Wonder Upon Wonder – An Interview With Dan Millman

July 16, 2012 by Chris Grosso

Dan Millman is a former world champion athlete, university coach, martial arts instructor, and college professor.

After an intensive, twenty-year spiritual quest, Dan’s teaching found its form as the Peaceful Warrior’s Way, expressed fully in his books and lectures. His work continues to evolve over time, to meet the needs of a changing world.

Dan’s thirteen books, including Way of the Peaceful Warrior, have inspired and informed millions of readers in 29 languages worldwide. The feature film, “Peaceful Warrior,” starring Nick Nolte, was adapted from Dan’s first book, based upon incidents from his life.

Much of Dan’s time is devoted to writing and speaking. His keynotes, seminars, and workshops span the generations to influence men and women from all walks of life, including leaders in the fields of health, psychology, education, business, politics, sports, entertainment, and the arts.

The Dan Millman Interview

TIS: Your story is obviously very compelling so I’d like to start with the progression of you writing articles for gymnastics magazines to penning Way of the Peaceful Warrior, which has become a personal growth best seller. Can you tell me about what was going on in your own personal growth journey during those years that led you to write Way of the Peaceful Warrior?

DM:  A good place to begin, Chris, because my current book project is called Writing Your Way — my contribution to aspiring authors, and in the process I share some memoir. So I’ve had occasion to consider my evolution as a writer. Early on I enjoyed reading a variety of authors, tending toward science fiction and fantasy and pop mysteries and spy novels including Bradbury, Heinlein, Asimov, and Ian Fleming and John MacDonald, as well as Steinbeck and later, Hesse. I occasionally wrote a short story as a school assignment — but it wasn’t until my senior year in college, after I’d completed my last assigned paper, that I discovered that I liked writing, and loved rewriting — polishing and refining.  So when I graduated from U.C. Berkeley and began coaching gymnastics at Stanford, I offered to contribute some articles (contribute being the key word) to International Gymnast magazine. Over time, however, my personal interests and passion gravitated out of the gym and into life’s bigger picture. Over the next decade, meetings with a variety of widely different mentors, travels to India, Japan, China, Okinawa, Hawaii, and elsewhere, and voracious reading in the field of personal and spiritual growth began to influence the content of my writing. Eventually, material pulled together and took the shape of a book that was eventually titled, Way of the Peaceful Warrior.  After that, I didn’t write another book for about ten years, since I had nothing left to say — or so I thought. But starting around 1985, a number of factors led to my second book in the peaceful warrior saga — Sacred Journey of the Peaceful Warrior, and eventually, to 15 more books now published in about 29 languages.

TIS: Well you’ve certainly had a very remarkable career thus far and impacted many lives, including myself. So at what point in your life did you truly begin to become aware of the spiritual element to the human experience and how did it affect you?

DM: An intriguing question for anyone to contemplate.  For me, the process was one of disillusion.  I had achieved a measure of success, a piece of the American Dream, early on — I’d won several national titles in gymnastics, and a world championship on the trampoline, was a college student earning good grades, had a sweet girlfriend — and yet, something was missing. A sort of existential yearning began. A sense that “there’s got to be something more out there.”  In a sense, my interests gravitated from how to develop a talent for sports to a way of developing a talent for living.  I was seduced by the search for the transcendent. It didn’t happen all at once, so I can’t attribute this shift to one person or incident. Like most people, I more or less stumbled upon it.  As I remind others, wherever I stepped, the path appeared beneath my feet.

TIS: I can certainly relate to disillusion as a catalyst through my own experience. At times, I wish I didn’t have to go through what I did to get where I am now, but at others, I see the importance of those life lessons learned. So knowing what you know now, what advice would you offer the younger version of yourself as he set out with his new spiritual awareness?

DM: I have a profound respect for each person’s destiny, if you will, or process. Including my own. I’m more of a cheerleader to the soul than an advice-giver. I don’t presume to know what people “should” do with their lives. I might have just given my younger self a pat on the back, reminded myself to breath deep and relax more — that things aren’t as serious as they appear, but that each moment counts. I would have reminded myself to pay attention to the world, respect others, and to trust the process of my life as it unfolded. So many of us second-guess ourselves. We do one thing and think we should be doing another.

TIS: I definitely respect your emphasis on encouraging others and trusting in the process and wanted to talk a bit about “Self Mastery.” Would explain a bit about your concept of this in relation to your teachings and its importance in our daily lives?

