“To be steady while the world spins around you. To act without frenzy. To hear only what needs to be heard. To possess quietude – exterior and interior – on command.”
I finished this book in late February and the irony of its timing was not lost on me. It provides a clear insight into the unharnessed power of being still. Not something I am very good at, so caught my interest from the beginning. How can being still enhance our individual effort and help me get the most out of my life and work? In today’s confusing time of semi-isolation from our routines and daily systems, the message was well appreciated. I have already introduced several of these ideas into my new quarantine routine and hope they will become permanent habits.
Below are a few of my favorite passages, highlights and notes:
“All of humanity’s problems,” Blaise Pascal said in 1654, “stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room lone.”
“People don’t understand that the hardest thing is actually doing something that is close to nothing.”
“Remember, there’s no greatness in the future. Or clarity. Or insight. Or happiness. Or peace. There is only this moment.”
“Make what you can of what you have been given. Live what can be lived. That’s what excellence is.”
LIMIT YOUR INPUTS
“A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention” – Herbert Simon
In his mediations, Marcus Aurelius says, “Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?”
EMPTY THE MIND
Epictetus, Marcus’s philosophical predecessor, was in fact speaking about sports when he said, “If we’re anxious or nervous when we make the catch or throw, what will become of the game, and how can one maintain one’s composure; how can one see what is coming next?”
We’ve all experienced that—Don’t mess up. Don’t mess up. Don’t forget, we say to ourselves—and what happens? We do exactly what we were trying not to do!
Wisdom is a sense of the big picture, the accumulation of experience and the ability to rise above the biases, the traps that catch lazier thinkers.
Put yourself in tough situations. Accept challenges. Familiarize yourself with the unfamiliar.
FIND CONFIDENCE, AVOID EGO
Confident people know what matters. They know when to ignore other people’s opinions. They don’t boast or lie to get ahead (and then struggle to deliver).
Confidence is the freedom to set your own standards and unshackle yourself from the need to prove yourself.
Don’t feed insecurity. Don’t feed delusions of grandeur. Both are obstacles to stillness. Be confident. You’ve earned it.
Set thy heart upon thy work, but never on its reward. Work not for the reward; but never cease to do thy work.
What we need in life, in the arts, in sports, is to loosen up, to become flexible, to get to a place where there is nothing in our way—including our own obsession with certain outcomes.
We’ll get the stillness we need if we focus on the individual steps, if we embrace the process, and give up chasing.
We’ll think better if we aren’t thinking so hard.
The essence of greatness is the perception that virtue is enough.
Virtue, the Stoics believed, was the highest good—the summum bonum—and should be the principle behind all our actions.
Virtue is not holiness, but rather moral and civic excellence in the course of daily life.
When we’re going into a tough assignment, we can say to ourselves over and over again, “Strength and courage.”
Virtue, on the other hand, as crazy as it might seem, is a far more attainable and sustainable way to succeed.
Give more. Give what you didn’t get. Love more. Drop the old story. Try it, if you can.
“When you realize there is nothing lacking,” Lao Tzu says, “the whole world belongs to you.”
If you believe there is ever some point where you will feel like you’ve “made it,” when you’ll finally be good, you are in for an unpleasant surprise.
You will never feel okay by way of external accomplishments. Enough comes from the inside.
ACCEPT A HIGHER POWER
Because Step 2 isn’t really about God. It’s about surrender. It’s about faith.
You have to believe in something. You just have to. Or else everything is empty and cold.
It’s not that we need to believe that God is great, only that God is greater than us.
Being close to and connecting with other people challenges every facet of our soul.
We have to be active for the stillness to have any meaning.
THE DOMAIN OF THE BODY
Churchill’s best biographers, would write, “The balance he maintained between flat-out work and creative and restorative leisure is worth study by anyone holding a top position.”
“Every night,” he said, “I try myself by court martial to see if I have done anything effective during the day. I don’t mean just pawing the ground—anyone can go through the motions—but something really effective.”
Epicurus once said that the wise will accomplish three things in their life: leave written works behind them, be financially prudent and provide for the future, and cherish country living.
“The advantages of nonaction. Few in the world attain these.” —THE DAODEJING
“No, because if I said yes to you, I’d have to say yes to everyone.”
When we know what to say no to, we can say yes to the things that matter.
TAKE A WALK
Life is a path, he liked to say, we have to walk it.
Get lost. Be unreachable. Go slowly.
BUILD A ROUTINE
The greats know that complete freedom is a nightmare. They know that order is a prerequisite of excellence and that in an unpredictable world, good habits are a safe haven of certainty.
Discipline, then, is how we maintain that freedom.
GET RID OF YOUR STUFF
“For property is poverty and fear; only to have possessed something and to have let go of it means carefree ownership.” – Rainer Maria Rilke
“If a man can reduce his needs to zero,” he said, “he is truly free: there is nothing that can be taken from him and nothing anyone can do to hurt him” (Seneca)
It’s difficult to understand yourself if you are never by yourself.
BE A HUMAN BEING
Good decisions are not made by those who are running on empty.
GO TO SLEEP
FIND A HOBBY
Leisure is not the absence of activity, it is activity. What is absent is external justification – you can’t do leisure for pay, you can’t do it to impress people. You have to do it for you.
Leisure can be anything.
When we take something relaxing and turn it into a compulsion, it’s not leisure, because we’re no longer choosing it. There is no stillness in that.
We must be disciplined about our discipline and moderate in our moderation.
“To see people who will notice a need in the world and do something about it…Those are my heroes.” – Fred Rogers
Action is what matters.
ON TO THE FINAL ACT
The prognosis is terminal for each and every person and has been from the moment we were born. Our heart beats without fail for an uncertain amount of time, and then one day, suddenly, it is still.