The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growthby M. Scott Peck
The Road Less Traveled continues to enable us to explore the nature of loving relationships and leads us toward a new serenity and fullness of life. It helps us determine how to distinguish dependency from love; how to become a more sensitive parent; and ultimately how to become one's own true self. See more details below
The Road Less Traveled continues to enable us to explore the nature of loving relationships and leads us toward a new serenity and fullness of life. It helps us determine how to distinguish dependency from love; how to become a more sensitive parent; and ultimately how to become one's own true self.
- Simon & Schuster
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Openness to Challenge
What does a life of total dedication to the truth mean? It means, first of all, a life of continuous and never-ending stringent self-examination. We know the world only through our relationship to it. Therefore, to know the world, we must not only examine it but we must simultaneously examine the examiner. Psychiatrists are taught this in their training and know that it is impossible to realistically understand the conflicts and transferences of their patients without understanding their own transferences and conflicts. For this reason psychiatrists are encouraged to receive their own psychotherapy or psychoanalysis as part of their training and development. Unfortunately, not all psychiatrists respond to this encouragement. There are many, psychiatrists among them, who stringently examine the world but not so stringently examine themselves. They may be competent individuals as the world judges competence, but they are never wise. The life of wisdom must be a life of contemplation combined with action. In the past in American culture, contemplation has not been held in high regard. In the 1950s people labeled Adlai Stevenson an "egghead" and believed he would not make a good President precisely because he was a contemplative man, given to deep thinking and self-doubts. I have heard parents tell their adolescent children in all seriousness, "You think too much." What an absurdity this is, given the fact that it is our frontal lobes, our capacity to think and to examine ourselves that most makes us human. Fortunately, such attitudes seem to be changing, and we are beginning to realize that the sources of danger to the world lie more within us than outside, and that the process of constant self-examina tion and contemplation is essential for ultimate survival. Still, I am talking of relatively small numbers of people who are changing their attitudes. Examination of the world without is never as personally painful as examination of the world within, and it is certainly because of the pain involved in a life of genuine self-examination that the majority steer away from it. Yet when one is dedicated to the truth this pain seems relatively unimportant -- and less and less important (and therefore less and less painful) the farther one proceeds on the path of self-examination.
A life of total dedication to the truth also means a life of willingness to be personally challenged. The only way that we can be certain that our map of reality is valid is to expose it to the criticism and challenge of other map-makers. Otherwise we live in a closed system -- within a bell jar, to use Sylvia Plath's analogy, rebreathing only our own fetid air, more and more subject to delusion. Yet, because of the pain inherent in the process of revising our map of reality, we mostly seek to avoid or ward off any challenges to its validity. To our children we say, "Don't talk back to me, I'm your parent." To our spouse we give the message, "Let's live and let live. If you criticize me, I'll be a bitch to live with, and you'll regret it." To their families and the world the elderly give the message, "I am old and fragile. If you challenge me I may die or at least you will bear upon your head the responsibility for making my last days on earth miserable." To our employees we communicate, "If you are bold enough to challenge me at all, you had best do so very circumspectly indeed or else you'll find yourself looking for another job."
The tendency to avoid challenge is so omnipresent in human beings that it can properly be considered a characteristic of human nature. But calling it natural does not mean it is essential or beneficial or unchangeable behavior. It is also natural to defecate in our pants and never brush our teeth. Yet we teach ourselves to do the unnatural until the unnatural becomes itself second nature. Indeed, all self-discipline might be defined as teaching ourselves to do the unnatural. Another characteristic of human nature -- perhaps the one that makes us most human -- is our capacity to do the unnatural, to transcend and hence transform our own nature.
No act is more unnatural, and hence more human, than the act of entering psychotherapy. For by this act we deliberately lay ourselves open to the deepest challenge from another human being, and even pay the other for the service of scrutiny and discernment. This laying open to challenge is one of the things that lying on the couch in the psychoanalyst's office may symbolize. Entering psychotherapy is an act of the greatest courage. The primary reason people do not undergo psychotherapy is not that they lack the money but that they lack the courage. This even includes many psychiatrists themselves, who somehow never quite seem to find it convenient to enter their own therapy despite the fact that they have even more reason than others to submit themselves to the discipline involved. It is because they possess this courage, on the other hand, that many psychoanalytic patients, even at the outset of therapy and contrary to their stereotypical image, are people who are basically much stronger and healthier than average.
