It is only through a vast amount of experience and a lengthy and successful maturation that we gain the capacity to see the world and our place in it realistically, and thus are enabled to realistically assess our responsibility for ourselves and the world. – M. Scott Peck
I got highly intrigued by this book when Dr. Gray Chapman cited M. Scott Peck in his bestseller, The 5 Love Languages, wherein he relays personal growth of the individuals as the essential component that comprises real love.
So I took a sneak peek on Peck’s own bestseller, jumped right into the section of love, and there I found that he actually uses the term “spiritual growth” in all of his discussions.
Mind you that Scott Peck is a psychotherapist, which makes this a psychology book and not a “spiritual” book per se. That said, he was able to marry what seems to be opposing views – that of science and religion, including other philosophies – and come up with a material that could be understood by nearly everyone.
It is subtitled “new psychology,” but I thought it captured the original essence of psychology. If you can recall from Remembering the Light Within, Ron and Mary Hulnick clarify that the root word psyche in psychology translates as “breath, principle of life, soul.” Spirituality is the core of psychology.
First published in 1978, The Road Less Traveled provides the seminal work in this field of study that continues to expand up to now. Indeed, it paves the road for each and every one wanting to travel the path that is only theirs to take.
Let’s walk our way in, shall we?
The Road is Difficult
This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.
Raise your hands, if you’re like me, who’s in denial of this truth? Hah!
That’s a quick reveal why “the road” M. Scott Peck refers to is less traveled. Who would want to take a difficult path?
But Peck, right then and there, confronts us with this truth: the road of life is difficult. It is paved with challenges. However, the challenges are not the problems themselves. The “problem” is we don’t want to face them. So in turn, we resist life. This resistance is what causes our illegitimate suffering. “Illegitimate” because we tend to create our own drama around our suffering.
Yet it is in this whole process of meeting and solving problems that life has its meaning. Problems call forth our courage and our wisdom; indeed, they create our courage and our wisdom. It is only because of problems that we grow mentally and spiritually. It is through the pain of confronting and resolving problems that we learn.
Peck admonishes that what we need to develop is not drama, but discipline – a set of tools required in dealing with life.
According to Peck, there are four disciplines:
- Delaying of gratification
- Acceptance of responsibility
- Dedication to truth, and
We’ll stretch some of those discipline muscles in the insights that follow. Read on.
Our view of reality is like a map with which to negotiate the terrain of life. If the map is true and accurate, we will generally know where we are, and if we have decided where we want to go, we will generally know how to get there. If the map is false and inaccurate, we generally will be lost.
Psychiatrists have a term for the active clinging to an outdated view of reality: Transference. Peck compares it to an outdated map, the one we had in childhood that no longer applies to an adult environment. He says it’s the basis for much of mental illness. It is for any other form of suffering.
In Start Right Where You Are (I love that book), Sam Bennett introduced to me a term that closely relates to Transference: Sunk Cost, the unrecoverable investment you have already made in anything. It’s this sense of loss we perceive that keeps us attached to the status quo, even though it makes us suffer.
This is what Peck meant by dedication to truth. Truth is the present reality. We can’t live it using the map of the past, which mostly we learned from our childhood. And so much of psychotherapy is an unlearning process.
In Codex, Vishen says what makes people extraordinary is their continuous upgrade of systems for living. Peck shares the same sentiment that we need to constantly revise our map of reality. It requires self-examination. Because reality-check not only means examining the world, but also examining the examiner.
Discipline itself must be disciplined. The type of discipline required to discipline discipline is what I call balancing.
Balancing is the discipline that gives us flexibility. Extraordinary flexibility is required for successful living in all spheres of activity.
Whew! A lot of discipline word there (much more mentions in the book). So Peck argues there must be a balance in discipline. If you are a disciple of the truth, for instance, there’s a time for silently embodying it and for loudly preaching it when the situation calls for.
Peck talks about righteous anger to further illustrate the point. Put simply, he says anger is an emotion evoked when boundaries are crossed. It was designed for our safety and survival. Balanced discipline comes in knowing when and how to express it appropriately.
To do so, the psychotherapy work that Peck recommends is developing a flexible response system. This is a similar approach employed by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk in dealing with trauma, known as “Limbic System Therapy” (see The Body Keeps the Score).
Worth noting also is how he presents depression in the book. He says that it is another important, often necessary aspect of balancing – and that is the act of giving up. It is the giving up of the parts of ourselves that no longer serve us moving forward.
I learned, however, that the loss of balance is ultimately more painful than the giving up required to maintain balance.
Like anger, depression is part of the healing process that we may have to go through. It only becomes unhealthy when we get stuck there and forget to tip the balance. That after the giving up, there follows the giving in – the allowing of what is trying to emerge from the ashes of our old self.
The Disciplines of Love
I define love thus: The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.
I have to say, this has got to be the most concise description of what love is.
In truth, love is undefinable. It is beyond definition. We cannot limit it or reduce it down to concepts, (though that’s what we’ve always done). Instead, M. Scott Peck broadens it into a larger conceptual framework that revolves around that definition.
