He's a guru of 'practical spirituality'

Millions of New Age believers look to Dan Millman, though his do-it-yourself style makes some people leery.

Philadelphia Inquirer, November 7, 1999
By Jim Remsen

'Daily life is God's classroom."

"Life is constantly supporting us and giving us gifts. It's a matter of opening ourselves to that."

The speaker, Dan Millman, moved lightly across the Convention Center stage, tossing out these spiritual jewels wrapped in his own parables and anecdotes. "We're immersed in the spirit of God all the time. We just don't notice."

"We all have the archetype inside us of the enlightened being." Wearing sneakers and golf shirt, the jocular Millman looked more like a fitness coach than a clergyman. In fact, he is a former world-class gymnast and coach.

And, in fact, he is a man with no formal religious credentials. That has not stopped him, though, from establishing himself as a guiding light of New Age spirituality.

The 53-year-old Californian is the author of 10 books, including the best-selling Way of the Peaceful Warrior, that have ministered to the human-potential movement's body-mind-spirit trinity for nearly 20 years. His specialty, translating guru-talk and ephemera into "practical spirituality," has resulted in more than one million books sold and a roster of celebrity fans including Paul Newman, Michael Douglas, Billie Jean King and Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson.

In the New Age counterculture, as in many storefront churches, credentials count less than preaching power and plain wisdom - and Millman, by acclamation, is felt to have the goods.

"Dan is in harmony with it all. You feel it. It oozes out of him," said Anne Khoury, organizer of the Healthy Living & Holistic Health Expo held last month at the Convention Center.

Khoury brought in Millman as a featured speaker at the expo, and about 200 people paid $25 each to attend his lecture, a pep talk about living a spiritually richer life.

One enthusiast said he detected waves of energy pulsing from Millman as he spoke. The author certainly did embroider the air with a host of points and "principles" (not "rules," which are bothersome to seekers).

Millman is a veteran seeker himself, and his credo is a mix of self-esteem guidelines, Yankee pragmatism, humor, horse sense, and concepts from Eastern and Western religions. He uses classical religious terms (grace, soul, saints, miracles, sacredness) in a loose way that Christian watchdogs call "theological shoplifting." He diminishes other concepts (dogma, commandments, sin, moralism, hierarchy) and never recommends exploring life in a traditional Western congregation.

"Dan would be between traditional New Age and its next mature evolution," said Matthew Gilbert, editor of NAPRA ReView, a New Age trade magazine. The movement's first wave rejected the traditions outright as suffocating, Gilbert said, while its contemporary thinkers "are realizing that do-it-yourself spirituality has much to learn from the traditional religions," particularly from their mystical teachings. Millman's talk was short on mysticism. He offered five principles for life:

"Show up. Pay attention. Express your truth. Do your best. Don't try to control the outcome."

He outlined 12 handy "gateways to everyday enlightenment." They progress from "taming your mind," "illuminating your shadow," "awakening your heart" and the like to the ultimate: "serving your world" by volunteerism and other selfless acts.

"Saints were saints because they acted with loving kindness whether they felt like it or not," Millman said. "The point is to have saintly moments." This went on for two quiet hours. Listeners lapped it up. Afterward, many stayed to get books autographed and to seek Millman's advice on personal matters.

"I like how he takes universal truths and makes them approachable and understandable," said one person in the line, Angela Julich, a Havertown kindergarten teacher. Her husband, pro bicyclist Bobby Julich, said Millman's writings on "the inner athlete" helped his mental training immensely.

The outer athlete was Millman's own first life. As a schoolboy, his drive was gymnastics. He became a cocky star at the University of California, Berkeley, a world champion trampolinist, and, later, the Stanford gymnastics coach. A motorcycle crash shattered his leg and self-image, though, sending him tumbling on a long spiritual search.

Millman is the grandson of Russian Jewish immigrants and was raised by religiously unobservant parents in California. Like his parents - and like most New Agers - he stayed outside the bounds of a Western congregation as he pursued meaning. He studied yoga, Zen meditation, martial arts, shamanism. He joined a guru's community. He went to Asia. He read scriptures.

Somewhere on this zigzag path, Millman had a moment of "ego-transcendence," which he chronicled in fictionalized form in Way of the Peaceful Warrior. He applied its insights to his coaching - until he found he cared more about the team's mindfulness than its record. He went off to write and lecture on the art of the peaceful warrior and other truths that he says come to him "from a vast and mysterious storehouse of intuitive wisdom." The Berkeley psych graduate transformed into a New Age star.

"Millman is one of the more typical and successful models of a do-it-yourself spiritual mentor," said Gilbert, the New Age editor from Eastsound, Wash. One of Millman's rallying cries, Gilbert noted, is that people trust their intuition as a truth-teller greater even than their rational faculties.

This trust has been an article of faith for many New Agers, Gilbert said: "Perhaps the pendulum swings too far to that side, to diminish rules and logic and authority, to say none of that matters. It's probably one of the weakest legs the New Age movement stands on. It has been a lightning rod of criticism even by students of our contemporary spiritual movement." In an interview, Millman conceded that it can be "dicey" to authorize a solo seeker to follow her intuition free of the interpersonal discernment and spiritual-guidance processes that the religious traditions provide. Nonetheless, he defends his teaching as a valuable tonic to people who suffer both spiritual malnutrition and low self-esteem.

"There are so many people who don't trust themselves at all," he said. "To me, our deepest intuition is God speaking to us. That can be delusional, and yet most people don't have that problem. They're just trusting their left brain to try to figure everything out, and they don't trust themselves. Or they go off and join a cult and give all their power and wisdom away to a master."

Millman takes pains not to be seen as a master. Though he is a full-service sage with self-help tapes and a pastoral Web site (<http://www.danmillman.com>), he wants people to follow his advice, not follow him. He hopes they become their own spiritual dowsers, and is mum about his own practices so it doesn't seem he is advocating one way. Millman also defends his lack of religious credentials. In an e-mail, he noted that "a Ph.D. or doctorate of divinity does not automatically bestow higher awareness or inspired teaching abilities any more than a degree in English creates a great novelist."

Gilbert said the movement's lack of credentialing "does open the door to anyone who says he has some special knowledge, and a lot of flakes have shown up. But it also opens up the field to people who are may not fit into a particular educational paradigm but are as genuinely wise as anyone who has come out of that paradigm. . . . It ultimately becomes a shakeout process." Like an old trampolinist, Millman tries to bound above the arguing. In his e-mail, he said: "It comes to this: We live between heaven and earth, between two realities, the conventional and the transcendental. I'm not here to argue dogmas, rituals or rules that vary from one sincere sect or another. I'm here to help people build a foundation in their lives, and to free their attention, so that they might notice God or Spirit or Divine Presence that shines at the heart of every religion."


To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.