While undergoing psychotherapy is an ultimate form of being open to challenge, our more ordinary interactions daily offer us similar opportunities to risk openness: at the water cooler, in conference, on the golf course, at the dinner table, in bed when the lights are out; with our colleagues, our supervisors and employees, with our mates, our friends, our lovers, with our parents and our children. A neatly coiffured woman who had been seeing me for some time began to comb her hair each time she got up from the couch at the end of a session. I commented on this new pattern to her behavior. "Several weeks ago my husband noticed that my hairdo was flattened in the back after I returned from a session," she explained, blushing. "I didn't tell him why. I'm afraid he might tease me if he knows I lie on the couch in here." So we had another issue to work on. The greatest value of psychotherapy derives from the extension of the discipline involved during the "fifty-minute hour" into the patient's daily affairs and relationships. The healing of the spirit has not been completed until openness to challenge becomes a way of life. This woman would not be wholly well until she could be as forthright with her husband as she was with me.
Of all those who come to a psychiatrist or psychotherapist very few are initially looking on a conscious level for challenge or an education in discipline. Most are simply seeking "relief." When they realize they are going to be challenged as well as supported, many flee and others are tempted to flee. Teaching them that the only real relief will come through challenge and discipline is a delicate, often lengthy and frequently unsuccessful task. We speak, therefore, of "seducing" patients into psychotherapy. And we may say of some patients whom we have been seeing for a year or more, "They have not really entered therapy yet."
Openness in psychotherapy is particularly encouraged (or demanded, depending upon your point of view) by the technique of "free association." When this technique is used the patient is told: "Put into words whatever comes into your mind, no matter how seemingly insignificant or embarrassing or painful or meaningless. If there is more than one thing in your mind at the same time, then you are to choose to speak that thing about which you are most reluctant to speak." It's easier said than done. Nonetheless, those who work at it conscientiously usually make swift progress. But some are so resistant to challenge that they simply pretend to free-associate. They talk volubly enough about this or that, but they leave out the crucial details. A woman may speak for an hour about unpleasant childhood experiences but neglect to mention that her husband had confronted her in the morning with the fact that she had overdrawn their bank account by a thousand dollars. Such patients attempt to transform the psychotherapeutic hour into a kind of press conference. At best they are wasting time in their effort to avoid challenge, and usually they are indulging in a subtle form of lying.
For individuals and organizations to be open to challenge, it is necessary that their maps of reality be truly open for inspection by the public. More than press conferences are required. The third thing that a life of total dedication to the truth means, therefore, is a life of total honesty. It means a continuous and never-ending process of self-monitoring to assure that our communications -- not only the words that we say but also the way we say them -- invariably reflect as accurately as humanly possible the truth or reality as we know it.
Such honesty does not come painlessly. The reason people lie is to avoid the pain of challenge and its consequences. President Nixon's lying about Watergate was no more sophisticated or different in kind from that of a four-year-old who lies to his or her mother about how the lamp happened to fall off the table and get broken. Insofar as the nature of the challenge is legitimate (and it usually is), lying is an attempt to circumvent legitimate suffering and hence is productive of mental illness.
The concept of circumvention raises the issue of "shortcutting." Whenever we attempt to circumvent an obstacle, we are looking for a path to our goal which will be easier and therefore quicker: a shortcut. Believing that the growth of the human spirit is the end of human existence, I am obviously dedicated to the notion of progress. It is right and proper that as human beings we should grow and progress as rapidly as possible. It is therefore right and proper that we should avail ourselves of any legitimate shortcut to personal growth. The key word, however, is "legitimate." Human beings have almost as much of a tendency to ignore legitimate shortcuts as they do to search out illegitimate ones. It is, for instance, a legitimate shortcut to study a synopsis of a book instead of reading the original book in its entirety in preparation for an examination for a degree. If the synopsis is a good one, and the material is absorbed, the essential knowledge can be obtained in a manner that saves considerable time and effort. Cheating, however, is not a legitimate shortcut. It may save even greater amounts of time and, if successfully executed, may gain the cheater a passing mark on the exam and the coveted degree. But the essential knowledge has not been obtained. Therefore the degree is a lie, a misrepresentation. Insofar as the degree becomes a basis for life, the cheater's life becomes a lie and misrepresentation and is often devoted to protecting and preserving the lie.
Genuine psychotherapy is a legitimate shortcut to personal growth which is often ignored. One of the most frequent rationalizations for ignoring it is to question its legitimacy by saying, "I'm afraid that psychotherapy would get to be a crutch. I don't want to become dependent on a crutch." But this is usually a cover-up for more significant fears. The use of psychotherapy is no more a crutch than the use of hammer and nails to build a house. It is possible to build a house without hammer and nails, but the process is generally not efficient or desirable. Few carpenters will despair of their dependency on hammer and nails. Similarly, it is possible to achieve personal growth without employing psychotherapy, but often the task is unnecessarily tedious, lengthy and difficult. It generally makes sense to utilize available tools as a shortcut.
