Dan Millman: No Ordinary Moments in the School of Life
Syndicated from soundstrue.com, Jul 13, 2018

48 minute read


Tami Simon: This program is brought to you by SoundsTrue.com. At SoundsTrue.com, you can find hundreds of downloadable audio learning programs plus books, music, videos, and online courses and events. At SoundsTrue.com, we think of ourselves as a trusted partner on the spiritual journey, offering diverse, in-depth, and life-changing wisdom. SoundsTrue.com: many voices, one journey.

You're listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest is Dan Millman. Dan Millman is an author and lecturer whose semiautobiographical book Way of the Peaceful Warrior first ignited public imagination almost 40 years ago. Dan Millman has authored 17 books, which together have been published in 29 languages. In 2006, his first book, The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, was adapted to a film—Peaceful Warrior.

With Sounds True, Dan Millman has created a new audio learning program. It's called The Complete Peaceful Warrior's Way: A Practical Path to Courage, Compassion, and Personal Mastery, where he reminds his listeners that life comes at us in waves of change that we cannot predict or control, but we can learn to surf these waves with perspective and resilience.

In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Dan and I spoke about how our everyday life can be like spiritual weight training, and the 12 areas of life that we are each called to master. We talked about Dan's definition of "faith" and how its lens that he uses to see life as a school—one that's been designed for our learning. We also talked about the spiritual lessons Dan's learned from physical disciplines such as tai chi and aikido; why it's important to drive like a Zen master; various kenshōs, or enlightenment experiences, in Dan's life; and finally, how to die psychologically in meditation and be a peaceful warrior in the contemporary world. Here's my conversation with Dan Millman:

Dan, I want to begin by talking a little bit about your own autobiographical story that you present in allegorical form in The Way of the Peaceful Warrior in terms of the relationship between disillusionment and the spiritual path, and how that link existed—if it did in your own life—and what you have to say about that, how those things can really be linked for many of us.

Dan Millman: As many of your listeners understand, the word "disillusion" sounds negative but it also could be interpreted as a freeing from illusion—dis-illusion. So, one of the reasons, Tami, that I ended up exploring as much as I did is I was sensitive to this process of disillusion. I was fortunate enough to come from a very stable environment as a youth and I had a measure of success in the sports arena and did fine in school and so on. My life seemed to be going well, and yet I noticed nothing seemed to last—happiness, satisfaction, fulfillment [were] just until the next thing—which is not a bad thing as I look back on it.

But at the time, I started exploring, "Where is happiness, fulfillment? What are we here for?" I don't know why I had those questions, but maybe it was because my attention was freed from other struggles in other areas.

I began to try—I tried sports and I trained in martial arts and I was very much into self-improvement, but I saw that in a sense as a never-ending process. No matter how much I improved myself, only one person benefited. So, somewhere along the line I started noticing that if I could somehow influence other people in a positive way, that would bring more meaning to my own life. Not everybody has that calling, but it was for me.

So, I began as a teacher and I taught what I knew well, which was gymnastics. I started in that arena and that transited over to a gymnastics coaching job at Stanford University and then a professorship at Oberlin College in Ohio. All the while, I kept exploring for myself, "Where is happiness? What does this mean?" Over the years, it seemed to evolve into—rather than just seeking a good feeling, it was more about seeking meaning, knowing my life counted for something and purpose and direction, which I think many of us are seeking beneath that surface of, "I want to be fulfilled and I want to feel good and I want to be happy."

So, that is sort of a compendium of my journey and how disillusionment took me there. It was like that old—I guess it's a Vedantic technique: neti neti neti. "Not this, not this, not this." I've found it's the old "kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince or princess" principle. I found out what didn't make me happy, and that continuous search led me into what we would call "spiritual realms," life's bigger picture, and which finally integrated more into the everyday life.

TS: Let's say someone is listening right now and they have a sense in some way of feeling disillusioned in their life. Maybe a relationship has ended that was an important relationship, or there's some sense that their work in the world needs to shift. It's really interesting that you pointed out—I hadn't thought about it—the word itself, "disillusioned," that we're dropping our illusions. But, what would you say to that person who's in that state of mind right now listening?

DM: Well, illusions can be wonderful. We see it in movies and everywhere else—magical thinking and wishful thinking and love lasting forever. Those kinds of illusions—well, I don't know that they are. My wife and I are very much in love after 43 years of marriage, so it can a last a long time.

But, I think awareness heals. Awareness of a problem is the beginning of the solution, but it's not always pleasant. So, I am not implying that someone saying, "I'm so disillusioned," is a really positive experience. It usually isn't, and yet when we have that difficult relationship, we learn from it.

As I point out on our new audio program, The Complete Peaceful Warrior's Way, our lives are about learning. It's a fundamental purpose of daily life, and that this process of disillusion that—of starting to see reality more and more clearly, and how life works, is a gradual evolution and maturation process.

So no, it isn't pleasant. We need to hold to that thread of attention that it's always useful. And so maybe the next relationship—we become disillusioned once, maybe the next one we'll bring more resources to that, more understanding.

TS: Now, I read, Dan—when preparing for this conversation—an interview in which you defined "faith" as the courage to live as if everything that happens to us is for our highest good and learning. I wanted to talk to you about that because, on the one hand, I love that definition. But then I have the other hand. On the other hand, the thought that I have is, "Well, gosh you can just look at everything as if it's a learning experience, and you're kind of putting that spin on life. Is that really what's happening here, or is that just a way to interpret life so we can hang in there and keep learning?"

DM: We do interpret life. Everybody. You and me and all the listeners look at life through a filter of our own projections, beliefs, values. You know that saying, as it goes: "We don't see the world as it is; we see the world as we are." We do put our particular spin.

So, if we're going to put a spin on reality the simple mystery of life arising in the moment. The Zen ideal of just "is-ness" or "such-ness"—things as they are without all the complications we add. While we're adding those complications, we might as well add positive ones.

