I’ve recently received a few different reading suggestions from fellow Jedi, and I’ll be writing up the results here as I go. First up is Dan Millman’s book, which I enjoyed a great deal. It travelled around with me for a couple of weeks while I read it and I’ve waited a few weeks since finishing it to fully digest it before writing this.

This entry contains SPOILERS – it’s a discussion, not a review so please proceed with caution. I don’t think anything I’m going to say would ruin the book for anyone, but I will be mentioning “shock” plot points and discussing the ending.

The story centres on Dan, an ordinary man of university age, and a strange and mysterious teacher he only ever knows as “Socrates”, who Dan meets one night at a petrol station. This old man can do things Dan has never seen done, including things he is a world expert in himself. Through strange and baffling lessons, Dan gradually gains wisdom of himself. Despite major problems in his life including a debilitating motorcycle accident, Dan goes on to great success by following the teachings of Socrates, or rather the insights Socrates makes him draw out of himself.
I was reminded throughout the story of Zen, including the study of koans to attain clarity or no-mind. The attitude, lessons and ideas Socrates puts forward are, I think, very Zen. They’re also very Jedi; Socrates can see the value in teaching via synthesis, because he spins Dan’s preconceptions on their head and shows him the opposite to make a point. When Dan thinking he has the answer already, Socrates is quick to show him the opposite point of view so he can move forward on a course of balance, and wisdom.

A key point the book made was the importance of the “now”, the present moment. This is also a very important point for Jedi. We recognise that time is a concept, and all we can know is right now. We recognise that whilst our past and our future are important, they don’t control us. We understand that whilst we live in a causal universe, by attaining the wisdom that we can choose to chuck out our preconceptions, we gain the power to be spontaneous; we have the power to change bad habits in an instant, if we so wish. We can choose “now” rather than later, and in doing so change the world.

One of the important lessons of the book is that life is about the journey, not the destination. Again, this is an important notion for Jedi as well. We value the individual paths we take, and recognise the value in travelling from where we were to where we are. We are guided by some central directions, by which we can navigate ourselves on a journey of peace, compassion and harmony.

Another very relevant point to the path of Jedi is something I mentioned briefly in the final essay of the IP. Socrates talks about the peaceful warrior’s sword as his ability to comprehend – his meditation, or focus. I think this ties in with the idea above of the power of the moment, the inherent strength of understanding and living in the “now”. Because we understand focus is valuable and because we have tools which allow us to live in a focused and present (mindful) way, we have the power to see through illusion, and cut through the humdrum thoughts and fears which obscure true wisdom. Like a sword, we must learn to use it; eventually we must use it without thought or conscious choice, instead reaching for it as we need it, no more, no less. We get to this point through practice.

At the end of the book, Socrates “does an Obi-Wan” and vanishes. Poof! And he’s gone. Dan recognises that whilst it’s sad he’s no longer there to speak with in the flesh, he lives on in the universe. This has obvious resonances with the Force and the Jedi understanding of the inherent “deathlessness” of life, when taken as a whole. The lessons Socrates had given Dan were given; he had “served his purpose”. Was Socrates an angel? A ghost? A hallucination? He could have been any or all of these things and it wouldn’t change the fact it was Dan who did the work, Dan who reached enlightenment.

I like to think of Socrates as Dan’s ignorance. Taoism teaches us the wisdom of “beginner’s mind” and the “uncarved block” – that the wisest person is often the one who knows least. Socrates is wise without detail; Dan is knowledgeable without wisdom. Because Socrates showed Dan what he lacked, Dan pursued him and followed his lessons. Ignorance does the same for us; because we know that we do not know, we are driven to learn. Socrates plays less and less part of Dan’s life as Dan becomes wiser and moves out into the wider world. The final moment of non-enlightenment has Dan passing through the gate, which “kills” his ignorance; but his valuable ignorance is not discarded or forgotten, it remains a key part of who Dan is. He recognises its value. The story is told in such a way as the reader shares Dan’s ignorance, and this is what drives the reader to follow the story.

I found the explicit idea of Socrates being an extension of Dan’s self a little trite; I saw that it was a possible outcome of the book’s central mystery of “who is Socrates?”, and I was hoping for something which I hadn’t thought of, something which would add another layer to the book’s message. However it didn’t change the insights and message of the story, and after a while I realise it’s actually rather nice. Millman is using Socrates as a metaphor for the idea we all have wisdom within ourselves, if we can only learn to engage with it, to unlock and “walk through the gate”. I imagine the character of Dan perched in his gas station at night, reading the works of great philosophers and mystics, developing his spiritual side.

This also resonates with parts of my own life, when I was Dan’s age. When I was at university I had a job sitting in a little box in a car park, taking tickets from people as they left and making sure no-one was breaking into cars. It was, essentially, a no-mind job which left me free to do whatever I wanted, within reason. I read. I read anything and everything, from Virginia Woolf to Neil Gaiman, comics to novels to non-fiction to spiritual texts. I listened to audiobooks and podcasts. I made the most of the opportunity this “prison” of my little box allowed me, to broaden my horizons and expand my mind. I often think of that job as the best I ever had; I changed nothing, other than making people smile by being kind and polite… but I learned more in that little box than anywhere else in my life so far, including my university lecture theatres and libraries. The lessons I gave myself there have guided me to be a stronger, better person in the life that has followed.

And perhaps that was the biggest take-home message from The Way of the Peaceful Warrior; that it’s in life that we “climb the mountain”. It’s the path which leads us to the supermarket and to the office and to our sofa that also leads us up to the gate of enlightenment. The peaceful warrior does not train in isolation, finding a cave somewhere to meditate without end. Dan tries this, and he gains some insight. But it’s in engaging with the world, “getting on with life” that we really understand it. It’s not about thinking; it’s about doing. We must walk the path or we’ll never get anywhere.