Note: While reading a book whenever I come across something interesting, I highlight it on my Kindle. Later I turn those highlights into a blogpost. It is not a complete summary of the book. These are my notes which I intend to go back to later. Let’s start!
To Seneca and to his fellow adherents of Stoic philosophy, if a person could develop peace within themselves—if they could achieve apatheia, as they called it—then the whole world could be at war, and they could still think well, work well, and be well. “You may be sure that you are at peace with yourself,” Seneca wrote, “when no noise reaches you, when no word shakes you out of yourself, whether it be flattery or a threat, or merely an empty sound buzzing about you with unmeaning sin.” In this state, nothing could touch them (not even a deranged emperor), no emotion could disturb them, no threat could interrupt them, and every beat of the present moment would be theirs for living. It’s a powerful idea made all the more transcendent by the remarkable fact that nearly every other philosophy of the ancient world—no matter how different or distant—came to the exact same conclusion.
Unlike in the early days of his presidency, when Kennedy allowed the CIA to pressure him into supporting the Bay of Pigs fiasco, this time he surprised everyone by pushing back. He had recently read Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, a book about the beginning of World War I, which imprinted on his mind the image of overconfident world leaders rushing their way into a conflict that, once started, they couldn’t stop. Kennedy wanted everyone to slow down so that they could really think about the problem in front of them. This is, in fact, the first obligation of a leader and a decision maker. Our job is not to “go with our gut” or fixate on the first impression we form about an issue. No, we need to be strong enough to resist thinking that is too neat, too plausible, and therefore almost always wrong. Because if the leader can’t take the time to develop a clear sense of the bigger picture, who will? If the leader isn’t thinking through all the way to the end, who is?
What’s most remarkable about this conclusion is how calmly Kennedy came to it. Despite the enormous stress of the situation, we can hear in tapes and see in transcripts and photos taken at the time just how collaborative and open everyone was. No fighting, no raised voices. No finger-pointing (and when things did get tense, Kennedy laughed it off). Kennedy didn’t let his own ego dominate the discussions, nor did he allow anyone else’s to. When he sensed that his presence was stifling his advisors’ ability to speak honestly, he left the room so they could debate and brainstorm freely. Reaching across party lines and past rivalries, he consulted openly with the three still-living ex-presidents and invited the previous secretary of state, Dean Acheson, into the top-secret meetings as an equal. “It isn’t the first step that concerns me,” he said to his advisors as much as to himself, “but both sides escalating to the fourth and fifth step—and we don’t go to the sixth because there is no one around to do so. We must remind ourselves we are embarking on a very hazardous course.”
We might say that Kennedy, if only for this brief period of a little less than two weeks, managed to achieve that stage of clarity spoken about in the ancient Chinese text The Daodejing. As he stared down nuclear annihilation, he was: Careful as someone crossing an iced-over stream. Alert as a warrior in enemy territory. Courteous as a guest. Fluid as melting ice. Shapable as a block of wood. Receptive as a valley. Clear as a glass of water. The Daoists would say that he had stilled the muddied water in his mind until he could see through it.
“People don’t understand that the hardest thing is actually doing something that is close to nothing,” Abramović said about the performance. “It demands all of you . . . there is no object to hide behind. It’s just you.” Being present demands all of us. It’s not nothing. It may be the hardest thing in the world.
As we stand on the podium, about to give a speech, our mind is focused not on our task but on what everyone will think of us. How does that not affect our performance? As we struggle with a crisis, our mind repeats on a loop just how unfair this is, how insane it is that it keeps happening and how it can’t go on. Why are we draining ourselves of essential emotional and mental energies right when we need them most? Even during a quiet evening at home, all we’re thinking about is the list of improvements that need to be made. There may be a beautiful sunset, but instead of taking it in, we’re taking a picture of it. We are not present . . . and so we miss out. On life. On being our best. On seeing what’s there.
Remember, there’s no greatness in the future. Or clarity. Or insight. Or happiness. Or peace. There is only this moment. Not that we mean literally sixty seconds. The real present moment is what we choose to exist in, instead of lingering on the past or fretting about the future. It’s however long we can push away the impressions of what’s happened before and what we worry or hope might occur at some other time. Right now can be a few minutes or a morning or a year—if you can stay in it that long. As Laura Ingalls Wilder said, now is now. It can never be anything else.
There is ego in trying to stay up on everything, whether it’s an acclaimed television show, the newest industry rumor, the smartest hot take, or the hottest crisis in [the Middle East, Africa, Asia, the climate, the World Bank, the NATO Summit, ad infinitum]. There is ego in trying to appear the most informed person in the room, the one with all the gossip, who knows every single thing that’s happening in everyone’s life. Not only does this cost us our peace of mind, but there’s a serious opportunity cost too. If we were stiller, more confident, had the longer view, what truly meaningful subject could we dedicate our mental energy to?