For example, do I know that everything that happens is for our highest good and learning? I can't know that. I can't say that for sure, but I'd rather look at life that way than saying, "Life sucks," or, "I'm being punished by God," or, "I don't deserve any better." We have all kinds of spins on reality.

So, the idea of defining the law of faith as courage to live as if—first, one should first notice that I'm not asking anyone to believe anything. I'm not saying faith is a belief in this or that. I'm saying it's the courage to live as if—which means we don't know if it's true. But if we live as if everything that happens is for our highest good and learning, then it does put that positive spin on it—the possibility that we are learning.

I used to joke with people about being a writer. I said, "If you are a writer, everything is material. And if I'm ever scraping myself up off the street I can go, 'Wow, this is going make some great material.'" It doesn't mean I like or welcome that particular experience, but I can use it.

That's how we can approach life. I often use the term "spiritual weight-training"—the difficulties and challenges of everyday life which do arise. That's what life is about; its spiritual weight training, and we get stronger.

It is a positive way to look at the world in which we live. Now, you could bring up another what-if or on-the-other-hand, which is, "Wait a minute Dan. It's easy for you to say. You're living a basically the upper-middle class life—almost an entitled existence." Not deliberately, but that's my situation in life.

So, it's easy for me to say everything that happens is for our highest good and learning. What about someone who lives in Yemen or another impoverished area or a war-torn area? They're a refugee. There are people whose lives are extraordinarily difficult, and they do have a clear sense of purpose, which is survival. There is that one small plus in an otherwise difficult environment. So, it's easy for me to talk about everything that happens is for our highest good. What about them? Would I tell them something like that?

Actually, I would because we have to get out of abstractions. When we talk about things like the Third World or developing countries, that's an abstract idea. If you actually go to those places and speak with those people, they're just like us in the sense they want to be loved, understood; they want to live in security; they want to prosper; they want to have safety for their family and themselves. We're all alike in that way.

And some of those people in very difficult situations—war-torn countries—they may be kind, others may be more callous. Some are more generous, some are not. Some own two goats, some own one. When we get down to specifics, it still holds true that everything that happens to them is going to be a learning experience—a human soul being educated on planet Earth.

I'm not wise enough to know why I'm in this situation and they're in that one, luck of the draw, let's say. Those of us who are lucky, who are fortunate—we can do what we can within our life space, whether it's making contributions, donations, thinking globally, acting locally.

The truth remains the same, and one shouldn't be distracted by, "Easy for you to say, Dan." Yes it is, but I've shattered my right leg in a motorcycle crash. I've had disappointments. When I was young, I was divorced. I know the pain of that and difficult relationships. So, we all have our own life experiences. Plato said, "Be kind, for everyone is fighting their own battles."

TS: It's interesting, Dan, that you place this emphasis on looking at life through the lens of learning. You say this is a lens that you're choosing to pick up. Do you think of life as a type of school?

DM: Absolutely! It's one of the basic premises of this approach to living I call "the Peaceful Warrior's Way." In a book I wrote called The Four Purposes of Life, the number one purpose is learning life's lessons. It's based on that fundamental idea that planet Earth functions as a divine school and daily life as our classroom—a school for souls, if you will.

Again, do I know this? No, but I think it's an empowering and resourceful way to look at the world. What that means is: I'm suggesting that daily life and the challenges we meet in daily life—and the pleasures and joys as well—they are guaranteed to teach us everything that we need to learn to evolve as human beings. What I'm saying is: one doesn't have to listen to my audio program or read any of my books or anyone else's in order to evolve as a human being. People were evolving on planet Earth before there were books and seminars.

But you might say, “Dan, then why do you write books and teach seminars and whatnot?” The answer is: good reminders. That's all I can do—offer reminders and perspective. But they can be useful. They can help us learn the lessons of life more easily and gracefully so we don't have to go through as much crap, if you will.

We can learn easier lessons, and there's a favorite story. It's about a man who was given a parrot, and he loved this bird. It was beautiful and very intelligent. Parrots live a long time. Of course, it could speak too. It could learn to talk, and someone had taught this parrot to curse like a sailor. It was just incredible, creative use of invective. And so he was embarrassed by this. John's mother would come over, his friends would come over, and his bird would start cursing.

He tried everything to reform this bird. He tried playing Enya and other New Age music. He tried sending him to a bird therapist, and nothing seemed to work. Taught it affirmations; nothing worked.

Finally, one day John reached the end of his rope—end of his patience. The bird was cursing and he grabbed the bird, opened the freezer door, shoved him in the freezer, and shut the door. He heard muffled cursing and squawking inside. Suddenly though, dead silence. He was concerned. He said, "I hope I didn't hurt the bird."

He opened the door and reached in and a shivering Maurice—that was his name—the parrot walked out on his arm and stood on Johns shoulder and said right in his ear—he was a very articulate bird—he said, "John, I had a revelation in the freezer and I realized that my language needs cleaning up. My behavior needs improvement, and I'd like to ask your forgiveness, John. I vow to do better in the future."

That was very pleasing for John to hear, but then the bird added, "By the way, John, when I was in the freezer, I noticed a chicken in there wrapped up in plastic with his head cut off. Can you tell me what the chicken did wrong?”

TS: [Laughs.]

DM: Again, the bird was giving us all a lesson. We can learn easier lessons—which he wanted to learn—or more difficult ones. Life throws ping-pong balls before it throws bowling balls. In terms of learning, most of us have noticed that lessons repeat themselves until we learn them, again and again until we finally get the lesson. We know we've learned a lesson when either our perspectives—or even better, our actions—change. Then we know we've learned a lesson.

If we don't learn the easier lessons, they get more dramatic. And it's a perfect school in that way.

Learning sounds a little mundane. We're used to the academic situations in school and learning rote kinds of things. But this is the school of life. As it happens, there are 12 courses we're here to master, or at least gain facility in in order to graduate—in order to be truly ready to transcend for spiritual life and so on.

Those 12 courses I've written about in another book called Everyday Enlightenment. It deals with these 12 courses in the school of life. What I find fascinating—and I discovered this several years ago—is I've had a recurring dream in my life, Tami. The reason I'm sharing with your now and listeners is because I believe everyone has had that dream whether or not they remember it. But many people will remember it when I describe what it is.