On the other hand, psychotherapy may be sought as an illegitimate shortcut. This most commonly occurs in certain cases of parents seeking psychotherapy for their children. They want their children to change in some way: stop using drugs, stop having temper tantrums, stop getting bad grades, and so on. Some parents have exhausted their own resourcefulness in trying to help their children and come to the psychotherapist with a genuine willingness to work on the problem. Others as often as not come with the overt knowledge of the cause of their child's problem, hoping that the psychiatrist will be able to do some magical something to change the child without having to change the basic cause of the problem. For instance, some parents will openly say, "We know that we have a problem in our marriage, and that this likely has something to do with our son's problem. Nonetheless, we do not want our marriage tampered with; we do not want you to do therapy with us; we want you just to work with our son, if possible, to help him be happier." Others are less open. They will come professing a willingness to do anything that's necessary, but when it is explained to them that their child's symptoms are an expression of his resentment toward their whole life style, which leaves no real room for his nurture, they will say, "It is ridiculous to think that we should turn ourselves inside out for him," and they will depart to look for another psychiatrist, one who might offer them a painless shortcut. Farther down the pike they will likely tell their friends and themselves, "We have done everything possible for our boy; we have even gone to four separate psychiatrists with him, but nothing has helped."
We lie, of course, not only to others but also to ourselves. The challenges to our adjustment -- our maps -- from our own consciences and our own realistic perceptions may be every bit as legitimate and painful as any challenge from the public. Of the myriad lies that people often tell themselves, two of the most common, potent and destructive are "We really love our children" and "Our parents really loved us." It may be that our parents did love us and we do love our children, but when it is not the case, people often go to extraordinary lengths to avoid the realization. I frequently refer to psychotherapy as the "truth game" or the "honesty game" because its business is among other things to help patients confront such lies. One of the roots of mental illness is invariably an interlocking system of lies we have been told and lies we have told ourselves. These roots can be uncovered and excised only in an atmosphere of utter honesty. To create this atmosphere it is essential for therapists to bring to their relationships with patients a total capacity for openness and truthfulness. How can a patient be expected to endure the pain of confronting reality unless we bear the same pain? We can lead only insofar as we go before.
Lying can be divided into two types: white lies and black lies. A black lie is a statement we make that we know is false. A white lie is a statement we make that is not in itself false but that leaves out a significant part of the truth. The fact that a lie is white does not in itself make it any less of a lie or any more excusable. White lies may be every bit as destructive as black ones. A government that withholds essential information from its people by censorship is no more democratic than one that speaks falsely. The patient who neglected to mention that she had overdrawn the family bank account was impeding her growth in therapy no less than if she had lied directly. Indeed, because it may seem less reprehensible, the withholding of essential information is the most common form of lying, and because it may be the more difficult to detect and confront, it is often even more pernicious than black-lying.
White-lying is considered socially acceptable in many of our relationships because "we don't want to hurt peoples' feelings." Yet we may bemoan the fact that our social relationships are generally superficial. For parents to feed their children a pap of white lies is not only considered acceptable but is thought to be loving and beneficent. Even husbands and wives who have been brave enough to be open with each other find it difficult often to be open with their children. They do not tell their children that they smoke marijuana, or that they fought with each other the night before concerning their relationship, or that they resent the grandparents for their manipulativeness, or that the doctor has told one or both that they have psychosomatic disorders, or that they are making a risky financial investment or even how much money they have in the bank. Usually such withholding and lack of openness is rationalized on the basis of a loving desire to protect and shield their children from unnecessary worries. Yet more often than not such "protection" is unsuccessful. The children know anyway that Mommy and Daddy smoke pot, that they had a fight the night before, that the grandparents are resented, that Mommy is nervous and that Daddy is losing money. The result, then, is not protection but deprivation. The children are deprived of the knowledge they might gain about money, illness, drugs, sex, marriage, their parents, their grandparents and people in general. They are also deprived of the reassurance they might receive if these topics were discussed more openly. Finally, they are deprived of role models of openness and honesty, and are provided instead with role models of partial honesty, incomplete ope nness and limited courage. For some parents the desire to "protect" their children is motivated by genuine albeit misguided love. For others, however, the "loving" desire to protect their children serves more as a cover-up and rationalization of a desire to avoid being challenged by their children, and a desire to maintain their authority over them. Such parents are saying in effect, "Look, kids, you go on being children with childish concerns and leave the adult concerns up to us. See us as strong and loving caretakers. Such an image is good for both of us, so don't challenge it. It allows us to feel strong and you to feel safe, and it will be easier for all of us if we don't look into these things too deeply."
