“My approach to love is action, bringing love into the world through loving kindness, compassion, what we do.” – Dan Millman

DanBestPortrait copyIn March, 2016, The Only Love Project’s Bill Murphy conducted this phone interview with Dan Millman, author of Way of the Peaceful Warrior (among with 16 other books).

Thank you, Dan, for packing a tremendous amount of wisdom into a relatively short period of time.

DM: Hi, Bill. How are you doing?

BM: Dan, doing well. How are you doing?

DM: Well, I am fine, yeah. Just looking forward to our time together.

BM: As you know from my lengthy interview inquiry, I got to be doing what I am doing mostly through observation. I saw a lot of contentious anger, volatility, rancor, on Facebook primarily. It didn’t matter which group was doing it, conservatives, liberals, Christians, atheists – didn’t matter. It was angry no matter what people proclaimed as their religious or political foundation. So I thought, “What could solve this problem?” That’s when I started to look at the traditions of love, and thought, “I think we missed something along the way.” So that’s how this project came to be. I have been studying this for about a year and a half, two years now. I interviewed a lot of people and gained some insights and even helpful direction from a few of them – suggestions I really have appreciated. Your books, and the Peaceful Warrior movie, all you do seem tailor made for this project, so I am really excited to chat with you today.

51Z2Plm-yHLDM: Well, happy to do so. I will just follow your lead and I like an improvisational approach.

BM: Excellent. For The Only Love Project web site, I ask everybody the same eight questions. You can answer any way you wish. Depending on what you say, I may follow up with a question. But, more often than not, I just let the person I interview speak his/her mind.

First question: Briefly tell us your background. What would you like others to know about you?

DM: Well, for those unfamiliar with my work, Bill, I started – I woke up. I was born, let’s say, a second time when I discovered an old trampoline in summer camp, and I could have never ever guessed how just jumping up and down on a trampoline might lead to the rest of my life, but I got pretty good at it. Eventually won a world championship in London in 1964, and that led to gymnastics and a scholarship to college and eventually coaching at Stanford University and then a college professorship at Oberlin College in Ohio. So back then I was focused on how to create more talent for sports, what qualities, what foundational elements or skills could help people to learn faster and easier and raise their potential in the field of sport or movement arts. But gradually my interest expanded out of the gymnasium into the realm of daily life so I started asking bigger questions about not just how we can create more talent for sports but for everyday life, for relationships, and be more effective at getting things done and dealing with the mind and the emotions and the body. So led me to a search that lasted well over a decade and it eventually working with various mentors and so on and led to an approach to living I call, Way of the Peaceful Warrior, the title of my best-known book. So that pretty much gives you some background and what led me to what I do now.

WPWNewCover300dpiBM: I do have one follow-up question: What was the catalyst? You said you suddenly asked bigger questions. What was that turning point? Why did you suddenly do that?

DM: I think it was a process of disillusion and normally we think of that as a negative word but actually it means dis-illusion, a freeing from illusion, and I came to realize that being able to do summersaults and gymnastic skills didn’t really help me when I went out on a date.

[Both laugh.]

Or when I got married or had children or dealt with financial challenges and career decisions and what was going on with my mind and my emotions, so that is when my interest shifted. I found that I couldn’t just rely on being an athlete the rest of my life. Many athletes have to go through that difficult transition not unlike veterans who come home from the war and have to readjust to everyday life that isn’t filled with adrenaline and so on. So that’s what was the catalyst, and I thought you were going to ask me what led me to write my first book of 17 so far, but maybe that’s going to be a follow-up.

BM: Indeed. The second question – I think I can probably guess this but I will ask it anyway – Would you consider yourself a spiritual person?

DM: I don’t even really know what the word spiritual means anymore. I mean, I could look it up on in a dictionary or Google it, but to me everywhere I look I see spirit. There is no lack of spirit out in the world and the air and the atmosphere. We breathe it. It’s all around, so it’s really – you know, most of us don’t hear the weather person go on the radio saying 20% chance of rain and 35% spirit out today.

[Both laugh.]

It’s always here but we don’t notice it because often we are so preoccupied with what am I going to do about my relationship, my physical challenge, my finances, the decision I have to make, so our attention is trapped and we don’t notice spirit.

To me spirituality is anything that calls our attention to the more luminous or transcendent levels of existence like bigger picture and higher promise. It’s what inspires us, and so that is what I would call spiritual, but that’s really everybody and everything. We just have to pay attention and notice.