It's that situation where I have an important exam in school, like a final exam or midterm, but I can't find my way there. Or even more common, I realize I'm going to this exam and it shocks me to realize in the dream that I signed up for the course, I've got the exam, but I never went to class because I forgot I signed up for the course and now I've got to take this final exam.

It's a typical academic anxiety dream. Many people say, "Hey, I've had a dream like that too." And the reason I believe many people have had that dream is because that describes our situation in everyday life. We're being tested all the time, but we don't know what courses we signed up for.

I'm not going to probably take the time now to go do more than just quickly list them just so people get a sense of the scope but I go into this in more depth in our audio program. The courses are: Discover Your Worth, Reclaim Your Will, Energize Your Body, Manage Your Money, Tame Your Mind, Trust Your Intuition, Accept Your Emotions, Face Your Fears, Illuminate Your Shadow, Embrace Your Sexuality, Awaken Your Heart, and Serve Your World.

I believe we are here to learn or gain facility in all those arenas. That doesn't add a burden in anyone's life because we're all working on those areas. Life is a little bit like that game whack-a-mole. You know what I mean by that—whack-a-mole?

TS: Yes, I do.

DM: Most people do because one thing pops up and then we take care of it and then something else pops up. That's part of our learning in everyday life.

TS: I have a question, Dan, about how you came up with these 12 courses in the school of life. How did you develop these 12 neat categories?

DM: I'm glad you asked that because it's a pretty interesting mystery, I think.

I don't know! I really don't know. Something has happened to me when I ask a sincere question—a good question—[and] the answers just come.

Just as one other example, years ago I was working with one of my mentors and we were teaching a training together up in Alaska to a group of therapists. He said, "We need to teach them an exercise program that is really simple, short, that they'll actually do it, [and] that's practical." He tasked me with coming up with this. I sat down, in a semi-meditative state and, based on all my experiences in gymnastics and martial arts and dance and yoga and so on, I just went, "OK," and, "Boom." These 16 exercises came—one, two, three, four; touched every part of the body and so on. Again, I teach that. I call it "The Peaceful Warrior Workout." I've been doing it every day for 30 years and I have been teaching it for that long. So, that's one example.

Another example to your point is that when I was on author tour, going around lecturing and giving many, many talks and interviews about one of my books called The Life You Were Born to Live—it's a very popular book of mine. I also cover [and] address essential elements of that on our audio program. I cover almost everything in some sense.

While I was doing that, I wanted people to understand—while I was on tour—that my work hadn't just turned to a numerological system. It was just one facet of my work. And that led to the question, "Well, wait a minute, what is my work about? What is personal development? What is personal growth?" We use that term all the time—"spiritual growth."

When I asked that question, it came to me and I started writing down what areas comprise the entire field of personal growth. Many people will say—well, it reminds me of a New Yorker cartoon, where it showed a man in a hospital bed and he wrapped in plaster and tape all over his body. He'd been apparently in a big accident. But his feet were OK. There was a doctor standing there with his arms crossed, smiling, saying, "As a podiatrist, I'd say you're a lucky man."

In other words, from the podiatrist's view—the foot doctor—he was a lucky man because his feet were OK. Many people specialize in one aspect of life. They're fitness experts, or health wellness experts, or they're financial coaches, or [they are] relationship experts. They take on one aspect of life, and that hasn't been my calling.

I'm a very good generalist. So, I wanted to see the big picture. What is personal growth? What is it comprised of? If one explores those 12 areas I listed—and I do explain what they mean and why they're important, and how we can improve in those areas. When we grasp that, that really covers the entire area of what we call personal development. We learn those lessons in everyday life. I should add that.

TS: It's interesting, Dan, that you live it up to the mystery how these 16 exercises that make up the Peaceful Warrior Workout just came to you, and how these 12 areas—was there some change in your life where, for lack of a better way of saying it, you got out of the way and this sense of having the ability to receive downloads or intuitive knowing just started coming to you?

DM: You put it very elegantly. I love the term "downloads." I believe—I've been asked that and I've considered it, and I believe it's because it's because of my commitment to share what I've learned. People who have read The Way of the Peaceful Warrior go, "Sometimes I'm a little sad because I wish I had a teacher like Socrates." For those who don't know my book, he's the old mentor played by Nick Nolte in the movie version of the book. He was my old mentor, an old gas station attendant, in Way of the Peaceful Warrior. They say, "I wish I had a teacher like Socrates." I think they're missing the point because he is their teacher. If they've read the book—I'm not here to hoard what I know—to hoard what has made me happy; some approaches to life, and some reminders and perspectives. I love to share that.

So, because of my commitment to share with other people, I think it opened a channel where I was gifted with some of these notions. We all have creative ideas now and then and come up with ideas, but they just came because of my commitment and to be a clear channel to share them with other people. That's probably why I was able to—in a sense—get out of the way.

TS: That's beautiful. It's really the twelfth lesson in the school of life that you referred to—serving your world; a sincere commitment to serve. That's beautiful.

DM: I'd love to interject here that my favorite movie—I would have to say—is Groundhog Day. Now, many people smile if they've seen the movie. They go, "That was a cute movie, a romantic comedy, right? A bit metaphysical."

But it's much more than that. There have been rabbis and priests and Sufis and Zen masters—they've all said, "That's our movie," because this selfish, self-centered guy goes though all these changes including deep depression—he kills himself a hundred times, a thousand times—but every time he keeps walking up at 6 AM in the same town and goes through his learning. Someone once calculated he probably went through 3000 years of the same day over and over.

At the end of the movie—and I'm not really spoiling it believe me. I've seen it many times. It doesn't hurt. It's not a spoiler for those who have not seen Groundhog Day—but the end of the film, he is completely committed to service not because it's a nice thing to do or because he's going to get some rewards. It's because there's nothing left to do.

I think many of us eventually come to realize it's the only real game in town. If we can make a difference and touch someone's life—even just saying a kind word to somebody—any chance I have to do that, I do it. If it's to pick up a little litter of the street near a trash can and throwing it in, those little things can make a difference, and it makes for a different quality of life. I wanted to interject that.

TS: Thank you. Now, I want to ask you a couple of questions about some of these lessons in the school of life that I think are really important. All 12 are, but I'm just going to ask you about a couple of them. The very first one you mentioned—realizing your worth. I think this can be incredibly challenging for people, even people who have done maybe a lot of meditation or have had other kinds of deep insights. There's still the sense somewhere inside that, "I'm flawed. There's something inherently wrong with me." How do you help people? What insight can help people really realize their worth?

DM: Sure. Great question. In fact, many people don't really even understand the term much less [are] able to deal with it because what our minds tend to do is translate it into self-esteem. I clarify on a program—I know it's in there—that self-worth is different from self-esteem. Esteem means liking something or someone, and self-esteem means liking ourselves, feeling good about ourselves, feeling confident. That seems a positive thing when you consider the alternative, but I've never been that invested in self-esteem because there are people with very high self-esteem we call sociopaths.

To me, self-esteem and feeling confident, as nice as that may be—it changes all the time. It's a very shallow, conscious idea. We always know our level of self-esteem in any given moment. Some people feel high self-esteem at a party but low self-esteem on a sports field. For others it's the opposite.

So, that changes all the time. Self-worth goes much deeper. Call it subconscious or unconscious level. It answers a deep question of, "How good of a person am I? How much do I deserve of life's blessings?" Rama Krishna, the Indian saint, said, "An ocean of abundance and bliss can rain down from the heavens. But if we're only holding up a thimble, that's all we're going to get."

It is a crucial area. That's why it's listed first among those 12 areas of life—is to rediscover our innate worth. It's not about feeling worthy. If we do something good, we feel worthy more and if we do something bad we feel less. But, it's more about recognizing first of all that we're all flawed. Do you remember that book called I'm OK, You're OK?

TS: Yes, I do.

DM: Virginia Satir, the psychologist, had a wonderful saying. She said, "I'm not OK, you're not OK, and that's OK." It's a profound acceptance of ourselves in our process, in our own stage of evolution, and trusting that and respecting it and even embracing it. We're all learning. We're all stumbling. But that's part of it.

So, it's not about being about flawed, therefore we're unworthy. It's about being flawed, therefore we continue to grow and learn. I've never met a teacher—a spiritual teacher—who did not have flaws. You know that. I know that. Including me!

We all have flaws, mistakes, weak points, a certain dorkiness, or sometimes worse. Look what's coming out in the news today. It's a very healthy period of disillusion in terms of sexual harassment and all [those] things coming out in politics today. Again, [that] circles back to that disillusion. We're seeing our flaws and that doesn't mean someone can't create great art or be an actor or a news commentator or a politician and do the best work they can in their field, and still have flaws. Actions have consequences.

But, this idea of worth is not about feeling worthy. It's about treating ourselves as worthy by virtue of being a human being on planet Earth. It's about our innate worth, not a sense of entitlement—like we're more worthy than someone else. It's just that we're doing the best we can day to day on planet Earth.

The irony of this one topic, Tami, is that those of us with the highest vision, the highest standards—some of the brightest souls have the biggest self-worth issues because we never meet our own standards. We always see how we make mistakes.

But our sense of worth should transcend all that. I'm a human being on planet Earth. I'm a peaceful warrior in training, as are you and all of your listeners. We should base our worth on that.

Why? Why is it important to have a strong sense of self-worth? Because if we don't, we tend to self-sabotage. We don't feel deserving. We get uncomfortable if something good happens, or we get in our own way. That's why it's the first of those 12 areas. And I do describe some of what I've shared with you now on our program.

TS: When you talk about being flawed—that we're all flawed, we're all human—I relate to that. And yet the subtitle of the series is a Practical Path to Courage, Compassion, and Personal Mastery. This is one of the things I wanted to ask you about—this idea of personal mastery. How do we understand that we're flawed human beings but there's a path to something like personal mastery?

DM: Wow, I love your questions. First of all, the term "master" is very tricky. In the East, they call someone "Master this," "Master that." It's an honorific like mister or Roshi, or anything like that. Mastering implies arriving at a destination, but I'd like to redefine that for the sake of the conversation.

And I'll do it this way: To be a master potter or a master sculptor or artist or gymnast or poet, I believe we step onto the path of mastery even near the beginning of our journey. Even when our skills aren't very high, we're on the path of mastery as soon as we make one fundamental recognition: "What I'm doing," whatever that may be, "is a direct reflection of my life."

In other words, how I do anything is how I do everything. If I practice gymnastics and I'm barely learning a few fundamental cartwheels but I recognize, "You know, learning gymnastics is a lot like life. It's a metaphor. It's a reflection of my life. I'm on the path of mastery."

Many people have become professional athletes—and I'm presuming this, but I believe—without ever stepping under the path of mastery because they haven't connected up their skill level—they haven't broadened it into the arena of daily life [and] how they're growing as people. I've seen many athletes—I've never seen a dumb athlete. I've seen academically disinclined athletes who don't have skills or even high IQs, but anybody who's skillful moving their nervous system and their body has a smart body and the nervous system is connected to the brain. Many athletes have learnt spiritual laws—universal laws about process, balance, presence—but they don't know what they know because they're so busy focused on external rewards—medals, scores, winning, losing, records. And they haven't noticed all they're learning about life.

This is the idea of mastery—recognizing, connecting what up what we do with the larger purpose and process of our life.

[Loud siren begins in the background.]

DM: By the way, I'm coming to you from Brooklyn, New York. I don't know if you can hear the ambient sound. I don't charge extra for that—the sirens in the background.

TS: Very good. Thank you, Dan. If I understand you correctly, you're defining personal mastery as being engaged moment to moment in whatever is happening in your life in a certain kind of way?

