The Way of the Peaceful Warrior
Now 35 years old, The Way of the Peaceful Warrior has the appearance of a lightweight novel for teenagers, but by the end of it you realize this book contains many spiritual truths. This, combined with the simple enjoyment of a story that includes romance and high adventure, has made it a perennial bestseller.
The book begins with its main character, Dan, beginning his first year of college at Berkeley in California. Life has been pretty good for him, both as an academic success and as a gymnastics and trampoline champion. But he feels there is something missing, and begins having nightmares. Unable to get back to sleep one night, he wanders the streets and sees a Texaco gas station open. Running it is an older man with a twinkle in his eye, and the two get talking.
He asks the man his name, and is told "My name doesn't matter; neither does yours. What is important is what lies beyond names and beyond questions." These obscure remarks prompt Dan to give him the name 'Socrates'. This mysterious garage sage becomes his mentor.
'Dan' is the author, Dan Millman, who wrote up his real-life experiences as a novel, embroidered with extra thoughts, scenes and stories for dramatic impact.
Noticing the bars
Socrates takes Dan through a series of mental and physical trials which use up all his energy. Their purpose is to reveal to him his illusions, the things that he chases for ego's sake. Cutting himself free from the illusions, Socrates tells him, will require more courage and strength than any movie hero. Disillusionment, he notes, is the best thing that can happen to a person, because it reveals what does not have real meaning. We go to movies, have sex, even play sport to escape from the anxieties of our normal thinking minds, but in this pursuit, Socrates says, we avoid facing the source of our suffering. He notes the predicament of most people: they suffer when they don't get what they want; they suffer when they do get it. He leaves Dan with only one conclusion: "Your mind is your predicament." Dan realizes why he loves gymnastics - because when he is going through his routine, he is just doing, not thinking. It is a holiday from his mind.
Dan has always prided himself on his willingness to experience new things and change. But Socrates sees that these changes are all superficial, a protection from the real willingness to change his thoughts. We are in a prison of our own making, he says, but the bars are invisible. To get out of the prison, you must first realize that you are in it. Dan begins to feel the enormous bulk of his thoughts, and also the depth of his negativity. They leave little room for anything else.
Socrates describes himself as a humorous fool before the mystery of the universe. In contrast, Dan is a 'serious jackass' who thinks he knows a few things but in reality is sleepwalking through life. His mentor starts him on a program of awakening.
Dan is told that he is like most people in that he has been taught to get his information from outside himself, and the result is that his mind is like the petrol tank of a car, 'overflowing with preconceptions, full of useless knowledge." To know anything, he first needs to empty his tank. Dan learns that he does have some understanding of things, but understanding is a product of the intellect - it enables one to know something, without having experience of it. Realization, on the other hand, is when you grasp something by both the head and the heart, the experience of truth first-hand.
Socrates teaches that the best way to clear the cluttered mind is through meditation. Meditation is the sword of the peaceful warrior, he says, who "cuts the mind to ribbons, slashing through thoughts to reveal their lack of substance". He tells the story of Alexander the Great in the desert with his armies, who came to two massive ropes tied together - the 'Gordian Knot' - which no one had ever been able to untie. But Alexander simply slashed the rope into two with his sword, and moved on.
Happiness resulting from the satisfaction of cravings, Socrates notes, is the happiness of a fool. A warrior is 'happy without reason'. Dan comes to the sad realization that his life has been about achieving happiness through victory, but even as a 'winner' he experiences the same common unhappiness of most people. He sees that his life has been about ambition, looking forward, not enjoying life but seeing 'what he can get out of it'. But through Socrates he discovers that the only way to have peace of mind and really love life is to have a philosophy of 'unreasonable happiness'.
We are all familiar with the remark that life comes down to a few important moments, and that is true - but those moments are the ones we have now. Dan begins to appreciate the new freedom that this realization brings. His eureka moment comes when he shouts, "There are no ordinary moments!" In an instant he grasps the meaning of that famous line from the Bible that we must 'become like a little child to enter the Kingdom of Heaven'. A child lives fully in the present, in breathless delight at the wonder of simple things. Through this route - not through heavy ambition - do we take up permanent residence in the kingdom of happiness.
Personal development is usually understood to be improvement of the self, but this project can quite easily end up as a mere gratification of the ego. To someone who is not self-important, like the book's Socrates, one who is - like Dan - seems insane. Such people go about making the world a playground for their greatness, while all the time missing great moments. Real personal development is more about un learning a particular image we have of ourselves, and our mental habits and frameworks.
The Way of the Peaceful Warrior was clearly written under the influence of Carlos Castaneda, who in his Don Juan series tells of a young man meeting a crazy old Indian in a bus station, who proceeds to knock some sense into him. If you have read Castaneda's Journey To Ixtlan, Millman's book may seem like a rehash. However, Millman also incorporates ideas from Zen Buddhism and Sufism, and his masterful synthesis of serious concepts into a truly enjoyable story really works. The subtitle, 'A book that changes lives', may be bombast, but if you pick it up at the appropriate time in your life, this book could set the mind reeling with its implications.
Source: Tom Butler-Bowdon 50 Spiritual Classics: 50 Great Books of Inner Discovery, Enlightenment and Purpose (London & Boston: Nicholas Brealey)
"Soc, I've been battling illusions my whole life, preoccupied with every petty personal problem. I've dedicated my life to self-improvement without grasping the one problem that sent me seeking in the first place. While trying to make everything in the world work out for me, I kept getting sucked back into my own mind, always preoccupied with me, me, me."
Millman grew up in Los Angeles and has a degree from the University of California, Berkeley. He is a former trampoline champion, and has held coaching and teaching positions at Stanford University and Oberlin. He lives in Northern California. Other books include Sacred Journey of the Peaceful Warrior (the 1990 companion to Peaceful Warrior), The Laws of the Spirit, No Ordinary Moments, and The Life You Were Born To Live, a guide to finding your life purpose.
The first published edition of Peaceful Warrior went out of print, but the second edition became a hit through word of mouth. It is now published in over 20 languages.
© COPYRIGHT TOM BUTLER-BOWDON, 2022
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