Nonetheless, a real conflict may arise when the desire for total honesty is opposed by the needs of some people for certain kinds of protection. For instance, even parents with excellent marriages may occasionally consider divorce as one of their possible options, but to inform their children of this at a time when they are not at all likely to opt for divorce is to place an unnecessary burden upon the children. The idea of divorce is extremely threatening to a child's sense of security -- indeed, so threatening that children do not have the capacity to perceive it with much perspective. They are seriously threatened by the possibility of divorce even when it is remote. If their parents' marriage is definitely on the rocks, then children will be dealing with the threatening possibility of divorce whether or not their parents talk about it. But if the marriage is basically sound, parents would indeed be doing their children a disservice if they said with complete openness, "Mommy and Daddy were talking last night about getting a divorce, but we're not at all serious about it at this time." As another instance, it is frequently necessary for psychotherapists to withhold their own thoughts, opinions and insights from patients in the earlier stages of psychotherapy because the patients are not yet ready to receive or deal with them. During my first year of psychiatric training a patient on his fourth visit to me recounted a dream that obviously expressed a concern with homosexuality. In my desire to appear to be a brilliant therapist and make rapid progress I told him, "Your dream indicates that you are concerned with worries that you might be homosexual." He grew visibly anxious, and he did not keep hi s next three appointments. Only with a good deal of work and an even greater amount of luck was I able to persuade him to return to therapy. We had another twenty sessions before he had to move from the area because of a business reassignment. These sessions were of considerable benefit to him despite the fact that we never again raised the issue of homosexuality. The fact that his unconscious was concerned with the issue did not mean that he was at all ready to deal with it on a conscious level, and by not withholding my insight from him I did him a grave disservice, almost losing him not only as my patient but as anyone's patient.
The selective withholding of one's opinions must also be practiced from time to time in the world of business or politics if one is to be welcomed into the councils of power. If people were always to speak their minds on issues both great and small, they would be considered insubordinate by the average supervisor, and a threat to an organization by management. They would gain reputations for abrasiveness and would be deemed too untrustworthy ever to be appointed as spokesmen for an organization. There is simply no way around the fact that if one is to be at all effective within an organization, he or she must partially become an "organization person," circumspect in the expression of individual opinions, merging at times personal identity with that of the organization. On the other hand, if one regards one's effectiveness in an organization as the only goal of organizational behavior, permitting only the expression of those opinions that would not make waves, then one has allowed the end to justify the means, and will have lost personal integrity and identity by becoming the total organization person. The road that a great executive must travel between the preservation and the loss of his or her identity and integrity is extraordinarily narrow, and very, very few really make the trip successfully. It is an enormous challenge.
So the expression of opinions, feelings, ideas and even knowledge must be suppressed from time to time in these and many other circumstances in the course of human affairs. What rules, then, can one follow if one is dedicated to the truth? First, never speak falsehood. Second, bear in mind that the act of withholding the truth is always potentially a lie, and that in each instance in which the truth is withheld a significant moral decision is required. Third, the decision to withhold the truth should never be based on personal needs, such as a need for power, a need to be liked or a need to protect one's map from challenge. Fourth, and conversely, the decision to withhold the truth must always be based entirely upon the needs of the person or people from whom the truth is being withheld. Fifth, the assessment of another's needs is an act of responsibility which is so complex that it can only be executed wisely when one operates with genuine love for the other. Sixth, the primary factor in the assessment of another's needs is the assessment of that person's capacity to utilize the truth for his or her own spiritual growth. Finally, in assessing the capacity of another to utilize the truth for personal spiritual growth, it should be borne in mind that our tendency is generally to underestimate rather than overestimate this capacity.
All this might seem like an extraordinary task, impossible to ever perfectly complete, a chronic and never-ending burden, a real drag. And it is indeed a never-ending burden of self-discipline, which is why most people opt for a life of very limited honesty and openness and relative closedness, hiding themselves and their maps from the world. It is easier that way. Yet the rewards of the difficult life of honesty and dedication to the truth are more than commensurate with the demands. By virtue of the fact that their maps are continually being challenged, open people are continually growing people. Through their openness they can establish and maintain intimate relationships far more effectively than more closed people. Because they never speak falsely they can be secure and proud in the knowledge that they have done nothing to contribute to the confusion of the world, but have served as sources of illumination and clarification. Finally, they are totally free to be. They are not burdened by any need to hide. They do not have to slink around in the shadows. They do not have to construct new lies to hide old ones. They need waste no effort covering tracks or maintaining disguises. And ultimately they find that the energy required for the self-discipline of honesty is far less than the energy required for secretiveness. The more honest one is, the easier it is to continue being honest, just as the more lies one has told, the more necessary it is to lie again. By their openness, people dedicated to the truth live in the open, and through the exercise of their courage to live in the open, they become free from fear.
By this time I hope it is becoming clear that the exercise of discipline is not only a demanding but also a complex task, requiring both flexibility and judgment. Courageous people must continually push themselves to be completely honest, yet must also possess the capacity to withhold the whole truth when appropriate. To be free people we must assume total responsibility for ourselves, but in doing so must possess the capacity to reject responsibility that is not truly ours. To be organized and efficient, to live wisely, we must daily delay gratification and keep an eye on the future; yet to live joyously we must also possess the capacity, when it is not destructive, to live in the present and act spontaneously. In other words, discipline itself must be disciplined. The type of discipline required to discipline discipline is what I call balancing, and it is the fourth and final type that I would like to discuss here.