DM: I wrote a book titled Body-Mind Mastery and the subtitle is Training for Sport and Life. It is for athletes, or dancers, or martial artists, or anyone who trains in anything about the process of training—but it's "sport and life." That is why I call it Body-Mind Masteryfor the same idea.

Yes, it is engaged. We're saying, "I am learning how to live more. I'm learning about life through this discipline and the master teachers that I know don't teach us subjects. They teach us life through a subject."

TS: Let's, for a moment, go into this idea of these physical disciplines. I know that you've studied aikido and various other martial arts. You mentioned coaching gymnasts. What have you learned specifically from these physical disciplines that would apply to spiritual life for all of us?

DM: Let me answer that in a bizarre way. For those who remember that movie The Karate Kid, they may remember Mr. Miyagi, the Okinawan—the old gentleman who is a humorous and terrific martial artist. He used to play around with his chopsticks trying to catch flies with his chopsticks, seeing if he could grab them.

That came from an old Zen tale about Miyamoto Musashi, who was Japan's legendary swordsman. The story goes [that] one day he was in a little inn and his sword was there by his side in its scabbard. Some ruffians saw him walk in and they were impressed by that sword. They wanted to take it, basically. They were robbers. So, they started making loud comments about him, snide comments, but he ignored them. Miyamoto just picked up his rice with his chopsticks and continued serenely eating.

They got more and more aggressive, and finally they stood up and started surrounding him, going closer and closer. And just then, Miyamoto reached up and grabbed four flies—one, two, three, four—with his chopsticks and put them down. And then he turned and looked at them. By that time, they were running out the door because they'd seen what he just did. They recognized: here was a master.

It wasn't like the Western thing—"Well, he's pretty good with chopsticks. What can he do with a six-shooter?" You don't know because they did understand that how we do anything is how we do everything. They did not want to tango with this guy showing that kind of skill and ability.

So, sports are a visible metaphor for excellence, for striving—and by the way, I don't know if we're even going to get to the topic of success, but I never recommend anyone to strive for success. Not a good idea. Success is an abstract notion.

I recommend people strive for excellence because by striving for excellence moment to moment in anything we do—whether it's sport, dance, poetry, writing, the arts, whatever—if we strive for excellence, we're not only gaining facility and guaranteed to improve over time in anything that we practice consciously. We're guaranteed to improve. But more than that, we're not just learning one thing, we are learning skills—basic life skills. Persistence, concentration focus, sometimes courage, commitment. We're developing and honing those skills which carry over into everyday life. They become life skills.

So, sport is not the main thing, but many times people are grateful to their sport. They say, "This was my entryway into the present moment, into being absorbed in to the zone, into flow." Whatever tern you use.

I do not mean to imply that everybody needs to go out and become an athlete or become a sports person. However, I do recommend some practice. Whether it's the practice or meditation—including moving meditation like tai chi. But, practicing some physical skill is a wonderful way for us to remind ourselves about how we can learn, how we can evolve, and it's visible. We see visible improvement over time.

If I can share one more story . . .

TS: Sure.

DM: When I turned 60, which was—at the time of our recording here—about 11 years ago, I wanted to do something special for that anniversary. My wife said, “Have you thought about learning to ride a unicycle?” I went, "Wow, what a great idea." A friend of mine had a unicycle. He loaned it to me and told me to go to a large tennis court. I had two courts; it was a big space. It was level and I could get a death-grip on the chain-link fence, holding onto it while trying to stay up on this.

Anybody who's tries to ride a unicycle knows it's humbling because you get up on it and it goes "Whoop!" out from under you. You get up, try to peddle; "Whoop!" out from under you. It feels almost impossible when you first try, even if you ride a bike well.

So, I practiced for two hours the first day and it took me that long almost slowly make my way around the perimeter of this double court. I practiced for the first week and at the end of the first week I could lean forward and say, "Let's see how far I can go." I careened rather than rode about six pedals. The second week, I was able to do 12 pedals careening forward without any real control.

To make the story short, by the end of the third week, every day I came back. No matter how discouraged I was, I came back for about half an hour and I practiced. In any case, by the end of that third week, I could ride figure eights around the tennis court. Something clicked and I could ride a unicycle.

I learned two things from this experience—this physical training experience that I must have learned in gymnastics years before but I had forgotten. The first thing I learned was: everything is difficult until it becomes easy. The second thing I learned was even more important. There were a couple of days during that three-week process of learning where everything fell apart. It was a crisis. I was worse than I was three or four days before, and it was very discouraging. Many of us have experienced that in practicing something. Then I realized that usually the day after that so-called bad day I made a breakthrough—a sudden improvement.

It seemed to me that in life—whether it's a crisis in a relationship or in learning a skill—those so-called bad days when everything seems to fall apart, when our bodies are confused, our mind is confused—those are the days that learning is really happening. It's transferring from the front brain to the back brain, going deeper like learning to drive a gear shift car. You know how it's slow at first, then it clicks. Again, doing physical practices teach us these kind of things that are quite useful resources for everyday life. So, now I face any challenge in everyday life the same way based on what I've learned.

TS: I'm curious if in these physical disciplines that have been so magnetizing to you—including riding a unicycle—what have you learned specifically from working with your body? Whether that's breathing or relaxation or balance, what would be the most important lessons that you've learned at the body level?

DM: Two lessons, I would say. One is that spiritual life begins on the ground, not up in the air. It's so easy to get lost in abstract concepts and elegant ideas, but I always go, “What do you do with all of those ideas? How do you incorporate that into everyday life?”

There's that story from The Way of the Peaceful Warrior where Socrates tells me that knowledge or understanding is a mental faculty, but wisdom is doing something. I didn't quite understand. So Socrates—I was helping him with servicing a car that he had pulled into the service station, and he was just telling me the difference between knowledge and wisdom. I didn't quite get it, so he said, "You know how to clean a windshield, right?" I said, "Yes, I do." He tossed me the squeegee and said, "Wisdom is doing it.

There's something about that spiritual life beginning on the ground and doing—bringing it into life by doing it. Doing is understanding. Doing is realization.

