The Practice of Stillness

According to the popular StrengthsFinder assessment, my top strength is “Achiever.” The report that summarized my test results says,

Person Sitting Quietly on the Edge of a Dock - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/epicurean, Image #7706240

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/epicurean

People who are especially talented in the Achiever theme have a great deal of stamina and work hard. They take great satisfaction from being busy and productive.”

This strength has served me well, but it also has a dark side.

It means I have a difficult time turning off my mind and just being still. I seem to be more of a human doing than a human being.

Recently, my wife Gail recommended that I read The Joy Diet by Martha Beck. She said, “You won’t agree with everything in this book, but I think it will really challenge you—especially the first chapter.”

Intrigued, I decided to read the book on my recent vacation.

The first chapter is entitled, “Nothing.” In summarizing the chapter, Beck says, “to begin the Joy Diet, you must do nothing for at least fifteen minutes a day.”

I was so challenged by this chapter, that I haven’t gotten beyond it. I have now read it four times. I have also practiced this discipline for twenty-two days in a row.

Honestly, this has been one of the most transformational things I have ever done.

What Is Stillness?

Beck’s premise is that “doing nothing is the most productive activity you will ever undertake.” By doing nothing, she means literally doing nothing.

  • This is not prayer (at least not in the sense of talking to God)
  • It is not problem-solving.
  • It is not planning.

Doing nothing is being still, quieting your mind (and the cacophony of voices), and simply being.

All the ancient wisdom literature points to the importance of this practice. Psalm 46:10 is representative: “Be still and know that I am God.”

This is tremendously difficult in our media rich, always-on, over-communicated society. Noise crowds into every empty space, leaving us spiritually, mentally, and emotionally exhausted.

Mother Teresa expressed it this way,

We need to find God, and He cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature—trees, flowers, grass—grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence… .We need silence to be able to touch souls.”

Abba Poeman, one of the ancient desert fathers, taught his disciples, “If you are silent, you will have peace wherever you live.”

Why You Need Stillness

I doubt you need convinced that you need some measure of what I am describing in your life. As I have shared about this topic with others, they inevitably say, “Oh, I so need that in my life! How do I start?”

Nevertheless, here are three of my own reasons for practicing the discipline of stillness:

  1. I want to maintain perspective. If I don’t make time to be still, then I find myself in reactive mode—influenced by hundreds of little voices with big demands.
  2. I want to stay connected to my true self. I don’t want to get confused, thinking that I am the image I present to the world. They are related, of course, but I want to live from the inside out.
  3. I want more internal margin in my life. While I have been pursing external margin in my calendar and finances, I also want internal margin—more room to notice what matters most and be thankful for it.

How to Practice Stillness

This is not something I have enough experience with to write. In fact, I feel pretentious for even attempting it.

But perhaps that is the value I can add to the conversation. I am not so experienced that I have forgotten what it is like to be a beginner.

So in that spirit, let me offer a few suggestions for how you can practice stillness in your own journey and reclaim some interior margin.

  1. Schedule a time. For me, I schedule stillness first thing in the morning. It has become so precious to me, that I won’t want to start the day without it. I practice this first—before prayer, before Bible reading, before journaling, and before exercise.
  2. Find a place. When I was on vacation, I sat on the dock by the lake. This was ideal. But it is not my real world. Now I simply go into my study and shut the door. The main thing is to find a place where you won’t be interrupted.
  3. Set a timer. I am following Beck’s admonition to set aside fifteen minutes a day. In my limited experience this seems about right. It is amazing how my perception of this time changes from day to day. Sometimes it seems like forever. Other times, it goes by very quickly. I use the timer on my iPhone.
  4. Relax your body. I simply sit in a soft chair with my eyes closed. I then systematically relax my body and get quiet. Beck says that if you can’t sit still, then engage in any mindless physical activity, like rocking in a chair or watching some natural motion like fire or running water. I also play a recording I have of the ocean.
  5. Quiet your mind. This is the biggest challenge for me. Just when I get still, I have some random thought or a whole flurry of thoughts. But I am getting better. Beck offers several techniques for practicing “nonjudgmental observation,” a discipline that keeps your allotted time from being hijacked by an overly-active mind.
  6. Be present. Don’t be regretting or celebrating the past. Don’t be worrying or dreaming about the future. Instead, collect your thoughts and be present—in this moment. It is the most important time you have. In fact, it is the only time you have.
  7. Learn to return. This has been the most helpful component. In involves recalling a “place of peace,” where you had a particularly vivid experience of peace and stillness. For me, I go back to a time I stood on the balcony of a monastery in Greece, looking out on the Aegean Sea. I wrote about it here.