Balancing is the discipline that gives us flexibility. Extraordinary flexibility is required for successful living in all spheres of activity. To use but one example, let us consider the matter of anger and its expression. Anger is an emotion bred into us (and into less evolved organisms) by countless generations of evolution in order that our survival may be encouraged. We experience anger whenever we perceive another organism attempting to encroach upon our geographical or psychological territory or trying, one way or another, to put us down. It leads us to fight back. Without our anger we would indeed be continually stepped on, until we were totally squashed and exterminated. Only with anger can we survive. Yet, more often than not, when we initially perceive others as attempting to encroach on us, we realize upon closer examination that that is not what they intend to do at all. Or even when we determine that people are truly intending to encroach on us, we may realize that, for one reason or another, it is not in our best interests to respond to that imposition with anger. Thus it is necessary that the higher centers of our brain (judgment) be able to regulate and modulate the lower centers (emotion). To function successfully in our complex world it is necessary for us to possess the capacity not only to express our anger but also not to express it. Moreover, we must possess the capacity to express our anger in different ways. At times, for instance, it is necessary to express it only after much deliberation and self-evaluation. At other times it is more to our benefit to express it immediately and spontaneously. Sometimes it is best to express it coldly and calmly; at other times loudly and ho tly. We therefore not only need to know how to deal with our anger in different ways at different times but also how most appropriately to match the right time with the right style of expression. To handle our anger with full adequacy and competence, an elaborate, flexible response system is required. It is no wonder, then, that to learn to handle our anger is a complex task which usually cannot be completed before adulthood, or even mid-life, and which often is never completed.
To a greater or lesser degree, all people suffer from inadequacies of their flexible response systems. Much of the work of psychotherapy consists of attempting to help our patients allow or make their response systems become more flexible. Generally, the more crippled by anxiety, guilt and insecurity our patients are, the more difficult and rudimentary this work is. For example, I worked with a brave thirty-two-year-old schizophrenic woman to whom it was a veritable revelation to learn that there are some men she should not let in her front door, some she should let into her living room but not her bedroom, and some she could let into her bedroom. Previously she had operated with a response system by which she either had to let everyone into her bedroom or, when this response did not seem to be working, not let anyone in her front door. Thus she bounced between degrading promiscuity and arid isolation. With the same woman it was necessary for us to spend several sessions focusing on the matter of thank-you notes. She felt compelled to send a lengthy, elaborate, hand-written, phrase- and word-perfect letter in response to each and every gift or invitation she received. Inevitably she could not continually carry such a burden, with the result that she would either write no notes at all or would reject all gifts and invitations. Again, she was astounded to learn that there were some gifts that did not require thank-you notes, and that when these were required, short notes sometimes sufficed.
Mature mental health demands, then, an extraordinary capacity to flexibly strike and continually restrike a delicate balance between conflicting needs, goals, duties, responsibilities, directions, et cetera. The essence of this discipline of balancing is "giving up." I remember first being taught this one summer morning in my ninth year. I had recently learned to ride a bike and was joyously exploring the dimensions of my new skill. About a mile from our house the road went down a steep hill and turned sharply at the bottom. Coasting down the hill on my bike that morning I felt my gathering speed to be ecstatic. To give up this ecstasy by the application of brakes seemed an absurd self-punishment. So I resolved to simultaneously retain my speed and negotiate the comer at the bottom. My ecstasy ended seconds later when I was propelled a dozen feet off the road into the woods. I was badly scratched and bleeding and the front wheel of my new bike was twisted beyond use from its impact against a tree. I had lost my balance.
Balancing is a discipline precisely because the act of giving something up is painful. In this instance I had been unwilling to suffer the pain of giving up my ecstatic speed in the interest of maintaining my balance around the corner. I learned, however, that the loss of balance is ultimately more painful than the giving up required to maintain balance. In one way or another it is a lesson I have continually had to relearn throughout my life. As must everyone, for as we negotiate the curves and corners of our lives, we must continually give up parts of ourselves. The only alternative to this giving up is not to travel at all on the journey of life.
It may seem strange, but most people choose this alternative and elect not to continue with their life journeys -- to stop short by some distance -- in order to avoid the pain of giving up parts of themselves. If it does seem strange, it is because you do not understand the depth of the pain that may be involved. In its major forms, giving up is the most painful of human experiences. Thus far I have been talking about minor forms of giving up -- giving up speed or the luxury of spontaneous anger or the safety of withheld anger or the neatness of a thank-you note. Let me turn now to the giving up of personality traits, well-established patterns of behavior, ideologies, and even whole life styles. These are major forms of giving up that are required if one is to travel very far on the journey of life.