So, that's one thing that physical engagement has taught me. The other is that enlightenment doesn't necessarily happen out of the body. Even though people talk about "out of body experiences," many people haven't even gotten into their body yet in terms of really, fully incarnating. Enlightenment is a whole-body experience. It may be that it's not even a mental experience—that enlightenment is just being a body living naturally in the world, without a head—just living naturally as a body. So, I believe enlightenment may be a physical, physiological phenomenon—not just some mental breakthrough.

TS: When you say that—"a physiological phenomenon"—in those moments, Dan, what does it feel like?

DM: People of course love stories of enlightenment—when the cosmic oar smacks us alongside the head and we suddenly realize or have a breakthrough. I have had various experiences. One time I realized in a way I can't fully articulate. It felt like a liberation from emotions—that I still had a lots of emotions, but they weren't me. That's easy to say. It's just words. But I couldn't sleep the whole night. I was so excited. It seemed like such an amazing discovery that I can't really articulate—thus the quotation by Lao Tzu or Chuang Tzu, who said, "Those who speak don't know. Those who know do not speak," because you can't really speak in words about transcendent experiences.

There was another time: I was sitting on a curb in Berkley, California eating a grapefruit I just bought from a local market. Suddenly, something came over me. I was watching cars drive by at eye-level because I was sitting on a curb—and litter in the street and car exhaust coming out. And suddenly everything was absolutely perfect. The car exhaust was the most perfect car exhaust I ever saw, and the litter was absolutely perfect. I was perfect. Everything in the world was perfect.

Remember: this was back in 1967 [or] '68. The Vietnam War was raging—a horrible time in our history. But I was unable to see anything other than a perfect part of our process unfolding as human beings. I don't know why. By the way, there was nothing in the grapefruit—nothing special, nothing psychedelic, but it was almost like that.

I don't know how these things happen, but I do know that I've had many, many kenshōs—meaning a sudden insight or breakthrough—through sports, through practice. That sense of absorption and flow and being immersed in the present moment. It wasn't something I could talk about; it was just there. I think many of your listeners may have had similar experiences, but they might be looking for something bigger, more dramatic. But we've all had mini-enlightenments of one kind or another—awakenings, breakthroughs in moments in our life. Many of them are when we're immersed doing something.

TS: Now, Dan, I want to ask you a question about this discovery: "These emotions aren't me." After that night that you didn't sleep and you were like, "Oh my, these emotions aren't me," have you found yourself getting caught in emotional experience—like being really angry or something like that? Or do you never feel yourself caught in the same way again?

DM: That brings up a larger question when people ask me, "Dan, have you mastered all that you teach in all of your books?" That saying, "We tend to teach what we need to learn,"—I must have needed to learn a lot with 17 books.

The answer to that question—"Have I mastered everything?"—is no. Absolutely not. But, I'm sincerely practicing and that's all I can ask of anyone. I'm probably a good example of what I've realized, embodied, and I teach. Not a perfect example, but a good one. If I weren't, I'd have no business talking about it.

So, that's the first thing that comes to mind when you ask that. And if you could repeat the question, I would like to—

TS: It had to do with "these emotions aren't me," and: do you find yourself getting caught in emotions on occasion?

DM: Yes, of course! Sometimes I feel angry. Usually, my wife—she's so good at pushing my buttons. Those you're vulnerable to and close to—intimates, family. Ram Dass used to say, "You think you're enlightened? Go visit your parents." That's a litmus test.

Yes, of course all kinds of emotions arise. One could pathologize my experience because I was going through an extremely painful, depressive time when I had that breakthrough—when I realized, "I'm not my emotions." One could say I just dissociated and cut off from my emotions. But, I don't feel cut off and I didn't feel cut off then. I was completely vulnerable, feeling everything intensely. But at the same time, it wasn't me. It was just these things arising.

Many people who meditate for many years report having more of a distance from thoughts and from emotions. They see them, they acknowledge them, they experience them, but they don't let them run the household, so to speak.

So, sure: I have emotions and sometimes I identify with them. My wife and I will have a very brief—and they tend to be very brief—argument about something, and I'll be grumpy for about a minute. But then it passes quickly. So, that's one difference: it doesn't last as long.

If you watch a young gymnast—a female gymnast on the balance beam. When she's just learning and beginning to learn, she'll lose her balance and fall right off the beam. I used to coach women's gymnastics as well as men's, so I know this. And after a while, and more and more and more practice, she'll bobble and almost fall off, but manage to regain her balance. As she gets better and better to elite levels, she'll still make mistakes, but they tend to be smaller. So, you'll barely see any kind of bobble. She just corrects them. They don't last as long.

And that's the process—two steps forward, one step back. Even what we call enlightenment is more like a dimmer switch being turned up and down and up and down—but over time, up higher and higher rather than just one light switch going on permanently and that's it.

TS: I still wanted to ask you about the second realization you shared, looking out on the Berkley streets and seeing the perfection in the litter, the smog, and everything that was there. Probably one of the most quoted lines, Dan, from The Way of the Peaceful Warrioris, "There is never nothing going on. There are no ordinary moments." You even wrote a book called No Ordinary Moments.

What I wanted to ask you about this is that often we can connect to that. Maybe even in this moment, as the person is hearing me quote this insight of yours—"no ordinary moments"—this moment suddenly becomes spectacular in some way—precious, sacred. But then we find ourselves in so many other moments of our lives on the surface—nothing special is happening. It's repetitive. I don't feel this sense of aliveness and preciousness. Do you have any recommendations when people find themselves in those seemingly very ordinary moments?

DM: Yes, I do. There's another line from the movie—"There's never nothing going on." If we're bored, we're also probably boring in that moment. Boredom generally is watching our mind wriggle round and round. Meditation is learning to master boredom, because when you sit down with your eyes closed, there's nothing going on but your thoughts and impulses. That's why kids—when they get older and their lives get more complicated, that's when they start for the first time saying, "I'm bored. When are we going to get there?" because they're starting to see the contents of their minds. You don't see that in very, very young children. They're just absorbed in whatever is going on even though they don't know what it is.

