A Peaceful Warrior’s Journey Through the Martial Arts
By Dan Millman
It’s been twenty-five years since my first book, Way of the Peaceful Warrior, was published. Now, with the publication of my new novel, The Journeys of Socrates, I decided the time had come to share some personal history to express an appreciation of the martial arts, and to share some perspectives I’ve gained since the day I first bowed in and stepped through the doorway of a dojo.
Fifty years ago, my father took me a judo exhibition. I asked him if I could learn to do what I had seen. A week later, I stepped onto the mat with about thirty gi-clad students, kneeling quietly. Nearly all were Japanese, and the instructor said a few words I didn’t understand . . . I was a stranger in a strange land . . . but soon I learned to throw and roll and to fall with a well-timed slap, and how to tap out when I was choked or in pain. I got pretty good at tapping out. Thus, at nine years old, I began my training in the martial arts with the “gentle way.”
When I was eleven, soon after seeing the first James Bond film, I discovered Karate with its blocks and kicks and strikes. This training intensified at thirteen, when I spent several years under the guidance of Sensei Gordon Doversola, studying Okinawa-te, which combined the linear movements of Japanese and Korean karate with the more circular styles of China. As my skills improved, so did a sense of confidence so helpful to a small teenage boy.
Then life grew more complex and busy at school and at home. Meanwhile, trampoline and gymnastics training began to monopolize my time through the rest of high school and college. Eventually, I won the first World Trampoline Championships in London, as well as various national and international titles.
Gymnastics, requring focus and courage, became my Way for the next ten years. A motorcycle collision, shattered femur, followed by marriage and the birth of my first daughter pulled me out of competition and into the post-collegiate realites of making a living.
Yet through all those years I never lost that special appreciation for the martial arts Way—that quest for harmony of body, mind, and spirit. Many athletes strive for such a state, seeking the “zone,” peak performance, and higher awareness. But no other sports share the lineage of the martial arts. The samurai warriors, like the knights of the round table, lived with their own codes of honor, serving a higher cause. Here the quest is not about scores or points, but a Way of life, a lineage of life and death, where practitioners live in the moment of truth.
So, after ten years away from the dojo, while coaching gymnastics at Stanford University, I began studying Aikido with Robert Nadeau (who had trained for years with O-Sensei Morehei Uyeshiba, the founder).
Time moved on, introducing me to different arts. Over one summer I studied T’ai Chi Ch’uan with its slow-motion, fine-tuned attention to relaxation and balance, and refined movement.
As a professor at Oberlin College, I taught a course called “Way of the Peaceful Warrior,” which included basic elements of Aikido and T’ai Chi, and started an Aikido Club with sensei Frank Hreha. Later, I was awarded a shodan rank. (So now if I’m ever attacked on the street, I can whip out my certificate.)
Later I was exposed to elements of the Filipino art of Kali-Escrima-Arnis, and used some flowing movements with the knife as the foundation elements a personal development course I called The Courage Training. (Our motto: “The thrusting knife teaches trusting life.”)
Over the years I’ve appreciated innumerable styles and multiple uses of the arts: there’s “movie martial arts” for stylistic stunt fighting—we all know that such crisp movements aren’t the most practical in a street-fight scenario, but such graceful and dynamic athleticism may inspire many youngsters to take up the martial arts, as did many of us years ago.
Martial arts today are also taught as forms of fitness training (exemplified by Billy Blanks and his “Tae-Bo” routines), and cardio-kickboxing and similar aerobic forms.
Some instructors have emphasized self-defense applications of the arts – for most of us appreciate that study of an art—and learning street defense—require different approaches and methods of training.
Many arts, such as Judo or Tae Kwon Do provide friendly competition for all ages.
But whatever form our practice takes—whether competitive spsort, movement art, fitness form, self-defense, stage combat, or path to illumination, training in the martial arts encourages a more balanced, integrated, and peaceful way of life.
Whether one studies judo, kendo, aikido, karate-do, kyudo, all these paths have the suffix –do, which means a “way” or path to something greater than oneself. This, I believe is the heart of the peaceful warrior’s way—that innate desire to grow beyond . . . to embrace the great tradition of all those who blazed the trails, on whose shoulders we now stand.
People sometimes ask which is the “best” art. I remind them that:
- There is no best art—only the best practice for a given individual at a given time.
- There is a martial art for any age, body type, or temperament.
- The teacher is more important than the style. A wise teacher transcends the techniques to transmit his or her level of awareness through training.
Ultimately, the study of martial arts is the study of oneself. Understand the art and you understand life—universal laws and gain cell-level wisdom.
I’ve never personally achieved a high level of skill in the martial arts. (I sometimes joke that I have a sixth-dan on the trampoline…) But I do understand that the practice never ends; it only changes form.
Recently, on the recommendation of an experienced friend and instructor, I looked into Systema, the traditional Russian Martial Art taught to the Russian Special Forces, the Spetsnaz. I visited the school of foremost exponent Vladimir Vasiliev in Toronto, and ended up going to Russia to meet his teacher, Mikhail Ryabko, a gentle and devout man, and the most amazing fighter I’ve ever seen.
Inspired by my experiences with this art, I sat down to write my newest novel, The Journeys of Socrates. It relates a search for belonging and family, and finding one’s place in the world. But most of all, it tells how a man became a warrior—and how a warrior found peace.
Along the way, young Socrates (whose real name is Sergei Ivanov), meets various mentors, including a courageous grandfather . . . a skillful Cossack . . . a fierce swordman . . . and another key teacher who must remain a secret for now. He learns that we have no friends; we have no enemies; we only have teachers.
In our continuing practice of martial arts, of life, we each serve as students and teachers. This, to me, is one of the treasures of the martial arts, and great gifts of my life, in this fellowship of all those who practice the peaceful warrior’s way.