The story appears on

Page A7

March 13, 2020

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Opinion

Stillness key to a well-lived life

A young doctor, an old patient, a sunset.

The picture, taken on March 5, has warmed the hearts of many people across China for capturing so moving a moment of stillness. On their way back to the hospital ward, the two men paused to gaze upon a gleam of sunshine they had missed for so long.

Liu Kai, a 27-year-old doctor from Shanghai who went to Wuhan to help fight the COVID-19, was accompanying an 87-year-old patient lying in a movable bed for a CT check in a local hospital. The patient, once a professional violinist, was getting better after nearly one month’s treatment. As they were returning from the CT test, Liu spotted the sunset and asked the old musician if he would stop to watch it. The old man murmured yes.

For nearly one month, neither of them had seen such a sunset as they had found themselves mainly confined to indoor activities. In the picture, taken by a hospital nursing assistant from behind, the elderly raised his feeble hand, pointing to the setting sun. The doctor stood still by the movable bed, facing the sun falling atop some high-rise buildings.

Many people, including journalists, say this is probably the most moving of all pictures that serve to soothe the souls of all those striving to fend off the current coronavirus. In a subsequent interview, Liu said he hadn’t expected the picture to become so popular; he just wanted to record the moment that he and the old musician could possibly reminisce and relish in the future.

The beauty of the picture springs from the two men’s spirit of stillness. In stillness, they spread a sense of eternity in the here and now. A moment paused and pondered is in many ways a moment well-lived.

A famous ancient Chinese poem goes like this: How wondrous is the sunset, but it’s close to dusk. The picture may well provide a modern footnote to this melancholy line, if the old patient was facing the sunset alone, languishing in loneliness. But the young doctor was standing by the bedside, giving the old man hope. It dawned upon many viewers that our life, however fragile with old age or illness, could be so full if we endeavored to embrace nature in silence, even if for just a few seconds.

Cultivate inner calm

People tend to believe in the power of medicine in curbing the coronavirus, but no less shall people trust the power of stillness in helping patients convalesce. A still mentality has proven to be conducive to containing the virus, according to the country’s top medical experts.

This brings us to the book “Stillness Is the Key” written by Ryan Holiday, a writer and strategist, who believes that everyone can learn to cultivate the spirit of stillness, a key to living a meaningful life — not least to overcoming distress in illness. Holiday noted that most philosophical traditions of the ancient world exalted “stillness.” The Greek Stoic philosophers spoke of apatheia and the epic verse Bhagavad Gita praised this attitude as samatvam. The English rendering is “stillness.”

He defined “stillness” as the ability to find equanimity amid the turbulence of life. If you can cultivate inner calm, he explained, you can devote full focus on your activities rather than allowing your attention to fracture — with one bit expressing irritation with street noise, another brooding over money problems.

What the aforementioned sunset picture struck me and many others most was exactly the two men’s imperturbable calm and instant focus on what mattered most in their life in that particular moment — the ability to see the sunshine, again. All other thoughts — mostly mundane worries — faded away.

“When basically all the wisdom of the ancient world agrees on something, only a fool would decline to listen,” wrote Holiday. Cultivating stillness is difficult, particularly in the hyper-connected modern world, but it is not an esoteric state that only a select few can attain, he said. By citing a wide range of examples from Winston Churchill to Tiger Woods, he drove home the point that stillness is present in everyone, only that we need to discover it with discipline.

In retrospect, I ask myself: Have I run so fast that I have missed a good deal of great moments in my life? Reading Holiday’s book and watching the sunset picture, I now feel I could have lived a fuller life, in a simpler way.

In seeking pleasure after pleasure, many of us have probably mistaken what we possess for what we live for. Without a spirit of stillness and a propensity to pause, we can have our attention fractured by things peripheral to the core of a well-lived life. Central to a well-lived life, as the book and the picture illustrate, is our ability to not panic in distress.

Holiday’s book gave specific tips as to how one can be calm within, such as through regular walking as Churchill did. But not all his advice applies to everyone. Ultimately, one should learn from childhood that life is about appreciating, rather than acquiring; about caring, rather than calculating.


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend