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The Way of the Warrior: A Philosophy of Life Based on Egoless Action

Updated: Mar 23, 2023

How to live a life worth living through action instead of contemplation.

Man wearing a helmet and climbing a crack
Action with focused attention. Photo of the author climbing Dave’s Deviation (5.9) in Tahquitz Rock, California.

The archetype of the warrior

Please, don’t be put off by the word warrior. Although it suggests war and aggression, the warrior is an archetype found in most cultures. In the psychology of Carl Jung, archetypes are mythical characters present in the collective subconscious. Other archetypes are the Wizard, the Witch, the Joker, the Mother, the Goddess, the Wise Old Man, the Demon and Death.

The archetype of the warrior appears frequently in popular culture. For example, the Jedi of Star Wars are warriors. Before that, it could be found in the 70s television series Kung Fu, where Kwai Chang Caine, a Buddhist monk trained in the Shaolin Monastery, wanders through the old West using his martial arts to face challenges. There are also women warriors, like Princess Leia of Star Wars, Yu Shu Lien of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Wonder Woman, and Ripley in the Alien movie series.

The Way of the Warrior is related to the Bushido: the moral code of the samurai of Japan. It is also reminiscent of the medieval knights. A warrior is different from a soldier. A soldier follows orders as part of an army. A warrior follows his own path according to his own goals and moral code.

A warrior does not seek war but peace. He fights evil because it causes suffering. The monks of the Shaolin Monastery were spiritual warriors who invented martial arts to defend themselves from marauders that tried to rob them. However, as Buddhist monks, their core practice was enlightenment and compassion.

Carlos Castaneda

I first heard about the Way of the Warrior when I was in college and read the books by Carlos Castaneda. He was an anthropology student at UCLA who decided to do a doctoral thesis about the sorcerers in Mexico. He found a Yaqui shaman, don Juan Matus, who initiated him in the use of peyote, Psilocybe mushrooms and Datura to access an alternate reality populated by powerful entities who could guide him. But to properly use the knowledge gained by using these drugs, a wizard has to follow a disciplined way of life: the Way of the Warrior.

There was a wisdom in that philosophy of life that appealed much more to me than taking psychedelics.

Carlos Castaneda turned his doctoral thesis at UCLA into a book that became a worldwide bestseller: The Teachings of Don Juan. I read it several times, and then the whole series of books that Castaneda wrote after that. Eventually, I became convinced that he was making up all that stuff about the occult traditions of Mexican wizards. The books were entertaining, but nothing more.

Still, it is undeniable that Castaneda was a masterful weaver of mythology and philosophy of life. It is possible that he drew from the Bushido, Zen, Stoicism and other ancient traditions to create his own version of the Way of the Warrior. If so, he was truly brilliant in this synthesis. He also seems to have followed the Way of the Warrior in his own life.

Zen

I turned to other sources of wisdom in my spiritual quest. I learned yoga, studied with the Siloists, and finally settled for Zen Buddhism, which I practiced for 10 years, first with the disciples of Taisen Deshimaru, later with Eido Shimano Roshi and Maezumi Roshi.

Eventually, I became disenchanted with Buddhism because of its beliefs in supernatural things like reincarnation and Nirvana, and its denial of the pleasures of life.

I needed a philosophy of life that was more down to earth, that taught how to live my life balancing a quest for happiness and working for the common good. That accepted the fact that death means my complete disappearance, and show me how to deal with that.

Rock climbing

What brought my attention back to the Way of the Warrior was my passion for rock climbing. My rock-climbing buddies recommended the book The Rock Warrior’s Way, by Arno Ilgner. It teaches the right mental attitude for rock-climbing: a way to overcome fear, maximize performance and enjoy climbing. As I was reading it, I realized that it is about much more than just rock-climbing. It taught a way of life that was both disciplined and joyful. And the best part was that my beloved sport of rock climbing provided a simple way to train my mind to follow it.

That philosophy of life was a distillation of the Way of the Warrior of the books by Castaneda, mixed up with a bit of Stoic philosophy and Zen Buddhism, as recognized by Arlo Ilgner himself.

All this truly speaks to me. I found a way to integrate the best aspects of many things that I had learned in life.

The Way is the Tao

The word Way has a profound meaning: is the Tao, the flowing energy that shapes the world, according to Taoism. The Way has no destination; it exists on itself. The Tao flows by balancing the Yin and the Yang, the masculine and the feminine.

From a personal point of view, the Way is a path of inner discovery and transformation. A warrior’s quest is one of constant improving, learning and letting go of the Ego.

From the societal point of view, we should realize that we have inherited a wonderful civilization created by the warriors of the past: warrior scientists, warrior philosophers, warrior artists, warrior leaders of social movements. Now, we have the duty to continue improving the world to pass it to future generations.

The Way of the Warrior reaches its cusp when the personal path of the warrior gets in harmony with the Way in which the world flows.