Perhaps the most important thing is just to start. It’s easy to blow the discipline of stillness off as something you don’t have time for. Don’t. The busier you are the more important it is.

You need this in your life more than you know. Even if you can only set aside five minutes a day, do it. And if you miss a day or two, don’t beat yourself up. Just start again.

Questions: Have you ever practiced stillness? If so, what was your experience like? If not, what is keeping you from starting? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • edwah zephaniah joshua

    I make it a lifestyle to believe Him who quickens those things that are dead, those things God says that be not but speaks as though they were, Rom.4:17 Because He telegraphs the thing wills to quicken and to Be, and I the privilege to believe for the thing not seen, yet spoken by the mouth of God and revealed to be believed.

    “The God of hope fill you with peace and joy in believing, that you may abound in hope through the power of the Holy Spirit”, Romans 15:13

  • http://www.liveitforward.com/ Kent Julian

    Practicing the art of stillness in our busy and fast-paced world is challenging. Yet over time, the habit of stillness leads to better insights for effective living. Excellent post!

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  • Pablo

    Michael I live in Israel and I recently wrote a book on this very verse Psalm 46:10. I called it Holding On Loosely. The words “be Still” In Hebrew mean Loosen your grip. My background is coaching tennis on the professional womens tennis tour where I worked over 7 years with some of the best players in the world. It was during this time that I learnt and taught my players how to enter the zone which led God to help me discover that is in this place within our new hearts that he lives and wants to fellowship with us….

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      That is powerful. Thanks for sharing. I am sure I will use this in the future!

  • Pablo

    A bit more…the problem why we find it so hard to be still is that our ego lives in our minds and for it to survive it needs an event to identify with. These events are only found in the past or the future. When we spend time in either of these places we are absent and not present in our lives. God lives within our new hearts and it is there that we are eternal. In eternity there is no time but only the moment or present. Yet most of us live in the past or the present..this is why Jesus shared with us in Matthew 6 to not worry about tomorrow but to focus on what God was doing right now. Funny enough when God introduced himself to Moses he didnt say he was the great I was or I will but instead the great I am. Jesus when teaching us to pray told us to ask for the daily bread of today and thats all. God lives in the moment and if we want to live there with him then we need to learn to centre ourselves. Failure to do this will mean missing our lives and what God was doing while we were absent trying to figure out a better tomorrow….

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Beautiful.

  • Pablo

    would love to send you a copy…..

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Great. I’d love to see it. Can you e-mail it? You can send it to michael at michaelhyatt dot com. Thanks.

  • http://www.thehahnhuntinglodge.com/ Nikole Hahn

    This really resonates with me. I unsuccessfully tried a lent to get some stillness,but I like this idea–of setting aside fifteen minutes a day to do nothing.  I just wonder if I can do it. I am also a doing person.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=686442200 Kristine McGuire

    I’m curious to learn how this “discipline of stillness” differs from Eastern Meditation.