One night recently I decided to spend some free time building a happier and closer relationship with my fourteen-year-old daughter. For several weeks she had been urging me to play chess with her, so I suggested a game. She eagerly accepted and we settled down to a most even and challenging match. It was a school night, however, and at nine o'clock my daughter asked if I could hurry my moves, because she needed to get to bed; she had to get up at six in the morning. I knew her to be rigidly disciplined in her sleeping habits, and it seemed to me that she ought to be able to give up some of this rigidity. I told her, "Come on, you can go to bed a little later for once. You shouldn't start games that you can't finish. We're having fun." We played on for another fifteen minutes, during which time she became visibly discomfited. Finally she pleaded, "Please, Daddy, please hurry your moves." "No goddammit," I replied. "Chess is a serious game. If you're going to play it well, you're going to play it slowly. If you don't want to play it seriously, you might as well not play it at all." And so, with her feeling miserable, we continued for another ten minutes, until suddenly my daughter burst into tears, yelled that she conceded the stupid game, and ran weeping up the stairs.
Immediately I felt as if I were nine years old again, lying bleeding in the bushes by the side of the road, next to my bike. Clearly I had made a mistake. Clearly I had failed to negotiate a turn in the road. I had started the evening wanting to have a happy time with my daughter. Ninety minutes later she was in tears and so angry at me she could hardly speak. What had gone wrong? The answer was obvious. But I did not want to see the answer, so it took me two hours to wade through the pain of accepting the fact that I had botched the evening by allowing my desire to win a chess game become more important than my desire to build a relationship with my daughter. I was depressed in earnest then. How had I gotten so out of balance? Gradually it dawned on me that my desire to win was too great and that I needed to give up some of this desire. Yet even this little giving up seemed impossible. All my life my desire to win had served me in good stead, for I had won many things. How was it possible to play chess without wanting to win? I had never been comfortable doing things unenthusiastically. How could I conceivably play chess enthusiastically but not seriously? Yet somehow I had to change, for I knew that my enthusiasm, my competitiveness and my seriousness were part of a behavior pattern that was working and would continue to work toward alienating my children from me, and that if I were not able to modify this pattern, there would be other times of unnecessary tears and bitterness. My depression continued.
My depression is over now. I have given up part of my desire to win at games. That part of me is gone now. It died. It had to die. I killed it. I killed it with my desire to win at parenting. When I was a child my desire to win at games served me well. As a parent, I recognized that it got in my way. So it had to go. The times have changed. To move with them I had to give it up. I do not miss it. I thought I would, but I don't.
The Healthiness of Depression
The foregoing is a minor example of what those people with the courage to call themselves patients must go through in more major ways, and often many times, in the process of psychotherapy. The period of intensive psychotherapy is a period of intensive growth, during which the patient may undergo more changes than some people experience in a lifetime. For this growth spurt to occur, a proportionate amount of "the old self" must be given up. It is an inevitable part of successful psychotherapy. In fact, this process of giving up usually begins before the patient has his first appointment with the psychotherapist. Frequently, for instance, the act of deciding to seek psychiatric attention in itself represents a giving up of the self-image "I'm OK." This giving up may be particularly difficult for males in our culture for whom "I'm not OK and I need assistance to understand why I'm not OK and how to become OK" is frequently and sadly equated with "I'm weak, unmasculine and inadequate." Actually, the giving-up process often begins even before the patient has arrived at the decision to seek psychiatric attention. I mentioned that during the process of giving up my desire to always win I was depressed. This is because the feeling associated with giving up something loved -- or at least something that is a part of ourselves and familiar -- is depression. Since mentally healthy human beings must grow, and since giving up or loss of the old self is an integral part of the process of mental and spiritual growth, depression is a normal and basically healthy phenomenon. It becomes abnormal or unhealthy only when something interferes with the giving-up process, with the result that the depression is prolonged an d cannot be resolved by completion of the process.
A leading reason for people to think about seeking psychiatric attention is depression. In other words, patients are frequently already involved in a giving-up, or growth, process before considering psychotherapy, and it is the symptoms of this growth process that impel them toward the therapist's office. The therapist's job, therefore, is to help the patient complete a growth process that he or she has already begun. This is not to say that patients are often aware of what is happening to them. To the contrary, they frequently desire only relief from the symptoms of their depression "so that things can be as they used to be." They do not know that things can no longer be "the way they used to be." But the unconscious knows. It is precisely because the unconscious in its wisdom knows that "the way things used to be" is no longer tenable or constructive that the process of growing and giving up is begun on an unconscious level and depression is experienced. As likely as not the patient will report, "I have no idea why I'm depressed" or will ascribe the depression to irrelevant factors. Since patients are not yet consciously willing or ready to recognize that the "old self" and "the way things used to be" are outdated, they are not aware that their depression is signaling that major change is required for successful and evolutionary adaptation. The fact that the unconscious is one step ahead of the conscious may seem strange to lay readers; it is, however, a fact that applies not only in this specific instance but so generally that it is a basic principal of mental functioning. It will be discussed in greater depth in the concluding section of this work.
