Way of the Peaceful Warrior: A book that changes lives
I was gifted this book when I was a young man and without realising it gave me an operating-system way of understanding my journey which I have returned to again and again. It’s one of those books I pull off the shelf every year or so to add to the dog-ears and the coffee stains, to re-read and be re-reminded, that oh yeah I’ve been missing this key point or that key way of living for a while, how did I not see that? Better tighten that up. Better learn to level that up. It is the book I have given away most.
Part historical account, it is an embellished autobiographical narrative of Dan Millman’s college years when he was a champion gymnast destined for the Olympic Games. Where one day he meets a mysterious and enigmatic character who sets him on a path of learning as the title Way of the Peaceful Warrior suggests.
The idea is simple. But I hadn’t come across it when it first showed up in my life. That learning how to live well takes work. Here I was assuming that it would just naturally unfold and occur while I was busy off chasing stuff and being caught up in whatever I got caught up in. What the story shook me up to was that learning to live well, to live like a warrior, means looking at a lot of areas that require refinement. Learning to live well is not a part-time gig. Way of the Peaceful Warrior describes morning routines, meditation, and wellbeing via a story set in the 1960s before there were personal productivity podcasts, Crossfit, or paleo.
One of the things I love most about this story and what keeps me coming back is the realness of the struggle.
For Dan it wasn't just a matter of setting the alarm to get up extra early for morning push-ups and yoga. Dan describes in such a self-effacing way all the failures, heartbreaks, and false starts along his journey. He struggled to control his urges. He hated being the odd one out amongst his friends on pizza and beer night. Meditation sucked for a long while. And then, just when things were starting to look up, he suffered a horrific motorcycle accident that smashed his leg and dreams of ever continuing on to become an Olympic champion. It gave me a clear-eyed look at what it takes to continue to walk the line, and I’m so glad it painted me a realistic portrait rather than dressing it up in a motivational poster. If you want it, work for it. Figure it out. And by the way, learn to enjoy the discomfort, because it’s going to get really, really uncomfortable.
I think the hardest part of really understanding this book for me was around the issue of "what is learning to live well?" The book has much to say about this, describing many of the disciplines that Dan was instructed in by his teacher that form an integral part of the narrative - training the body, training the mind, refining his attention, cultivating discipline in his choices around food, speech, distractions. And this is all undoubtedly important.
But it was not the most important part of the path.
That came much later, in fact right at the end of the book. When after years of struggle Dan finally learns to let go, to pay real attention to each moment, to not take it all so seriously!
I think the part that's been hard for me to fully articulate is that delicious paradox. Because it can be maddening in how inconsistent those two approaches seem on the surface. One the one hand, we are to cultivate a series of disciplines which allow us to iterate into a way of living with more vibrancy and less addiction to our cravings and aversions. On the other hand, learn to let it all go! Not that one should throw away the disciplines, but learn to truly realise, we are here for but a beautiful, fleeting, blink of eternity. Remain in that awareness, cultivate that, and see how so many of our concerns. Do. Not. Matter.
Way of the Peaceful Warrior sowed a beautiful seed in me for which I will be forever grateful. The character who Dan adopted as his mentor during those years was full of wisdom, but one line still resonates through me more than most; “Better to never begin. Once begun, better finish.”
May we all continue to learn how to live well.