Here are his pointers:
- What distinguishes real Love from its illusory version is the conscious purpose in the mind of the lover. That is, spiritual growth. A conscious relationship is intentional.
- The act of loving is an act of self-evolution because to love is to extend one’s limits. In A Course in Miracles, love is described as an extension of oneself.
- Self-love and love not only go hand in hand, but they are essentially indistinguishable. There is no such thing as “special” love. There’s only one love (see Live Your Happy).
- Love is not effortless. It is effortful. The 5 Love Languages can help you with that.
- Love requires willingness. Desire doesn’t necessarily translate into action. Will does. Love is intention plus action.
When we extend our limits through love, we do so by reaching out, so to speak, toward the beloved, whose growth we wish to nurture. For us to be able to do this, the beloved object must first become beloved to us; in other words, we must be attracted toward, invested in and committed to an object outside of ourselves, beyond the boundaries of self. Psychiatrists call this process of attraction, investment and commitment “cathexis” and say that we “cathect” the beloved object.
Another approach that Peck adapts in understanding the nature of love is by exploring what love is not. That, he uncovers in the section, “The Myth of Romantic Love,” saying that falling in love is just an illusion.
Technically, he refers to this falling-in-love experience as the collapse of one’s ego boundaries, which points us back to his 2nd pointer (going beyond one’s limits).
Peck also introduces the term “cathexis” as the process of becoming deeply invested in something that it becomes a part of you.
But we got to keep our ego in check here along the process that it doesn’t lead to attachment or becoming identified to our cathected object, which leads to dependency – cathexis without love.
Peck says this is one major misconception we have of love. We believe love is codependency, when in fact it isn’t. Cathecting and loving may be the same feeling, but they are not the same thing.
In fact, Peck also busts the notion that love is a feeling. Dr. Chapman seconded that in The 5 Love Languages saying that it is when the in-love-feeling has ended that genuine love truly begins.
What transcends cathexis? Commitment.
When love exists it does so with or without cathexis and with or without a loving feeling.
Genuine love is volitional rather than emotional. The person who truly loves does so because of a decision to love. This person has made a commitment to be loving whether or not the loving feeling is present.
Cathexis is falling in love. Commitment is staying in love.
Selfishness and Narcissism
When I genuinely love I am extending myself, and when I am extending myself I am growing. The more I love, the longer I love, the larger I become. Genuine love is self-replenishing. The more I nurture the spiritual growth of others, the more my own spiritual growth is nurtured. I am a totally selfish human being. I never do something for somebody else but that I do it for myself. And as I grow through love, so grows my joy, ever more present, ever more constant.
When we don’t truly understand love – particularly self-love – we could easily judge Peck’s statement as selfish. And it is, because there really is no other self. As Eckhart Tolle defines it, love is the recognition of oneself in another.
Which also reminds me of a teaching from, if I remember it right, Conversations with God: “Everything you do, you do to yourself.”
That recognition leads Peck to another aspect of love: humility. He says the more loving one is, the more humble one becomes. Borne of humility is the greater capacity for love, the higher potential for God to manifest. Spiritual growth, remember? Becoming more of love makes you Godlike.
Although the act of nurturing another’s spiritual growth has the effect of nurturing one’s own, a major characteristic of genuine love is that the distinction between oneself and the other is always maintained and preserved. The genuine lover always perceives the beloved as someone who has a totally separate identity. Moreover, the genuine lover always respects and even encourages this separateness and the unique individuality of the beloved. Failure to perceive and respect this separateness is extremely common, however, and the cause of much mental illness and unnecessary suffering.
However, part of that discipline is the awareness of another self, the unique manifestation of the same God in another person. Failure to develop such awareness is what leads to narcissism.
Narcissism is not an extension of oneself, but a projection of one’s ego. A narcissistic person sees only himself. He thinks that what’s right for himself is also right for others. It’s the ego’s limiting perspective. Projection is seeing God, others, and everything else in his own image and likeness.
The Wisdom of the Subconscious
I have come to conclude that mental illness is not a product of the unconscious; it is instead a phenomenon of consciousness or a disordered relationship between the conscious and the unconscious.
It is the unconscious, however, that is allied with the therapist, struggling toward openness, honesty, truth, and reality, fighting to “tell it like it is.”
Peck borrows the concepts laid by Freud, who pioneered psychoanalysis, relating to the unconscious mind. That it’s not the source of mental illness, contrary to what psychoanalysts first believed, but rather the conscious mind.
Mental illness, Peck concludes, is the result of the disordered relationship between the conscious and the unconscious.
As we’ve learned, this phenomenon goes by other names in various fields of study, such as “Incoherence” in Becoming Supernatural; “Splintered Personality” in The Seat of the Soul; “Split Mind” in A Course in Miracles.
In layman’s term, we usually refer to it as the “inner battle,” the war between your mind (conscious) and your heart (unconscious), the fight between what you think and what you feel.
The unconscious is always trying to communicate information with you through feelings. When you feel sad, angry, or sexually aroused (as in the case presented in the book), they are information. The unconscious doesn’t judge it as good or bad, right or wrong. It is simply as it is.