BM: Excellent. The third question: Most religious traditions speak of the power and value of love. For example, the Buddhist Dhammapada tells us, “only love dispels hate.” The Christian Bible says, “a new commandment I give to you that you love one another just as I have loved you.” The Jewish tradition tells us to “love our neighbor as ourselves.” What, if anything, do those words mean to you?

DM: Well, they mean something to me, and I am happy to share because I think it has some significance and people don’t normally hear it. We hear love and we immediately think sentiment or a particular emotion we see of it, but we have felt before about something or someone in different degrees because the word love like happiness has so many different meanings. You can love an ice cream cone or profoundly love another person where their needs become more important than your own. But – and it would take the entire weekend to explain in depth what I mean by this, but my approach to love is not as a feeling because feelings change all the time like the weather. My approach to love is an action, is bringing love into the world through loving kindness, through compassion, through what we do. I think we do love. We don’t just feel it, so I – you know, there has been that saying of St. Augustine I think said whatever he said, love and do what you will, but love first, and it’s been said whatever the question, love is the answer. Jimi Hendrix said “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, we will know peace.” So there are many wonderful quotes and ideas around this topic, but to me what makes sense of love is when we treat it as an action it becomes more under our control than waiting for the right feeling or trying to generate a feeling of love or just philosophizing about it, so that’s how I treat love. In any moment I am behaving in a loving way or I am not, and it’s irrelevant what I happen to be feeling.

BM: That’s true. And you are right about the kind of love I am looking at. It’s the self-sacrificial kind that does something, rather than feels something. The kind of love I am looking that could change the world is Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Jesus. It was laying down one’s life if necessary for the sake of others. So, yes, indeed, I don’t believe it’s necessarily feeling. I think it’s an action we do, but the follow-up question to that is: What role can love play in the world today?

DM: Well, I believe love naturally flows when we begin to take our personal boundaries and respect them but take them less seriously. In other words, when we begin to recognize the same consciousness in another person as in ourselves, it’s – if we had a transcendent moment where we realized we were everyone else and everyone was us; that we are interconnected, you know, the same consciousness shining through billions of eyes, in that moment of realization it’s very difficult not to love because we have a connection with other people. They are not others anymore. They are not separate. They are not the stranger, the adversary. We are all in this together in a very profound way so that’s one way that – otherwise it’s just philosophy and we can talk about it all day, but what happens when our wife or husband pushes our buttons or our partner, you know, then where did that all that philosophy go? So I think it awakens in that moment of connection where all – you know, last I looked the mortality rate is holding steady at a 100%.

BM: [Laughs]

DM: When we recognize that we are all living for a brief time, we are all facing many of the same human challenges, we begin to get that sense of us rather than just me, when me changes to we so that I think is a practical manifestation of love. This idea of competitive and comparative mind and separation that creates nationalism, and in WWII one country viewed themselves as a master race, another as divine, and they learned it was one of history’s hard lessons. This whole idea of nationalism, an us and a them and competing – I think competitive minds may be one of the biggest problems in the world today. How can love flourish in that environment; tribal wars, turf wars in the Middle East. So we see a lot of manifestations of people forgetting that they love each other. They forget this, and some people remember it, and it’s an amazing experience. When considered a transcendental experience which hopefully will begin an ordinary experience in the future of humanity as we evolve.

BM: Wow. The next question is: What stops people from being more loving and compassionate? Why don’t they just do that?

DM: Oh, I could give you some standard answer. I am sure you have heard things like this. People will say the ego does it. You know, the ego gets a bad rap in spiritual circles. In the ancient times if someone was up to mischief, they would say, oh, the devil made me do it, and now we blame the ego. The ego made me do it. You know, Freud who coined the term measured in a very neutral way. It’s simply referred to the sense of self, an organizing principle we call I, and that was neutral, but suddenly it’s become this bad thing where we blame every negative behavior, tendency or thought on this thing we call the ego, and it becomes the garbage pail of all bad things, and then separate from that is this essence and beautiful being we call us. To me, that’s a false dichotomy. The true nondualists see all one. The ego is part of our sense – our conscious self. It has functions like a disposable contact lens. It’s an organizing principle of behavior and functioning and learning. So that’s what I would say is not in the way of loving.

BM: Uh-huh.

