Self-help books often bug me, which is why I was pleased to find that this was not a self-help book, at least not in the traditional sense. Dan Millman’s opus certainly can be used to help create changes in the life of the reader; what he offers in the book is often advice worth listening to - and at the very least it has the potential to help the reader think about things in a different way. But that’s not the solid core of what the book is.
Way of the Peaceful Warrior is a beautiful melding of factual events from Millman’s life, bold dialogs stripped and remolded from their (often ancient) roots, and made palatable for the modern generation, and a heavy helping of pure fiction (some possibly inspired by sixties counter-culture drug usage). In the end what emerges is a spiritual dialogue created in the same vein as Plato’s work in philosophy - adding some irony to the the main guru’s name in the book. Millman offers here not logic puzzles, but zen ‘anti-puzzles’, as well as a number of parables and occasionally even outright instruction.
Most of us have wanted, at some point in our lives, the Socrates-figure to enter our life and force us to reorder ourselves, and in this book Dan Millman stuffs a lifetime of lessons into a character who is perfect for the job, allowing his fictional counterpart and the reader, both, to experience the leadership of someone who knows more than we do, and believes in us enough to help us find our way.
There are some things in this book that I didn’t totally appreciate or enjoy - especially toward the end, we find Millman entering into more traditional dialog, featuring references of “God”, or using a dues ex machina to erase his character's’ memory - and thereby suggesting what I assume is his real-world experience of feeling like he, the real Dan Millman, had met his wife-to-be long before they actually encountered one another. Sweet, but somewhat shoddy writing, and unfair to the characters (I have something more specific to say about this, which I’ll get to in a moment). His portrayal of his younger self too is (to cash in on that annoying anger-culture word) ‘problematic’, at least for me. Remembering that this story is set in the sixties, when a vastly different set of cultural norms were in effect, helps me understand it better, but I still find myself personally at odds with how the central character views the world. Which is maybe the point too, who knows. As the fictional Dan explores his path, I definitely walked with him on the whole, but more than once found his voice difficult to identify with and instead found myself clinging solely to the parts where Socrates was at the center of the action.
*As a side-note, I watched the movie when I was about halfway through the book, and while I enjoyed it well enough, I can safely say that it is no masterpiece. In a way, neither is the book, but the material in the book offers up the sort of imagery that deserves a competent director. I would love to see the David Lynch or Stanley Kubrick version of ‘Peaceful Warrior’. If I ever get to the big leagues with film someday, I may come back and take the crack at this work that I feel it deserves..... ;)
Sliding back for just a moment though, what I really dislike about the scene [Spoilers ahead] where Socrates erases the memory of Dan and Joy, is that it was done completely for Dan’s benefit, and seems to be totally unfair to Joy. She hadn’t asked for that to happen, and had no say in it. Dan had made the decision to follow through with whatever Socrates threw his way, but we never get to see Joy given the same choice. It’s a minor quibble in some respects I suppose, but I dearly dislike the idea of anyone having their freedom of choice overruled in such a fashion. It reminds me too much of the modern discussions about roofies and rape. Not to say that this was the intention - I believe I briefly suggested above what I thought the author’s intent with that element was, and I could certainly be accused to reading too deeply into this one small part of the book - but I’d rather be accused of that than of being oblivious.
Still, once I get done with my main quibbles, I have to say - I found this book fascinating. An easy read for sure - it slide through my eyes and into my brain, and even just reading it sparingly I rolled through the chapters like a hot knife through butter. I feel that this is a book that deserves a second read-through however, in order to really catch the subtleties of the messages Dan is working into the narrative. Some of them are blatant, but even then, it might pay to take another look.
I personally liked how the Socrates character took a number of zen koans, and other traditional material, and altered them slightly so as to better fit the modern mindset. I think that people switch off a little when they’re introduced to certain messages, unless the message has been formatted for easy transfer, and that’s basically what Dan seems to have done with this whole book. Taken a lot of old ideas, and placed them within a medium that allows for easy transference (the aspect of this being based on a true story, his life story to be exact, is one such method. People love ‘true stories’).
Personally I think one of the best pieces of the book was the focus that Socrates made on pushing Dan to be more aware of himself. Of his surroundings. Of his friends, the food he ate, his goals in life, and the things he read or heard. This advanced focus on awareness is the first step to real critical thinking, and I also think is simply one of the most important lessons one can learn in life (and one that is unfortunately not often freely available to people, or stressed as important when it is).
Another point that’s grown on me since I finished reading the book, is that there was no absolute resolution. Obviously, as I’ve said before, this was not a classical narrative work, so a traditional ending wasn’t something I exactly expected (truth to be told, I wasn’t sure what to expect at the end of the book). [Minor Movie Spoiler ahead] Unlike in the film, the book does not provide an absolute resolution. Actually it’s unfair of me to suggest that the film does this, because it does leave things at a very open-ended juncture, but it also misses one of the most important parts (I think) of the book. That Dan Millman had to spend literally a dozen years before he came to his first major breakthrough in his training with Socrates, and in the book I was able to feel the frustration, loss, and pain of the ups and downs of life.
I find that all too often in our modern media there is an abnormal emphasis on getting to the end of things, finding fulfillment, reaching perfection, having a sense of completion… etc. etc. etc. These things only exist within a certain type of artificial narrative, life isn’t like that - and yet we’ve become so inundated with the idea that it is; we’re so constantly bombarded with the message that there’s a ‘quick fix’ that will lead us to ‘fulfillment’, that I think it’s become a bit of a social disease. In the book we’re given a sense of advancement - fulfillment of a sort, yes (after all, Dan Millman ended up being very successful at what he does, and there is surely some fulfillment in a life well lived like that), but it takes place under a much broader umbrella than we’re used to. It’s not a “whoops, the story is over, everyone lived happily ever after”. It’s more of a “whoops, life is strange and it’s more about being aware and comfortable with the ups and downs than it is reaching a plateau of fulfillment’.
Anyway, there is probably going to be more stuff I want to say about the book, and I might… but for now I’ll leave it there. Maybe in the future, once I’ve had a chance to go back and read it over again (or parts of it at least), I’ll be able to organize my thoughts on it better. For now I’ll simply close by saying that this was definitely a book I needed to read, and it just happened to arrive at the perfect point in my life for it to do some good. One book alone isn’t the answer, but in this one I think is the potential to guide your feet toward the road.
Public project updates, author information, and the like. For more of Odin's thoughts, follow him on Twitter.