Dan Millman has written a new book, PEACEFUL HEART, WARRIOR SPIRIT: The True Story of My Spiritual Quest. Here is an interview with the author:
Early in the memoir, you define spiritual as “that which inspires or uplifts.” Can you expand on this unique definition? What would you say to someone seeking a greater spiritual dimension in their lives?
DM: One dictionary defines spiritual as “. . . the quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.”
Yet when I asked my daughter, then ten years old and an avid reader, to give me a list of ten “spiritual books” she had read, her list did not contain a single metaphysical, religious, or new age book, but rather, stories that inspired and uplifted her. (“Inspire” also means to breathe in spirit.”)
Those who seek a greater spiritual dimension may be searching for glasses that are perched upon our head. Now, after all the experiences I describe in my new book, I see and feel spirit everywhere. We swim in spirit, we breath it, and it breathes us, interpenetrating every cell. We need only open our eyes and hearts in moments of free attention.
You’ve described Peaceful Heart, Warrior Spirit as the memoir of a spiritual quest — it also describes your evolution from student to teacher. What made you feel ready to step forward and teach about life’s larger themes?
DM: The Sage, one of my four mentors, reminded me that “Competence breeds confidence.” Any new endeavor — whether diving off a three-meter springboard or learning computer language — begins with uncertainty. But if we follow our purpose and aspirations, we improve, and so does our sense of confidence.
So no single moment suddenly made me feel ready to teach life’s larger themes. As I relate in this memoir, my readiness grew naturally from practice — first, teaching in the challenging physical field of gymnastics; then following my evolving interests into the larger arena of daily life. A sense of readiness emerged after decades of practice as well as mentoring from master teachers.
You’ve said that Way of the Peaceful Warrior and some of your other books blend fact with fiction. Does this memoir do the same?
DM: As I write in the Preface: “Even the most meticulous memoirist is an unreliable narrator, recalling the patchwork of the past through personal filters and biases. As the protagonist of my own life, it would be easy to paint a self-portrait in colors made more rosy, witty, or significant with the passing of time. Still, I’ve related events as accurately as I can, checking my memories with those of friends and family.”
So even nonfiction requires narrative skill. But the simples and most honest answer to the question is that this is an entirely true and accurate story-behind-the-story.
During your formative years, you encountered bullies during elementary and middle school. Did these encounters begin your evolution as a peaceful warrior?
DM: Bullying has probably existed, in one form or another, since human society formed. So my experiences are not entirely unique — many readers have stories of their own. Psychologists, sociologists, teachers, parents, and school administrators study and speculate about the reasons some children bully others.
I believe that life will grind you down or lift you up, depending on your response. I responded to those unhappy kids who verbally and physically threatened me by taking up martial arts. Later, what began as a search for self-defense evolved into a deeper approach to the warrior tradition and philosophy. One of my two children’s books, Secret of the Peaceful Warrior, relates an approach to bullies that involves neither fighting nor fleeing, but responding as a peaceful warrior.
As an athlete and coach, how did you deal with pressure? And did that early training help you deal with the stresses of life today?
DM: My gymnastics training required me to deal with physical and psychological stress. Just as I had to figure out how to learn somersaults and twists on the trampoline, I had to find ways to cope with pressure, even turn it to my advantage. Only later, as a coach, did I begin to look deeper into what causes athletes (or anyone) to feel stressed.
For example, we might see two people on a roller coaster, both of them screaming — one with terror and the other with excitement. They each have a different meaning and attitude in those rollercoaster moments. Long ago. I learned that I couldn’t eliminate stress or pressure, but I could take a deep breath, relax my body, and focus on the needs of the present moment.
Much of your book describes your experiences with each of our radically-different mentors you refer to as the Professor, the Guru, the Warrior-Priest, and the Sage. How did you find these teachers? And how can others find their own teachers?
DM: One of the most frequent questions I’ve received through my website is, “How can I find the best teacher(s) for me?” or, “How can I find a teacher like Socrates?” In response, I cite one of the major principles of the “peaceful warrior’s way” — that there is no best teacher, path, religion, philosophy, exercise regimen, diet, or anything else; there’s only the best for each of us at a given time of life. So I advise such seekers to keep their heart open, their eyes open, and their B.S.-meter well-tuned.
