9 Ways to Find Stillness in Turbulent Times
Everyone from the Stoics to the Buddhists knew the importance of this essential virtue
Perhaps it takes something as tumultuous as our current world to clarify what that word stillness means. When we hear it, we know the importance of it, intuitively and instinctively: The quiet. The gratitude. 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, the emperor and Stoic philosopher 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.”
Yes. We know we want more of that. But how do we get there?
Thankfully, there are thousands of years of teachings that will help you keep steady, focused, and at peace. Stillness has been the secret weapon of the Stoics and the Buddhists, the Christians, the followers of Confucius, Epicurus, and so many others.
I detail many of the proven exercises for finding more stillness in my book Stillness Is the Key, but here are 10 I adapted specifically for the times we currently find ourselves in.
Stop watching the news
The number one thing to filter out if you want more equanimity in your life? The news! The Greek philosopher Epictetus had it right when he said: “You become what you give your attention to.”
Being informed is important, but watching every live report, reading every breaking news tweet, checking your news apps 28 times a day is not how we get there. Fueling your own anxiety doesn’t help anyone when there’s so much to do.
Sometimes, when I want to feel a little bit better, I look at the stack of books I have managed to get through since the pandemic began and feel a fondness for the hours I spent in those pages.
I also know I am better off for what I learned from them. In 1942, Dorothy Day, the Catholic journalist and social activist, wrote in her diary: “Put away your daily paper… and spend time reading.” She meant books. Read what a writer poured their heart into. Read books that are timeless, that can teach you something about how to live a better life. 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.” Books are a way to get stillness on demand — to step out of the moment and into something bigger than yourself.
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. As Anne Frank once wrote in her diary, “Paper has more patience than people.”
Go for a walk (or run)
I’ve run and walked close to 1,300 miles since lockdown started. 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.
It’s not about burning calories or getting your heart rate up. It’s not about anything. Use that time to empty your mind, to notice and appreciate the beauty of the world around you. The Buddhists talk of “walking meditation,” or kinhin, where the movement after a long session of sitting can unlock a different kind of stillness than traditional meditation. Walk away from the thoughts that need to be walked away from; walk toward the ones that appear in their place.
Enjoy the simple pleasures
The philosopher Epicurus once wrote a letter asking one of his rich supporters and friends for a gift — not money or exotic goods, but a small pot of cheese. That’s it.
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 have so much available to us, even right now — the only catch is that we have to be here for it. To be present, and grateful. You have to understand that every day you wake up alive and well is wonderful.
Build a routine
Dwight D. 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.)
Randall Stutman, who for decades has been the behind-the-scenes advisor for many CEOs and leaders on Wall Street, once studied how several hundred senior executives of major corporations recharged in their downtime. Among 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 — many of my book ideas have come from these activities.
Make time for hobbies
The Confucian philosopher Xunzi said: “If action tires your body but puts your heart at ease, 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, ladling soup in a homeless shelter, a long swim, lifting heavy weights — these are all great hobbies for finding stillness. 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.
I like to run and swim and work on my farm. Recently, my four-year-old and I have been going fishing after dinner. Engaged in these activities, my body is busy but my mind is open. My heart is, too.
Do something for the common 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 when we seem to have lost our community-mindedness.
Don’t let the modern spirit of selfishness infect you. Instead, focus on remembering what we are here for. We are here for each other.