Way of the Peaceful Warrior - Critical summary review - Dan Millman

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Way of the Peaceful Warrior - critical summary review

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Spirituality & Mindfulness and Biographies & Memoirs

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: Way of the Peaceful Warrior: A Book That Changes Lives

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 1932073205

Publisher: HJ Kramer

Critical summary review

Adapted into a 2006 movie starring Nick Nolte, Dan Millman’s 1980 novel “Way of the Peaceful Warrior” is a part-fictional, part-autobiographical account of the author’s early life. The book blends facts with archetypes to tell the inspiring story of his transformation from a talented gymnast – under the tutelage of a white-haired centenarian – into an enlightened, peaceful warrior. Get ready to hear it out!

The dreams in which I’m dying

A friend once told Dan Millman that he was born to be an acrobat. Clean-cut with “a lean, wiry body” and “a penchant for daredevil stunts,” he certainly looks the part in the autumn days of 1964, as he waves goodbye to his mother and father and sets off in his old Valiant for San Francisco Bay and his first year at college. 

Both San Francisco and Berkeley welcome him warmly. In just a few days, he’s “drowning in a sea of people, papers, and class schedules,” savoring the sights and smells of the city and spending countless “sweaty hours” training at Harmon Gymnasium, dreaming of becoming a champion. 

The hard work pays off. As a freshman, Millman wins the 1964 Trampoline World Championships in London and earns All-American honors. By 1966, his reputation is such that people begin to recognize him on the streets. The Daily Californian regularly runs stories about Millman. Girls smile at him. One of them, “a savory, unfailingly sweet friend with short blond hair and a toothpaste smile” becomes his girlfriend. Even his studies are going well. Seemingly, life can’t get any better for Millman. 

However, there’s a problem. In the midst of all his achievements, Dan feels lonely, sad and overwhelmed by “something dark and intangible” he can only describe as “a growing melancholy.” In the early autumn of 1966, his junior year, things get even worse, as a recurring nightmare starts eating away at his very soul. 

In the dream, he walks along a dark city street surrounded by windowless tall buildings, when a towering shape cloaked in black confronts him. It is the Grim Reaper, beckoning Millman with his white, bony finger. Suddenly, a white-haired man with a calm and unlined face appears and draws Death’s attention away from Millman with laughter. A few moments later, the old man seizes the Grim Reaper by his cloak and tosses him into oblivion. Grateful, Millman walks toward him only to dissolve into the old man’s body. Looking down at himself, he sees that he is now wearing a black robe. His hands unwillingly come together in prayer. To his dismay, he notices they are white and bony. He wakes up, sweating and screaming softly.

The gas station at rainbow’s end

One December night, unable to fall asleep, Millman goes for a walk. The cold makes him hungry, so he heads for an all-night gas station to buy some cookies and a soft drink. Rounding the corner of the garage adjoining the station, he trips over a man sitting in the shadows. “Sorry if I startled you,” the man says in a strong, musical voice, without looking up. As Dan makes his order, he realizes there is something almost too familiar in the man’s laugh and his shining white hair. Yes, he is none other than the man in his dreams!

Startled, Dan tries to leave immediately but as he turns back, he sees the man standing on the roof of the garage. “How did you get up on the roof so fast?” he asks him. “The world's a puzzle,” replies the old man. “No need to make sense out of it.” Unsatisfied with the old man’s answer and his demeanor, Millman abruptly ends the conversation and heads for the door. “Don’t go,” he hears. “I may be useful to you.” Dan, nevertheless, leaves but not before naming the strange old man Socrates and agreeing to come back and visit him the following day.

“You know, Socrates, I feel as though I've met you before,” he says during their second meeting. “You have,” the old man answers to his surprise. “I've been in many people's dreams.” What he says next is even stranger: “I'm 96 years old, by your time. And I wouldn't mind having one last student.” Even though Dan objects to needing another teacher, it doesn’t take long before he is completely taken with Socrates and becomes his willing apprentice. Somehow, even with all his seeming lies and obfuscations, the old man makes a lot of sense to Dan. Unlike everything else in the world.

The joy and magic of learning

Over the course of a few months, Socrates teaches Dan how to live his life with purpose and be happy in the face of life’s challenges. He initiates him into the way of the peaceful warrior by mysteriously inspiring in the young man’s mind visions of his whole life. Through these visions, he shows Dan just how profoundly he is trapped in the illusions created by his mind. He guides him to the realization that life is the only real teacher and that experience – and not thinking – is the path toward clarity. By constantly ridiculing Dan’s supposedly “serious, concerned, problematic life,” he rearranges the young man’s mind and infuses it with “wisdom, compassion and humor.”

One day, a “small, dark-haired figure of a young woman” appears in the doorway of Socrates’ garage. Blessed with a clear, shining complexion and soul-piercingly large, dark eyes, the woman exudes “an aura of delicate fragility.” Her name, Dan learns, is Joy. Coincidently, that is precisely what he feels every time he sees her, so it doesn’t take long for him to become smitten with her. The only problem is that, just like Socrates, Joy seems more a vision than a real-world inhabitant. Though she is seemingly also a student of Socrates’ ways, she is anything but a regular attendee of the old man’s unconventional classes, and, anyway, seems to know much more than Dan about everything. 

