Right now, we live in a world that is noisier and busier than ever. Social media, a nearly constant stream of notifications from our smartphones, the 24-hour news cycle, instant access to everyone through text messaging and messenger apps.
Recent studies show that, on average, Americans check their smartphones every 12 minutes (that’s nearly 100 times per day, folks!), and spend more than three hours each day staring at that tiny screen…
Sounds crazy, right?! But, it’s true. I triple checked the numbers.
So, what does it mean?
It means it’s harder than it ever has been to turn off your mind and just be still… just be quiet.
But, without down time, it’s impossible to be at your best.
If you find yourself longing for a more peaceful and meaningful life… if you desire to unlock your maximum potential, but you can’t figure out how to get to where you want to be… the answer might lie in stillness.
In our media-rich, always-on, over-stimulated, over-scheduled, often-lonely society, it’s hard not to be exhausted — spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and physically. And, doing great things when you’re exhausted… that’s a rarity.
So, what can you do about it?
A few years ago, I discovered a discipline practiced, in one form or another, by all the greatest and wisest creatives, thinkers, and religious philosophies in history – from the Stoics to the Buddhists, from Confucianism to Christianity.
It’s the ancient art of slowing things down and quieting the mind, so you can be still… and, in that stillness, “see” clearly…
Stillness is the practice of simply being.
The idea is simple, but it takes discipline to achieve.
According to Stillness Is the Key author Ryan Holiday, the practice of Stillness is “the power of ritual and routine. The strengthening of the soul against temptations….” It’s the key to “being better at anything you do.”
Too often being still is confused for being idle or ambivalent. But, I’ve found being still is actually a key skill on the path of self-mastery, discipline, focus, and what Ted Capshaw (and others, including Stephen Covey) call “keeping the main thing the main thing.”
Stillness is what inspires new ideas and fuels creativity. It is the foundation for becoming master of one’s own life. Stillness makes space for gratitude and presence. It allows you to succeed at your main thing. It is, as the title of Ryan Holiday’s book points out, the key…
The key to being better… a better writer… a better artist… a better parent… a better human and unlocking your full potential.
Now, I’m a little hesitant to “tell” you how to practice Stillness. I’m still learning how to just be still myself. But, perhaps that is the value I can bring… as someone on the journey learning to find Stillness, to find clarity, to find the focus to be present.
The techniques I use to practice my 20 minutes of Stillness each day come from lessons I learned from Ryan Holiday’s book, Stillness Is the Key, and from one of my mentors, Michael Hyatt. They are to:
1. Schedule a Set Time Each Day
I put my Stillness time on my calendar as an appointment to ensure nothing invades that time. My time for Stillness has become so precious to me, that I schedule it first thing in the morning, because I don’t want to start a day without first quieting my mind and finding the clarity to ensure I keep the main thing the main thing.
I’m still first thing – before planning my day in my planner, before journaling, and before exercising.
I modify this a bit during these shorter, fall/winter days, because I usually do my Stillness time at sunrise. In the winter, when the sun rises well after my day has started, I’ll very briefly quiet my mind and find a few moments of Stillness upon waking. Then I begin my morning ritual (planning my day, journaling, morning reading time). When the sun rises, I shift into my true Stillness time.
2. Find a Spot to Connect Your Mind, Body, and Spirit
To be truly still, you must be physically still, your mind must be quiet, and you must feel at ease with yourself and the world.
For me that’s easiest to achieve when I’m outside. I simply go into my backyard, where I can connect with nature and allow my mind to become quiet just before the day breaks. This has the wonderful effect of connecting my energy with the energy of the day as the sun rises.
Or, if I wake up early enough, I may go for a hike and find a quiet spot that has the right vibe. The main thing is to find a place where you won’t be interrupted. When I’m on vacation, the first day I’m at my destination I find a “connection” spot — a spot where I feel particularly connected to nature’s spiritual and restorative energy.
For example, at the AWAI Bootcamp in Delray Beach this past year, I sat on the beach by the crashing surf. Closer to home, I sometimes take a pre-dawn trip to Sedona, a place I find very empowering and rejuvenating.
Those locations are ideal, but not always practical. Most days my backyard or a nearby hiking trail does the trick. For your Stillness practice, you just need to find a spot where you won’t be interrupted.
3. Set a Timer
On this point, some advocate setting aside 15 minutes a day. Early in my practice, 15 minutes was a bit of a stretch. I started with five minutes. Now though, I can be still for 20 minutes. That’s a good fit for me, but what’s right for you will undoubtedly be different.
One factor to keep in mind… it’s surprising how the perception of this time changes from day to day. Some days 20 minutes seems like forever, but other days, it goes by almost too quickly.
I set a time to make sure I spend the intended amount of time in Stillness… and to make sure I don’t get lost in being still and end up late for work.
4. Relax Your Body
As I noted above, I prefer to sit in nature, close my eyes, and have a physical connection to Earth. You might prefer to sit in a soft, comfortable chair with your eyes closed. To each their own. The import thing is to be in a place where you can relax.
Relax your body deliberately. Pay attention to muscle tension and release. Then, become physically and mentally quiet. If being still is difficult at first, try engaging in any mindless physical activity, like rocking in a chair or watching something in its natural motion – like a fire or running water.
To assist with the physical relaxation and mental quiet, I often play a recording of the ocean surf. Listening to natural sounds can aid in finding mental Stillness. Try forest sounds, falling rain, a thunderstorm… whatever helps you attain a state of relaxation.
5. Quiet Your Mind
This will likely be the biggest challenge. It was for me. It’s common for me to achieve a moment of mental Stillness only to have a random thought (or several of them) invade my mind. Don’t worry about it when that happens. Just recognize it and return to Stillness. The more you practice, the longer you will be able to hold your mind in a place of Stillness.
6. Be Present
I don’t mean just physically present. When I say, “Be Present,” I mean be mindful, be aware, be in the moment. Don’t think about past regrets or hopes for the future. Instead, collect your thoughts and be present – in the current moment. It’s the most important time you have. In fact, it is the only time you have.
7. Learn to Focus Your Mind and Feel the Moments (to Return)
This might just be the most helpful component of being still. What I’m talking about is learning to recall a “place or time of peace.” To recall a mental picture or experience where you achieved a particularly vivid experience of peace and stillness.
For me, I go back to the time I spent lying on the beach in Maui and being in a perfect state of Stillness as the sun set and the surf lapped at my feet.
These profound moments give you a way to bring peace and calm forward, during your Stillness practice, or at any time you need to, really.
I resisted Stillness for the longest time, sticking to my belief that just being still was a waste of time. I was wrong.
The busier, noisier, more “burning the candle at both ends” your life is, the more important it is that you make the time to just be still. It will help you rest better. It will help stave off burnout. It will help you focus on the things you want to achieve and to put your best effort into whatever you’re doing at any moment.
Even if you can only start with five minutes a day – do it!
You’ll soon see the difference it makes and be glad you did.
With a Stillness practice, it won’t matter how tough yesterday was or how difficult today promises to be. When you’re at peace with yourself, you’ll find clarity, focus, and meaning in the tasks before you. And, everything you do will be a little easier, a little better, and a little more joyful because of it.