The first thing great chiefs of staff do—whether it’s for a general or a president or the CEO of a local bank—is limit the amount of people who have access to the boss. They become gatekeepers: no more drop-ins, tidbits, and stray reports. So the boss can see the big picture. So the boss has time and room to think. Because if the boss doesn’t? Well, then nobody can.
The world is like muddy water. To see through it, we have to let things settle. We can’t be disturbed by initial appearances, and if we are patient and still, the truth will be revealed to us.
Cage wandered after high school. He toured Europe. He studied painting. He taught music. He composed classical music. He was an avid observer. Born in 1915 in California, he was just old enough to remember what premechanized life was like, and as the century became modern—and technology remade every industry and occupation—he began to notice just how loud everything had become. “Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise,” he would say. “When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.” To Cage, silence was not necessarily the absence of all sound. He loved the sound of a truck at 50 miles an hour. Static on the radio. The hum of an amplifier. The sound of water on water. Most of all, he appreciated the sounds that were missed or overwhelmed by our noisy lives. In 1951, he visited an anechoic chamber, the most advanced soundproof room in the world at the time. Even there, with his highly sensitive musician’s ear, he heard sounds. Two sounds, one high and one low. Speaking with the engineer afterward, he was amazed to discover that the source of those sounds was his own nervous system and the pumping of his blood. How many of us have ever come close to this kind of quiet? Reducing the noise and chatter around you to the degree that you can literally hear your own life? Can you imagine? What you could do with that much silence!
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 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. These were people with busy, collaborative professions. People who made countless high-stakes decisions in the course of a day. But a couple hours without chatter, without other people in their ear, where they could simply think (or not think), they could recharge and find peace. They could be still—even if they were moving. They could finally hear, even if over the sounds of a roaring river or the music of Vivaldi. Each of us needs to cultivate those moments in our lives. Where we limit our inputs and turn down the volume so that we can access a deeper awareness of what’s going on around us. In shutting up—even if only for a short period—we can finally hear what the world has been trying to tell us. Or what we’ve been trying to tell ourselves. That quiet is so rare is a sign of its value. Seize it. We can’t be afraid of silence, as it has much to teach us. Seek it. The ticking of the hands of your watch is telling you how time is passing away, never to return. Listen to it.
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. A confident person doesn’t fear disagreement and doesn’t see change—swapping an incorrect opinion for a correct one—as an admission of inferiority. Ego, on the other hand, is unsettled by doubts, afflicted by hubris, exposed by its own boasting and posturing. And yet it will not probe itself—or allow itself to be probed—because it knows what might be found. But confident people are open, reflective, and able to see themselves without blinders. All this makes room for stillness, by removing unnecessary conflict and uncertainty and resentment.
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. An actor doesn’t become his character by thinking about it; he has to let go, dispense with technique and sink into the role. Entrepreneurs don’t walk the streets deliberately looking for opportunities—they have to open themselves up to noticing the little things around them. The same goes for comedians or even parents trying to raise a good kid. “The mind tends toward stillness,” Lao Tzu said, “but is opposed by craving.” We are like the audience at Marina Abramović’s performance. Present for a moment. Moved to stillness for a moment. Then back out into the city, back to the old routines and pulled by endless desires and bad habits, as if that experience never happened. A flash of stillness is not what we’re after. We want consistent focus and wisdom that can be called upon in even the most trying situations. Getting there will require more work. It’s going to require some holistic self-examination, treating the disease and not just the symptoms.
Everybody’s got a hungry heart—that’s true. But how we choose to feed that heart matters. It’s what determines the kind of person we end up being, what kind of trouble we’ll get into, and whether we’ll ever be full, whether we’ll ever really be still.
In one sense, his father’s training had succeeded. Tiger Woods was mentally tough. He was cold-blooded and talented. But in every other part of his life, he was weak and fragile—bankrupt and unbalanced. That stillness existed only on the golf course; everywhere else he was at the mercy of his passions and urges. As he worked to crowd out distractions—anything that would get in the way of his concentration addressing each shot—he was also crowding out so many other essential elements of life: An open heart. Meaningful relationships. Selflessness. Moderation. A sense of right and wrong. These are not just important elements of a balanced life; they are sources of stillness that allow us to endure defeat and enjoy victory. Mental stillness will be short-lived if our hearts are on fire, or our souls ache with emptiness. We are incapable of seeing what is essential in the world if we are blind to what’s going on within us. We cannot be in harmony with anyone or anything if the need for more, more, more is gnawing at our insides like a maggot.