Dan’s fascination with Socrates and Joy contributes to his alienation from his classmates and gymnastics team. Even so, he starts feeling calmer and more relaxed, and he wants to share his life and the lessons he has been learning with his teammates. One day, before warm-ups, he gives one of them Socrates’ magical business card, capable of manifesting the old man out of thin air upon demand. “Is this a joke?” Dan’s friend replies, after noticing the card is blank. “I don't get it, Dan.” Dan doesn’t either, so he confronts Socrates. But just as he is about to accuse him of using disappearing ink to make him look like an idiot, the writing reappears on the card. It says: “Warrior, Inc. Socrates, Prop. Specializing in: Paradox, Humor, and Change. Emergencies Only!” 

What will be, will be

Not long after the strange incident with the business card, Dan learns that the United States Gymnastics Federation is flying him to Ljubljana, Yugoslavia, to watch the World Gymnastics Championships. They think Millman is a potential Olympian and want to give him some exposure. In relaying the news to Socrates, Dan also tells him that he needs a little break. “Soc, I'm flying down to L.A. in a few days to visit my folks,” he says. “I'm going to buy a motorcycle while I'm down there.” "What will be, will be," replies Socrates, unimpressed. 

A little later, during a midday walk, he tells him something even more mysterious and ominous: “For you, Dan, a conscious process of transformation has begun. It cannot be reversed; there's no going back. To try and do so would end in madness. You can only go forward now; you're committed. [However,] no one can help you beyond a certain point. I'll be guiding you for a while, but then even I must stand back, and you will be alone. You'll be tested severely before you're done. You'll have to develop great inner strength. I only hope it comes in time.”

Unfortunately, Dan learns the full meaning of Socrates’ words not long after: back in L.A., just before the beginning of his senior year at Berkeley, he smashes his bike into the front fender of a Buick and crashes onto the concrete after somersaulting over the car. The last thing he remembers before waking up on an X-ray table in an emergency room is seeing a white bone sticking out through the torn leather of his boot. Except for an encouraging visit from Joy, Millman lays alone in a hospital bed for most of the following three weeks, watching the white ceiling and meditating for hours, “battered by thoughts of melancholy, self-pity, and futile hope.”

The long road to recovery

Dan spends the following few months recovering. By the end of the year, his X-rays start showing great improvements, but the doctor warns him that it is unlikely he will ever be able to do gymnastics again. After all, the nature of his injury is such that, in addition to surgical repair, it requires a bone marrow transplant and the inserting of a steel nail in his femur. That doesn’t stop Dan from fiercely training on the weight machines at Harmon Gymnasium. Just after Christmas, his doctor lets him trade his crutches for a cane. Soon afterward, Dan limps away to Socrates.

Apparently already prepared for his visit, Socrates introduces Dan to Joseph, a former disciple of his, and takes him to Joseph’s “simple food” restaurant. There, Dan learns that his “impulsive diet results in toxic residues” and that eating well is good not only for the body, but also for the mind. In addition to encouraging him to consume only light food from then on and avoid all kinds of intoxicating substances, Socrates instructs Dan to also stay away from sex. “If you want to succeed,” he tells him, “you’re just going to have to find your future thrills in fresh air, fresh food, fresh water, fresh awareness, and sunshine.”

Afterward, Socrates begins to train Dan physically as well, giving him increasingly more difficult tasks to test his willpower. For example, once he makes him fast for a week from all food and bodily pleasures – and then he makes him run with Joy. He also corrects his poise, teaches him how to properly breathe and meditate, introduces him to tai chi and aikido, and even refines his gymnastics skills. Above all, he teaches him the importance of discipline and total surrender. “Only a fool is ‘happy’ when his cravings are satisfied,” he tells him at one point. “A warrior is happy without reason. That’s what makes happiness the ultimate discipline.”

The stuff dreams are made of

Thanks to Socrates, Millman makes a complete recovery and co-captains his university team at the 1968 NCAA Gymnastics Championships. As the last man to perform in the finals, he needs to do a 9.8 routine at the high bar just to help Berkeley tie with the leaders, Southern Illinois University. Even though he has never scored anything even close to that, he approaches the high bar with spirit, determination and a mind cleared from everything. He crowns an exceptional routine with a perfect dismount and landing. He gets a 9.85! Berkeley are the champions!

“Only then did I realize,” reminisces Millman, “that the applause, the scores and victories were not the same anymore. I saw that I had never learned how to enjoy life, only how to achieve.” Instead of happiness, the only thing Dan feels on the flight home is numbness. Realizing he has dedicated most of his life to an illusion, he decides soon after to quit competitive gymnastics and finish up school. 

