The Way of the Warrior Writer
Writing as a path to improve the world and yourself
Two books point to the Way of the Warrior
I am finishing reading The Rock’s Warrior Way, by Arno Ilgner, a wonderful book recommended by my rock-climbing buddies. 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 more than just rock-climbing. It teaches a better way to live.
Arlo Ilgner says that he is inspired by Stoic philosophy and by the books of Carlos Castaneda. I devoured Castaneda’s books when I was in college and I still have them in my library. However, after my initial infatuation with them, I decided that he was making up all that stuff about the occult traditions of Mexican wizards. However, the passages in which he mentions the Way of the Warrior still resonate with me.
Wanting to learn more about the Way of the Warrior, I went on an internet search. I found that the Way of the Warrior can mean a number of different things, most of which don’t appeal to me at all. Finally, I bought A Master’s Guide to The Way of the Warrior, by Stephan H. Verstappen. The author is a martial arts teacher who has explored the roots of the Way of the Warrior in Eastern traditions, particularly in Zen Buddhism and Taoism. Although I have never done martial arts, I practiced Zen for 10 years and have adopted its philosophy, so the book seems right for me.
What is the Way of the Warrior?
If you are a pacifist like me, you may be put off by the word warrior. According to Verstappen, a warrior is very different from a soldier. While a soldier is part of an army and follows orders without questioning, a warrior acts alone following his own moral code. Think medieval knights, the samurai of Japan, or the Jedi of Star Wars. The warrior is an archetype found in all cultures. It speaks to something ancestral inside all of us.
A warrior realizes that there is a constant struggle between good and evil forces, and dedicates himself to fight for the good. But his quest is both external and internal. At the same time that he tries to chance the world, he struggles to improve himself, to become the best man that he can be.
Or the best woman. Although the Warrior’s Way is full of masculine values, women can be warriors, too. In fact, contemporary movies are stock-full of women warriors, like Wonder Woman, Yu Shu Lien of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Princess Leia of Star Wars, or Ripley of the Alien movies. If Tao is the Way, then it flows by balancing the Yin and the Yang, the masculine and the feminine.
“Literature, philosophy, poetry, and culture in general have a feminine side, and Budo, the military art, is masculine. There must be a harmony between the two.” Taisen Deshimaru in The Zen Way to Martial Arts.
The word Way also has a profound meaning: is the Tao, the flowing energy that shapes the world. The Way has no destination, it exists on itself. From a personal point of view, the Way is the path of inner discovery and transformation followed by a warrior. A warrior’s quest is one of constant improving, learning and letting go of the Ego. The Way of the Warrior reaches its cusp when these two ways merge: the personal way of the warrior gets in harmony with the Way in which the world flows.
Writing as a Warrior’s Way
Reading Ilgner’s book, I realized that what he teaches could be applied to my writing. Climbing and writing I feel the same things. A similar anxiety before I start a route or an article. A similar state of flow when I am doing things right. A similar temptation to focus on finishing, instead of focusing on what I am doing at the moment. A similar Ego-driven judging and negative self-talk.
Verstappen’s book confirmed my hunch. The warriors of old China and Japan did not just practice martial arts, but were versed in many creative skills. Primary amongst those was writing. Writing is one of the main endeavors of a warrior.
“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 have inherited a wonderful civilization created by the warriors of the past. Warrior scientists, warrior philosophers, warrior artists, warrior leaders of social movements. And, prominent among them, warrior writers. With their stories and essays, they changed the consciousness of the society around them. In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker remarks the importance of novels in making their readers empathize with people different from them, and how that led to the defeat of many kinds of bigotry.
Now, we have the duty to continue improving the world to pass it to future generations. However, many people have only enough resources to take care of themselves and their loved ones. Others don’t feel the need to give back. Not everybody hears the call to be a warrior.