The problem arises when the conscious makes the decision, largely based on its learned pattern or its conditioning. So it thinks sadness, anger, sexual desires, or any other NATURAL human feelings are bad, or wrong, and therefore dismisses them altogether.
Those repressed feelings are the major factors in many psychiatric disorders. This awareness then becomes the basis of psychotherapy. Ultimately, the battle is won through surrender, when the conscious comes into alignment, in harmony, with the unconscious. It’s when you’re no longer fighting, but feeling what you’re feeling.
When we grow, it is because we are working at it, and we are working at it because we love ourselves. It is through love that we elevate ourselves. And it is through our love for others that we assist others to elevate themselves. Love, the extension of the self, is the very act of evolution. It is evolution in progress. The evolutionary force, present in all of life, manifests itself in mankind as human love.
God wants us to become Himself (or Herself or Itself). We are growing toward god-hood. God is the goal of evolution. It is God who is the source of the evolutionary force and God who is the destination.
The chapter on Grace is the culmination of everything Peck has written about in the book, and it’s the part I really enjoyed the most. It’s where the dots are connected.
Here it is: they all lead to God. We are all evolving to become God. Awestruck? Yep, that’s why we call it The Path to Awesomeness.
Love is the evolutionary force for that spiritual growth. Don’t you think it’s coincidental that the EVOL in evolution is LOVE spelled backward?
Peck believes there always exists a miracle happening in the background, ever assisting us onward this journey. This he refers to as Grace.
In my experience, Grace is what comes after the surrender. It’s when you welcome God into your life and allow God’s Love to be manifested in you.
God in Human Form
If you want to know the closest place to look for grace, it is within yourself. If you desire wisdom greater than your own, you can find it inside you. What this suggests is that the interface between God and man is at least in part the interface between our unconscious and our conscious. To put it plainly, our unconscious is God. God within us. We were part of God all the time. God has been with us all along, is now, and always will be.
The word conscious comes from the Latin prefix con, meaning “with,” and the word scire, meaning “to know.” Therefore, to be conscious means “to know with.”
Citing Carl Jung, another legend in this field, Peck elucidates that God is the collective unconscious, man is the individual conscious, and the personal unconscious is the interface between them. Or in Jung’s analogy, God is the rhizome underneath, man is the plant above. Spiritual growth is the blossoming. And Love is what nurtures it.
The point is to become God while preserving consciousness. If the bud of consciousness that grows from the rhizome of the unconscious God can become itself God, then God will have assumed a new life form. This is the meaning of our individual existence. We are born that we might become, as a conscious individual, a new life form of God.
That’s what we are, God in human form. And so Life becomes the soil where God and man experience each other. The difference is God always knows this. We, humans, don’t. But with growing awareness, we will also come to know what we’ve always known. To be conscious is to know with God.
With that knowing, this then becomes our collective purpose carried out via our individual missions in life:
We ourselves will then have become one form of the grace of God, working on His behalf among mankind, creating love where love did not exist before, pulling our fellow creatures up to our own level of awareness, pushing the plane of human evolution forward.
From Furies into Eumenides
Those who have faced their mental illness, accepted total responsibility for it, and made the necessary changes in themselves to overcome it, find themselves not only cured and free from the curses of their childhood and ancestry but also find themselves living in a new and different world. What they once perceived as problems they now perceive as opportunities. What were once loathsome harriers are now welcome challenges. Thoughts previously unwanted become helpful insights; feelings previously disowned become sources of energy and guidance. Occurrences that once seemed to be burdens now seem to be gifts, including the very symptoms from which they have recovered.
Peck concludes by telling the mythical tale of Orestes. Long story short, Orestes, faced with difficult circumstances, was forced to commit a heinous crime, which he was punished for by the gods. As a punishment, he was haunted by the Furies, three infernal goddesses who tormented him night and day.
After a long time of self-purification, Orestes asked the gods for his atonement. In his defense, Apollo confessed that it was him that put Orestes in a predicament that left him no choice. But quickly, he interfered stating that he was the one responsible for what happened. To their amazement, the gods not only atoned him and removed the curse, but they also turned the Furies into Eumenides, lovely heavenly deities who helped him attain great fortune.
Loved that! Reminds me of the tale of The Devil’s Sooty Brother from Heal Thy Self (the book that started it all for me).
Both stories invite us to “own” our sickness and be fully responsible for our healing. When we do so, what was once the curse can be transformed into our greatest blessing, which then becomes our greatest gift to the world.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
M. SCOTT PECK was a widely acclaimed writer, thinker, psychiatrist, and spiritual guide. He received his B.A. degree magna cum laude from Harvard College in 1958, and his M.D. degree from the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in 1963. From 1963 until 1972, he served in the United States Army, resigning from the position of Assistant Chief Psychiatry and Neurology Consultant to the Surgeon General of the Army with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and the Meritorious Service Medal with oak leaf cluster. From 1972 to 1983, Dr. Peck was engaged in the private practice of psychiatry in Litchfield County, Connecticut.
Visit him at mscottpeck.com