DM: You know, if we hold our hand in the air, if your [readers] just hold their hand – a relaxed hand with their elbow down and their hand up, and they just relax their hand completely, they may notice that it’s not easy to feel where their hand ends and space begins. It’s not easy to feel a boundary to our body, but if we close our hand in a tight fist, then we begin to feel I am this and what’s around me is separate, and I think that’s what people do, they close this fist, a protective fist around themselves, what’s in it for me, and when we begin to ask a different question – instead of what’s in it for me, we ask what’s for the highest good of all concerned here, then we begin to open up our boundaries and embrace our sense of identity broader and broader to the people around us, to creatures, to all living things. That’s when love can flourish, but our tendency is to do the opposite, and it’s – you know, a psychologist could go into complicated discussions of why or how that happens, but who knows.

BM: Well, that’s an excellent reply. That closed fist thing is brilliant, and I was doing that while you were talking and I definitely see what you are talking about. That’s an excellent analogy for that.

The follow-up question is: Do you have recommendations regarding how someone might cultivate the spirit of love over the long term, but also put love into action right now so that he or she can make a positive difference right away?

DM: Sure, Bill. I can give a very practical little exercise anyone can do, because, you know, the heart is like a muscle, and like any muscle it is strengthened with use. Use it or lose it, that sort of thing, and we can connect with a conscious act. It’s not complicated at all. If I ask you to think about your ears, you could put your attention on your ears. Whether you can wiggle them or not is another question, but you can at least be aware of your ears or your elbows or your knees. In the same way, you can put your attention in your heart. Nothing sentimental about it, just feeling your heart noticing in the center of your chest approximately that organ, the heart, and you can connect that by an act of attention to your voice so when you speak it doesn’t have to be any special tone of voice, but you are actually aware of your heart while you are speaking as I am now, and that resonates the hearts of other people.

Now, that may sound a little far out there, but you know, if you put two guitars next to one another, and they are both in tune, and you pluck the E string on one of the guitars, you know what’s going to happen to the E string on the guitar next to it, it’s going to start to vibrate as well, empathetic or harmonic resonance, and when one speaks from the mind, they resonate the mind and the person around them. If they speak from their heart, just being aware of it, they resonate the hearts of people around them. So this is a very practical thing we can do without other people even noticing it. When we are in the supermarket saying to the clerk, you know that is a nice shirt you have there or a nice scarf, whatever, but you are aware of your heart when you say it. It’s a kind of subtle healing between people but also within yourselves, remembering to connect with the heart. So loving is just remembering these basic things. There is a person like me who has suffered like me, who has had adversity like me, who was once four years old and three years old and struggling to know what life was about like me, and as we start to look at our commonality more and more, I think it helps up to feel that connection we might call compassion or caring or love.

When one speaks from the mind, they resonate the mind and the person around them. If they speak from their heart, just being aware of it, they resonate the hearts of people around them.

BM: Wow! This question – and I am really looking forward to hearing your answer – is: Who do you look up to the most when you think of the power of love?

DM: Well, I will just tell you what came up for me. I would have to say my wife.

BM: Wow. That answer surprised me.

DM: She is an exemplary person, very strong. Her life is for other people. She does what she needs to stay healthy, but her day is a constant service to me, our daughters. That is just her priorities. She is extraordinarily mature person, and really one of my role models, so I got lucky. You know, Socrates, not my old mentor that I describe in Way of the Peaceful Warrior, but the actual, the ancient Greek apparently had a difficult relationship, and he once said, by all means marry, because if you choose well, you will be happy, and if you don’t you will become a philosopher.

[Both laugh.]

DM: So I got lucky but I guess I am a little bit of a philosopher, too.

BM: The last question of this series is: Do you have anything you would like to add that I haven’t asked?

DM: That is either a very short answer – no, that sounds fine to me. I think I have said plenty or the long answer is, how many weeks do you have?

[Both laugh.]

BM: Now I am going to ask you a couple of things about your books. My observations about your books are that I could almost boil them down into two themes, two concepts if you will: purpose and present moment. You seem to be a combination Pastor Rick Warren’s book Purpose Driven Life and Eckhart Tolle’s book The Power of Now – with a little bit of Zen thrown into the mix. Would you say that’s a fairly accurate representation?

DM: Well, you know, they say you teach what you need to learn, and after 17 books, I must have needed to learn a lot, Bill.