I decided to become a Warrior Writer
Since a young age, I felt the call to be a warrior. For me, it was wanting to be a scientist. To learn the amazing description of the world created by science and to make my own small contribution to it. It also took the form of a spiritual quest. Practicing yoga, meditation and other techniques, I strived to change myself, to overcome my limitations and gain wisdom.
At the beginning of 2020, just as the Covid-19 pandemic was starting, I retired from my scientific work and closed my lab. I had been writing novels and articles as a hobby, and early retirement gave me an opportunity to dedicate myself fully to writing.
My life experience has taught a lot of valuable things, and I want to give them back to the world. I hope that putting together my knowledge of science with my worldview I can contribute in some way to make the world a better place.
I don’t need to write to make a living. I don’t think I will become famous by doing it, either. Writing is something I do because there are stories and ideas inside of me wanting to come out. These stories and ideas are things I want to give to the world in return for everything I have received. By writing them I also learn who I am, I clarify the meaning of the world and of my own life.
“All true art is nothing but an attempt to transmit the sensation of ecstasy. And only the man who finds in it this state of ecstasy will understand and feel art.” P. D. Ouspensky, The Fourth Way.
Reading the books by Ilgner and Verstappen made me realize that writing can be a spiritual path, something that needs to be done with the same detachment and intention for transformation as yoga or meditation. This requires cultivating a series of values as I write. I wrote a list of them below, to help me develop my path as a Writing Warrior.
1) Intellectual Honesty
For me, this is the most important value of a Writing Warrior, so it belongs at the top of the list.
“The term ‘warrior’ is often associated with images of power, confidence, accomplishment, chivalry, honor and integrity.” Stephan H. Verstappen in A Master’s Guide to The Way of the Warrior.
Integrity is one of the virtues of a warrior. For the Warrior Writer, integrity means intellectual honesty.
The climate crisis, the Trump presidency and the Covid-19 pandemic have made us acutely aware of how misinformation can cause many deaths and destroy our society. Hence, the primary mission of a Warrior Writer is to counter this epidemic of disinformation by writing about the truth. However, this requires a firm commitment to finding the truth in an unbiased way.
This means that the warrior has to be a reader as much as a writer. His path should be, first and foremost, about learning. He should learn how to write better and also educate himself in the things he writes about. This doesn’t stop at reading, though. Every living experience should be a learning opportunity.
The warrior must be comfortable living in a state of creative doubt. He must reject dogmas, no matter where they come from. He must hold no sacred cows, no matter how dear they are to him. His path entails honing his skills of critical thinking and having a good understanding of fallacies and faulty logic. He must have the habit to do the research to support what he writes.
I explored the meaning of intellectual honesty is this other article: How to be intellectually honest.
Since the warrior is in a quest for truth, he must not accept any dogmas. He must question authority, both the authority of the experts and that of conventional beliefs.
“A warrior’s primary resource is himself. Depending on others is always a risky gambit since most people don’t have the skills and wherewithal to fulfill their own promises and objectives.” Stephan H. Verstappen in A Master’s Guide to The Way of the Warrior.
Here, like in other things, the warrior walks a knife edge. At the same time that he searches for the truth and uses his critical thinking, he must have the humility to respect the expertise of others. True wisdom is to recognize the enormous scope of all knowledge and the incapacity of a single human mind to absorb it. The only way we can understand the world is by sharing on the knowledge of others. Therefore, a warrior’s wisdom consists of distinguishing those he can trust from those he cannot believe.
The corollary of this is that the Writing Warrior must make himself trustworthy. He must build his reputation by proving his intellectual honesty. He must accept being judged by his writing and have the humility to recognize and rectify his mistakes.
A warrior knows that he is not the only warrior in a quest for truth. He must respect the quest of the others and join forces with them if he can.
In ancient traditions, warriors are not self-made but are trained by a master. Just like Master Yoda trains Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. However, finding a worthy master is difficult. Sometimes the best thing to do is to learn from different masters, each of which will teach you a different skill. I had good teachers in both science and Zen. They taught me a lot, but in the end they were all fallible human beings, with their virtues and their vices. The main thing I learned was to reject the Myth of the Guru.