There’s a familiar new age saying that “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” But many people misunderstand this proverb, believing that when they have suffered or prepared enough, are sufficiently deserving, or ready for some esoteric initiation, then a guide will appear to lead (or kick) them up the path. But I believe that saying means, that when the student is ready in the sense of paying attention, the teacher appears everywhere. In my case, I stumbled into four human teachers, but I’ve also been mentored by trees bending in the wind and streams flowing with gravity, and in the memoir I cite the example of learning a valuable life lesson from a cloud floating on the wind.
I believe that my commitment to my spiritual quest — and more than that, my interest in sharing what I learned with others — showed the way to my mentors. I met bright and good-hearted people drawn to each of these teachers, but few of them encountered my particular combination of mentors, representing four primary aspects of spiritual training.
To what extent were your four mentors a product of their time? Do they still represent important lessons for readers today?
DM: We’re all a product of our time; master teachers are no exception. But their teachings were timeless; universal principles never become dated. The teachings of the Buddha, or Jesus, or Muhammed remain relevant today. My work involves distilling and translating the their teachings into practical, jargon-free language — principles, practices and perspectives that most people can relate to and apply here and now, in everyday life. To explain how would take an entire book — fortunately, that book was just published!
You once wrote that you seek to capture the universal in the particulars about your life. What larger themes does your book address?
DM: I wrote my memoir to reveal the true story-behind-the-story that I related in Way of the Peaceful Warrior. But more than that, I’ve aimed to share insights I gained along the way — it’s an instructive and at times a cautionary story about what attracted me to the four mentors, but also why I eventually moved on. As readers accompany me on this path, they can gain perspective and insight into their own search for meaning, purpose, connection, and even enlightenment.
In your best-known book and in the Peaceful Warrior movie adaptation, you made an amazing recovery from a shattered thighbone. How others with injuries do the same?
DM: As most of my readers understand, my first (autobiographical novel) book blended fact with fiction. The “amazing” recovery due to special potions and energy boosts was part of the fictional narrative. In reality, I recovered from a shattered thighbone after healing and progressive rehabilitation, stretching, and strength exercises — hard work over time.
I hope this information encourages anyone recovering from an injury. They don’t need to look for magical or accelerated healing. They just need to trust and assist the body through nutritious diet and focused rehabilitation and physical therapy. That’s how I made the fullest possible recovery. As I point out in the memoir, I never knew for certain whether I’d be able to rejoin my team or even walk normally again. I could not control the outcomes, only the efforts — so I made a good effort over time.
Does it take a lifetime to achieve a peaceful heart and a warrior spirit? How would you guide others treading the same or similar paths?
DM: Of course it takes a lifetime! I’m still practicing and improving. As “Dan” grasps in the Peaceful Warrior movie, “It’s the journey that makes us happy, not [just] the destination.” Most of our life involves a journey, which is why I encourage my students to dream big, but start small — then connect the dots.
As to how would I guide others? My various books, like Everyday Enlightenment, and The Four Purposes of Life, and No Ordinary Moments: A Peaceful Warrior’s Guide to Daily Life provide answers, as do my various talks and workshops. Ultimately, each of us finds our own unique path, but we share common needs, human qualities, and aspirations, which is why this true story in Peaceful Heart, Warrior Spirit can help to illuminate the journey we share.
What do you especially want others to take away from your successes and mistakes?
DM: Most of all, I’d like readers to enjoy an expanded sense of perspective and renewed appreciation for their own lives and stories — to trust the process of their lives unfolding, to stop worshipping the god of opinion, to stop comparing themselves to other people and fully embrace the life, gifts, frailties, and qualities they were given.
Dan Millman teaches “the peaceful warrior’s way” in the United States and around the world. Author of eighteen books published in twenty-nine languages, Millman is a former world-champion athlete, university coach, martial arts instructor, and college professor. His bestseller Way of the Peaceful Warrior was adapted into a feature film starring Nick Nolte. Millman and his wife, Joy, live in Brooklyn, NY. www.PeacefulWarrior.com