When a review copy of Dan Millman's latest book, Everyday Enlightenment,
showed up in my in-box last fall, my first thought was: "Not another book detailing the deep spiritual lessons to be learned from cooking, driving and pet ownership!" Already somewhat familiar with Millman's career as an eclectic and popular inspirational speaker and author of two successful Castanedaesque spiritual novels, a series of self-help books and a recent stint offering numerological personal destiny consultation by mail, I too quickly assumed that his views on "everyday" spirituality would follow the now well-worn groove of recent books championing the inherently spiritual nature of even the most mundane aspects of daily life. Upon taking a closer look at Millman's book, however, I soon found that his "everyday enlightenment" was not only a radical departure from conventional notions of everyday life as a spiritual practice, it also had intriguing implications for our exploration of the relationship between enlightenment and self-mastery. For in what may be a completely unique marriage of these two divergent approaches to transformation, Millman's book makes the claim that enlightenment, like any other pursuit, can be practiced—
directly, consciously and methodically—through the exertion of will, self-discipline and a one-pointed focus on action.
In Millman's view, the "Eastern solution" has run up against some limits in the modern West. Aiming for the lofty heights of spiritual experience, he points out, many contemporary seekers have almost entirely neglected the practical dimension of life, the world of day-to-day activity in which who we are is always revealed by what we do. Equally problematic, he feels, is the popular psychotherapeutic paradigm now pervading many contemporary spiritual approaches, in which an overemphasis on feeling better and "fixing our insides" has given rise to a widespread victim mentality, with the result that almost no one takes seriously the possibility of radically transforming themselves through a conscious act of will. The antidote? "To change the course of your life," he writes, "choose one of two basic methods:
1. You can direct your energy and attention toward trying to fix your mind, find your focus, affirm your power, free your emotions, and visualize positive outcomes so that you can finally develop the confidence to display the courage to discover the determination to make the commitment to feel sufficiently motivated to do what it is you need to do.
2. Or you can just do it."
In the passionate argot of the Self Masters, this call to "just do it" seems to hold a central if not universally revered position. Indeed, during my brief survey of the often exhausting terrain of self-mastery, I had come to see this powerful exhortation to abandon all hesitation in the pursuit of one's goal
as almost a kind of Self Master's credo. But what appeared to set Millman apart from his fellow titans of positivity was his attempt to bring this mantra of athletic shoe advertising to bear on the loftiest of spiritual pursuits. Drawing on principles he learned from an innovative Japanese psychiatric method known as "Morita Therapy," Millman has created what he calls "the practice
of enlightenment," a radical new approach to spiritual life in which all of one's energy and attention are directed not toward trying to bring about any internal shift of consciousness, but toward doing whatever it takes to "act as if"
one were enlightened. He writes: "For most people, enlightenment requires that you work from the inside out, first
clearing your body and psyche, which then
enables you to behave in an enlightened way. I propose that you can work from the outside in. Behavior
can precede realization. You can fake it 'til you make it; just do it until more enlightened behavior becomes a habit." When confronted with any situation, Millman suggests repeatedly, simply ask your self, "What would an enlightened person do under these circumstances?"—and then do
that. That's the practice.
Upon first encountering Millman's radical view, I was immediately struck by its clarity, simplicity and doubtless logic. Indeed, it was precisely this kind of straightforward, down-to-earth, results-oriented focus that had sparked our interest in self-mastery in the first place, and had caused us to wonder what the Self Masters might have to offer to seekers of enlightenment. In putting the entire focus of his teachings on the realm of action, Millman seemed to be effectively doing away with the entire domain of internal complexity—the tangled knot of mixed motivations, conditioned responses and rigidly held ideas that most seekers struggle for years if not lifetimes to unwind. If Millman's approach really worked, I mused, it would turn the conventional paradigm of spiritual practice and pursuit on its head.
Unique among the Self Masters we spoke with, Millman—a former champion gymnast—was at one time in his life also a serious spiritual seeker. Spurred onto the path by an overwhelming experience of transcendent unity in his twenties, he "tried meditation and visualization, seminars, soul-searching and self-analysis," eventually spending several years under the guidance of such powerful and controversial teachers as Da Free John and Oscar Ichazo "seeking to recapture that sense of unity and divine perfection." But while his far-ranging quest did bring him "insights and experiences," Millman never found his way back to the "simple illumination" that had inspired his search—choosing in the end to devote his life to "shar[ing] with others . . . what [he] had learned" during his years on the path.
I spoke with Dan Millman last fall at his bright blue suburban home—"the one with the painted rainbow over the garage"—in Marin County, California, spiritual mecca of the West Coast. Throughout our discussion, Millman was, as expected, articulate and insightful, bringing his unusually practical perspective to my questions on the relationship between self-mastery and enlightenment. It occurred to me in the course of our dialogue, that among the individuals we encountered in our inquiry into this dynamic subject, Millman seems to occupy a unique position. For while, unlike the other Self Masters we spoke with, he is clearly a champion of the spiritual dimension of life—writing books intended to uplift others to their own higher potentials, and speaking boldly about enlightenment before mass audiences around the world—at the same time, in his almost singular emphasis on will, self-discipline and the power of committed action, his work seems to be firmly anchored in the down-to-earth domain of self-mastery. In attempting to bring these two all-consuming, yet seemingly divergent approaches together under one roof, has Dan Millman created a teaching that risks losing the powerful transformative potential of both? Or has this champion-gymnast-turned-spiritual-teacher actually come up with, as he himself boldly declares, "the highest practice any human being can do"?