Stillness is the Key
In Ryan Holiday’s new book, Stillness is the Key, he argues that stillness is the key to being better at anything you do.
More than ever, people are overwhelmed. They face obstacles and egos and competition. Stillness Is the Key offers a simple but inspiring antidote to the stress of 24/7 news and social media. The stillness that we all seek is the path to meaning, contentment, and excellence in a world that needs more of it than ever.
We recently sat down with Ryan to discuss stillness, meditation and creativity. Here’s a peek into our inspiring conversation.
Tell us about your relationship with stillness and how it’s shifted and changed over your life?
One day it just hit me that when I think of all the important moments in my life—whether they were moments where I did my absolute best work or experienced the most happiness—they seemed to be defined by a kind of stillness. I wasn't frenzied. I wasn't frantic. I wasn't doing five things at the same time. In some cases, I wasn't doing anything at all. What I was was really locked into what was in front of me. I was totally present and totally engaged. That's where my best ideas come from as a writer. That's when I can really see and experience what's going on around me. That's when I have given my best talks or had my deepest conversations. That's when I've felt gratitude and joy and wonder. The Stoics and the Epicureans called this "ataraxia"—when you are not jerked around by anything outside or inside. You just are. You're full, you're not craving. And you bring the best of yourself to the moment.
The point is: If these moments are so important and powerful, it seems strange that they are so rare. What I've been writing about and practicing then are ways of cultivating those moments actively in my life. The stakes are too high not to—and it seems crazy to leave it to chance.
How do you make time in our busy world to stop and be still?
This is the key. You have to make time. Stillness can’t just happen accidentally. It has to be practiced—or least, not actively prevented. But that's what most of us do. We say yes to too many things. We avoid silence and solitude. We take drugs or alcohol as an escape from ourselves. We are always doing, doing, doing and thinking and thinking, and then are surprised that we have no stillness.
For me, the morning is the best time and place for stillness. I am a deep believer in waking up early, in not going straight to my phone. I take a long walk each morning, often as long as an hour. I spend time with my children—who are constant calls to be present and alive. I make sure that when I write, I cannot be easily interrupted or distracted. And then everyday I swim or run. It's paradoxical that movement can bring us stillness but it can. In fact, I think being underwater might be the last quiet and still place on earth.
Do you meditate? If so, tell us about your practice?
From time to time, and obviously Calm is a wonderful tool for this. I tend to prefer walking meditation to sitting. The body being in motion helps me slow down the mind. But I also like to find time to sit, or to use times when I am already sitting to stop and breathe and empty the mind. Getting a haircut, approaching the runway as a plane lands, sitting in a taxi in traffic, waiting in a waiting room. These are great opportunities to slow down and meditate.
What piece of advice do you wish someone had given you when you started meditating?
Like a lot of people, I had that "willful will" that wanted to know the best way or the preferred way or whatever. Honestly: Just do what works. Come up with your own practice. Bend the rules as you see fit. The point is: do it. Almost anything is better than the defaults of our modern world. So you're certainly not making things worse. Just try. Try and grow and iterate.
Tell us about your writing practice. What fuels your creativity?
It's important that you used the word practice, because that's what it is. Writing is a ritual or a routine, not unlike meditation. So the walk and the timing and all the things I do before I start are hugely important. It's about getting into the right headspace, lulling myself into a zone of stillness where I can access wherever the writing comes from. No one writes well when they are frenzied or multi-tasking. No one writes well on the spot or surrounded by distraction. You have to respect the process and the practice. Me? I like quiet. I like the dark. I like listening to a song or two on repeat. I like bouncing my legs or staring out a window to figure out what I think. I like using the same software and the same computers. I have to have my materials ready, my research done...and then you get to work.
As far as fuel goes, it's always the challenge of getting whats in your head onto the page. That's the battle you're fighting as a writer and it never gets easy, but that's why I love it. You have this idea in your mind and then it's all about whether you can realize it or not. The blank page, that's the obstacle, and each book, each chapter is another one. So I just keep doing it. I keep trying. I keep going. And ultimately, publishable work comes out of the other side...but I find, as always, that the best work is never done from a place of craving. The best work comes from love and fullness and most of all from stillness.
About Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is one of the world’s foremost thinkers and writers on ancient philosophy and its place in everyday life. He is a sought-after speaker and strategist and the author of many bestselling books, including The Obstacle Is the Way, Ego Is the Enemy, and The Daily Stoic. His new book, Stillness Is the Key, debuted #1 on The New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestsellers lists. His books have been translated into more than 30 languages and have sold more than two million copies worldwide. He lives outside Austin, Texas, with his family. You can follow him @ryanholiday or subscribe to his writing at RyanHoliday.net and DailyStoic.com.