Book Review: Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday

A must-read, especially if your mind is wired, as mine is, to a default mode of distracting background monkey chatter and a “never stop; go, go, go; work until you prove your worth” mentality. I am currently using Holiday’s work (as well as meditation, therapy, etc.) to re-wire my brain. More on this in a bit.

First, what is this state Holiday calls “stillness” and why is it the key?

Stillness is emotional calmness, maturity—wisdom.

Holiday describes stillness as the power that allows us to temper the “violent war” inside our minds—the war between who we can be and the work we need to put in to actually be that person. The war between our “good” and “bad” impulses. The war between our ambitions and our values. Stillness allows us to breathe and step outside our internal war, to see our lives and our minds from 10,000 feet away.

This big-picture view provides the space needed to make choices based on our values versus fleeting desires, addictions, and emotions. This larger vantage point allows the battle within our minds to soften, so that we can step back and make choices that our future selfves will be proud of.

Without stillness we have almost no chance of divorcing emotion from action. With stillness we arm ourselves with a tool that at least allows for the possibility of emotional maturity; a tool that aids emotional regulation, that helps us identify important goals and navigate challenging situations. As a bonus, stillness offers us a safe container within ourselves in which we can feel worthy and “enough” even while persevering toward a goal. Stillness allows us to let go of the myth that self-worth is the prize located at the end of the yellow brick road but rather is the fuel that allows us to navigate the road itself.

Why is stillness critical to health?

I have always taught clients that health management is emotion and brain management. Going forward I am going to expand my Kathleenism to include Holiday’s concept of stillness: “health management is emotion and brain management. Through cultivating stillness—cultivating perspective and calm—we can better manage our brains and our emotions.”

For most of us, our inability to stay on our health path is not due to lack of knowledge—it is an inability to stay on course in the eye of an emotional storm. We lose sight of our final health destination when angry, tired, sad, depressed, etc. Staying on path requires an ability to step back and analyze emptions as they arrive, and to make choices not based on an urge but from a place of calm.

Picture this: you have decided to abstain from processed foods for a month. On day three of your quest you have an ice-cream craving. Stillness would allow you to pause in the eye of that craving storm and ask powerful questions such as “will my future self be proud?,” “is there a healthier option for this, such as sorbet made from mashed fruit?,” “what is my emotional need at this moment?—am I actually sad or tired, and would it thus be better to phone a friend or go to bed?” Stillness gives you much needed space between stimulus and response. Unfortunately, most of us get swept up by the storm and binge on ice cream, then shame ourselves into a snowball of less than ideal decisions. The ice-cream binge turns into five days of bad eating and skipped workouts.

In addition to managing emotions in the moment, stillness allows you to play the “long game.” Too many of us set short-term goals, only to revert back to old habits once the goal is achieved. You lose weight for a wedding or a big birthday or you train for a race, then completely fall off the wagon after the big day. Don’t get me wrong, establishing goals can be an excellent motivation. The key is to incorporate the goal into a larger lifestyle shift. Stillness and the ability to step back and see the situation from 10,000 feet allow you to see small goals as part of a much larger picture.

Last, stillness allows you to feel worthy while striving and progressing toward your health goal. This is a big one for me. Too many of us buy into the myth that it is only when we complete something that we are allowed to feel happy and worthy—like we “made it.” Until the big day, we can’t be content. We think, “I will be happy when I lose 20 lbs or finish a 5 km race.” I get this trap. I spent my 20s running marathons and doing Ironmans, trying to earn my worth. This compulsion—chasing the moving mirage of “enough”—can lead to burnout, injury, and a constant barrage of self-defeating “I am not enough” thoughts.

No one is saying don’t have goals. I still set long- and short-term goals. No one is saying to never increase the difficulty of your goals. Go ahead and up the ante on yourself, keep striving. But highlight the growth process, not just the end result. Don’t marry the “perfect” competition of the goal with your worthiness as a human.

No marker can make you worthy. Feeling “enough,” feeling worthy, comes from the inside.

