Dan Millman has written 11 books – two novels, seven non-fiction guides and two children’s books. The former world champion athlete, university coach, martial arts instructor and college professor first became known to the world 25 years ago when he wrote his first book, Way of the Peaceful Warrior. This story – part fiction, part fact – introduces us to a mystical eccentric nicknamed Socrates who appears suddenly to a college student and changes forever how this young athlete views life and the world around him.
As Millman explains, Way of the Peaceful Warrior "began my own journey as a writer and teacher."
"When I wrote it," he says, "I had no idea that so many people, young and old, from different walks of life, would find my story so inspiring. Over the years I’ve asked myself why. I believe it’s because my story also touched upon universal themes – our common quest for meaning and purpose and direction. Somehow it reminds readers of what they had always known but forgotten – the bigger picture and essential perfection of our lives unfolding."
This book, a seminal work in spiritual storytelling, has been adapted to a feature film, Peaceful Warrior, and opens this month in theaters nationwide. The author of the book, upon which the film is based, spoke with Edge Life from his home in California.
Are you excited about the release of the film, Peaceful Warrior?
Dan Millman: I am. I have attended a number of screenings and like it more every time I see it, but I’m not the most objective audience. Still, if the author of a book likes the film adaptation, I suppose that’s a good sign.
What did you feel when you first watched the completed film?
DM: I was moved to tears on a number of occasions. First of all, I felt relief, because many things can go wrong with this type of adaptation. I also felt real pleasure in the quality of the work they put into the film.
What role did you serve in the making of the movie?
DM: Other than general inspiration as author of the source book, I was more of a cheerleader. I had written an earlier draft of a script. It took me quite a few years and many drafts, but through unusual circumstances, they didn’t actually see my script until two weeks before shooting started. And to the director’s credit, he incorporated a number of lines and a couple of scenes and last minute sequences into the film.
What elements of the book are particularly well captured in the film?
DM: The film covers only the first two-thirds of the book – my college years – yet manages to convey many of the central messages of the book.
What parts of the book did you want to see emphasized, when you were writing your script?
DM: I had intended to adapt the entire book. But the filmmakers, being more familiar with the challenges of adapting a story of this nature to a mainstream audience, found it more workable to do a condensed version. If response to Peaceful Warrior is strong, I’ll be writing the first draft of a sequel that completes the story. We’re all waiting for the West Coast opening weekend, on June 2, when Peaceful Warrior will play in selected theaters in Seattle, Portland, the San Francisco area, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Phoenix. There will be a second and third wave of releases moving east from there.
I’m guessing the audience will include a lot of people who have never read the book, Way of the Peaceful Warrior.
DM: At the recent L.A. Times Festival of Books, Peaceful Warrior was screened for about a thousand people. I answered questions on stage afterwards and asked how many had read the book. Half of the people in the audience had not read the book. And in earlier screenings, Peaceful Warrior tested very well both with previous readers and those unfamiliar with my work.
What was their reaction to the film?
DM: I heard a lot of enthusiastic applause at every screening. At the Inspiration Film Festival in Santa Monica, Peaceful Warrior won both the audience and jury Grand Prize awards.
Why turn Way of the Peaceful Warrior, which was very popular as a book, into a feature film?
DM: I’m more fascinated by the fact that it happened at all. Considering the many thousands of books published every year, and how few can attract the interest of producers and investors – and the nature of Way of the Peaceful Warrior – it seems a miracle that it actually became a fine film. It took 25 years for the journey from page to screen.
Would you describe Peaceful Warrior as a spiritual film?
DM: A number of years ago I was writing an article on spiritual literature for children, and asked my young daughter what books she considered "spiritual." Those she mentioned did not contain new age or metaphysical ideas. They were simply books that inspired her. Similarly, any movie or any book that inspires us, that touches our spirit, could be called spiritual film or literature. There have been many successful, mainstream Hollywood movies – Field of Dreams, Phenomenon, What Dreams May Come, Ghost, and Groundhog Day – that have contained metaphysical elements, but they were not message films. And there are other movies that are very "message" heavy – good, positive movies, but lacking a clear dramatic structure, so they end up playing at alternative venues such as churches or straight to DVD.
