Dan Millman has it all, or so it seems. A junior at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1960s, he's a popular gymnastics star piling up trophies. His studies are going well; he's got a girlfriend named Susie. What more could a guy want?
But there's a problem. Recurring nightmares about his mortality drag him down. In the dreams, though, this weird, white-haired dude seems to be the answer to everything.
And in fact, the old man is the solution. Dan meets him at a gas station suddenly, names him Socrates, and becomes a student of his way of life. Socrates, with lectures and the ability to give Dan visions, teaches the young man that the mind is the source of his dissatisfaction, and that to become truly happy, he must stop trying to figure the world out and instead learn the difficult discipline of living in the moment, healthy and free.
Dan straddles the fence between Socrates' philosophy and conventional wisdom for a few months, feeling alienated from his classmates and gymnastics team. Eventually he accepts his teacher's advice to take the way of the peaceful warrior. Bonus: he has a major crush on this other student of Socrates' that shows up on rare occasion. She's Joy. Not the most subtle name in world.
Just as Dan is making progress down Socrates' path, the young man gets into a motorcycle accident. His leg is all smashed up, and we're not sure if he'll ever be back to gymnastics.
However, Dan makes a stunning comeback. He follows Socrates' instructions to meditate, eat a super-healthy diet, develop attentiveness, and maintain an inner calm regardless of circumstances. So, thanks to Dan, his gymnastics team wins the 1968 national collegiate championship. Go Dan!
But by this time, Dan has learned from Socrates that achievements aren't the route to happiness. The young man quits gymnastics, finishes up school, and learns a bit more from Socrates. But he's still unhappy. Socrates sends him away to look for answers in adulthood.
Dan lives a conventional, unsatisfying life for several years, with a marriage and a divorce and work in sales and gymnastics-coaching. C'mon, Dan: what would Socrates say to that? Despairing, he finally sells all his possessions and heads off into the mountains, determined to find happiness.
Socrates surprises Dan by showing up in the mountains. The teacher takes him to a cave for a final vision. Dan witnesses his own death: his body decomposes and even the landscape changes, over thousands of years. He also learns that he's one with everything, beyond his mortal self.
Dan, returning from the vision, sees the truth that nothing can possibly matter. Finally free from his mind, Dan dances blissfully with Socrates. Plus, bonus, he marries Joy… and finds joy.