Keep calm, stay quiet and carry on
Stillness. Silence. For many people, stillness and silence are as unfamiliar — and terrifying — as zombies or Martians.
When I used to teach composition classes to homeschoolers in Asheville, we met in a Presbyterian church near the Asheville Mall. Once a year, in good weather, I would have the students carry their folding chairs to the large parking lot behind the church. Here I would place them in a circle facing away from one another, 20 feet or more between students, and have them sit for half an hour. They were forbidden to speak, to read, to write, to use a cell phone.
The silence in that parking lot was immense. The only sounds were the occasional bird song and the whoosh of traffic on I-240.
After the half an hour was up, we carried the chairs inside and wrote about the experience.
Some of the students wrote that they spent the time praying. Some were bored. Some had found their thoughts were jumping all over the place. And every year a few reported they had never spent this much time in silence.
For a few of us, silence is a companion whose presence we treasure. In my own case, I write hours every day. For the last six months, I have lived alone in a house in a quiet neighborhood. Often I go hours and hours without speaking to another human being or hearing a human voice. (And yes, sometimes I talk to myself. Amusing conversations, for the most part.) When I want human contact, I drive into town to the Happy Creek Coffee Shop, where the baristas and a couple of the regulars know me. There I work, half-listening to the voices of the other customers. I then hit the grocery store for a few supplies, and return to a house quiet as a locked church.
For the most part, silence is my friend.
In Stillness Is The Key (Penguin/Random House, 2019, 264 pages), Ryan Holiday argues that we can learn valuable lessons from stillness, silence, and meditation. Stillness allows us “To be steady while the world spins around you. To act without frenzy. To hear only what needs to be hard. To possess quietude — exterior and interior — on command.”
Holiday, author of such books as The Daily Stoic and the commendable The Obstacle Is the Way, brings the philosophy of stoicism to Stillness Is The Key. He draws, as he does in his earlier books, on philosophers like the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius and the Roman slave Epictetus.
But Stillness goes beyond the bounds of stoicism. Here Holiday uses dozens of people as examples to support his thesis that “stillness is actually the doorway to mastery,” figures who don’t fit the stoic mold: John Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis; Tiger Woods before and after his marriage disintegrated; Winston Churchill and how his hobbies, which included bricklaying and painting canvases, helped him withdraw from politics and refresh his mind, spirit, and body.
Those three human qualities — mind, spirit, body — in fact make up the sections of Stillness. In “Part I: Mind,” for instance, we find chapters like “Become Present,” “Start Journaling,” “Cultivate Silence,” and “Find Confidence, Avoid Ego.” In “Part II: Spirit,” we have chapters urging us to feed the soul, the inner self, including the insightful “Beware Desire,” where Holiday looks at such desires as envy and lust, and advises “… Most desires are at their core irrational emotions, and that why stillness requires that we sit down and dissect them.”
“Part III: Body” contains a couple of chapters that hit home with me in particular. “Take A Walk” touts the idea of walking not only as a form of exercise, but as a way to clear the mind and to collect ideas. Here Holiday begins with philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who walked daily to release the stress brought on by thinking and writing.
“Kierkegaard believed that sitting still was a kind of breeding ground for illness. But walking, movement, to him was almost sacred. It cleansed the soul and cleared the mind in a way that primed his explorations as a philosopher. Life is a path, he liked to say, we have to walk it.”
Holiday’s advice in this chapter “Walk. Then walk some more,” pushed me to add daily walks to my New Year’s resolutions.
In “Be A Human Being,” Holiday reminds us that “Work will not set you free. It will kill you if you’re not careful.” He advises moderation, being present in the moment, and knowing our limits, that “the body that each of us has was a gift. Don’t work it to death. Don’t burn it out.”
Some of us who are devoted to our work fit Edna Saint Vincent Millay’s description of a candle in this short poem:
“My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light.”
Sounds good, but after looking at my life and then reading Stillness, I think I prefer to last the night. Advice to self: Slow down.
If you’re looking for ways to fight anxiety, to live in the present rather than constantly worrying about the future, or a key to peace and even happiness, read and then use some of the many tips and ideas you’ll find in these pages.
Like The Obstacle Is The Way, Stillness Is The Key is a gold mine of good advice.