Tag Archives: Ryan Holiday

Read of the month: Stillness is the key

There are many ways to pursue happiness. You can go tick off a ‘bucket list’ of pleasant experiences. You could try to give meaning to your life by making the world a better place. Stoicism gives a different answer. It’s about inner balance, or as writer and blogger Ryan Holiday calls it: stillness.

You might ask how stoicism could be a method for the pursuit of happiness. Isn’t stoicism about being unmoved in the face of adversity? The definition Google dictionary gives doesn’t look like happy little trees:

Stoic: a person who can endure pain or hardship without showing their feelings or complaining.

According to Holiday, blogger at the Daily Stoic and author of among others Stillness is the Key, stoicism is about the pursuit of ‘stillness’, the ability to be steady, focused and calm. It is about knowing yourself and the ability to ‘be still’ contributes to responding in the right way – being resolved where needed and accepting what is not in your control as needed.

Emperor Marcus Aurelius

Stoicism, historically, was professed by philosophers like Zeno and Seneca. The biggest example for modern-day Stoicists, however, is Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. He ruled from 161 to 180 AD and was one of the so-called ‘five good emperors’ of the second century. In between running one of the greatest empires earth has ever seen and battling invading tribes, Marcus wrote his Meditations. This personal journal was not intended for publication, but showed how he attempted to live according to his ideals.

The following example opens the Meditations. It is simply about ‘not being an jerk despite the abundance of jerks’, and hence gives an indication of his pursuit of stillness:

“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine.

And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.”

Not too much has changed in over 1800 years! But well, this is stillness. Being aware of the good and evil around us, and having the force to control your behaviour as a step towards inner peace. The reflection the philosopher-emperor makes helps him to stand above what he sees.

Bust of Marcus Aurelius. Source: Wikipedia.

Mind, body and spirit

Indeed, reflecting through journaling is one of the tips Holiday shares to further discover yourself, be still, and (implicitly) pursue happiness. But it is just one of many things he sees as tactics to pursue stillness. The book is a collecting of loosely connected tips across three categories: mind, body, and soul. Journalling, of course, is something that supports the mind.

Taking care of the body, then, might come easier. A lot of this is about obvious things: being active, sleeping enough, and making time for the activities you enjoy (and saying no to those that don’t fit your plans). Another tip is to build a routine. Routines can build habits and rituals, and create the discipline to achieve what you want – whether that’s maintaining your calm or, say, writing blogs about happiness. (It’s one I do struggle with from time to time; the book acts as a good reminder!)

Finally, Holiday recommends the pursuit of virtue as a method to take care of a still soul (or spirit). I’d argue ‘virtue’ is not a prominent value in current day culture. Freedom, justice and individual expression are dominant in our political philosophy today, but probably that is only the case since the 18th century enlightenment.

For most of history, a life of virtue – defined in moral terms by the ancient Greeks, and in religious terms since Christianity came around – was the ideal. And also today, there is something to it. There is value in living a life of virtue, being good for its own sake, and asking how a good person would act. Inspired by the book, it’s a question I ask myself more and more: what good do I do in my daily life?

Inspiration to be still

Holiday’s book brings a lot of nice small ideas about stillness together, primarily from Stoicism but also other traditions like Buddhism and theist religions. He offers inspiration through role models – from Seneca to Churchill – that use these tools to be still or achieve success. None of the ideas are revolutionary per se, and fortunately they are not portrayed as a checklist you need to tick off to leave the good, happy, or still life. Instead, they can offer some inspiration. Just like the meditations from Marcus do, as he noted them down to himself in his tent on expedition against rebelling tribes in Central Europe.

Therefore, let’s close with another quote from Marcus:

Nature did not blend things so inextricably that you can’t draw your own boundaries—place your own well-being in your own hands. It’s quite possible to be a good man without anyone realizing it. Remember that.