3) Humbleness — letting go of the Ego
“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, they result is the same: we are slaves to externally driven influences, rather than being the masters of our internal, mental environment.” Arno Ilgner in The Rock Warrior’s Way.
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 — carrots and sticks. That makes us dependent of external influences and vulnerable to societal pressure. Obviously, this less than ideal for a truth-seeker and a challenger of conventional beliefs.
When we write, the Ego drives that inner critic that continuously judge what we say, sapping our creativity. Ultimately, this can lead to total paralysis, creating the infamous writer’s block. The fear that what we write is not be good stops the flow of thoughts from our mind to the page. Letting go of the Ego, instead, establishes a playful, carefree state of mind of intellectual flexibility, which leads to flow. This is also promoted when we forget about the destination: the reward we expect to get in the form of praise and money. We need to focus on the process, on the task of writing and how we love putting words of the page.
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 in The Rock Warrior’s Way.
Therefore, the humbleness of the warrior does not consist of dwelling on his weaknesses or cultivating false modesty, but of a constant struggle to let go of the Ego and cultivate a Higher Self based on 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
4) Personal power
Personal power is a concept found in the books of Carlos Castaneda. It can be easily misunderstood. Power is a word with negative connotations because we normally associate it with wealth, political influence or dominion over others. So making power personal sounds like selfishness. However, for Arlo Ilgner and Carlos Castaneda, personal power means self-knowledge, self-control and the ability to generate sustained attention and effort.
“Becoming Conscious is a process that improves awareness, develops an empowering self-image, increases self-confidence, and builds personal power. You accomplish this not by striving directly for an empowering self-image or self-confidence, as goals, but simply by shifting attention inward. Your goal is to gain awareness — to learn — and thus to gain access to deeper and more powerful sources of motivation.” Arno Ilgner in The Rock Warrior’s Way.
We need to write from a center of gravity inside ourselves created from our unbendable intention to seek the truth and speak the truth.
A Warrior Writer must be no slouch. He must work hard, putting forth long hours of focused, productive writing. This requires enormous amounts of energy. This energy cannot be simply willed into existence. Raw willpower without strong psychological roots will eventually lead to burnout. Procrastination and writer’s block loom threatening in the horizon.
The key to a sustained effort that doesn’t end up in burnout is a solid motivation. We need to develop a writing practice that increases motivation instead of eroding it. Several things can help: letting go of the Ego, focusing on the process and not the destination, cultivating our love for writing, encouraging our curiosity, plugging power drains, not wasting energy in unimportant things, training our attention, and keeping our body healthy.
All this is what the expression gathering personal power means.
Personal power consist of a mixture of emotional strength, stoicism, resilience, wisdom, good habits, and learned knowledge.
It is a given that a warrior must be brave.
When a Writing Warrior sets up to heal the world and to improve himself, he knows that he will face opposition. The world is not a friendly place, but a jungle full of dangers and enemies. People will attack you on the web. Corporations and the state will censor what you write.
Changing the world by seeking the truth and speaking the truth will get you enemies from all parts of the political spectrum. Difficult issues must be addressed to bring about significant change. You will be confronting political correctness, traditional values and conventional beliefs. You can mitigate the blowback by writing with gentleness, fairness and honesty. But when you challenge somebody’s core beliefs, they will respond with ferocity. Having courage means knowing that you will be attacked and not letting that dissuade you from speaking out.
“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
Being brave is not the same as being foolish. A rock-climber carefully chooses the route he is going to climb, being fully aware of the risks and whether he can match them with his abilities. Likewise, a writer picks his battles. He minimizes the risks and evaluates what is to be gained by writing something, not for himself, but for his cause. He engages the risk being fully conscious of his personal power and resilience.