This, my friends, is my struggle. This lesson is why I listen to Holiday on his Daily Stoic podcast. This is why I have read many of his books and plan to read all of them. I need a constant reminder that I can feel worthy as I live, that I don’t have to delay my inner peace until I reach my next herculean feat. As part of my attempt to cultivate stillness, I have intentionally reframed “achieving” to include all the small acts (including sleep and snuggles with my dog Olive) that are part of the life I live while achieving any goal. I am working on living between goals, not living for a goal.

To paraphrase Holiday, don’t let the need for progress be the enemy of enjoying the process. Don’t sacrifice inner peace at the altar of accomplishment. No goal is worth being miserable between achievements, and achieving goals will never make you happy if your inner life is miserable.

On this note, here are two quotes to ponder:

“Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little.”

“To have blessings and prize them is to be in heaven.

To have blessing and not prize them is to be in hell.

To prize blessings and not have them is to be in hell.”

Ryan Holiday “gems”

The first rule of thumb is don’t make things harder on yourself. Chop wood and carry water. Don’t think, hit.

When it comes to health, too many of us get in our own way. We “should” ourselves, we try to thrive in other people’s lane, we self-sabotage. For example, sh*% gets hard and we decide “nothing is working so I might as well binge,” only to make our health journey harder tomorrow.

Work to never defeat yourself. Don’t make things harder on your future self.

Have a craving to binge? To skip your workout? To stay up and watch TV versus sleep? Think how much harder this will make life for your future self—you are defeating the you of tomorrow before today is even done!

Stop thinking your way out of success. Do the work. If you have decided to work out, work out. If you have decided your bedtime is 11 pm, set a bedtime alarm so you go to bed. If you have decided to eat more vegetables, don’t have any fries until you have consumed your vegetables for the day. Chop wood and carry water—as in, don’t question your predetermined goals. Don’t give yourself a way out. Do the work. Don’t think, hit.

Create a mantra that allows you to calm down—a mantra that allows you to get out of your own way so you can buckle down and do the work that will make the future you of your dreams.

The space between your ears is yours. Protect it from yourself. Find ways that you can “sweep” your thoughts on a consistent basis; be the librarian that says “shhh” to rowdy kids. Your mind is an important space; keep it clear and clean.

Stop bringing only half of yourself to the moment. Now is now and it can never be anything else!

Holiday poses the question, “who is so talented that they can only bring half of themselves to a moment?” I love this. Not me. I need all my power for the now. Now is hard enough. There is no greatness in future clarity or happiness by leaning into the impressions of what happened in the past or by adding the weight of the unborn tomorrow onto the heaviness that is already the now.

The less energy we waste regretting the past and worrying about the future, the more energy we have for this moment. Or, to quote Jesus (as Holiday does), “Don’t worry about tomorrow because tomorrow will take care of itself.” Tomorrow is shaped by the acts of today.

Don’t misunderstand me, I am not arguing this moment is inherently special. I am not imbuing it with any godlike power. All I am saying is that this moment is the only moment we have direct control over, so use this moment wisely! Control it. Let go of the past. Make the most of the future by being present now.

Don’t stress if you historically have had trouble “being in the moment.” As long as you live, you will get many more “present moments” to focus on. “This moment” keeps showing up so you always get another chance to master it!

Journal

Think of journaling as spiritual windshield wipers. Writing down what is on your mind allows you to sweep away thoughts and emotions that are not serving you, to make sense of the many inputs going through your body. As a bonus, journaling both demands and creates stillness. The goal is not to get better at journaling but to practise stillness so that it can permeate your daily life.

Don’t worry about journaling “perfectly.” How you journal is much less important than that you do it. “Just do it!” This “do it” mentality is critical for so much of health. Stop worrying about finding the perfect workout, just go for a walk. Stop worrying about finding the perfect diet; eat some vegetables. Carve out the space to journal, to move, to cook healthy foods. F*ck perfection. Perfectionism lets you procrastinate. Do something.

