Stillness Is The Key summary

You wake up. You scratch your eyes, turn your head to the side to see what time it is and slowly lift yourself up from the depths of the mattress. Once again, your head turns to the side, but this time you reach for something.

On the table by the side of your bed is a small object. Your phone. You’ve been asleep for eight hours. In that time, not much has happened but you don’t know that.

Maybe someone has sent you an important message. Maybe that email you’ve been waiting for has been sent, or maybe your Instagram photo has received a few more likes.

Whatever the reason, the compulsion to reach for your phone and start your day scrolling through a variety of apps is strong. Does this sound familiar? I’m sure it does for many of us. I know it is for me. This was my morning routine at one point. Without even thinking about it, I’d reach over and pick up my phone within seconds of waking up.

Thirty minutes later and I’d still be in bed scrolling through Twitter, Instagram and any other app that I felt the need to check before I started my day. At first, I didn’t see a problem with this, but as time went on I realised it was a big one.

Your first reaction in the morning shouldn’t be to reach for an inanimate object. There are much better ways to start your day. Stretching, mediation, or a quick walk. Scrolling through social media isn’t one of them. I was neglecting to practice what the author Ryan Holiday refers to as stillness.

In his book, Stillness Is The Key, Holiday argues that we too often give in to the noise in our daily lives. Whether it’s the need to always be doing something, running away from ourselves, or the compulsion to check our phones, we struggle to find stillness in the modern world.

Much of this is due to a lack of contemplation and the recognition that we are beholden to a few impulses and habits that govern our lives.

With a little introspection and changes on our part, we can find inner peace and swim against the tide to return to shore, where we can develop the peace that too often eludes us today.

Stillness Is The Key summary

Takeaway 1 – Treasure the quiet

The modern world is noisy. If you live in a major city such as Barcelona, where I lived for two years, you can’t escape the noise. Interestingly, research has shown that “strong noise annoyance is associated with a twofold higher prevalence of depression and anxiety in the general population.”

Ryan addresses this in the opening of his book. Most of us would recognise that the best moments are those quiet, intimate moments where we feel at ease. He suggests, “if the quiet moments are the best moments, and if so many wise, virtuous people have sung their praises, why are they so rare?”

It’s a pertinent question and one that’s important to ponder. When I was living in Barcelona, one of my favourite places to escape from the hustle and bustle was Montjuic. It’s a hill that overlooks the city which was the site of the 1992 Olympics.

Although close to the city and a major square, it’s one of the quietest parts of Barcelona. When I wanted to relax, I’d walk the short distance from my apartment to the base of the hill and slowly walk up until I reached the Olympic stadium.

From there, I could look out across the Barcelona skyline and appreciate the beauty of the city I was living in and the quiet that surrounded me. I could hear the whip of the air, the call of the birds and a stark peacefulness.

To answer Ryan’s question, the quiet moments are rare because we are often lost in other activities. We rarely schedule time for solitude or introspection because we’re too busy doing something else.

Sometimes appreciating the quiet and the world around us is all we need to do is to seek out silence and be at ease with it.

Takeaway 2 – Sometimes inaction is better than action

The Cuban Missile Crisis was about as close as the world ever got to nuclear war. The Soviet President, Nikita Khrushchev, answered Cuba’s request to deploy nuclear weapons on the island to deter another invasion by the Americans after the botched attempt at the Bay of Pigs in 1961.

For thirteen days in October 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union teetered on the brink of full-scale confrontation. The President at the time, John F. Kennedy, was caught between a rock and a hard place.

He could take the advice from his advisors, to destroy the missile sites. But this would risk full-scale war, which would result in the likely death of millions.

The other option was to do nothing. To his advisors and some in his country, this would appear weak, but Kennedy recognised that at this moment inaction was better than action. It was not time to act, it was time to think.

Kennedy decided against a missile strike and opted for a blockade instead. Half of his advisors opposed the move, but the blockade allowed Kennedy to use time as a tool. It gave Kennedy, and Khrushchev, the time to think. To ponder the stakes and the consequences of their actions.