BM: [Laughs.]

FPOLDM: I think as a distillation, it’s not a bad characterization. I mean, I was around long before Eckhart Tolle, and Ram Dass was around long before me, and he wrote the book, Be Here Now, so the idea of living in the present moment didn’t come from Eckhart Tolle or me or even Ram Dass. It’s an ancient idea, an observation about the present moment. That and – yeah, some Zen or Taoism, Sufi wisdom. I am sort of Brand X generic. I am a member of none, a friend to all, so you could look at different traditions, the Jewish, Hasidic tradition, Christian mystics and find resonance with some of the things I teach. I try to teach common sense practical wisdom, but sometimes touching the transcendent as well in the work I do. I believe in having our head in the clouds and our feet on the ground, so yes, and you are right, one of my books is titled, The Life You Were Born to Live. Another is called, Living on Purpose, and my most recent is called, The Four Purposes of Life. I am quite pleased with those particularly in this most recent one. It covers a lot in a small book.

BM: It does. I just finished reading that, and the last chapter (the Fourth Purpose) especially hit me really hard along these lines – being in the present moment.

DM: Right.

BM: It’s all we ever have, but that brings the question to mind then, what happened to people to make them sort of forget the present moment or be afraid of the present moment? The Christian mystics, contemplatives like Thomas Merton, made their life out of sitting still alone. Zen meditators do the same thing. You sit alone and that’s one of the biggest fears people have, but what happened to people that they have missed the moment?

DM: Well, I don’t know what people’s greatest fear is. It depends on what person we are talking about. I think people probably differ, but I agree that we formed – most humans have formed a bad habit. It comes along with the gift of our human mind. We have a wonderful ability to remember what we call the past. We have a set of impulses in our brain impressions that we refer to as memories, and we talk about this thing about the past as if it still exists, and we also have this ability of imagination where we can project our mind into what we call the future. So it’s so easy to forget along with that gift and that intellectual capacity. We end up getting obsessed with what we call past and future, and we rarely live in this moment. A lot of our time is spent thinking about the future or past. In fact, it’s impossible to think about anything in the present moment with just pure awareness in the present.

If I were in front of your [readers] and threw them a set of keys or a ball and said, catch, in that moment they are reaching out for that object to catch, they would be pure awareness. They wouldn’t be thinking about what they had for breakfast earlier or what they were going to do tomorrow. They would be right in the moment, so the more we get absorbed in whatever we are doing in terms of everyday life, the more we recognize there are no ordinary moments, and each moment is special, because the quality of our moments becomes the quality of our lives, then we start to get back in touch the with reality; that the only thing is real is right now, and all the rest if just imagination and memory.

BM: That’s excellent, and that reminds me of that scene in the movie that was so powerful to me, and as I mentioned before in an email I study Zen so I got that scene. It was riveting. It’s the one where Socrates throws Dan off the bridge into the water, and he goes ahhhhhh, and he hits the water, splash! That is pure “in the moment.” That was one of the most powerful scenes I have ever seen in a movie.

DM: Well, that was from the book. That was one of the scenes that actually came right out of the book, and yeah. It was a very Zen-like moments. You could see one of these crazy Zen masters do that. Somebody says I wonder how deep the water is, well, boom, find out.

BM: [Laughs.]

DM: Direct experience, not conceptual extractions. I brought him right back to the present, and I thought the screenwriter expressed that in a very humorous way delivered by Nick Nolte, you know the line, so yeah. It brought Dan and woke him for a moment.

BM: One of the other things, the word purpose like I mentioned, Rick Warren’s book, Purpose Driven Life has sold now some 35 million copies. A lot of your books really stress the importance of purpose. I like the chapter in your latest book where the kid comes to you for counseling and says I don’t know what my purpose is. I don’t even know why I am here – that kind of thing. Purpose seems to be another thing that people are searching for. Why do you think people have lost their purpose? Why is everyone looking for a purpose?

DM: Well, if I were to design a cartoon for say the New Yorker magazine, I would have a couple, a man and a woman just why not, you know, one of each gender, just walking up a winding path through a forest and the caption would be we are looking for our path in life while they are on it, and so we forget that wherever we step, the path appears beneath our feet. We are hardwired purpose seekers. When we are babies crawling across the floor toward that shiny object, we want to go there. We are drawn from Point A where we are to a Point B, and it’s easy to forget we always have a purpose especially in this moment. Your purpose and mine is very clear. It’s talking with one another.