Mindfulness versus active attention

Mindfulness is a practice consisting of directing our attention to our senses in a relaxed, non-judgmental way, turning off our internal dialogue. The best benefit of mindfulness practice is the development of meta-attention: being aware of the state of our attention. When meta-attention becomes a habit, we become aware of how our emotions drive our consciousness, and thus develop the ability to subtly direct our emotions toward a state of mental calmness and control.

The Way of the Warrior uses the challenges placed on us by risky situations to practice a particular form of mindfulness based on action instead of contemplation. This discipline arose from the demands placed on warriors like the samurai, who may confront each other in deadly duels.

“[The warrior] must perform with absolute mastery and calm in the face of horrendous mortal danger. […] If he clings too dearly to his own life, or is ruled by his Ego, he will seek escape; his attention will waver; he will be destroyed. Paradoxically, if he adopts a stance of embracing the risk and accepting the consequences, he is far more likely to survive.” Arno Ilgner, The Rock Warrior’s Way.

The danger doesn’t need to be extreme. It just needs to evoke enough fear to challenge the mechanisms of our attention. That’s why climbing and martial arts are perfect ways to train us to become warriors. These sports put us in challenging situations in which the risk is real, but less than it appears. The demand to perform well physically in the face of fear exposes defense mechanisms of our mind that weaken us and drive bad emotional habits.

However, one doesn’t need to practice martial arts or risky sports to be a warrior. We can find our own Way of the Warrior in writing, scientific research, art, political activism and other worthwhile pursuits.

“It is the warrior’s way to follow the paths of both the sword and the brush (pen).” Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings.

We are our worst enemy. Our Ego, which is our self-image, controls much of our behavior, leading us to focus on our achievements instead of the task at hand. Only by letting go of the Ego we can get into a flow zone of unrestricted attention that we need to perform masterfully.

But what really matters is not our performance, but the mental state that leads to it.

While regular mindfulness is a passive state of letting perceptions flow unimpeded into our consciousness, attention in the Warrior’s Way is directed towards action.

“In warrior-speak, the active form of awareness is called attention. Attention is awareness heightened and focused, the intentional directing of awareness.” Arno Ilgner, The Rock Warrior’s Way.

What we do, how we feel, is deeply affected by the unconscious parts of our mind. The Way of the Warrior does not fight the unconscious. Instead, it seeks to merge the conscious and the unconscious through impeccable actions.

Impeccability

Impeccability consists of using attention in order to perform flawlessly.

We don’t perform flawlessly to feed our Ego, but as a way to verify that we have achieved a good mental state in which we are not controlled by our emotions or our Ego.

This has an ethical component. The warrior chooses his own moral code, but then he has to follow it by practicing the virtue of integrity. He answers to himself, taking full responsibility for the consequences of his actions.

Motivation is the key. We need to learn to move from a motivation based on fear, shame and pride to one based on love and joy.

“The courage a warrior must cultivate is not just for overcoming personal fears, but the courage to live life at its fullest, which entails taking chances. Following the path of the warrior is the most difficult of the spiritual ways and requires courage to practice since you must also live life in your own terms. This means one must fight through the everyday worry, fear, sadness, anxiety, and depression to live with vitality and vigor.” Stephan H. Verstappen in A Master’s Guide to The Way of the Warrior.

A path with a heart

The Way of the Warrior is a happy way, a path with a heart.

We need to change our core motivation from being based on fear, shame and pride to one based on joy and love. This is not an easy process. It consists of using our intuition to polish our moral code, our system of values, so that in brings meaning to our life.

This is not a lonely task. We develop our love by giving to others, helping them grow as we grow.

“This question is one that only a very old man asks. Does this path have a heart? All paths are the same: they lead nowhere. They are paths going through the bush, or into the bush. In my own life I could say I have traversed long, long paths, but I am not anywhere. Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn't, it is of no use. Both paths lead nowhere; but one has a heart, the other doesn't. One makes for a joyful journey; as long as you follow it, you are one with it. The other will make you curse your life. One makes you strong; the other weakens you.” Carlos Castaneda, The Teachings of Don Juan.

By finding the things that bring us joy when we do them, the values that we cherish, the people that we love, we follow a path with a heart. The journey of a meaningful life.

"For me there is only the traveling on paths that have heart, on any path that may have heart. There I travel, and the only worthwhile challenge is to traverse its full length. And there I travel, looking, looking, breathlessly." Carlos Castaneda, The Teachings of Don Juan.

Personal power

Personal power is a concept found in the books of Carlos Castaneda that can be easily misunderstood. We normally associate power with wealth, political influence and dominion over others. Hence, acquiring power sounds selfish. However, in the Way of the Warrior, personal power means self-knowledge, self-control and the ability to generate sustained attention and effort. It means controlling ourselves in a quest for self-knowledge, impeccable action and, ultimately, finding meaning in life.

“Power manifest itself as clarity of thought and decisiveness in action. It is the totality of the resources you bring to a given situation with special emphasis on the mental aspect.” Arno Ilgner, The Rock Warrior’s Way.

