Perhaps it takes something as crazy as the world right now to understand what that word stillness means. Intuitively, instinctively, when we hear it—especially right now—we know the importance of stillness.
The quiet. The confidence. The gratitude and happiness. The beauty. The ability to step back and reflect. Being steady while everything spins around you. Acting without frenzy. Hearing only what needs to be heard.
As Rome was being scourged by plague and war, Marcus Aurelius wrote about being “like the rock that the waves keep crashing over,” the one that “stands unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it.” “Shrug it all off,” he writes, “wipe it clean—every annoyance and distraction—and reach utter stillness.”
Thankfully, there are thousands of years of teachings about how to get there, proven exercises that will help you keep steady, disciplined, focused, at peace, and able to access your full capabilities at any time, in any place, despite any distraction and every difficulty.
They come from across all the wisdom of the ancient world. I detail all of them in my book Stillness Is the Key, but here are 10 I adapted specifically for the crazy times we currently find ourselves in. These 10 ways to achieve stillness will work… but only if you work them.
Stop Watching the News. The number-one thing to filter out if you want more equanimity in your life? The news! Epictetus had it right: “You become what you give your attention to… If you yourself don’t choose what thoughts and images you expose yourself to, someone else will.” He also said that if we wish to improve, we must be content to be clueless on extraneous matters— the chatter, the idiots, the breaking gossip and the trivia that everyone else obsesses over. Not only does the news cost us our peace of mind, but it actually prevents us from creating real change, right now. Being informed is important… watching the news in real time is not how you get there. If you’d turned off the news in the US in March, what would have missed? You’re still supposed to wear a mask, it’s still wrong to be a racist, still wrong to loot or burn, incompetent leaders are still incompetent. But if you’d spent that time productively working, what could you have accomplished? And how much less anxious would you be?
Read Books. When I look at the stack of books I have managed to get through since the pandemic began seriously in America in March, not only do I feel fondness for the hours spent in those pages, but I know I am better off for what I learned. Dorothy Day, the Catholic journalist and social activist, wrote in her diary in 1942, “Put away your daily paper… and spend time reading.” She meant books. Read big, smart, wonderful books. Read the works of writers who took more time thinking about what they write than their readers do. Read what a writer poured their heart into, not what tries to pull yours out. Read what’s timeless, not timely. If you’re stressed, stop whatever you’re doing and sit down with a book. You’ll find yourself calming down. You’ll get absorbed into a different world. William Osler, one of the four founders of Johns Hopkins University, told aspiring medical students that when chemistry or anatomy distressed their soul, to “seek peace in the great pacifier, Shakespeare.” It doesn’t have to be plays—any great literature will do. Books are a way to get stillness on demand.
Journal. According to her father Otto, Anne Frank didn’t write in her journal every day, but she always wrote when she was upset or dealing with a problem. One of her best and most insightful lines must have come on a particularly difficult day. “Paper,” she said, “has more patience than people.” I journal each morning as a way of starting the day off fresh—I put my baggage down on the page so that I don’t have to carry it to meetings or to breakfast with my family. I start the day with stillness by pouring out what is not still into my journal. It’s a frustrating world out there, and Anne Frank is right: Paper is more patient than people. Don’t forget that there’s no right way or wrong way to journal. The point is just to do it. Whether you’re brand-new to the concept of journaling or you’ve journaled in the past and fallen out of practice, this ultimate guide to journaling will tell you everything you need to know to help you make journaling one of the best things you do.
Go for a Walk (or a Run). We are an ambulatory species and often the best way to find stillness—in our hearts and in our heads—is to get up and out on our feet. Personally, I’ve run and walked close to 1,300 miles since lockdown started. It’s not about burning calories or getting your heart rate up. On the contrary, it’s not about anything. It is instead just a manifestation, an embodiment of the concepts of presence, of detachment, of emptying the mind, of noticing and appreciating the beauty of the world around you. Walk away from the thoughts that need to be walked away from; walk toward the ones that have now appeared. On a good walk, the mind is not completely blank. It can’t be—otherwise you might trip over a root or get hit by a car or a bicyclist. The point is not, as in traditional meditation, to push every thought or observation from your mind. The point is to see what’s around you. The mind might be active while you do this, but it is still. It’s a different kind of thinking, a healthier kind if you do it right. A study at New Mexico Highlands University has found that the force from our footsteps can increase the supply of blood to the brain. Researchers at Stanford have found that walkers perform better on tests that measure “creative divergent thinking” during and after their walks. A study out of Duke University found that walking could be as effective a treatment for major depression in some patients as medication. When you inevitably find yourself a little stuck or frustrated today—go for a walk. Or better yet, go for a run.
Enjoy the Simple Pleasures. If you can teach yourself to be grateful for and to enjoy the ordinary pleasures, you will be happier than just about everyone. A bowl of cereal. A good sunset. A nice conversation with a friend. These are the moments to treasure. We don’t need to become emperor to feel good. We don’t need fancy restaurants. We don’t need to travel to exotic locations. We have so much available to us right now. The only catch is that you have to be here for it. You have to be present. You have to be grateful. You have to understand that every day you wake up alive and well is wonderful.
