Happiness & the Peaceful Warrior’s Way

When I announced the new format and focus for this blog last week, I added the tagline “The journey is what brings us happiness, not the destination.” This and more valuable guidance comes from Dan Millman. He has become a favorite spiritual teacher to me.

In his youth, Dan was a star athlete in trampoline and gymnastics. In high school he won the United States Gymnastics Federation (USGF) national title on trampoline. Later at U.C. Berkeley he won the 1964 Trampoline World Championships, an NCAA Championship in vaulting, the 1966 USGF championship in floor exercise, and four gold medals representing the U.S. at the 1966 Maccabiah Games.

He suffered a devastating motorcycle accident just before his senior year at Berkeley, colliding with a car and shattering his right femur. He required surgery and a steel rod. Through fierce determination he recovered and returned to gymnastics where he was co-captain of the team that won the 1968 NCAA Gymnastics Championships.


Late one night in December 1966 Dan wandered into a Texaco station where he encountered a mechanic he would come to call “Socrates.” For a long time he didn’t know the man’s real name. The two talked and Socrates came to be teacher and mentor to Dan over the following years. He taught Dan what he called “the peaceful warrior’s way” — being present in the moment, being right here and right now, and “taking out the trash” that clutters our heads with distraction and rumination.

Socrates changed the course of Dan’s life. Dan came into the gas station that night a cocky boastful college student, certain he knew it all. He dismissed this lowly mechanic as a nobody who hadn’t managed to make much of his life beyond pumping gas.

For his part, Socrates wasn’t too impressed by this brash young man either. Offended by Socrates’ attitude, Dan pushed back during their second meeting. He was certain he’d demonstrate his superiority over this old man. Socrates’ response laid him flat out.

Dan Millman, challenging Socrates:
Go. Ask me.
Ask me something.

Ask me anything.

Are you happy?

Dan stood in stunned silence.

You said I could ask you anything.

What does happy have to do with anything?


Dan, after thinking:
My dad’s got plenty of cash, school’s kind of a breeze, I get straight A’s.

I got great friends, I’m in great shape, and I only sleep alone when I absolutely want to.

So why can’t you sleep at night?

Yesterday, you came here at 3:00 a.m. Now, tonight.

That’s two nights in a row.

Dan, a few moments later before walking away:

I don’t even know what I’m doing here.

You’re a freak. And I don’t need you freaking me out.

Well, freak or not, Dan sensed something in Socrates and kept returning night after night. Socrates slowly challenged Dan’s rigid assumptions about life and purpose, opening up a whole new vista to Dan.

In 1980 Dan published a book about his time with Socrates, Way of the Peaceful Warrior. It was adapted to become a movie in 2006, The Peaceful Warrior, with Nick Nolte as Socrates and Scott Mechlowicz as Dan.

“Are You Happy?”

It’s a good question. Most of you reading this are probably saying “Yes, I’m happy.” Me too, I guess.

But are we happy — really?

If we’re truly happy why do ordinary little things annoy us so easily? Why do we get impatient and pissed while waiting at a red light or in a grocery line? Why do we lie awake at 3 AM thinking… and thinking. What’s all the negative chatter in our heads all day, complaining about ourselves or about others or about things that went wrong or about things that might go wrong? Few people have only positive thoughts streaming through their minds all day. The majority of this incessant inner dialog is complaints, worry, regret or the like.

We’re happy to a point, for sure, but so much of our happiness is transitory and superficial: a nice day, good movie, pleasant visit with friends, a great vacation — all good things, absolutely! But they pass and then we’re left with our chattering minds again.

We’re happy when we get something we’ve wanted, an object or experience, but the happiness quickly diminishes as then we worry about losing it. While trying to enjoy vacation there’s a niggling awareness that we’ll be leaving soon. On Sunday afternoon we’re already anticipating the drudgery of Monday morning. We love our new car, but worry when it’ll get that first scratch or dent. We buy tickets for a big game or concert, but instead of being fully attentive during the event we’re strategizing how to get to the car quickly and out of the parking lot before the traffic jam.

