Authors & Thought Leaders

Dan Millman on Living a Life of Purpose

Published on March 4, 2017

Article by Dan Millman for Bodhi Tree

Way of the Peaceful Warrior author Dan Millman came to Bodhi Tree in 2001 to discuss his book Living On Purpose: Straight Answers to Life’s Tough Questions. A renowned spiritual teacher and writer drawing on his experience as a world-champion athlete, university coach, college professor, martial arts teacher and family man, Millman says that we must live on purpose (rather than at random), and embrace both reason and faith. “Reason provides clear goals,” he says, “While faith teaches us to trust the process of our lives.” In this Bodhi Talk, he brings an easy candor to the questions that pull at our daily realities.

Dan Millman

Photo Courtesy New World Library

Dan Millman’s Story

After a 20-year spiritual quest, Millman began teaching the Peaceful Warrior’s Way through his lectures and books, including his seminal novel, Way of the Peaceful Warrior. Millman’s best-selling book, based on real-life incidents, was adapted into the feature film, Peaceful Warrior starring Nick Nolte, and introduces his mentor, the old warrior Socrates, who taught him about the strategies for living the Tao of life, namely the “House Rules.”

As a former award-winning gymnast at UC Berkeley and director of gymnastics at Stanford University, Millman trained in tai chi and aikido. While teaching at Oberlin College, he traveled on a research grant to San Francisco, where he completed the Arica 40-Day Intensive Training. Today, his lectures and workshops around the world address the subject of living life wisely and well. —Justine Amodeo

“I think enlightenment is as enlightenment does. It’s not some subjective internal state of feeling good all the time and feeling free. It’s how you behave and that’s our human maturity.” —Dan Millman

The following is an edited version of Millman’s Bodhi Tree Bookstore presentation from 2001.

Dan Millman: I’m excited about each new book because each one is different and nonrepetitive. But, Living on Purpose is, I think, my most reader-friendly book because it really touches on every aspect of daily life.

First of all, I see myself more of as a teacher than a writer or a speaker. When I was a gymnast, I discovered I loved teaching even more than learning because no matter what I learned, no matter how I improved myself, only one person benefitted. But, if I could share some things I learned in a way that was clear, that other people could really get, then that excited me.

Wisdom Principles That Create Talent for Living

I discovered watching athletes that there were certain qualities that made more talented athletes in terms of being able to learn quicker and at a higher level. And it applies to musicians and to anybody who trains in any physical kind of any form to refine their skills.

My theories were successful in training a top U.S. Olympian at Stanford University on a gymnastics team there. But they did not help me much when I got married, had children and had to deal with financial issues, career decisions and the things we all go through in everyday life. So, I started asking myself what qualities create talent—not for sport, but talent for living.

The search led me to many different teachers, and I read many esoteric books. You can find germs of truth in them, but because of a lot of cultural trappings, it’s hard to get to the core of it. Well, as a past athlete, I prefer practical results rather than abstract philosophy. In a sense, there are two kinds of information; knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge is what we know and talk about. It’s data, information, facts, opinions, philosophies, beliefs, structures and models. But it’s what’s inside you that counts, not what you know. Living on Purpose doesn’t just give a bunch of knowledge, but universal principles or wisdom principles. And the reason I call them that is because wisdom energizes the psyche and creates an awareness that allows you to turn knowledge into action. So, wisdom is what we actually do in life, and that’s so important.

The Difference Between Influence and Control

Let me poke some holes in popular New Age and psychological thinking. Many books and teachers talk about how, “As you think, so you’ll be.” And, “Positive thoughts help your immune system and negative thoughts weaken it.” But how many people had only positive thoughts for the last week? Let’s look at what we can and cannot control in this world.

Now, there’s a difference between influencing something and controlling it. If you influence something or someone, it means you exert an effort to get your desired outcome—[there are] no guarantees of getting it. In fact, one of the house rules in Living on Purpose is we can control the efforts, but not the outcomes. For example, could Michael Jordan control whether he made a basket? No, he missed lots of baskets. What could he control? Whether he took the shot, right? And, as Michael points out, you make zero percent of the shots you don’t take. The best we can do is take the shot, and by taking the shot in your life, you’re far more likely to get the outcomes you like compared to not taking them. But there are no guarantees. Effort is success. Making an effort, you’ve succeeded. Because that’s the best you can do.

Another wisdom principle is that life is a series of moments. Let’s look at some practical applications. Have you ever met a neurotic person? I’ve never met a neurotic person, ever. I only have met people with neurotic moments. Have you ever met an intelligent person? I never have. I’ve only met people who have intelligent moments. Some people think I have lots of intelligent moments, but I’ve had some pretty stupid moments, too. You can ask my daughters—they have them alphabetized. And I’ve never met an enlightened being. And that gets a little controversial, because some of us studied with gurus who are described as permanently enlightened.