In the meantime, he falls in love with a red haired girl named Linda. Even though he finds her beautiful and charming, he is occasionally haunted by visions of the mysterious Joy. One Saturday, soon after Dan’s graduation, Socrates arranges a picnic for himself, Joy and Millman. During it, Dan tells Joy that it is time to move on and that he is retiring from gymnastics. He also tells her that he has feelings for her. She nods in agreement, without making any comment. Her elusive behavior becomes more meaningful a bit later, as she tells Dan that she is only 15 years old.

“Joy, I’ll wait,” Dan replies. “There’s still a chance.” “Oh, Danny, there is always a chance – for anything,” she whispers through tears. “But Socrates has told me that it's best if you forget." Just then, Socrates touches lightly the base of Dan’s head. His lights go out, and he immediately forgets everything he ever knew about Joy. When he opens his eyes, Socrates invites him for a midnight run up the trails. During the run, Socrates suddenly collapses, but is supernaturally revived by some divine presence. The following day, at a hospital, Socrates tells Dan that the two must separate, but that he, nevertheless, needs to keep searching for enlightenment by himself. He tells him to come back in nine or 10 years.

Death is but a doorway to discovery

Millman moves to Los Angeles, marries Linda, gets a daughter named Holly and finds a boring job in sales. However, he can find neither enlightenment, nor peace. On the contrary: the old visions of the Grim Reaper beckoning him to the other side reappear. As a result, he grows apart from Linda and eventually the two divorce. Dan begins teaching gymnastics and aikido at Berkeley, but, as agonizing as the temptation to revisit the gas station is, he knows it is too early to do that. There is another temptation that he must resist during this time: he starts feeling attracted to a recently graduated student named Joyce. 

One morning, sitting on the front steps of his small apartment in Palo Alto, Dan realizes that he has, once again, become a fool, after being so close to becoming a warrior. Disappointed, he decides to sell all of his belongings and get lost in the mountains. It is the right decision, since, soon after, out of nowhere, his old teacher reappears, grinning. “I have nothing to bring you, Socrates,” says Millman. “I’m still lost – no closer to the gate than I was when we first met. I've failed you, and life has failed me; life has broken my heart.” “On the contrary,” replies Socrates. “You’ve almost arrived.”

Suddenly, a thunderstorm breaks out and Socrates shelters Dan away inside a cave. He then pushes him down over a make-believe cliff, and Millman falls out from the cave into a sundrenched meadow. Thousands of years pass in a moment and Dan sees his body being eaten away by worms and rodents, and sees the meadow being wiped out by the forces of nature. He becomes aware of the eternal truth behind this experience: that he was never the Dan Millman living in his mortal body, but the Universal Consciousness observing it all from afar. His fear of Death evaporates, and with it, the figure of the Grim Reaper melts away into nothingness as well. He was only an illusion, just as everything else has ever been. Waking in the cave, Dan starts laughing out loud. Afterward, he and Socrates start dancing in the cave.

Happiness is a pet name

Millman returns to Berkeley a calmer and wiser man. Walking down the streets, he envisions sharing his final discoveries with the people around him. Namely, that achievement leads to nowhere and that, ultimately, the destination of the journey is the journey itself; that nothing makes no difference at all, and that we must all try to be happy for no reason whatsoever; that love is the only reality of the world, because all is one and because everyone is everyone else as well; and, finally, that the only laws of existence are the three words etched into Socrates’ glowing business card: paradox, humor and change. 

Of course, he utters not a word to anyone for fear of being considered mad. Instead, he visits the gas station once again. During the brief discussion with Socrates, he notices that the hand of his teacher is glowing as brightly as a firefly. “I'm feeling very strange,” Socrates says surprisedly, when Dan points this out to him. “I think I have to go.” And he does: he enters the bathroom, closes the door, and never comes out again. All Dan sees from outside is a flash of light; all he feels inside is eternal gratitude.

Subsequently, he moves to San Francisco and becomes a house painter. He finds Joyce’s phone number and invites her to come live with him in California. She agrees and flies out there. He tells her about Socrates. To his surprise, not only does she believe him, but she finds the story quite familiar. She also tells Dan that he can call her by her pet name. “What is it?” asks Dan. “It’s Joy,” she replies.

The two get married soon after. Dan tries inviting Socrates to their wedding through his magical business card. For the first time, nothing happens when he does that. However, while slipping the card back into his wallet, Dan notices something strange about it. The card has changed! In place of "Emergencies Only" there is now a single word only, glowing brighter than all the rest. It says "Happiness." Socrates’ wedding gift.

Final notes

The blurb of the book states that “Way of the Peaceful Warrior” is “one of the most beloved spiritual sagas” of the 20th century. This is, really, not an exaggeration. A bestseller translated into many languages, it can indeed touch you profoundly and even change your life. You just need to allow it.

12min tip

Stay in the present. To quote Socrates: “You can do nothing to change the past, and the future will never come exactly as you plan or hope for. The warrior is always here, now.”

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Who wrote the book?

Dan Millman is a bestselling American author. While a freshman at Berkeley, he won the 1964 Trampoline World Championship. Two years later, despite suffering a shattered right femur in a motorcycle accident, he led... (Read more)

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