“Life is difficult.” Thus begins the popular book ‘The Road Less Travelled’ by M. Scott Peck (1936-2005), an American psychiatrist. First published in 1978, the book’s simple language lends to easy understanding. Peck draws considerably from his daily clinical practice as evidenced by the innumerable examples sprinkled across the book. In a four part series I briefly explain the tools Peck writes about to achieve mental and spiritual growth; at the outset he mentions he does not distinguish the two. The four tools are discipline, love, growth-religion and grace.
A vital aspect of rising above the rigors of life is knowing, understanding and accepting that life is difficult. Peck states life is a series of problems and the sooner we realise this, the better. He offers four tools to deal with life’s issues. This post highlights the role of the first tool, discipline. What is the cause for our difficult life? According to Peck it is our avoidance of confronting and solving problems. We deter from this crucial step due to its painful nature; sometimes the emotional and mental pain of facing problems mirrors a physical one. The tendency to avoid problems is the basis of human mental illness. Therefore, we need to develop the discipline required to address our issues.
The first step to discipline is delaying gratification. This means “…scheduling the pain and pleasure in such a way that pain can be dealt with first and enhance the pleasure by doing this.” A simple example would be a person completing her chores before settling down to watch a TV series. By delaying the pleasure of watching TV the person enhanced the pleasure of the activity by freeing her mind of work.
In addition, we have to accept responsibility for a problem before solving it no matter how painful or difficult it is. However, valuing oneself precedes the ability to accept responsibility. Valuing oneself is an essential step towards mental health and is the “…cornerstone of self discipline”.
Another aspect of establishing discipline is to be continually involved in our lives. This means we wholeheartedly participate in life and dedicate ourselves to reality. We have to actively construct a working view of the world rather than clinging to outdated views. People ignore reality as it is burdensome. According to Peck, most people give up their quest for truth and meaning in their lives by the end of adolescence and by middle age most have given up trying. This sounds rather dire but when we reflect on how most live life it is not far from the truth. Peck also points out our tendency to avoid challenge is so high it can almost be considered part of human nature.
At this juncture the author is critical of psychiatrists who encourage openness to challenge and self examination in their clients but themselves spend little time contemplating. He writes, “The life of wisdom must be a life of contemplation combined with action.”
Withholding truth is another weed to be uprooted. While we all accept lying is bad Peck underlines the fact that white lies are equally harmful as they hold back information. Those who indulge this habit frequently will sooner than later invite problems.
Balancing is one more tool Peck offers to achieve discipline in our lives. We must learn when to give up certain aspects of ourselves in pursuit of a better future. He gives a personal example of playing chess with his daughter one school night. While Peck’s daughter is satisfied spending time with her father and ending the game halfway, Peck himself is determined to complete the game despite the late hour. The end result is an argument and sour feelings between the two. Peck admits his obsession to complete the game led to upsetting his daughter and this could have been easily avoided if he had given up a bit of his competitiveness and seriousness.
Furthermore, Peck expresses that depression can actually be healthy. It is part of the process of giving up the old self in order to grow mentally and spiritually. Depression only becomes a problem when it is prolonged and is not resolved by the process of growth. This reminded me of an interesting article I read by Dr Neel Burton. Burton not only suggests depression can be good but the idea of it is influenced by socio-cultural factors.
Finally, there is bracketing, the act of balancing our need for stability and self assertion with the need for new learning and growth. For new material to be incorporated into our lives we must set our self aside temporarily. The author encourages the reader to reach for higher levels of consciousness to avoid pain.
Here are some of the conditions, desires and maladaptive attitudes one must give up during a lifetime to lead a successful and fulfilling life:
- The fantasy of omnipotence
- The dependency of childhood
- Distorted images of one’s parents
- Authority over one’s children
- The independence of physical health
In summary, the steps to achieving Scott Peck’s idea of discipline are delaying of gratification, acceptance of responsibility, dedication to truth and balancing.
End of Part 1