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      I don’t practice Eastern Meditation, so I’m not sure. Sorry.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=686442200 Kristine McGuire

        You might want to check into the similarities between your description of your “stillness” practice and Eastern Meditation (a discipline I practiced for eight years before re-dedication to Christ). While I agree we need to find time to be quiet before the Lord, I do believe it’s important to be sure we are not blending wisdom literature or disciplines which are outside of scripture (“Be still and know that I am God” is not truly a call to inner stillness because there is a second half to that verse. It is rather a call to the nations to honor who God is). Thank you for taking the time to respond to my initial question.  Be blessed.

  • Pablo

    I am in Jerusalem this evening so will sen it first thing tomorrow morning. Shabat shalom!

  • http://www.unManage.com/ Karl Rohde

    There is so much pressure in our lives to do just the opposite of being still and we are reaping unsatisfactory results. I wrote an article on the problem with reacting which helped to clarify the impact of being busy for the sake of being busy. 
    http://www.unmanage.com/the-problem-with-reacting.html 

    On the converse this post by MH so well distils the benefit of the art of being still. Great post!!

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  • Susan Piver

    Being still with NO agenda for being still (i.e. not doing it to become more accomplished, more patient, more clear minded) is suggested. When we apply an agenda to our meditative practices, they lose their magic and potency. 

  • http://www.irunurun.com/blog/ Travis Dommert

    This is the toughest of my weekly key actions, too.  Like you, I try to do mine early and with eyes closed.  However, I find that 2 elements help me get started.  One is a rhythmic breathing exercise (very rapid 30sec, very slow 60sec).  Second is prayer.  

    I feel like each of these primes the experience.  First, I have to concentrate on the breathing (which is an effective way of letting go and shoving aside the other junk swimming around in the noggin).  Second, I end a few minutes of prayer by posing a question or two on my mind…with hopes of direction during or after the quiet time, e.g. “Who needs me today?  What is the most important thing to do or learn today?”

    …then silence.   Tough, but golden.

    (Also, I use the timer on my watch to record 10-20min.  You’re right, sometimes it goes fast, other times I’m peeking after just 4-5min!)

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  • http://DadsCount.com/ Jim Ray

    Michael, thanks for this perspective.  I’ve made a point over the past several months to actively carve out my still-time in the morning.  That’s my chance to really reconnect and prepare for the new day.  

    I took the opportunity to link to your blog in my latest blog post:  http://dadscount.com/regarding-the-practice-of-stillness-by-michael-hyatt/.  I hope others will find your blog to be as helpful as I have.  Please keep up the great work, albeit at a slower pace (according to your latest post).

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  • http://profile.yahoo.com/GLGTIVZNQL6RJDDVWO6GFWASQE NELSON

    Always Knew that this is important; but was never willing to take the time to do it: I will begin today.

  • Fabulouslindalee

    Do you actually stop thinking when you are still? If you are conscious of the birds singing or the wind blowing around you, are you still? Because I don’t know if I can do entirely “nothing” but I know I need to try.

  • Matthew D. Upchurch

    My favorite Buddhist saying says: “the answers are not in the words but in the silence between the words.”  That’s why meditation is so powerful.  I believe in prayer AND I believe meditation is about listening for GOD.

  • Hjcarstens

    I am from SOUTH AFRICA where we have lots of sun……..so I call it SITTING IN THE SUN…….a time of relaxing…BODY , SOUL and SPIRIT. I do it whenever I feel very stressed. During these times I am RENEWED and REFRESHED!!!. I can recommend it to everyone…….During my Sitting In The Sum I get REVELATIONS and NEW INSIGHTS into LIFE. Hermanus Carstens

  • JohnnyRockets

    Just came to this post from the recommendation in Podcast #35.

    The one question I have is:

    How is this any different than just plain old meditation?

