Dan Millman: Teachers are all around us
SNOWMASS VILLAGE In the 90 minutes he is allotted as a keynote speaker at this weekend’s Snowmass Wellness Experience, Dan Millman doesn’t expect to transform the lives of his listeners. After all, just the first stage of Millman’s own spiritual awakening, as documented in his 1980 bestseller “Way of the Peaceful Warrior,” took place over years, and was the initial step of an ongoing process that has been tracked in several subsequent books. Instead, Millman will likely focus on small moves people can make in the right direction toward an expanded experience of health and fulfillment. (He says he doesn’t know exactly what he will say, as he never prepares notes for his talks. And as for Powerpoint techniques, forget it. “I open my heart and I open my mouth,” is his stated philosophy on public speaking.)”I offer reminders to people of what they already know. Real, practical reminders to make small changes in their actions, that will lead to improvements in their specific lives – principles, practices and perspectives,” said Millman from his home in California’s Marin County. Millman is unlikely to offer up his version of “the truth,” or detail specific guidelines for attendees of the Snowmass Village event – and not so much because of time limitations. He never presumes that his specific way will be the way for anyone else.”I don’t suggest what truth is, or what people should do with their lives,” said Millman, who presents his talk, “A Peaceful Warrior’s Way to Wellness,” on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. “I have too much respect for people’s individual lives.”But even in the tight hour-and-a-half engagement, Millman will probably open one door that could well lead to wholesale transformations. Millman is a big believer in the importance of discovering teachers – finding those people who will open our eyes and guide us.”We’ve all had teachers who saw something in ourselves that we didn’t see,” said the 61-year-old Millman. In fact, if there is a core to Millman’s philosophy, it is reminding us to stay engaged in the learning process, to continue to look at the world through the eyes of a student. Doing so, one finds teachers everywhere. “Even our adversaries – the tennis player on the other side of the net – can teach you things you didn’t know.”
Improving your life, said Millman, “is not about pulling yourself up by the bootstraps.” Rather, it’s about finding others who can assist you in the process. “There’s a popular maxim in the spiritual realm: When a student is ready, a teacher appears. But I think, when a student is ready, the teacher appears everywhere. It’s in watching trees bend in the wind, watching rivers flow.”Millman’s own experience in finding a teacher was the subject of “Way of the Peaceful Warrior,” whose subtitle is “A Book That Changes Lives.”The first-person narrator of “Way of the Peaceful Warrior” – named Dan Millman, though the author refers to the book as a novel, so as not to be bound to literal facts – didn’t exactly start at the bottom of the heap. The protagonist Millman was, in 1966, a junior at Berkeley, and a promising gymnast on the college squad.But the more-or-less contented, vaguely haunted Millman had his universe upended one night, at 3 a.m., at a Berkeley gas station. That December night, Millman had his first encounter with a man he came to call Socrates – a tall, older gentleman with white hair, an unflappable demeanor, and, in the book’s fictional telling, the surreal ability to jump onto roofs and cause visions in others. Socrates takes Millman as his protégé and, over a series of years, challenges, prods, leads and teaches his student on the journey toward becoming a “peaceful warrior.”Millman’s way is blocked by his own frustrations, disbelief and less-healthy habits. But when he suffers a debilitating motorcycle accident, and finds that, with Socrates’ coaching, he is able to recover beyond the wildest expectations of doctors and teammates, Millman becomes a believer. The essence of Socrates’ teaching is to live in the moment, to detach oneself from expectations, carnal desires, the past and the future. Millman finds it a difficult course to maintain, but he also sees the positive results in his college work, his relationships, his physical well-being, and his heightened, sometimes almost magical, experience of everyday life.Millman says that, in terms of the writing, “Way of the Peaceful Warrior” is basic stuff. Others have also criticized it, most commonly as a recapitulation of the tenets set out in Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” and the work of Carlos Castaneda.Still, “Way of the Peaceful Warrior” is his best-selling book, and remains a touchstone not only for readers, but for Millman himself. Subsequent books have incorporated the “Peaceful Warrior” name; his latest book is “Wisdom of the Peaceful Warrior,” which clarifies selected passages from the original. Last year, 26 years after its publication, “Way of the Peaceful Warrior” became a movie, starring Scott Mechlowicz as Dan and Nick Nolte as Socrates. And in its day, “Way of the Peaceful Warrior” made a fairly profound mark on a certain set of readers.
“We were so impacted by his book,” said Josh Behrman, the events coordinator for Snowmass Village and organizer of the Snowmass Wellness Experience. “I had a friend who named his dog Socrates, another friend who named his cat Socrates. We were very impressionable at that time. All young people, their egos need to be tamed somewhat. ‘Peaceful Warrior’ was our guide. We loved the message that it sent out.”
Millman says he knew early on that his calling was to teach. But earlier in his life, he figured that instruction would be limited to gymnastics.
“It gave me special meaning to share what I knew – coaching people in sports,” he said.Following his experience with Socrates – and with several other teachers, whom Millman refers to as “the Professor,” “the Guru,” “the Warrior-Priest” and “the Sage” – Millman began to see that his destiny would be coaching on a higher plane. “My interests began to develop from teaching sports to teaching about living,” he said. “I wanted to share what happened in my life, so my teachers could become teachers for other people.”Many people have read ‘Peaceful Warrior’ and said, ‘I wish I had a Socrates.’ And they do – it’s the book. The book is a way of sharing my teaching and my life experiences.”
Millman has now, in a way, moved beyond his teachers. “I speak from my own authority,” he said, adding that his accomplishments as an athlete – he was winner of the 1964 World Trampoline Championship, as well as a college competitor – adds a results-based foundation to the instruction he gives. “I don’t parrot any of my teachers, but I’ve synthesized much of what they’ve told me. But there are fewer teachers who have any originality for me.”Still, the key remains thinking like a student of life. “My teachers are all around me every day. Because I pay attention,” said Millman. “I’ll always be a student. I’ll always have this wonder.”Snowmass Wellness Experience begins tonight with Swing Into Wellness dinner and dance from 6-9 p.m. at the Silvertree Hotel and continues Saturday from 9 a.m to 9 p.m. and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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