper questions than, “How’s your job?” or “What’s new with you?”
13. Place belief and control in the hands of something larger than yourself.
This doesn’t have to be a religious entity, though it certainly can be. This is about relinquishing control over that which you don’t have control anyway. You can’t control whether you lose your job or your spouse decides to end your marriage. You don’t have to have your life figured out and you’re not “behind.” When you truly accept this fact, you can breathe easier and focus on your response to the world around you, which is what you can control.
14. Understand that there will never be “enough” and that the unchecked pursuit of more ends only in bankruptcy.
We live in a culture of “more.” Social media and the comparison factor only amplifies this feeling. When you’re tempted to fill the hole of not-enoughness with a “thing,” remind yourself that happiness and contentment are things that come from within. Wait a week to purchase that thing and decide whether you truly need it.
Stillness of the body
Stress and overwork can wreak havoc on our bodies. Ongoing stress can cause issues in everything from the cardiovascular to nervous systems. By finding physical stillness, we allow ourselves to just be. Start with the following:
15. Rise above your physical limitations.
If you’ve never been flexible, yoga might seem out of the question. Challenge yourself. Learn positions that are made to increase flexibility. Work with a yogi to strengthen your muscles. Practice every day. Relish the feeling of being bad at something new.
16. Find hobbies that rest and replenish you.
No, not something that you can eventually turn into an Etsy business or flaunt on your social media platforms. This is a hobby that is purely for you. If it doesn’t involve the internet, even better.
17. Develop a reliable, disciplined routine.
Some of the most successful people in the world cite a daily routine as one of the biggest contributors to their success. But don’t design it based on what works for someone else. Take the time to think and develop a plan that works around the times and environments in which you’re at your best.
18. Spend time getting active outdoors.
Move your body every day. Do it outside. It’s free, it’s easy and it allows you to disconnect from the chaos and reconnect with the larger world around you.
19. Seek out solitude and perspective.
Even 20 minutes of daily solitude allows you to reset and refocus. A morning full of meetings can leave your brain overfilled and your body fatigued. Solitude gives you the time and space to sort through those thoughts and prioritize what’s most important to you.
20. Learn to sit and do nothing when called for.
Stillness isn’t about physical stillness, though the act of not doing anything can reap many benefits. It’s a physical reminder to your brain and spirit to breathe and just be. This will be difficult. We’ve learned to move, to do, to multitask. Try it for five minutes a day and see how you feel after a week.
21. Get enough sleep and rein in your workaholism.
There isn’t a set number of hours that works for everyone, but generally, you should aim for at least seven hours per night. Prioritize this above all else. If you’re not rested, how can you possibly face the challenges that come with personal growth?
22. Commit to causes bigger than yourself.
We all need reminders that we aren’t the center of the universe. This can look different for everyone. Volunteer once a month in a way that gets your body moving and lets you interact with others.
This article was published in August 2021 and has been updated. Photo by Jacob Lund/Shutterstock