Keep Calm and Maybe Read This: “Stillness is the Key” by Ryan Holiday

Ryan Holiday is not offering something new with Stillness is the Key (2019).

Instead, with his characteristic Stoic mindset, he walks us through various philosophical-psychological traditions across history and the world to reveal a common theme: the value of serenity — stillness — in daily life.

Holiday also emphasizes how stillness is under attack today, blaming modernity mostly. But he is not pessimistic enough to scoff at the use of smartphones and other gadgets that are now proving to be more bane than boon. Instead he brings in the Classical Stoicism and the Zen Buddhism and the Christian Asceticism to transcend it.

It’s also notable that Holiday depicts his anecdotes’ protagonists as flawed creatures. For instance, I like how he pictures John F. Kennedy as the calm and calculating man at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, but also the less circumspect leader who needlessly lost an army in the embarrassing Bay of Pigs defeat just a few years back.

Stories like this are sprinkled throughout the book, grounding Holiday’s ideas to the reality of an imperfect yet redeemable human nature.

The book has two drawbacks for me, though. Somewhere in the middle, the ideas start to feel a bit repetitive — a sickness that self-help books seem to be prone to. Key ideas begin to lose flavor after reading about them in the first hundred pages.

I also struggled to have a better understanding of the dichotomy between Mind and Spirit, especially since the practices described under those sections seemed interchangeable.

Those minor things aside, however, I’d have to say I thoroughly enjoyed the book, which is Holiday’s third in a trilogy of the key aspects of Stoic philosophy. The other two, which I haven’t read yet, are The Obstacle is the Way (2014) and Ego is the Enemy (2016). Maybe someday I’ll read them too.

But for now let me sit in peace and recommend Stillness is the Key to those who want the fundamentals of gaining an even keel in the face of life’s turbulence.



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