In the end, the crisis passed without a major escalation between the two superpowers. The Soviets dismantled their weapons and returned them to Russia, while the Americans agreed that they would not attempt to invade Cuba again. By stopping and taking time to come to a decision, Kennedy had averted a possible nuclear war.

Too often, we are too quick to jump into action. We want to create, to travel, to take action. What we don’t want to do is to sit back, wait and contemplate. It’s almost as if doing anything is better than doing nothing.

Had Kennedy followed this ethos, it’s possible we might not be here today. While our action, or inaction, might not have as big an impact as Kennedy’s, taking a step back can still make a huge difference in our lives.

The rush to be busy, the fear of missing out and the fear of silence is a consequence of the modern world. Instead of rushing around, we should take the time to appreciate the quiet moments in life and not be so consumed with being busy or occupied.

Doing nothing is the hardest thing of all but also the most enlightening.

Takeaway 3 – To be present is a present

It’s often stated that the main distinction between humans and animals is our ability to look into the future and imagine what might be. We imagine a future we’d prefer, a life we’d like to lead, or our own death.

Along with the ability to look forward and to the past, this doesn’t leave a lot of time left to be present. It’s funny that we spend so much time thinking about the future or looking back to the past, instead of focusing on the here and now.

In 2008, the clinical psychologist Richard Chambers invited 20 people who had never meditated before to participate in a small study on the effects of mindfulness and meditation over a 10-day period.

What they found was “that meditation and mindfulness practise had a significantly positive effect on decreasing rumination and depressive symptoms and increased attention.”

With almost everything in our lives competing for our attention, it’s hard to feel present in the moment. It’s a struggle to slow down and appreciate what we have around us instead of longing for what’s gone, or what we could have. 

As Ryan mentions in his book, all this energy that we exert on the past and the future could be better utilised focusing on what we have right now. This moment is all we have. The present is where it happens, where life is made. Sure, look back to the past and ponder the future but don’t so at the expense of now.

Life is short. We’re here for a short time and gone for a long time. Embrace the present, cherish the moment you’re living in, you’ll never get to live it again. 

Favourite quotes

  • “Being present demands all of us. It’s not nothing. It may be the hardest thing in the world.”
  • “The less energy we waste regretting the past or worrying about the future, the more energy we will have for what’s in front of us.”
  • “Wrestle with big questions. Wrestle with big ideas. Treat your brain like the muscle that it is. Get stronger through resistance and exposure and training.”
  • “Think about the times when you feel best. It’s not when you are pining away. It’s not when you get what you pined for either. There is always a tinge of disappointment or loss at the moment of acquisition.”
  • “Abusing the body leads the mind to abuse itself.”

Stillness Is The Key review

This Stillness Is The Key summary has looked at what I consider to be one of Ryan Holiday’s best books. Before he wrote this book, I wasn’t aware of the concept of stillness.

I’ve been a big fan of his for a while after reading The Obstacle Is The Way and Ego Is The Enemy. Stillness continues in that vain and looks at an issue that is more relevant than ever today.

In a world that is chaotic and full of noise, finding peace is tougher than ever. Yet, it’s when we’re at our most peaceful that we feel most content.

Think of a time you’re walking through a forest with only the sound of the wind whipping up the trees and the chirp of wildlife for company.

I remember when I did an Adelaide to Darwin road trip, how much I enjoyed the peaceful moments when we stopped in the outback and admired the view and the solitude of spots such as Uluru and Kata-Tjuta.

It felt calming and cleansing. We need to find more moments like these in our lives. Finding the quiet within and becoming more introspective is what Marcus Aurelius talked about in his Meditations and what Seneca espouses in Letters From A Stoic.

If stillness was important for these two titans of philosophy, we should consider it important too.

Who should read Stillness Is The Key?

I feel most people will get some value out of Stillness Is The Key. If you’re feeling low or need some inspiration, you’ll get a lot of benefit from the book.

If you want a primer on how to become more calm, more mindful and appreciate more of daily life, this book is for you.