In the book, what happens is I'm doing tai chi and it's very special. I'm absorbed in the movements, the flow of the routine, a meditative state, and when I finish the routine—I'm wearing shorts, its summertime and my long pants are nearby—I notice some young girls watching me and I'm aware of that. I'm like, "Wow. They're impressed with my martial arts movements." While I was thinking about them, I was trying to put on my pants, and I got two feet caught in the same pants leg and I fell over to their laughter.

That's what I learned in that moment: that there were no ordinary moments. I was treating one moment as special.

There was another more dramatic story where Socrates is watching me in the gymnasium. This is after I had recovered from the broken leg. I was getting back into shape, and I did this full, twisting double-somersault off the horizontal bar. People have seen that in the Olympics and so on. I stuck my landing, which is good. You land and you don't move at all. You aspire to that, and it felt like a good place to stop [the] workout. I just said, "OK, that's it, Soc," and I ripped off my sweatshirt [and] threw it in my workout bag.

We were walking down the hall afterward, and he said, "You know Dan, that last move you did was really sloppy." And I was like, "What you are talking about, Soc? That was one of the best dismounts I did in a long time." He said, "I'm not talking about the dismount. I'm talking about how you took off your sweatshirt and put it in your bag." Again, he was reminding me I was treating one moment as special—flying off the high bar—and another moment as ordinary—like it didn't count, it didn't matter.

He pointed that out once again: no ordinary moments. When we can live that, then we've really got something. He added something to that. I got this line into the movie, actually. He added to that. He said, "Dan, the difference between is you practice gymnastics." He said, "I practice everything."

What did that mean? That sounds strange. What did he mean he practices everything? Normally, we do the laundry, we do our homework, we do the dishes. We do things all the time but how many of us practice the dishes? Practice the laundry—folding it for example? Practice doing our signature? Practice walking, practice breathing? The moment we're practicing something with the idea of improving it, we become more absorbed in that.

What if I had practiced taking off my sweatshirt? How gracefully could I do it? Could I breathe while doing I'm doing it? Could I fold it up properly and put it in—and have that mindset?

That' s what he was pointing out. That lesson never changes. So, it's not just a slogan. There are no ordinary moments. But, it's actually a profound teaching. That's what I would say to address that question, that topic.

TS: [Yes]. If somebody finds themself in a moment where there are—let's say you're doing something like the laundry, and you're like, "OK, I know this is no ordinary moment, but it sure is feeling pretty ordinary to me. I'm so sick of doing the laundry. God. Every week these . . ." How can we snap out of it and reconnect to that feeling of preciousness?

DM: Sometimes—and I know you're asking on behalf of your listeners too. But sometimes when someone asks "how," they know the answer. They're really asking, "What's an easier way, a trick, a technique to do it?" In this case: sure. I can tell anyone a technique. Take an object—unless they're driving their car right now. I would not recommend. And if they are driving in their car, do not text or do anything else. Drive like a Zen master. Just for one minute, see if you can drive like a Zen master. How would a Zen master drive? Completely focused, secure, aware of everything going on around you—more than normal.

It's like—you know how we're listening to the radio or podcast or whatever while we're driving? But if we're looking for a place—like in the old days when we did not have Google maps or whatever and we were trying to get an address at night, we turned off the radio—you remember this—because we couldn't concentrate.

TS: Yes.

DM: We recognized that attention is a zero-sum game. If we're doing two things at once, we're only giving each of them about half—or relatively speaking, half of our attention. When you're talking on the phone with someone and they're doing email at the same time, you know it. You can tell. You can hear it in their voice. They're not fully there; they're not fully present.

So, people who think they're multitaskers have to understand that we really are splitting attention. We have X amount of attention; we can split into doing one thing or more. If people want to realize in any moment, "No ordinary moments," they can just take an object—a set of keys, a glass, a small object—toss it in the air and pretend they have to catch it or they die. They must catch it.

With that kind of commitment, they will not be thinking about what they're going to have for dinner that night or what they did yesterday. That's why people like to play Frisbee and play musical instruments and perform on the stage—because it brings them back to that.

The trick is—look, meditation is a great practice. You meditate over time, you see more into the nature of mind and so on. But if we we're the same rascals we were when we open our eyes again and go about our day, then the meditation hasn't contributed to everyday life. We need to start meditating our life. That is the practice—to start treating our life as if we're catching a Frisbee or playing a game or performing before an audience—and making it count.

Perhaps a start is just reminding ourselves, "This is not an ordinary moment. This counts." This counts because the quality of our moments becomes the quality of our lives.

Michael Murphy, in a book he wrote, had this wonderful idea—this concept. I think the book was called Golf in the Kingdom, but it wasn't just about golf. He talked about enjoying the in-between, because golfers tend to be really focused when they're swinging the club, hitting the ball, and seeing it fly. Then they go semi-unconscious grabbing their clubs and walking off, or getting in the golf cart and driving to the ball. Most of our life is lived in the in-between. So, we need to enjoy and focus on the in-between rather than just on hitting the ball.

TS: Now Dan, there's so many things that I could talk to you about, and there's so much that you cover in your new audio teaching series, The Complete Peaceful Warrior's Way. There's just one last thing that I really want to talk to you about—

DM: Sure.

TS: —which is towards the end of this audio teaching series, which is very comprehensive. As you mentioned, you cover a lot of different aspects of your work that you've delivered in 17 books. You pick here in this audio teaching series certain key themes. And then at the end, you talk about meditation. You quote a teaching from your new book, The Hidden School, which is really the conclusion to the story of The Peaceful Warrior. You quote an instructor in the hidden school who offers two instructions about proper meditation practice. The instructions that are given by this teacher: first, you must find a balanced posture; and then second, you must die. I thought, "This is really cool. This is really cool meditation instruction," and I wonder if you can explain it a little bit for our listeners, especially this second: "you must die."

DM: Yes. That was another one of those things that actually came to me years ago when I spoke with a Roshi and he gave those instructions. I had to think about it. "What did he mean 'die'?" Obviously, he didn't mean physically die, but a psychological death.