Recently we have been hearing of the "mid-life crisis." Actually, this is but one of many "crises," or critical stages of development, in life, as Erik Erikson taught us thirty years ago. (Erikson delineated eight crises; perhaps there are more.) What makes crises of these transition periods in the life cycle -- that is, problematic and painful -- is that in successfully working our way through them we must give up cherished notions and old ways of doing and looking at things. Many people are either unwilling or unable to suffer the pain of giving up the outgrown which needs to be forsaken. Consequently they cling, often forever, to their old patterns of thinking and behaving, thus failing to negotiate any crisis, to truly grow up, and to experience the joyful sense of rebirth that accompanies the successful transition into greater maturity. Although an entire book could be written about each one, let me simply list, roughly in order of their occurrence, some of the major conditions, desires and attitudes that must be given up in the course of a wholly successful evolving lifetime:
The state of infancy, in which no external demands need be responded to
The fantasy of omnipotence
The desire for total (including sexual) possession of one's parent(s)
The dependency of childhood
Distorted images of one's parents
The omnipotentiality of adolescence
The "freedom" of uncommitment
The agility of youth
The sexual attractiveness and/or potency of youth
The fantasy of immortality
Authority over one's children
Various forms of temporal power
The independence of physical health
And, ultimately, the self and life itself.
Renunciation and Rebirth
In regard to the last of the above, it may seem to many that the ultimate requirement -- to give up one's self and one's life -- represents a kind of cruelty on the part of God or fate, which makes our existence a sort of bad joke and which can never be completely accepted. This attitude is particularly true in present-day Western culture, in which the self is held sacred and death is considered an unspeakable insult. Yet the exact opposite is the reality. It is in the giving up of self that human beings can find the most ecstatic and lasting, solid, durable joy of life. And it is death that provides life with all its meaning. This "secret" is the central wisdom of religion.
The process of giving up the self (which is related to the phenomenon of love, as will be discussed in the next section of this book) is for most of us a gradual process which we get into by a series of fits and starts. One form of temporary giving up of the self deserves special mention because its practice is an absolute requirement for significant learning during adulthood, and therefore for significant growth of the human spirit. I am referring to a subtype of the discipline of balancing which I call "bracketing." Bracketing is essentially the act of balancing the need for stability and assertion of the self with the need for new knowledge and greater understanding by temporarily giving up one's self -- putting one's self aside, so to speak -- so as to make room for the incorporation of new material into the self. This discipline has been well described by the theologian Sam Keen in To a Dancing God:
The second step requires that I go beyond the idiosyncratic and egocentric perception of immediate experience. Mature awareness is possible only when I have digested and compensated for the biases and prejudices that are the residue of my personal history. Awareness of what presents itself to me involves a double movement of attention: silencing the familiar and welcoming the strange. Each time I approach a strange object, person, or event, I have a tendency to let my present needs, past experience, or expectations for the future determine what I will see. If I am to appreciate the uniqueness of any datum, I must be sufficiently aware of my preconceived ideas and characteristic emotional distortions to bracket them long enough to welcome strangeness and novelty into my perceptual world. This discipline of bracketing, compensating, or silencing requires sophisticated self-knowledge and courageous honesty. Yet, without this discipline each present moment is only the repetition of something already seen or experienced. In order for genuine novelty to emerge, for the unique presence of things, persons, or events to take root in me, I must undergo a decentralization of the ego.
The discipline of bracketing illustrates the most consequential fact of giving up and of discipline in general: namely, that for all that is given up even more is gained. Self-discipline is a self-enlarging process. The pain of giving up is the pain of death, but death of the old is birth of the new. The pain of death is the pain of birth, and the pain of birth is the pain of death. For us to develop a new and better idea, concept, theory or understanding means that an old idea, concept, theory or understanding must die. Thus, in the conclusion of his poem "Journey of the Magi," T. S. Eliot describes the Three Wise Men as suffering the giving up of their previous world view when they embraced Christianity.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? This was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were diffrent; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Since birth and death seem to be but different sides of the same coin, it is really not at all unreasonable to pay closer heed than we usually do in the West to the concept of reincarnation. But whether or not we are willing to entertain seriously the possibility of some kind of rebirth occurring simultaneously with our physical death, it is abundantly clear that this lifetime is a series of simultaneous deaths and births. "Throughout the whole of life one must continue to learn to live," said Seneca two millennia ago, "and what will amaze you even more, throughout life one must learn to die." It is also clear that the farther one travels on the journey of life, the more births one will experience, and therefore the more deaths -- the more joy and the more pain.