Peaceful Warrior may be on the cutting-edge of an emerging genre I call "cinema with substance" – movies that have a clear message, that illuminate but also entertain, and that have a strong enough story structure to appeal to a mainstream audience.
I just returned from a weeklong cruise with Stephen Simon and the Spiritual Cinema Circle, and I think the way you describe spiritual cinema is the way Stephen does, entertaining and uplifting at the same time.
DM: That’s the ideal, but as I’m sure Mr. Simon appreciates, that blend of entertainment and inspiration is not an easy combination to capture, or more filmmakers would do it. And as I noted before, many movies have nothing to do with angels or metaphysics or magical phenonomena, but they inspire us nonetheless. The central question, it seems to me, is not whether a film is "spiritual," but whether it is well made, well crafted. Does it tell a compelling story? I think that is important for any film, no matter what the content.
There has been a phenomenon in film that with every new jump in technology, story quality has been ignored for a while. This occurred when films went from silent to talkies; then with technicolor and again with Cinerama and 3D. Similarly, with certain genres of film, the audiences seem less concerned with the quality of story – like early martial arts films which were contrived simply to show fight scenes. This changed with the wonderful samurai epics of Kurosawa, and then for Western audiences with Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon, which had characters with a real backstory, and an engrossing plot.
Future spiritual or message films will have to meet the same strong story quality, and I believe Peaceful Warrior sets the bar for others to follow. It’s not going to be enough to just talk about positive or magical speculative ideas, or involve fascinations that may intrigue people. These are fine for documentaries, or perhaps TV movies or DVDs – but for studios to invest millions of dollars in a film of any kind, they have to have a reasonable expectation that many people across America will want to go to theaters to see a well-crafted story.
Why did you write Way of the Peaceful Warrior and what does the book mean to you now?
DM: I was called to teach from an early age, while still a young gymnast. I taught what I knew – physical training. But as my interests and experience expanded, I began to explore and to teach larger questions about living wisely and well. Way of the Peaceful Warrior was a natural extension of my own quest to learn and to teach and to serve.
From your observation, how has our collective spiritual awakening changed during the past 25 years since the first printing of Way of the Peaceful Warrior?
DM: Media awareness has helped to create an expanded number of readers (and movie-goers) who at least grasp some of the basic concepts of Buddhism – living in the present, acts of kindness and compassion – and so forth. The danger is that we may treat it as another phase or set of ideas. But today’s world represents a call to wisdom – to bringing what we know into what we actually do in our everyday relations, our politics, our international relations.
I read in a prior interview you conducted that one of your favorite sayings is "There’s God, and then there’s not paying attention?" What do you mean by that?
DM: First I should state that the term "God" means different things to different people – so when I use that term, it should always mean, "Whatever God means to you." That proverb you cite above means that we are each and all surrounded by beauty, spirit, inspiration – by God. But we are often so preoccupied, suffering from tunnel vision, that we don’t have the free attention to notice or feel the Spirit that lives and breathes us. Spirit, beauty, God is here, now. Pay attention.
You became a student of martial arts at a young age. What does it mean to be a warrior? And further, what does it mean to be a peaceful warrior?
DM: The term "warrior" has both a literal and metaphorical meaning. Literally speaking, warrior’s are those skilled in the arts of war – soldiers and law officers. They put themselves in harm’s way to serve and protect. They help to keep the wolves from our door, and we owe them a debt of things, and admiration for their courage and strength and grace under fire. Then there are martial artists training in the "warrior’s way," using combative skills and practice as a means to understand and train themselves. Then come extreme athletes who also face adversity, fear, and challenge. But to me the most common and perhaps significant meaning of warrior are those of us in everyday life who face our own adversities and challenges with a warrior spirit. In my view, only the most courageous souls come to this planet to learn. We are all peaceful warriors in training.
The film, Peaceful Warrior, has as one tagline, "There are No Ordinary Moments." What does that phrase mean to you.