It brought me back to that idea of the savasana pose in yoga, where people do the corpse pose or lying on their back and relax at the end of a routine to regroup and so on. It can be treated just as a deep relaxation exercise, but savasana is really about dying. It is about saying, "Now I am dead. Now I am no longer on earth. I don't have any of the qualities of life, and I have no attachments, no unfinished business," because unless we die psychologically when we sit down to meditate, we're still sitting down pretty much attached to everyday life. We know we're taking a brief respite, but whether it's a few minutes or an hour, and we're doing things and we have unfinished business—things in process. We've got to deal with our lives physically, emotionally, mentally, relationally, financially; decisions we have to make.

So, we sit down to meditate and all those things still intrude. Yes, we can use them as fodder for the meditation just to notice and let it go, but it still impacts the depth by which we can go. But if we are willing to psychologically die—to sit down as if we are dead in good posture—then we're ready to meditate properly and go deep.

As a result of this contemplation, I said, "Well, what does it mean to die?" This is just like those 12 areas of life, just like that peaceful warrior work, and I said, "What does it mean to die? What do we go through? What do we have to let go of?” and I've actually created a four-minute meditation on the process of dying. Those who do it will find a profound impact of learning this process, this meditation. I've done it for several years myself. In four minutes, it can service a standalone meditation, and the purpose of it is to embrace life, to reawaken an appreciation for something we almost inevitably take for granted day to day, which is the rarest of opportunities to live a life as a human being on planet Earth. It is so rare.

That's why I present this meditation. That's its usefulness. But it has a secondary benefit for those who already practice meditation of one style or another. This is a wonderful transition into their meditation because first they die, going through this process of letting go. Then they're ready to go much deeper in their usual practice.

TS: Dan, can you just say a little bit more. When you say "psychologically die"—"I'm sitting up and I'm psychologically dying,"—what do you mean by that?

DM: It means letting go of time. Again, which is letting go of imagination and memory, which is past and future. It means letting go of objects—everything that we possess or that possesses us. It means letting go of relations—anyone we've ever known loved ones, friends, acquaintances. It means letting go of action—the ability to move. All the responsibilities and duties.

And so on, and I take people through the whole process, including the senses. By going through this process, we really experience in a bittersweet, poignant sense of what we release and let go of and must surrender and relinquish in the process of dying. We let go of all those things. That's what I mean by just saying you must die psychologically. Once we've done that, it becomes much easier to cut that remaining thread to the self and let go of the self. That's part of the meditation as well.

TS: I'm just going to end on this question, Dan—which is it seems for many people that there has never been a more important time—at least in the lives of people of this generation—to be peaceful warriors in the world—to respond to our political situation, our environmental crisis, as peaceful warriors. I'd love to hear what you think guidelines are for peaceful warriors who want to respond to what they see as the pain of the world.

DM: Sure. I can answer that with another story. During, again, the Vietnam era when I was going to college and I met Socrates, he and I were walking down Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. At this particular time, I was doing a great deal of work on myself. Self-analysis, self-observation, meditations, even a self-massage—a Mongolian warrior massage to clear tension, produce tension from bone surfaces of the body. I was doing a lot of internal processing at the time, and we walked by some posters on the wall—one about oppressed peoples, and one about the war, and another about starving children.

I turned to him and I said, "You know Soc, I feel guilty and selfish doing all this navel-gazing—all this work on myself—when there are so many people in need out there. Shouldn't I be more politically active and do things in the world to make a difference?"

Apparently, didn't hear me or ignored me, but suddenly he stopped and said, "Hey, take a swing at me," and I said, "What? Did you hear what I was just saying?" He said, "Yes, come on. I'll give you five bucks if you can slap me on the cheek. Go for it." I figured it was some kind of test, damn me, so I bobbed and weaved and finally I took a quick swing at him—and I found myself on the ground in a rather painful wrist-lock.

(By the way, I actually got this scene into the Peaceful Warrior movie a week before they started shooting.)

As he led me up from the ground, he said, "You noticed a little leverage can be very effective?" And I shook my wrist out and said, "Yes, I noticed."

He said, "Well, if you want to help—if you're moved to help the world and help people," he said, "of course, do what your heart tells you. Do what you can." But he said, "Do not become such an activist that you neglect the work on yourself, because you need that to develop the clarity to know how to exert the right leverage at the right place at the right time."

That was his point: how to exert the right leverage, and I've been trying to do that ever since in my own life not just through my books and teachings, but in my own life when I see a need. Many of us feel frustrated because we feel powerless. What can we do about the larger events happening in the world? We may or may not be able to have a major impact on that, but we can have small impacts. Mother Teresa said, "We cannot all do great things, but we can do small things with great love."

So, we do email campaigns; or we sign up on email lists to support one or another petition; or we protest; or we do all kinds of things to try to make an impact on the larger world. But sometimes we don't know there's an almost magical quality about it, I'd say. When we do a kind word to one person in our immediate environment, we uplift their day. Maybe they'll pass it forward in some way without knowing it. They feel a little better. I did something like that this morning, but I'm not going to go into it now.

The point is: we can do things in our immediate environment to help the world around us—our loved ones, our friends, people in our circle. And that's what I go into in that twelfth arena of life—serve your world—and how we might be able to do that in small ways that can make a big difference.

TS: I've been talking with Dan Millman. Most of us know him as the author of the spiritual classic, The Way of the Peaceful Warrior. He is the author of 17 books, and with Sounds True has created a new audio teaching series. It's called The Complete Peaceful Warrior's Way: A Practical Path to Courage, Compassion, and Personal Mastery. Dan, you have been a wonderful person to share these extraordinary moments with. Thank you.

DM: Thank you, Tami.

TS: Thank you.

DM: I appreciate the opportunity.

TS: SoundsTrue.com: many voices, one journey.


This article is syndicated from Sounds True. Sounds True offers transformational programs to help you live a more genuine, loving and meaningful life. 

1 Past Reflections