“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.
In this final section, Scott Peck details the role of grace in a human’s life. Just as in earlier parts of the book, case studies, anecdotes and even Greek myths are employed to illustrate the importance of grace and its relation to mental health. This article attempts to present a condensed version of the last, yet profound, segment of the book. While I try my best to avoid a piecemeal approach, the subheadings are an endeavor to unite various ideas.
Coincidence, or not?
There are many instances in life when we have unconsciously been saved from accidents. There are personal patterns of survival that are not a result of conscious decision making. Some may call it survival instinct. But naming it does not explain the phenomenon. Our tendency towards survival is something more than instinct, something miraculous, something unconscious.
But how does our unconscious mind communicate with us?
In psychoanalysis, dreams or ‘Freudian slips’ of the tongue are ways our ‘personal unconscious’ manifests. The meaning of many dreams is incomprehensible. But on some occasions the message we decipher is always designed to further our spiritual growth.
A large part of what is unconscious can also be received. Jung’s theory of ‘collective unconscious’ is useful in understanding this concept better. It is the idea that we inherit our ancestors’ wisdom and experience without having direct personal experience of the same. Peck states that research shows it is possible to inherit information stored within cells as a chemical code that is passed on from previous generations.
Spiritual Growth is the Evolution of Consciousness
Peck defines grace as, “A powerful force originating outside of human consciousness…” Grace has been recognised by religious people for centuries. We do not know where it resides. Our human tendency to categorise and conceptualise things in terms of discrete entities interferes with our understanding of this phenomenon.
Grace is at the root of spiritual growth and in Peck’s words, “Spiritual growth is the evolution of an individual.” Peck further explains that this act of evolution is love. While love is evolution in progress, the purpose of evolution is God. God, according to Peck, is unconsciousness.
For those skeptical of this idea Peck borrows Jung’s analogy of a rhizome. The root of the rhizome is hidden from view but the visible part withers and dies every summer. This can be compared to life and death of human civilisation where underneath the obvious, a deeper, eternal spirit lives on.
Science is yet to explain many facets of ‘psychic phenomena’. But, Peck adds, it is not a reason to ignore human experience altogether.
Mental Health and Spiritual Growth
The word ‘conscious’ is derived from Latin and means ‘to know with’. To know with what is the question that arises. To know with our unconscious is the conclusion Peck arrives at.
Majority of thinkers place mental illness as arising from the unconscious, very often due to the tumultuous nature of dreams. Peck strongly states that the opposite is true – mental illness is rooted in consciousness – the resistance of unconscious wisdom by the conscious self.
The ultimate goal of spiritual development is to become one with God, to recognize unconsciousness. This does not mean merging consciousness and unconsciousness. Consciousness is the medium through which God is manifested in the world. Instead of a merger, we must think of a mature and conscious ego.
Types of Power
Political power overtly or covertly involves coercing people. It usually resides in kingships, presidencies and money.
Spiritual power on the other hand is found within oneself and does not have persuasive inclinations. It makes decisions with more awareness but with more awareness comes the challenge of indecision – when you are aware of what the outcome might be you are more hesitant to take a call. But one must persist in gaining more knowledge and experience the “…joy that comes with mastery.”
Spiritual power can be terrifying. It leads to aloneness (opposed to loneliness) which is not having anyone to communicate at your level of awareness. But this burden itself is a path to being closer to God.
The Greek Myth of Orestes and the Furies
Orestes kills his mother to avenge his father’s death. But he is consumed by guilt and begins to be tormented by three ‘Furies’ who torture his mind with rebuke and criticism. Orestes finally requests the Greek Gods to relieve him of his misery. A trial is held in which Orestes takes full responsibility for his actions although they were caused by a curse on his family. The Gods rule in his favour and lift the curse. Orestes is relieved of the ‘Furies’.
Peck details this myth to point out Orestes’ role in curing his own mental torment. Mental illness can be a family affair, but Orestes did not blame anyone. He made the effort to heal himself by recognising his issue and seeking assistance. This, Peck elegantly underscores, is the purpose of therapy. While a therapist is present to guide a patient, it is only the patient who has the ability to make a full recovery with the right intention. It is up to the patient to use the tool of psychotherapy.
Grace and Mental Health
Whatever the level and depth of mental illness, a person can heal herself if she can rise above the resistance to grace, i.e., laziness and ‘original entropy’, through a will to grow.
Many are fearful of healing as it comes through hard work and is a “call to a life of effortful caring, to a life of service and whatever sacrifice seems required.”
We instinctively reject responsibility.
But there still is no explanation as to why some people heed the call to grace while others do not. Nevertheless, Peck reassures the reader that there is no doubt that every single person is blessed with grace.
The Welcoming of Grace
Many are not seeking spiritual growth but are confronted by circumstances that bring them face-to-face with grace. Yet still, some are looking for it and do not find it. In either case, we can only will ourselves to be open to the miracle of grace.
Serendipity, “…the gift of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for” is a beautiful word to describe the openness to grace.
Peck reiterates that an “invisible hand” guides us and its wisdom is far more accurate than our unaided conscious will. Grace helps hasten the journey of spiritual growth.
But we must still take the necessary steps and not be consumed by laziness.
Some seek to be shown every step of the way. But spiritual growth requires “…the courage and initiative and independence of thought and action.”
Peck informs his patients that the human race is in the midst of an evolutionary leap. It is each individual’s choice and responsibility to take that leap.
“The universe, this stepping stone, has been laid down to prepare the way for us.”
End of Part 4
The Road Less Travelled: Growth & Religion (Part 3 of 4)
The Road Less Travelled: Love (Part 2 of 4)
The Road Less Travelled: Discipline (Part 1 of 4)