This raises the question of whether it is ever possible to become free from emotional pain in this life. Or, putting it more mildly, is it possible to spiritually evolve to a level of consciousness at which the pain of living is at least diminished? The answer is yes and no. The answer is yes, because once suffering is completely accepted, it ceases in a sense to be suffering. It is also yes because the unceasing practice of discipline leads to mastery, and the spiritually evolved person is masterful in the same sense that the adult is masterful in relation to the child. Matters that present great problems for the child and cause it great pain may be of no consequence to the adult at all. Finally, the answer is yes because the spiritually evolved individual is, as will be elaborated in the next section, an extraordinarily loving individual, and with his or her extraordinary love comes extraordinary joy.
The answer is no, however, because there is a vacuum of competence in the world which must be filled. In a world crying out in desperate freed for competence, an extraordinarily competent and loving person can no more withhold his or her competence than such a person could deny food to a hungry infant. Spiritually evolved people, by virtue of their discipline, mastery and love, are people of extraordinary competence, and in their competence they are called on to serve the world, and in their love they answer the call. They are inevitably, therefore, people of great power, although the world may generally behold them as quite ordinary people, since more often than not they will exercise their power in quiet or even hidden ways. Nonetheless, exercise power they do, and in this exercise they suffer greatly, even dreadfully. For to exercise power is to make decisions, and the process of making decisions with total awareness is often infinitely more painful than making decisions with limited or blunted awareness (which is the way most decisions are made and why they are ultimately proved wrong). Imagine two generals, each having to decide whether or not to commit a division of ten thousand men to battle. To one the division is but a thing, a unit of personnel, an instrument of strategy and nothing more. To the other it is these things, but he is also aware of each and every one of the ten thousand lives and the lives of the families of each of the ten thousand. For whom is the decision easier? It is easier for the general who has blunted his awareness precisely because he cannot tolerate the pain of a more nearly complete awareness. It may be tempting to say, "Ah, but a spiritually evolved man would neve r become a general in the first place." But the same issue is involved in being a corporation president, a physician, a teacher, a parent. Decisions affecting the lives of others must always be made. The best decision-makers are those who are willing to suffer the most over their decisions but still retain their ability to be decisive. One measure -- and perhaps the best measure -- of a person's greatness is the capacity for suffering. Yet the great are also joyful. This, then, is the paradox. Buddhists tend to ignore the Buddha's suffering and Christians forget Christ's joy. Buddha and Christ were not different men. The suffering of Christ letting go on the cross and the joy of Buddha letting go under the bo tree are one.
So if your goal is to avoid pain and escape suffering, I would not advise you to seek higher levels of consciousness or spiritual evolution. First, you cannot achieve them without suffering, and second, insofar as you do achieve them, you are likely to be called on to serve in ways more painful to you, or at least demanding of you, than you can now imagine. Then why desire to evolve at all, you may ask. If you ask this question, perhaps you do not know enough of joy. Perhaps you may find an answer in the remainder of this book; perhaps you will not.
A final word on the discipline of balancing and its essence of giving up: you must have something in order to give it up. You cannot give up anything you have not already gotten. If you give up winning without ever having won, you are where you were at the beginning: a loser. You must forge for yourself an identity before you can give it up. You must develop an ego before you can lose it. This may seem incredibly elementary, but I think it is necessary to say it, since there are many people I know who possess a vision of evolution yet seem to lack the will for it. They want, and believe it is possible, to skip over the discipline, to find an easy short-cut to sainthood. Often they attempt to attain it by simply imitating the superficialities of saints, retiring to the desert or taking up carpentry. Some even believe that by such imitation they have really become saints and prophets, and are unable to acknowledge that they are still children and face the painful fact that they must start at the beginning and go through the middle.
Discipline has been defined as a system of techniques of dealing constructively with the pain of problem-solving -- instead of avoiding that pain -- in such a way that all of life's problems can be solved. Four basic techniques have been distinguished and elaborated: delaying gratification, assumption of responsibility, dedication to the truth or reality, and balancing. Discipline is a system of techniques, because these techniques are very much interrelated. In a single act one may utilize two, three or even all of the techniques at the same time and in such a way that they may be distinguishable from each other. The strength, energy and willingness to use these techniques are provided by love, as will be elaborated in the next section. This analysis of discipline has not been intended to be exhaustive, and it is possible that I have neglected one or more additional basic techniques, although I suspect not. It is also reasonable to ask whether such processes as biofeedback, meditation, yoga, and psychotherapy itself are not techniques of discipline, but to this I would reply that, to my way of thinking, they are technical aids rather than basic techniques. As such they may be very useful but are not essential. On the other hand, the basic techniques herein described, if practiced unceasingly and genuinely, are alone sufficient to enable the practitioner of discipline, or "disciple," to evolve to spiritually higher levels.
Copyright © 1978 by M. Scott Peck, M.D.
Introduction copyright © 1985 by M. Scott Peck, M.D.
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