According to Arno Ilgner, gathering personal power entails:

  • letting go of the Ego,

  • focusing on the process and not the destination,

  • cultivating our love of life,

  • encouraging our curiosity,

  • plugging power drains,

  • not wasting energy on unimportant things,

  • training our attention,

  • keeping our body healthy.

Personal power consists of a mixture of emotional strength, stoicism, resilience, wisdom, good habits and learned knowledge.

Paradoxically, power consists of giving, not taking. You are powerful when you can give your full energy and attention to what you are doing. If, instead, you focus on the reward that you will receive if you succeed or on the consequences of failure, you are falling into the trap of the Ego. Your attention is leaking away from focusing on what you are doing, producing a mental state that leads to faulty action. You fumble. You curse. You seek excuses. You cling to hope. You blame others. You feel ashamed of yourself.

Death as our advisor

Being aware of our mortality helps us focus on what is really important in life.

Normally, death terrifies and paralyzes us. However, being aware of the certainty of dying lets us know that there is no time to waste. We need to focus on what brings meaning to our life. This sharpens our motivation.

Do we want to live a life full of fear or a life full of love and joy?

A path with a heart leads to nowhere. To death and oblivion. Its value resides in having a heart.

Abandoning self-importance

In the books by Carlos Castaneda, to survive an encounter with the powerful entities of the world of the sorcerers, the apprentice has to abandon his self-importance.

Likewise, according to Arno Ilgner, to ‘send’ a difficult climb one has to abandon the Ego and completely focus the attention on executing each move impeccably.

“You can feel pretty worthless at times because reward and punishment have molded you. When you did something that was considered good by your caregivers, you were rewarded, and when you did something that was considered bad, you were punished. Your caregivers associated your worth with your performance - your behavior. Then, as you grew older, your caregivers’ expectations became embodied in the Ego, which took over the job of rewarding and punishing. Your caregivers’ expectations were supplemented or replaced by the expectations of a peer group, or the expectations established by a set of beliefs you adopted with little critical thought. Regardless of the source of the Ego’s expectations, the result is the same: we are slaves to externally driven influences, rather than being the masters of our internal, mental environment.” Arno Ilgner, The Rock Warrior’s Way.

I conceive the Ego as a part of our mind that arises during childhood by internalizing the instructions of our parents and teachers, all the while driven by pride and shame.

Pride and shame are two powerful emotions that evolved to enable social control and to motivate cooperation. As Ilgner explains, their joined effect during childhood creates the Ego. When our actions are driven by the Ego, they become just blind pursuits for validation. We try to earn praise and to avoid shame. That makes us dependent on external influences and vulnerable to societal pressure.

The Ego constantly chases approval and fears shame. It is goal-oriented. When driven by the Ego, our inner chatter is all about the reward we are going to get if we succeed and how awful failure is going to feel.

Only when we abandon our self-importance we can completely focus on executing our action impeccably.

Letting go of the Ego leads to the state of flow: a playful, carefree state of physical and intellectual flexibility in which we seem to accomplish things effortlessly.

According to Ilgner, a warrior lets go of the Ego and nurtures his Higher Self instead:

“The Higher Self isn’t competitive, defensive, or conniving, as the Ego. It sees through such petty ploys. The Higher Self derives self-worth not from comparison with others, but from an internal focus that is based on valuing growth and learning.” Arno Ilgner, The Rock Warrior’s Way.

The humbleness of the warrior does not consist of dwelling on his weaknesses or affecting a false modesty, but of a constant struggle to cultivate inner motivation and personal power.

“The humbleness of a warrior is not the humbleness of the beggar. The warrior lowers his head to no one, but at the same time, he doesn't permit anyone to lower his head to him. The beggar, on the other hand, falls to his knees at the drop of a hat and scrapes the floor to anyone he deems to be higher; but at the same time, he demands that someone lower than him scrape the floor for him.” Carlos Castaneda.

Erasing our personal history

According to Castaneda, erasing our personal history is another facet of the Way of the Warrior. This is because our inner talk reminds us constantly of who we are, especially of our weaknesses. It may say ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘I got this’, but both messages have an undertone of self-doubt.

In the state of flow, we forget who we are to focus completely on what we are doing.

Impeccable action has no self-doubt, because there is no self in it.

Conclusion

The Way of the Warrior is a philosophy of life more in accordance with the demands of modern culture than contemplative traditions like Buddhism or Taoism. It focuses our attention on our actions, so everything we do at work, at home and in our social life becomes a path of self-discovery and self-transformation. The demands and stresses of life, instead of draining our energy, become a source of inner power.

However, the Way of the Warrior is an empty path. It is up to ourselves to fill it with what we learn along the way. The warrior chooses his own values and goals. These are not cast in stone, but evolve as he learns.

Ultimately, the Way of the Warrior is a quest for the meaning of life.

Books about the Way of the Warrior


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