There’s no question it’s possible to get ahead in life by lying and cheating and generally being awful to other people. This may even be a quick way to the top. But it comes at the expense of not only your self-respect, but your security too. Virtue, on the other hand, as crazy as it might seem, is a far more attainable and sustainable way to succeed. How’s that? Recognition is dependent on other people. Getting rich requires business opportunities. You can be blocked from your goals by the weather just as easily as you can by a dictator. But virtue? No one can stop you from knowing what’s right. Nothing stands between you and it . . . but yourself. Each of us must cultivate a moral code, a higher standard that we love almost more than life itself. Each of us must sit down and ask: What’s important to me? What would I rather die for than betray? How am I going to live and why? These are not idle questions or the banal queries of a personality quiz. We must have the answers if we want the stillness (and the strength) that emerges from the citadel of our own virtue. It is for the difficult moments in life—the crossroads that Seneca found himself on when asked to serve Nero—that virtue can be called upon. Heraclitus said that character was fate. He’s right. We develop good character, strong epithets for ourselves, so when it counts, we will not flinch. So that when everyone else is scared and tempted, we will be virtuous. We will be still.
Many of us carry wounds from our childhood. Maybe someone didn’t treat us right. Or we experienced something terrible. Or our parents were just a little too busy or a little too critical or a little too stuck dealing with their own issues to be what we needed. These raw spots shape decisions we make and actions we take—even if we’re not always conscious of that fact. This should be a relief: The source of our anxiety and worry, the frustrations that seem to suddenly pop out in inappropriate situations, the reason we have trouble staying in relationships or ignoring criticism—it isn’t us. Well, it is us, just not adult us. It’s the seven-year-old living inside us. The one who was hurt by Mom and Dad, the sweet, innocent kid who wasn’t seen.
Sigmund Freud himself wrote about how common it is for deficiencies, big and small, at a young age to birth toxic, turbulent attitudes in adulthood. Because we weren’t born rich enough, pretty enough, naturally gifted enough, because we weren’t appreciated like other children in the classroom, or because we had to wear glasses or got sick a lot or couldn’t afford nice clothes, we carry a chip on our shoulder. Some of us are like Richard III, believing that a deformity entitles us to be selfish or mean or insatiably ambitious. As Freud explained, “We all demand reparation for our early wounds to our narcissism,” thinking we are owed because we were wronged or deprived.
It took therapy and self-reflection (and probably the observations of his wife) for Apatow to understand that the movie studio was not his parents. This was a business transaction and a creative discussion, not another instance of a talented boy being bossed around by otherwise absent parents. But with that realization came stillness, if only because it deintensified arguments at work. Think about it: How much better and less scary life is when we don’t have to see it from the perspective of a scared, vulnerable child? How much lighter will our load be if we’re not adding extra baggage on top? Take the time to think about the pain you carry from your early experiences. Think about the “age” of the emotional reactions you have when you are hurt or betrayed or unexpectedly challenged in some way. That’s your inner child. They need a hug from you. They need you to say, “Hey, buddy. It’s okay. I know you’re hurt, but I am going to take care of you.” The functional adult steps in to reassert and reassure. To make stillness possible. We owe it to ourselves as well as to the people in our lives to do this. Each of us must break the link in the chain of what the Buddhists call samsara, the continuation of life’s suffering from generation to generation.
And at least power and sex and attention are pleasurable. The most common form of lust is envy—the lust for what other people have, for the sole reason that they have it. Joseph Epstein’s brilliant line is: “Of the seven deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all.” Democritus, twenty-four hundred years before him: “An envious man pains himself as though he were an enemy.”
Have you ever held a gold medal or a Grammy or a Super Bowl ring? Have you ever seen a bank balance nudging up into the seven figures? Maybe you have, maybe you possess these things yourself. If you do, then you know: They are nice but they change nothing. They are just pieces of metal, dirty paper in your pocket, or plaques on a wall. They are not made of anything strong or malleable enough to plug even the tiniest hole in a person’s soul. Nor do they extend the length of one’s life even one minute. On the contrary, they may shorten it! They can also take the joy out of the thing we used to love to do. More does nothing for the one who feels less than, who cannot see the wealth that was given to them at birth, that they have accumulated in their relationships and experiences.
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. Or worse, a sort of Sisyphean torture where just as that feeling appears to be within reach, the goal is moved just a little bit farther up the mountain and out of reach. You will never feel okay by way of external accomplishments. Enough comes from the inside. It comes from stepping off the train. From seeing what you already have, what you’ve always had. If a person can do that, they are richer than any billionaire, more powerful than any sovereign. Yet instead of seizing this path to power, we choose ingratitude and the insecurity of needing more, more, more. “We are here as if immersed in water head and shoulders underneath the great oceans,” said the Zen master Gensha, “and yet how pitiously we are extending our hands for water.” We think we need more and don’t realize we already have so much. We work so hard “for our families” that we don’t notice the contradiction—that it’s because of work that we never see them. Enough.
