When I was 12, my seventh grade English teacher told me I was “cynical.” I didn’t even know what the word meant, but after I looked it up, I nodded and thought to myself that she was right. I tended to have a sarcastic sense of humor and a little bit of an edge. (Give me a break; I’m from New Jersey, and if you knew my family, you’d understand.)
In the intervening decades, I have softened a bit, as I have learned more about myself and as I have come to realize how powerful my thoughts are in creating my experience. Among other things, I now am open to reading books and watching movies on self-help and positive thinking, books and movies that my 12-year-old self would have rolled her eyes at and made fun of in an effort to get the laugh. I see now that for me there is actually something to be said for self-help and positive thinking, because I have applied them to my own life and seen a return on my investment.
But the edge hasn’t completely gone away, which I realized when I picked up Way of the Peaceful Warrior: A Book That Changes Lives by Dan Millman. The book tells the story of college student and world-class gymnast Dan, who is surprised to find his schoolwork and athletic pursuits do not fulfill him as he had expected they would. Early in his college career, he stumbles upon a filling station whose night shift is covered by an old man. Dan eventually befriends the old man and nicknames him Socrates, both because the man refuses to reveal his real name and because over time he ends up serving as Dan’s mentor and spiritual guide.
Set in the 1960s, the book takes the reader on Dan’s multi-year journey toward enlightenment. As he works with Socrates and tries to internalize messages about living in the moment and perceiving oneself as interconnected with all other living things, Dan finds more inner peace, more success in his athletic pursuits, and more fulfillment. Socrates presents Dan with a series of challenges ranging from fasting to meditation to controlling his breathing, slapping him about the head when he proves to be obstinate or dismissive. (Better him than me.)
He teaches Dan that the way of the peaceful warrior “is not about invulnerability but absolute vulnerability – to the world, to life…(A)warrior’s life is not about imagined perfection or victory; it is about love. Love is a warrior’s sword; wherever it cuts it gives life, not death.” Dan learns to be present, to experience himself as connected to the world and not apart from it. He controls his ego, learns to laugh at himself, and heightens his awareness rather than sleepwalking through life.
So far, so good, and not unlike many other books I’ve read that delve into self awareness, the quest for purpose in life, and a little bit of spirituality. Where the pre-teen in me has something to say is in some of the prose, in some of the more magically realistic images, and in some of the choices the protagonist makes that seem at odds with the central message of the story.
In terms of the prose, the book isn’t breaking any literary molds. Perhaps this is an issue inherent in writing about this kind of subject matter, but some of the rhetorical choices are a bit precious for my personal taste, and they drive home the nature of the book rather than enabling me to get lost in the story and make my own connections.
With respect to the magical realism, Socrates facilitates time travel for Dan and, we are led to believe, Dan either honestly engages or has a vision that he engages in mortal combat with his shadow side/evil, with his life actually hanging in the balance.
And finally, toward the end of the book, Dan completes the leg of his journey that involves Socrates by appearing to shirk his familial responsibilities and travel the world instead. As a firm believer myself in the educative and self-actualizing powers of travel (and as a semi-retired traveling dirtbag), I understand how rewarding it can be to chuck it all and allow the search for self to become a geographically diverse one. But as an adult, I also understand that doing so while leaving others to hold the bag is selfish and irresponsible.
None of these issues precludes a snarky reader like me from benefitting from the book, but it does require a bit of fancy footwork to distract my inner seventh grader. I recommend Way of the Peaceful Warrior both for its message and for its flaws. The message is a timeless one infinitely relevant to all those who are looking for a way to matter in their own lives, and the flaws are a good reminder that we all have work to do, even those whose work provides guidance to the rest of us.
“Way of the Peaceful Warrior” is available for $10.31 at Amazon.com.