DM: At the conventional level of reality, self-mastery relates to self-discipline.  At the transcendental level, the term has less meaning, because at that level there is no (separate) self to master.  We just do what we do.  Maybe you remember from Way of the Peaceful Warrior or another source that saying, “First mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers. Then mountains are no longer just mountains, and rivers are no longer just rivers. Finally, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers.” I’ll let you, and the reader, figure out what that means in their own life.  Today, in the most practical sense, I do not think of self-mastery as mastering the mind or the emotions, but rather, I prefer to focus on the body — on what we actually do from moment to moment. To explain why I place less emphasis on thoughts or feelings is beyond the scope of this interview — but it has to do with a realistic estimation of what we have more, or less, control over and responsibility for.

TIS: Yes, I’m familiar with, and love the mountain and river parable and am glad you shared it. It actually leads nicely into my next question about ego nature and what you think some of the biggest ego traps people often overlook are?

DM: In Latin and Greek, the term “ego” simply means “I” referring to the self, or identity. It was originally a value free pointer. Freud borrowed the term and used it to refer to the sense of identity. Psychologists recognize that the healthy individual has good “ego strength” or a sense of self.  One has to know the self before one can transcend it. But recently, in spiritual circles, the term “ego” gets a bad rap. We think of it as negative or bad. (If someone suggests you have a “big ego” that’s not normally considered a complement.) In ancient times, people said, “The Devil made me do it.”  And now, it’s “My ego made me do it.” As if we are possessed by some fearful, greedy, negative entity called ego. Some popular author-teachers today use the term in this manner.  But it seems to me that the ego remains this sense of self.  I don’t want to get rid of my sense of self, my ego — I want to transcend it (through insight and humor).  I use my ego, my identity, to teach, to learn, and to serve.  So I don’t know how to answer a question about “ego traps.”

TIS: Well I think you just took the question to a completely different level, which supersedes a necessary answer for ego traps so thank you. I did want to dig a little further into personal experiences, specifically the impact that negative thoughts and old, conditioned, self defeating beliefs have in our everyday lives. This is something I’ve struggled with as I know countless others have as well so could you talk a bit about ways to show ourselves compassion during these times as well as how we can work through them?

DM: There are several loaded terms we use, that aren’t clearly understood by most people. (Don’t even get me started on terms like happiness or love or spirituality.)  When people refer to “thoughts” (negative or otherwise) we need to find clarity about whether they refer to the discursive mind — moment-to-moment arising images, sounds, and words that we call thoughts. I’ve come to believe that such thoughts are not a problem — at all. They are as natural as dreams. We can’t get rid of, or change, or control such thoughts any more than we can get rid of dreams. The problem that happens is when we begin to mistake such random mind-stuff for reality. Because we live in two worlds — a simple, objective world of sense impressions in this mysterious and spontaneous experience. The second world is our internal, subjective interpretations and associations and beliefs about the world.  Perhaps that’s why writer Barbara Rasp said, “The lesson is simple; the student is complicated.”  I’ve already hinted that I don’t believe that we can, or need to, control those random arising thoughts that pop up and pass. Nor do I believe we can, or need to, control arising and passing emotions. Best just to let them be, and to accept them as natural to us in that moment.  So when we come across another loaded term — compassion — we need to understand that (as you’ve said, Chris), we can show compassion; we can behave with compassion. But we cannot control whether we feel compassionate at all. I realize that there are many books and teachers who address issues of “stinking thinking” and conditioning, and how to use this or that technique or method to change our beliefs.  To them, I offer the following (from my book, Everyday Enlightenment):

To progress toward your goals, please choose one of the following methods: 

(1)  You can find a way to quiet your mind, create empowering beliefs, raise your self-esteem and practice positive self-talk, find your focus and affirm your power to free your emotions and visualize positive outcomes so that you can develop the confidence to generate the courage to find the determination to make the commitment to feel sufficiently motivated to do whatever it is you need to do.

(2)  Or you can just do it.

TIS: I definitely appreciated your Everyday Enlightenment book and its “just do it” teachings and like to think I’ve integrated a happy medium in my personal practice. So completely switching gears, music is obviously one of humanities greatest gifts so just for fun, who are some of the bands/musicians that have influenced your life and why?

DM: Sometimes genes skip a generation. My mother was a musician, a pianist. But I never got the music bug, although I was into rhythm-drumming on whatever I could find.  My tastes in music are broad but picky.  I’m only now, in my 60s beginning to appreciate classical music; not sure why it took this long. I love certain Broadway musicals, such as Les Miserables. Back in the day, I enjoyed Cat Stevens, The Who and John Denver (only later discovering The Grateful Dead). But I was not a major fan of bands, then or now. Still, I appreciate beautiful lyrics and melody and arrangement as well as anyone, no matter the type of music. Overall, I agree with that saying I saw painted on a brick wall:  “Without music, life would not be fair.”