Another component of self-restraint is an awareness of our capacity to hurt others. If it is true that the pen is as powerful as the sword, then we must wield it with care. The stronger we are, the more we learn, the more personal power we gather — the more we become able to hurt with our words.
People like to gather behind individuals who they perceive as strong, so when we attack somebody we may cause a dogpile on that person. A warrior takes no allies who are unworthy, and therefore he calls off bad behavior even from those who side with him.
We must be aware of the person behind the opinion. We must recognize the things on which we agree, praise his insights, and leave an escape route for him to retreat with dignity.
Stoicism means being impervious to pain. Some people actually feels less pain because they have high pain thresholds, either naturally or by training. Other people feel the pain but are able to carry on despite of it.
Stoicism has been given a bad reputation by our current culture of victimism that sees weakness and vulnerability as virtues. This feeds on the tendency of modern culture of seeing pain as something that must always be avoided. However, pain is an inevitable part of life and most human activities. Warrior cultures taught that pain must be understood and endured.
“Suffering builds character and impels you to penetrate life’s secrets. It is the path of great artists, great religious leaders, and great social reformers.” Shunryu Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginners Mind.
Everyone who practices sports knows that pain and hardship are part of them, and learn to welcome them. A certain amount of stoicism is part of your personal power.
The kind of emotional stoicism that a Warrior Writer needs is grounded in understanding and managing his emotions. This creates a strong center of gravity, meaning that his emotions are not easily changed by external influences. He does not take on the anger, fear, guilt or shame that others throw at him. Letting go of the Ego helps him avoid emotional fragility. Since he is not invested in external praise, he has the freedom to be the arbiter of his actions. That doesn’t mean that he does not listen, but he does it on his own terms, with detachment and rationality.
Resilience is the ability to recover after an injury or a setback. It is different from stoicism because it is not to endure pain, but the ability to go back to our normal state and to resume our effort.
For a Writing Warrior, stoicism and resilience mean having the emotional stability to withstand criticism and to recover from the damage that people who disagree with us try to inflict on us.
A warrior accepts that arguments and disagreement are an essential part of intellectual discourse. Just like a good chess player is able to fight his opponent without taking it personally, a warrior sees intellectual confrontation a an opportunity to hone his skills and gather personal power. He enjoins intellectual battle with the same detachment as a samurai, brandishing the pen instead of a sword.
Compassion means feeling the suffering of others and fighting to end it. Compassion is different from empathy, which is automatically absorbing the emotions of those around you. Instead, compassion is a deliberate intention to feel the suffering of others and to work to end it.
A warrior does not seek war but peace. He fights evil because evil is what causes suffering. The monks of the Shaolin Monastery that invented martial arts and perfected the Eastern Way of Warrior were Buddhists. They developed martial arts to defend themselves from marauders who tried to rob them, and from tyrannical rulers. However, their true mission as Buddhists was to end suffering. Their core practice was enlightenment and compassion.
Compassion should be the goal of a warrior, but it should also be present in his means. It should imbue whatever he does.
A Warrior Writer who studies diligently, hones his writing skills, and gathers personal power runs the risk of becoming an intellectual bully. Just like a samurai and a Kung-Fu warrior use their skills with extreme restrain and try not inflict unnecessary harm, a Writing Warrior treats others with respect and compassion. He argues against an idea without attacking the person who defends it. He takes the most charitable interpretation of the arguments of his opponent. He thanks an opponent that concedes a point, and does not gloat.
The true enemy of a Writing Warrior is not the people who disagree with him, but his own Ego. He never loses sight of that.
10) Following a path with a heart
Stoicism and resilience must be balanced with self-compassion. A warrior loves himself and loves live. He is never self-destructive. He is keenly aware of the difference between pain and suffering — enduring the first does not mean subjecting yourself to the latter.
The Way of the Warrior is a happy way, a path with a heart.
“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
I write because I love writing.
Writing is the way I express the fact that I am alive.
Writing is my path with a heart.
Disclaimer: Links in this article are not affiliated links. I get no commission from the books cited.