Be Intentional—with your time, your attention, your energy, etc.

When we know what to say no to we can say yes to the things that matter!

Decide on what you want and what you need. Then, curate your inputs. Don’t mindlessly watch the news or flip through social media. Read Twitter, but make sure you are reading quotes from people you respect. Watch the news, but watch a network you trust at a scheduled time.

Say yes to the things you care about. Get better at saying no so you can intentionally build the life you want—a life that will serve you. Time is a valuable resource. Time is your life, time is your flesh and blood. You can never get time back. Resource accordingly.

Before you say yes to anything, ask yourself the following:

  • Why does it matter?
  • Do I need it?
  • Do I want it?
  • If I never knew about this request would I even miss knowing about this opportunity?
  • What are the hidden costs?
  • Will I look back from the future and be happy I did this?

A no to one thing is a yes to something else. A yes to something you don’t care about is a no to something you do care about. When we know what to say no to we can say yes to the things that matter!

A thought to ponder: “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention” – Herbert Simone

Tame the “tiger” within!

Many of us have a dangerous and violent tiger within, a beast so full of aggression and unhonoured emotion that it tears us open from the inside. Calm allows us to see the bigger picture, to feel anger without becoming an angry person; it allows us to note the anger and then decide on a best course of action. Stillness allows us to sit back and see the bigger picture so we can honour our emotions while also taking the actions that will serve our future world, self, and society.  

Go to sleep

Not sleeping is self-abuse.

Sleep is the Swiss army knife of health habits; it aids everything from muscle recovery to immune health to brain health! Exercise and working hard are positive stressors on the body only if you give the body and mind the time needed to recover. Sleep allows us to recharge our internal batteries.

Skipping your Zs is not brave, it does not make you stronger or more dedicated; it simply means you are lacking foresight. Lack of sleep increases propensity to fall into negative repetitive thinking, increases the likelihood you will crave sugar, and sets the stage for everything from sickness to injury to burnout. Sleep is built into our biological clock for a reason. Guard it carefully.

Stillness is the key. Stillness allows one to take a pause when about to indulge in various forms of self-sabotage, such as “I deserve to stay up,” and to make an informed, mature decision.

Leisure versus escapism

Holiday is not telling you never to watch Netflix, eat chocolate cake or sleep in. What he is saying is to be intentional with your actions so you can note if you are doing it to escape or to enjoy rejuvenating leisure time.

Know why you are deciding to do something—what is your motivation?

Intentionally decide to have your favourite treat, then savour every bite. Don’t mindlessly binge as you watch TV. Sure, reschedule a workout to go enjoy games day with your family, but don’t skip a workout because you don’t want to wake up and face the day.

Savouring a treat is leisure. Playing games with family is leisure.

Snoozing your way through a workout is escapism. Binging mindlessly is escapism.

The you who binges and hits snooze will not create a proud future you. The you who is binging is most likely trying to sooth an emotion that he or she is not even really aware of. Food will not sooth it. The snooze button just creates a groggy future you. Stillness helps you note your emotion and choose actions that will honour that emotion versus choosing actions that will allow you to escape your emotions. Escapism comes from despair and restlessness.

You can’t run away from choices; you can only fix them with better choices. You can’t escape with your body what exists in your mind. You can’t run away from despair. You can’t escape yourself! Honour your emotions. Face yourself.

Conclusion

Most of us intellectually know what will make us healthier: more water, more vegetables, more exercise, etc. Unfortunately, knowing and following through on that knowledge in moments of frustration, sadness, anger, etc. are two different beasts. Follow through requires you to “command the domain of your mind.” You have to cultivate the ability to pause, the ability to create space between the stimulus and your response. You have to cultivate the emotional wisdom, the superpower Holiday calls “stillness.”

So, go forth and cultivate stillness so that you can create your fittest future you!

Note: If you can’t commit to an entire book, check out Ryan Holiday’s Daily Stoic podcast or his Daily Stoic Instagram page.