TIS: I’ve actually never  heard that saying before but definitely love it. So here we are nearing the end of 2012 and I’m curious about your take on the energy shifts many people say are happening now and will continue to into 2013 and beyond? Is humanity at a turning point?

DM: Humanity is always at a turning point!  You and I are at a turning point, right now. But people love drama, and special dates, and dire or beautiful predictions. I never bought into the 2012 predictions. Yes, things will happen, as they have happened in the world. Big things and small things.  As poet Robert Frost once said, “I can summarize all I know about life in three words:  It… goes… on.”  That said, we can observe, and are in the middle of, some dramatic shifts. The internet, which didn’t exist a relatively few years ago, reflects the nervous system of planet Earth linking up in a new way — an explosion of interconnection, communication. There was a young boy, about eight years old, growing up in a small village in Kenya, we my wife and I “sponsored” many years ago. Back then, once a year, he sent us drawings, and wrote brief notes, translated by a representative of the organization.  As he grew, and learned some English, he printed messages in letters.  We ended up helping him attend, and graduate from, the University of Nairobi.  Now we email and skype. What a change! We live in a different, increasingly digital world, and are adapting to new habits, rules, and ways of conducting business. It’s all happening, right now, even as we look for something else, something “big” to happen — a polar shift or some such event.  Which is why Hillel once wrote, “There are three mysteries in this world: Air to the birds, water to the fish, and humanity to itself.”

TIS: And as the great Bob Dylan sings, “The times, they are a-changin” which I think is a timelessly relevant statement. Speaking of times changing, have you followed the work that CERN has been doing, particularly the recent discovery of Higgs boson? If so, what are your thoughts on that and how it could affect the current paradigm of reality?

DM: I’ve done some reading on the Higgs boson, and can only comment in the most general way. Physics and astronomy both interlace with mystery and mysticism. Talk about the bigger (and smaller) picture!  The macrocosm and microcosm.  Perhaps if scientists absolutely confirm that the so-called “God” particle exists, they will later discover that it’s made of yet smaller particles or non-particles or forces, inside which are contained micro-universes, and all of it, like the Russian Dolls, one inside the other — and maybe we, ourselves, are inside a far more vast particle that unimaginably large giants are even now investigating with their own accelerators and super-microscopes.  Wonder upon wonder.

TIS: Woah, cosmic (laughing.) A very good point though Dan. Who really does know? So in close, I’d like to take this opportunity to allow you to leave the readers with whatever you’d like.

DM: Thanks for giving me the space to do that, Chris.  First, I invite anyone interested to visit my home page at www.peacefulwarrior.com where they can click on the Life Purpose link for a bit of summary information about their life path or hidden calling, and can view my Event Page to see my life event schedule of talks, seminars, and retreats, as well as a quote of the day, and description of my books, and online courses I offer. 

And as a concluding note, I’d like to share an epigraph at the end of, The Journeys of Socrates:

When I was young, I believed that life

might unfold in an orderly way, according to my hopes and expectations.

But now I understand that the Way winds like a river,

always changing, ever onward, following God’s gravity

toward the Great Sea of Being.

My journeys revealed that

the Way itself creates the warrior;

that every path leads to peace,

every choice to wisdom.

And that life has always been,

and will always be,

arising in Mystery.

To Visit Dan Online Click HERE!

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Chris Grosso is a writer, public speaker, mental health youth group facilitator, and author with Simon & Schuster. He also writes for Revolver Magazine, Fangoria, and has spoken at a bunch of fancy-schmancy festivals and conferences (as well as even more events that were significantly less than fancy-schmancy). Chris's podcast, The Indie Spiritualist, is hosted on Ram Dass's Be Here Now Network.
  1. Lena Alves says:

    I’m from Brazil. I leave my testimony, before anything, I want to apologize for the mistakes of language, my English is not very good. Well, I met Dan in the movie Peaceful Warrior, so I had already bought all the books translated into Portuguese and I confess that from the beginning has caused a major change. Especially in my lifestyle. Funny that all people who borrow this book also feel almost completely changed. It is impossible for you to make known to the testimony of Dan without it does not cause a big impact.

  2. Scott Abel says:

    I believe the beauty in Dan’s message, is the simplicity of it. That life is about the journey, not the destination. I stumbled upon “The Way of the Peaceful Warrior” by chance. I was poking around in a consignment shop and randomly picked up Dan’s book, and the only thing I read before buying it, was a quote on the back of the book by the head of the Psychology dept. at Harvard, saying this book changed the way she viewed life. I thought,”Heck if it changed her, what could it do for me?” Man i didn’t know how right I was. So, with all of that said, I just wanna say thank you Dan Millman. I was a very unhappy person before I found your teachings.

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