DM: The film has a number of taglines – but No Ordinary Moments, also the title of my third book, is one of the key elements that Socrates teaches Dan in the book and in the film. That appreciation that it is a false way of looking at the world to see some special moments and other ordinary ones. As Soc says in the film, "The difference between you and me, Dan, is that you practice gymnastics, and I practice everything." Every moment deserves our attention and respect.
Athletics has been an important part of your life. What did athletics offer you in your life and what do you tell young people about what athletics has to offer them?
DM: Most of us have learned that adversity can strengthen us, teach us, and maybe even provide a certain level of compassion and empathy for others who also face adversity. Well, sports are a form of voluntary adversity – they are like life, but more so! And the progressive, sometimes discouraging, practice of sport can teach the athlete a great deal of wisdom about life – the universal laws that govern how life works – like the power of choice, process, presence, integrity. There’s a saying, "I hear and I forgot; I see and I remember; I do and I understand." In the doing, athletes gain great wisdom, but most often they don’t appreciate or fully utilize what they have learned, because they are so focused on winning and losing, instead of learning. Once an athlete begins to see his or her practice as a Way, or a path of personal and spiritual development, as a metaphor of life, they are on a path filled with more light and meaning. My book Body Mind Mastery makes this more clear.
What does enlightenment mean to you, and is it something we should be searching for?
DM: I don’t know what you or anyone else should be searching for. I can only say that I’m no longer searching for enlightenment; I’m just living my life, moment-to-moment, the best way I can. Those of us who begin to suspect that we may be sleeping, in some sense, have a yearning to awaken to a more clear and simple and brighter reality, a deeper understanding of life. This seems a positive quest, and I believe our daily lives inevitably direct us towards this end.
So often it is said that we must live more in our heart and less in our head. In the film, Dan is told to take out the trash, referring to emptying his mind of negative, self-defeating thoughts. How do we do that, with intention?
DM: I expect that this idea of "taking out the trash" will be misunderstood by many, and I’ll have to spend the next 10 years explaining or clarifying, so I might as well start here: We do not have to fix our insides or think only positive thoughts. Thoughts and feelings change like the weather – sometimes a sunny day, sometimes a storm or dark clouds – but despite what we think or feel, the world awaits us, and demands positive action. I have more control over what I do than what thoughts or feelings come into awareness. The "trash" is not our thoughts – it is our attachment to thoughts, our deluded belief that we are those thoughts, or that we have to fix them in order to get on with our lives. Trying to quiet the mind for any given time seems a wild goose chase; rather, let the mind be what it will be. Learn from thoughts and feelings, but don’t let them hijack your life. Focus on constructive action.
What is your purpose in this life?
DM: According to the sage wit Robert Byrne, "The purpose of life is a life of purpose." I’ll rest with that. Find your purpose in this moment, and the next. The quality of your actions, your moments, will be the quality of your life.
Would you like to close with any other thoughts at this time?
DM: I close with a brief excerpt from my book, The Laws of Spirit (H J Kramer / New World Library). When the woman sage bids me farewell after an adventure together, she offers the following words:
"These are my wishes and prayers for you, all the days of your life. May you find grace as you surrender to life. May you find happiness, as you stop seeking it. May you come to trust these laws and inherit the wisdom of the Earth. May you reconnect with the heart of nature and feel the blessings of Spirit.
"The challenges of daily life will remain, and you will tend to forget what I have shown you. But a deeper part of you will remember, and when you do, life’s problems will seem no more substantial than soap bubbles. The path will open before you where before there grew only weeds of confusion. Your future, and the future of all humanity, is a path into the Light, into a growing realization of the Unity with the Creator and all creation. And what lies beyond is beyond description.
"Even when the sky appears at its darkest, know that the sun shines upon you, that love surrounds you, and that the pure Light within you will guide your way home. So trust the process of your life unfolding, and know with certainty, through the peaks and valleys of your journey, that your soul rests safe and secure in the arms of Spirit."
For more information on Dan Millman and the Peaceful Warrior way, visit www.danmillman.com