Can you know that’s true? No, not really, but you believe it. Well, that’s fine. But, life is a series of moments. Some people tell me, “You know, Dan’s a nice guy.” I say, “Yeah, some of the time.” Isn’t that more realistic? Aren’t you nice some of the time? So, we start living moment to moment and it gets much more realistic than all these abstract philosophical ideas.

Can we influence the weather? We can seed clouds to try to make rain. Can you control the weather, by your will? That’s what control is—you will something to happen, and it happens. Can you control your partner or spouse? No, but you can influence them. This really helped my relationship with Joy, my wife of 25 years. Now I realize Joy’s not criticizing me, she’s improving me, rather enthusiastically at times, I might add. But, can she control me? No. Can I control her? No. We try to influence each other, and that’s what life’s about: human politics. So, understanding the difference between influencing and controlling helps a lot.

The Fluid Nature of Thoughts and Emotions

Can you control your thoughts? That’s a big one. For example, while I’ve been speaking, you’ve been paying attention, but your mind drifts off for a while, right? Then it comes back and then attention drifts. It’s always going somewhere. You have limited control over your attention, but absolutely zip control over your thoughts. We don’t know where they come from. They pop up and they come and go. I hope we can agree on this: You’re only personally responsible for what you can control and that you’re not responsible for what you can’t. I’m suggesting you have absolutely no responsibility for any thoughts you’ve ever thought, and stop worrying about it. Thoughts come and sometimes they’re positive and sometimes negative. Just let the thought go. Meanwhile, you focus on other things.

How about your emotions? Can you control your emotions? Do you need to control your emotions? Let’s look at that. If you look very closely at it, emotions are like the weather. They pass, just like the weather. And sometimes we like the weather and sometimes we don’t. But it will pass. All emotions, both positive and negative, fade over time unless we re-stimulate them. So, you want to re-stimulate the feelings you want and don’t re-stimulate feelings you don’t want.

Most people are interested in spiritual or psychological growth because they want to feel better more of the time. A healthy person will choose pleasure over pain, but there’s no way to control your emotions by willing it. You don’t need to. Somebody came up to me and said, “You start to realize you have no responsibility for any emotion you’ve ever felt or ever will feel. But, I think the one thing that we can control—and the only thing any human being who has ever lived has been able to control—is your behavior.

Aligning with Purpose

There’s a way to live reasonably and more free, which is to accept your feelings as natural to you in the moment. That’s the first thing: accept your emotions. The second is know your purpose. And the third is do what needs to be done in line with your purpose.

A young guy or gal has a final exam coming and suddenly their boyfriend or girlfriend comes in and says, “I’m sorry, it’s over. I met somebody else.” They walk out and the final’s tomorrow. One person may just fall apart and can’t concentrate or study. Another person may say, “I accept my feelings. I’m hurting bad. I’m grieving. I’m in shock. OK, what’s my purpose? I’ve got an exam tomorrow.” You do what needs to be done. And you keep going and you’re more likely to do better on the exam than if you just fell apart. To me, that’s part of what makes a mature human. People who live effectively—athletes, for example—learn this. They can’t wait to be in a good mood if there’s a championship match. Sometimes you feel good, sometimes you don’t, but whatever you feel, you accept that.

In dealing with fears, if somebody says, “I can’t speak in public,” or, “I can’t ask for a date,” they’re lying to themselves. What they’re really saying is, “I choose not to do it because it makes me feel uncomfortable.” And many people limit their life because things make them feel uncomfortable. Fear is a wonderful servant but a terrible master.

Please understand that this talk is sort of linear and sort of all over the place like a Chinese meal. It’s deliberate. I’m addressing the linear quality of the left brain and the visionary quality of the right one. It’s a little frustrating, but I promise you, it speaks to a deeper part of you.

So, we can control one thing, our behavior, and we are absolutely responsible for our behavior, no matter what. Everything you do, how you behave, no matter how you’re feeling, whether you’re motivated or not, confident or not, all of us are absolutely responsible. And you thought I was relieving you by saying you’re not responsible for anything. No, behavior is what counts.

I believe enlightenment is a behavior. Would you rather live with somebody who’s enlightened but acted really crazy, or somebody who was kind of crazy but acted enlightened? I’m not telling you which the answer is, but you decide for yourself. I think enlightenment is as enlightenment does. It’s not some subjective internal state of feeling good all the time and feeling free. It’s how you behave and that’s our human maturity.