We were not put on this planet to be worker bees, compelled to perform some function over and over again for the cause of the hive until we die. Nor do we “owe it” to anyone to keep doing, doing, doing—not our fans, not our followers, not our parents who have provided so much for us, not even our families. Killing ourselves does nothing for anybody. It’s perfectly possible to do and make good work from a good place. You can be healthy and still and successful.
Joseph Heller believed he had enough, but he still kept writing. He wrote six novels after Catch-22 (when a reporter criticized him by saying he hadn’t written anything as good as his first book, Heller replied, “Who has?”), including a number one bestseller. He taught. He wrote plays and movies. He was incredibly productive. John Stuart Mill, after his breakdown, fell in love with poetry, met the woman who would eventually become his wife, and began to slowly return to political philosophy—and ultimately had enormous impact on the world. Indeed, Western democracies are indebted to him for many changes he helped bring about. The beauty was that these creations and insights came from a better—a stiller—place inside both men. They weren’t doing it to prove anything. They didn’t need to impress anyone. They were in the moment. Their motivations were pure. There was no insecurity. No anxiety. No creeping, painful hope that this would finally be the thing that would make them feel whole, that would give them what they had always been lacking. What do we want more of in life? That’s the question. It’s not accomplishments. It’s not popularity. It’s moments when we feel like we are enough. More presence. More clarity. More insight. More truth. More stillness. There is no stillness to the mind that thinks of nothing but itself, nor will there ever be peace for the body and spirit that follow their every urge and value nothing but themselves. Nihilism is a fragile strategy. It’s always the nihilists who seem to go crazy or kill themselves when life gets hard. (Or, more recently, are so afraid of dying that they obsess about living forever.) Why is that? Because the nihilist is forced to wrestle with the immense complexity and difficulty and potential emptiness of life (and death) with nothing but their own mind. This is a comically unfair mismatch. The notion that isolation, that total self-driven focus, will get you to a supreme state of enlightenment is not only incorrect, it misses the obvious: Who will even care that you did all that? Your house might be quieter without kids and it might be easier to work longer hours without someone waiting for you at the dinner table, but it is a hollow quiet and an empty ease. To go through our days looking out for no one but ourselves? To think that we can or must do this all alone? To accrue mastery or genius, wealth or power, solely for our own benefit? What is the point? By ourselves, we are a fraction of what we can be. By ourselves, something is missing, and, worse, we feel that in our bones. Which is why stillness requires other people; indeed, it is for other people.
Routine, done for long enough and done sincerely enough, becomes more than routine. It becomes ritual—it becomes sanctified and holy.
It was Eisenhower who defined freedom as the opportunity for self-discipline. In fact, freedom and power and success require self-discipline. Because without it, chaos and complacency move in. Discipline, then, is how we maintain that freedom. It’s also how we get in the right headspace to do our work. The writer and runner Haruki Murakami talks about why he follows the same routine every day. “The repetition itself becomes the important thing,” he says, “it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.” When our thoughts are empty and our body is in its groove, we do our best work. Josef Pieper wrote that “the ability to be ‘at leisure’ is one of the basic powers of the human soul.” But that’s what’s so interesting about it. It’s a physical state—a physical action—that somehow replenishes and strengthens the soul. Leisure is not the absence of activity, it is activity. What is absent is any external justification—you can’t do leisure for pay, you can’t do it to impress people. You have to do it for you. The point isn’t to simply fill the hours or distract the mind. Rather, it’s to engage a pursuit that simultaneously challenges and relaxes us. Students observed that in his leisure moments, Confucius was “composed and yet fully at ease.” (He was also said to be very skilled at “menial” tasks.) That’s the idea. It’s an opportunity to practice and embody stillness but in another context.
It wasn’t restoration that Fante was chasing, nor was it leisure, it was escape from real life. In his own words, Fante pissed away decades golfing, reading, and drinking, and by extension not writing novels. Because that felt better than getting rejected again and again. Because it was easier than sitting alone by himself in a room, doing battle with the demons that made his writing so beautiful in the first place. That’s the difference between leisure and escapism. It’s the intention. Travel is wonderful, but is there not something sad to the story in Johnny Cash’s life, as his first marriage fell apart and his music became more formulaic and less fulfilling? Landing in L.A. at the end of a long tour, instead of heading home to his family, he walked up to the counter and asked to buy a ticket. To where? “Wherever the next plane will take me,” he told the attendant. Despair and restlessness go together. The problem is that you can’t flee despair. You can’t escape, with your body, problems that exist in your mind and soul. You can’t run away from your choices—you can only fix them with better choices.
The one thing you can’t escape in your life is yourself. Anyone who’s traveled long enough knows this. It’s eventually clear we carry with us on the road more baggage than just our suitcase and our backpacks.