BM: Yes.

712XhPEm6fLDM: [If you posted this as an audio interview] your listeners, whatever they are doing, maybe they are multi-tasking. They might be driving in a car or doing something else, but they are listening to the conversation, so we all have a purpose. Now, when we think about our cosmic purpose, our larger purpose that can be a little abstract for many people but that’s exactly why I wrote The Four Purposes of Life. The first purpose being Learning Life’s Lessons, and there is much more to that than people might imagine, and I explained it in detail. The second purpose deals with Our Career or Calling, and what we normally think of our purpose; what I am here to do in terms of making a living. The third purpose is the more mysterious one, Finding Our Life Path. I will hardly go into that now in the time we have, but someone can go to be my website, Peaceful Warrior, click on the life purpose link and they will go to a life purpose calculator, and all they do is put in their date of birth, and they will see a paragraph, a teaser, a taste of what’s in my larger book, The Life You Were Born to Live, and I summarize pretty well in The Four Purposes of Life. It’s about their life paths, core issues of their, really quite accurate. I don’t know if you have done that yourself, Bill.

BM: I should do that. I haven’t yet. The Four Purposes of Life is one of the best distillations of your message I’ve ever read. As you said, it’s a fairly short book, but it’s extremely clear. How did you – how do I put this? – how did this get to be such a powerful little book?

41m2N107u5LDM: Well, Jack London once wrote it takes hard writing to make easy reading, so I put out the effort and I had the perspective of 30 years after I began writing, I had the perspective of looking back over some different books, different ideas I covered, but there was like a piece of the puzzle missing, and this book puts the pieces together. People can – even though I wrote it later in my career, if someone just was discovering my work and read Way of the Peaceful Warrior, there is one of two books I would recommend next. One would be Wisdom of the Peaceful Warrior, which explains the teachings of the original book in a way from 25 years vantage point later.

BM: Yes.

DM: So I really understood the teachings better, because many people misunderstand what Socrates really was talking about. And the other book I would recommend early on is The Four Purposes of Life because it gives an entryway – an introduction to what’s in many of the other books, and it helps people direct them through life but also if they want to read any of the other books, they will understand where it all fits, why I wrote the books I did in the order I did, but it stands along if that were the only book they read, I think it does really give someone a better handle on what they are doing here and what they are here to do.

BM: Those are excellent recommendations, and I have both of them in front of me. They are great. It looks like we have time for one last question. In your books you spend some time talking about Socrates, apparently answering questions from people: was he real, was he not. You stress that your first book was, well, part fiction, part personal growth. It seems that people get hung up on what Zen practitioners would call form. They want to know if the guy really existed and what he really said. Because of that, I think they are missing the point of his lessons. Do you find that you are constantly explaining whether he existed or not and how much is fiction is there or not?

DM: I remember one martial arts teacher wanted to know if he could really jump up on a rooftop and if he could, the book was valid, and if he couldn’t the book was totally invalid, but yeah, I think he missed the point there. Here is the thing, Pablo Picasso once said, art is alive. It helps us to see the truth, and Zen as you very well know, Bill, is about is-ness, such-ness, what is real without all the extras we add on to it, interpretations, projections, associations. What is this simple arising right now, this, this, and that’s the essence of Zen, what is real. So I am not trying to put people in deeper illusion by writing part fact part fiction. I have never called my work memoir because memoir is supposed to be what really happened as you remember it.

BM: Yeah.

DM: Whereas, some of my books blend fact and fiction. Now, as to the man, Socrates, someone can go again to my website, Peaceful Warrior. They can click on Q&A, and I address a lot of these questions about what’s real and what is not, how much is true. There is even a little video of me talking about who was Socrates. I mean, I can say for now to answer the question he was based on a real old flesh-and-blood guy I met at a gas station in December, 1966 – a cosmic old guy – and I based his character on that real cosmic old guy that I met in a service station. So he isn’t just a fictional character.

BM: Awesome. Well, I do believe our time is up. You are the kind of guy I could probably spend days talking to, but I don’t want to keep you. I really appreciate your time today. It’s been an absolute pleasure for me.

DM: I appreciate your questions, Bill, and it’s also been a pleasure here.


Special thanks to Dan for his time, and to Saij M-W for the transcription.

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