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  • Laura

    I practice stillness as often as possible. About once a month I get to practice it for 45 minutes-an hour. My husband watches our kids and I can get away. People are amazed he would do that – he knows I need it and has seen the incredible fruit from it.
    I blog daily for moms and in my blogs that are simple meditations to connect them with God I ask that they sit in silence for a minute before they read and for as much time as they have after they read the blog entry.
    I recently took a group through the exercise. Just 2 1/2 minutes of silence and they came out if it weeping as their souls were nourished.
    Silence is amazingly powerful. Thank you.

  • Margie

    Thanks so much for this insight and encouragement! This is the second great article I’ve read today mentioning stillness as very important (the other being on the Ancient Christian Wisdom blogsite and titled: Examining the Secret Things of the Heart vs. the Secret Things of Others) So I’m beginning to think I need to get into this! :) God bless you!

  • Anthony Ward

    The description of “stillness” is a mirror of the practice of  “vipassana meditation” – an ancient meditation now making a worldwide resurgence – first taught by Buddists,  and now being practiced across the world – just observing the breath, remaining equanimous, being still and in the present moment.  Non sectarian practice with life enriching qualities – find a group near you and try out – 10 day retreats teach you how to learn this life affirming meditation technique without fear of some religious hook – one of the best things I ever did for myself – learn how to “be’ and not “do’. find out for yourself…..

  • Tim

    I am currently looking for a new position.  That a lame way of saying I am out of work.  But even without the usual “Get there by eight!” mentality, I find I still need a time of stillness, perhaps even more now than when I was working a scheduled day.  
    I like the timer idea and will begin in the morning.

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  • Gaurav

    I came across a new website called calm.com which helps you do this in very efficient way where you can time bound and have great background voice over a to help you achieve stillness.

  • D.A.

    Excellent article. I’ll be reading this again for sure. I’ve practicing stillness pretty regularly for the past year almost and it has been an amazing journey to say the least. There are so many twists and turns within each and every mind, it makes sense to me now why human conflict has no end in sight. I sit still usually in the morning or early evening when I get home. I’m going to try your advice and schedule a regular time in the mornings before I head out for the day. For me, it has been about developing an understanding of what is really important to me and not just living my life how society says I should; go to school, get a good job, get married, make babies, work until you retire or die, etc.
    Another big reason is the same as what you said about maintaining perspective. When my mind is open to stillness it feels like I am able to just receive the world without feeling the need to project anything onto it, good or bad. My hope is that I can reach a level of stillness where I can maintain it indefinitely, but I realize that’s probably never gonna happen.

  • Erich Robinson

    Great thoughts! I definitely needed to read that today as an Achiever who just finished a big project (Men’s Conference with Bob Goff). Here are some resources I’ve shared that have been helpful for me in this area:
    http://resourcesforus.wordpress.com/2013/07/03/three-resources-to-help-you-deal-with-an-overloaded-life/
    http://resourcesforus.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/three-books-by-richard-swenson/
    http://resourcesforus.wordpress.com/2014/01/06/three-problems/

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks for the link to Andy Stanley’s series, Breathing Room. It looks awesome!

      • Erich Robinson

        You’re welcome, I think you’ll love Andy’s series.

  • Suzanne Howard

    I tease my husband about his “nothing box”. He can go to a place in his mind and think about nothing. I stand outside the box trying to get in or create my own. It is difficult. I do sleep with waves on for white noise, I will try it with quiet time. Harmony is one of my strengths and all of the noise can be less than harmonious. I try to disconnect, but I work in a ministry where there is always something that needs my attention. I will do this tomorrow morning. Blessings to all!

  • Audrey

    I finally got the habit to practice stillness and I feel that thanks to this I speak slower :)

  • Vartooka

    I’ve been practicing a combination of stillness and contemplation for over 23 years using a little known book called Steps to Knowledge – The Book of Inner Knowing. It is a set of daily practices that help focus my mind. These practices have made all the difference in my life. Some of the steps are “In stillness all things can be known.” “Stillness is the acceptance of profound love.” “Stillness is my gift to the world.” I have found through practicing stillness that the importance of it cannot be overestimated.