Many of us are confused about our life purpose. Is it your goal in life to walk around with a gleeful smile on your face all the time? Is that the ultimate goal of life? Whether we use fancy words like “bliss” or “ecstasy,” is that really enough? Or, is there something else? Don’t we want meaning, purpose, connection and direction in life? To know our job or life counts for something and that we feel connected to other people? We often forget that our job, what we do, really counts. It’s an excuse to be with people. In Living on Purpose, somebody says, “I work at a bank and I’m good at it, but I want to do a more spiritual occupation.” And so I reminded him, in essence, that there’s no spiritual occupation. Spirit is what we bring to the occupation. I wish I could give you a formula for waking up one morning knowing exactly what you’re here to do. But I do give some hints in my book.

The 25 House Rules

Life is a school, daily life is our classroom and we’re here to learn. By the way, one of the earlier house rules is that lessons repeat themselves until learned. And the one after that is, if you don’t learn easy lessons, they get harder.

Another one of the 25 house rules is that every choice leads to wisdom. So many times we’re worried we’re going to make a wrong choice. Well, some choices lead to easier life and some choices make things harder, but I guarantee you, every choice leads to wisdom. The right choice for you is the choice you make. And, hopefully, you’ll do it with your eyes open and use your intuition. We each have inner guidance—that’s another one of the house rules.

The fourth aspect of our life purpose is the purpose that appears to us moment to moment. If you ever think you lack purpose, look again. Let’s say you want to go to the supermarket to get some food because you’re having friends over to entertain. What’s your most immediate purpose? Go to the store? Well, your first purpose is maybe to start the car and then try to get to the market without hitting any obstacles or people? That’s your first purpose, most immediate—getting to the market. Why do you want to get to the market? And a bigger purpose appears. To get food. Why do you want to get food? To feed your guests. Why do you want to feed your guests? To make them happy or maybe network—it could be many things. So, larger and larger and larger purposes appear. And it’s wonderful to have grand dreams, grand purposes. So, we build upon our purpose moment to moment, that’s what appears. So, never think you lack purpose.

Let me open to any questions you might have.

Audience: You have written some wonderful books. Are you working on a new one?

Dan Millman: Believe it or not, my next book is going to be Chicken Soup for Body and Soul. I’m not even going to tell you how I ended up being a Chicken Soup co-author, but body and soul was up my alley. Most of the Chicken Soup books are read by about a million people, and through the series, they have raised some $10 million for charities. That is a story in itself. Beyond that, my next book is going to be a novel. I only intend to write novels from now on. I want to write stories. 

Audience: Do you have a background in Zen?

Millman: I’ve certainly studied some Zen, but also Taoism, Sufism, Judaism, Christian Mysticism and different arts. I embrace the heart of all of them, whatever works, sort of a Brand X generic approach. I’ve been described as a blend between Ram Dass and Häagen-Dazs, somewhere in there.

Audience: What makes your teaching so vital?

Millman: You know, somebody came up to me after a lecture once and said, “Dan, I feel so inspired.” I said, “Don’t worry, it’ll pass.” It’s not about inspiring and motivating, because that doesn’t last. There’s a saying: “Learn one day, teach one day.” Teachers are those who love to share. We’re all teachers. You teach by your example. You have the ability to raise the standards around you or lower them. That’s why Gandhi said, “My life is my teaching.” It’s not whether you formally stand before a group and lecture.

Thank you very much for coming; it’s been a pleasure.

Living on Purpose: Straight Answers to Life’s Tough Questions

By Dan Millman (New World Library)

In Living on Purpose, Dan Millman brings us the inimical, intuitive insight and personal guidance for which he has been widely honored, distilling the “House Rules” into 25 key principles, and expanding on each through stories, quotations and exercises. He applies these principles to universal questions about money and work, parenting and priorities, diet and health, decision-making and divorce, simplicity and spirituality, meditation and morality, sexuality and fear, life and death, and more. As Millman writes, “My responses seem to come not so much from me, but through me. I do not, however, channel any discarnate warrior-sages from the fifth dimension, chat with God, or transcribe the dictations of astral guides. I claim only a gift of expression, and intuitive understanding of the House Rules, and an open heart.”

Other books by Dan Millman:

Way of the Peaceful Warrior (1980)

Sacred Journey of the Peaceful Warrior (1991)

Secret of the Peaceful Warrior (1991)

Quest for the Crystal Castle (1992)

No Ordinary Moments (1992)

The Laws of Spirit (1995)

The Life You Were Born to Live (1998)

Everyday Enlightenment (1998)

Body Mind Mastery (1999)

Bridge Between Worlds (2000)

The Journeys of Socrates (2005)

Wisdom of the Peaceful Warrior (2007)

Peaceful Warrior: The Graphic Novel (2010)

The Four Purposes of Life (2011)

The Creative Compass (with Sierra Prasada) (2013)



Published on: March 4, 2017

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