Too often we simply aren’t present in our life as it unfolds before us. Reflecting on this Socrates said “Death is not sad; the sad thing is that most people don’t really live at all.”

The Power of Presence in the Moment

This video is one scene from the movie that I compiled using several individual clips on YouTube. Quality varies from portion to portion. In this scene, Socrates takes an unorthodox and dramatic step to impress upon Dan the value and power of being present in the moment.

This combined clip is used with consent of NAN Films LLC.
Permission from NBC Universal is pending.

The theme and material of the book and film will definitely not appeal to everyone. I read Roger Ebert’s film review and he wan’t too impressed, and I don’t expect to find the film playing on TCM. I would guess the biggest criticisms are that the philosophy is too idealistic and too simplistic.

To that latter criticism, I would counter that simplicity is precisely its strength. If my description here rings true about the endless talk in our heads, the annoyances and easy agitation, then I think we need a little more simplicity. We make our lives too damn complicated! Most of this complication is invented in our heads and entirely unnecessary.

Being present in the moment — fully present — is not complicated. It’s “simply” being conscious and aware of what’s happening right now: our mood right now, how our body feels, where we are, sounds, smells, the feeling of what we may be touching or working with, the details of whatever project or task we’re currently doing… All these things can be perceived almost instantaneously with virtually no effort. That part isn’t complicated.

The hard part is getting to a state of undistracted presence. It goes against everything we’re used to, against all our conditioning. We’ve been absorbed in past and future our whole lives. All this thinking and distraction is on autopilot. It’s not easy stop, but it is possible. I’ll be talking about this a lot in future posts. I’m still working on it myself! Even Socrates is still working at it, his whole life he says.

Where are we?  Here.
What time is it?  Now.
What are we?  This moment.

The journey is what brings us happiness

Herein lies the ultimate secret of happiness: Being fully present in this moment now, unburdened by past or future. Every moment is a clean slate. Every moment can be experienced as fresh and new. “There are no ordinary moments,” Socrates said.

We all have goals and plans, and we’re all working towards them, but still we only live in this moment right now. If we ultimately achieve our goals and plans that’s fantastic. But that’s future, and it’s also possible we won’t achieve them. That’s future too. Happiness is to be found now, in the journey along the way, not in the destination.

Near the end of the film as Dan is still struggling to grasp and adopt this peaceful warrior’s way, Socrates tells Dan there’s a place he wants to take him. There’s something he’s wanted to show Dan since the first night they met. It’ll be a long hike and they agree to meet the next morning.

That morning, after three hours hiking, they reach a high summit overlooking San Francisco in the distance. I don’t have a video clip, but this is a screenshot and the soundtrack as they arrive at this place Socrates has wanted Dan to see.

Screenshot and audio: Dan & Socrates reach the place Socrates wanted Dan to see.

And finally Dan does see — but he sees a whole lot more than that rock.

Dan Millman in His Own Words

In this brief video, Dan Millman describes the peaceful warrior’s way.

In 2013 Dan also gave a TED Talk at his alma mater, U.C. Berkeley.

Movie Trailer for ‘The Peaceful Warrior’

Title image is a screenshot from The Peaceful Warrior.
Book: Way of the Peaceful WarriorAmazon
Movie: The Peaceful WarriorYouTube | AppleTV | Amazon Prime | Vudu

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2 thoughts on “Happiness & the Peaceful Warrior’s Way

  1. Nail on the head Bob, I think this is what we all WISH we could do but it’s so easy to get sidetracked. I would argue that this is the problem of our entire society in general. We make the way our lives work way too complicated, it’s like we’re addicted to getting and staying busy…. and then we ruminate about how we have so little time. The time is there, we simply have to decide how we’re going to use it.

    1. Eckhart Tolle describes thinking as an addiction. Not directed goal-oriented thinking, but the rambling compulsive rumination most of us do. And busyness is an addiction also. David Allen, the author Getting Things Done (GTD), makes this observation about time and busyness and our sense there’s never enough time: “Einstein had 24 hours. So did Mother Teresa. So did Bach.”

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