Build a Routine. When things are chaotic and crazy, when the world feels like it’s falling apart, we need to create structure. Eisenhower famously said that freedom was properly defined as the opportunity for self-discipline, and so it is with disorder—it’s an opportunity to create order. Without a disciplined schedule, chaos and complacency and confusion move in. What was I going to do? What do I wear? What should I eat? What should I do first? What should I do after that? What sort of work should I do? Should I scramble to address this problem or rush to put out this fire? That’s not stillness, that’s torture. But when you routinize, disturbances give you less trouble. They’re boxed out—by the order and clarity you built. We need that order and clarity, especially now. (If you need some ideas on how to structure your day, here’s the routine Marcus Aurelius followed every day.)
Seek Solitude. Randall Stutman, who for decades has been the behind-the-scenes advisor for many of the biggest CEOs and leaders on Wall Street, once studied how several hundred senior executives of major corporations recharged in their downtime. The answers were things like swimming, sailing, long-distance cycling, listening quietly to classical music, scuba diving, riding motorcycles, and fly fishing. All these activities, he noticed, had one thing in common: an absence of voices. Bill Gates schedules “think weeks” where he goes off by himself and just reads and thinks. I like to do my thinking while running and swimming and taking walks—and many of my book ideas have come from these activities. And how wonderful have the last few months been with fewer meetings? Fewer events? With quiet time to yourself? To think? To learn? To reconnect with what matters?
Zoom Out. Marcus Aurelius wanted us “to bear in mind constantly that all of this has happened before. And will happen again—the same plot from beginning to end, the identical staging.” That’s not to say this problem isn’t serious. That’s not to say we aren’t facing real troubles. Of course we are. But we can turn down the volume of our anxiety and fear when we realize that this is just history unfolding before us. When we get overwhelmed or puffed up, we must find relief in remembering that none of this is new. That, in fact, this pattern of disease is nauseatingly familiar. It’s a pattern that has repeated itself like a fractal across history. Indeed, we could be talking about the “Antonine Plague” that killed millions of people during Marcus Aurelius’s reign, the Black Death, the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, or the cholera pandemics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, just as easily as we are today talking about COVID-19. As Marcus would say, all we’d have to do is change a few dates and names. All of this is running according to a tired script as old as time. Don’t let it get you down. This, Seneca believed, is the way to make all our problems, even the really vexing and painful ones, loosen their grip on us and seem less severe as a result. All you have to do, he says, is this: “Draw further back and laugh.”
Make Time for Hobbies. “If action tires your body but puts your heart at ease,” Xunzi said, “do it.” Winston Churchill loved to paint and lay bricks on his country estate; his predecessor William Gladstone loved to chop down trees by hand. Even Jesus liked to go fishing with his friends! Assembling a puzzle, struggling with a guitar lesson, sitting on a quiet morning in a hunting blind, steadying a rifle or a bow while we wait for a deer, ladling soup in a homeless shelter, a long swim, lifting heavy weights—these are all great hobbies. One of the lovely trends I’ve been seeing is people baking bread, canning jams and pickles, and making food for friends and neighbors. They are rediscovering that life is made for living, not just for working. They are discovering the joy of simple activity. Mine are running and swimming and working on my farm. The last five evenings, my four-year-old and I went fishing for a few minutes after dinner. Engaged in these activities, my body is busy but my mind is open. My heart is, too.
Do Something for the Greater Good. The phrase “common good” appears more than 80 times in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. He said a good life is simply about moving from one unselfish action to another—“Only there,” he said, can we find “delight and stillness.” If we want to be good and feel good, we have to do good. Remember the Boy Scout slogan: Do a good turn daily. It can be big, or it can be small. It can be picking up trash you find on the ground or rushing to the scene of an accident. Doing good creates spiritual stillness. It makes the world a better place. Especially in a time where we seem to have lost our community-mindedness. Instinctually, overwhelmingly, everyone is now focused on themselves and their immediate unit. Gone is the spirit of the common good that Marcus talked so much about. Replacing it is anti-vaxxing, anti-masks, people having COVID parties so they can get the virus and be done with the hassle, the immuno-compromised be damned. Don’t let the modern spirit of selfishness infect you. Instead, focus on remembering what we are here. We are here for each other. We are part of something bigger than ourselves, a greater good to which we all owe a duty, above and beyond our own selfish concerns and desires. There is no one more still and admirable than the person who takes that duty seriously—and no one less still and admirable than the person who blows it off.
Stillness has been the secret weapon of the Stoics and the Buddhists, the Christians, the followers of Confucius, Epicurus, and so many others for thousands of years for a reason. Because it can help us thrive in a world that’s spinning faster than ever.
Stillness is the key to the good life, whatever that looks like for you. It’s the key to career success, to happiness, to enduring adversity, to appreciating the wonders of existence. You know you want more of it. You know how special it is. We have all felt its power.
Now go get more of it.
It’s so easy to be overwhelmed by what’s happening in the world, but there is no greatness without stillness. It’s why the Stoics, the Buddhists, the Christians all talked about it as an essential virtue. My latest book, Stillness Is the Key debuted #1 on the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller lists and is a formula for finding calm (and focus) amidst the din of everyday life. Check it out now.