Where better to start than with M. Scott Peck’s “The Road Less Travelled”, one of the first philosophy books I ever read and a huge influence on me and millions of others. Scott Peck published the book in the early 1980’s, I guess I probably read it then, while still a student. One of the things which makes The Road so special is that Scott Peck recognizes that there is such a thing as spiritual growth and even affirms that it is the most important things we can do. Perhaps it is even our true purpose in life.
The first sentence in The Road is “Life is difficult” and Scott Peck refers to it being similar to the first of the “Four Noble Truths” taught by Buddha, i.e. “Life is suffering”. This resonated with me, as indeed it would with most people. Most of us do not get an easy ride. Sooner or later, no matter how many silver spoons we were born with or accumulated on the way, we hit a wall.
Problems arise that we have to deal with, often dealing with these problems causes us pain. Life intrudes. Peck, being a psychiatrist, considered that there was little difference between the development of mental growth and of spiritual growth. This is something that I wouldn’t fully agree with but I do believer that spiritual growth requires mental growth and emotional maturity in order to make any substantial progress.
What makes life difficult, Peck explains, is that the process of confronting and solving problems is a painful one. How often do we wish that life would just Leave Us Alone! He knows us well, Peck does, and states, “Fearing the pain involved, almost all of us, to a greater or lesser extent, attempt to avoid problems”. The world is full of the things we all use to avoid facing up to problems.
Perhaps it should be called Planet Excuses, rather than Planet Earth.
Avoiding problems means avoiding growth, spiritual, mental and emotional; small wonder we have made such little progress in the last 2,000 years or so. Look around you, see how we have surrounded ourselves with things to help us avoid dealing with our problems, to help us pass the time without facing reality;
Aids to avoidance.
Peck describes four methods, or tools, which we can use to help us face our problems and work through our suffering. These are; Delaying Gratification, Accepting Responsibility, Dedication to the Truth, and Balancing. These are simple tools, most of us understand what they mean without having to be told. Peck knows this too and states, “The problem lies not in the complexity of these tools but in the will to use them”.
Dedication to the Truth is perhaps the core message. Without an ability to recognize and accept the Truth, we will accomplish little of value. Dedication to the Truth means a life of never-ending self-examination.
Failure to do this, Peck asserts, means, “They may be competent individuals as the world judges competence, but they are never wise”. Wisdom, of course, is what we are seeking, what we aspire to, why we read authors such as Peck and why we try and adopt their messages and incorporate their advice in the way we live our lives.
The Road Less Traveled includes many stories culled from Peck’s experiences as a psychiatrist, stories of successes and failures as people try to come to terms with life and try and surmount their difficulties. These add great value to the book and help us understand the human aspect to his theories.
Peck poses the question as to whether it is possible to spiritually evolve to a level where the pain of living, the suffering, is at least diminished, He concludes that the answer is yes and no. Peck is fond of paradoxes. He states that, “The answer is yes because once suffering is completely accepted, it ceases, in a sense, to be suffering”, and, “Finally the answer is yes because the spiritually evolved individual is an extraordinarily loving individual, and with his or her extraordinary love comes extraordinary joy”. The answer is also ‘no’ though because such people are, “… called upon to serve the world, and in their love they answer the call”.
In further examples of his wisdom, Peck talks about the need to give up, to surrender, in order to progress. He sums up this process in the following sentences, “You must have something in order to give it up”, “If you give up winning without ever having won, you are where you where at the beginning, a loser”, ouch, the truth sometimes hurts.
He also tells us, “You must develop an ego before you can lose it”, and, in conclusion, “Some try to become saints by taking up carpentry”. That is one of my favourite quotes and sums up what was my approach to spiritual growth for many years.
Peck is not surprised that many different attitudes and approaches to spiritual growth exist. He believes, “Consequently, among the members of the human race there exists an extraordinary variability in the breadth and sophistication of our understanding of what life is all about”. Explaining, in a single sentence, the co-existence of atheists, agnostics and believers, and all the varieties of each, side-by-side in our world.
Later in The Road Less Traveled, Peck discusses God more frequently. He believes that most religions and religious outlooks which people hold have either been transferred from generation to generation and/or are a result of our experiences as children. If our early experiences of authority and parental love is vengeful, disinterested or loving and generous, than those are the attributes we are most likely to attribute to our god. Moving on from whatever standpoint we have adopted requires considerable work.
Spiritual growth is not the path of least resistance.
In “The Alpha and the Omega”, some eight chapters from the end of the book, Peck defines his belief. He considers that there can only be one answer to the purpose of life; “We are growing towards godhood. God is the goal of evolution. It is God who is the source of the evolutionary force and God who is the destination. This is what we mean when we say He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end”. A terrifying thought, we are all born destined to become godlike. Peck acknowledges this, “For no idea ever came to the mind of man which places upon us such a burden. It is the single most demanding idea in the history of mankind”. If we accept this there are no excuses, if we don’t, then, in Pecks’ own words, “we don’t have to worry about our spiritual growth, we don’t have to push ourselves to higher and higher levels of consciousness and loving activity, we can relax and just be human”.
Peck describes only one impediment to attaining godhood in our lifetime, “Ultimately, there is only the one impediment, and that is laziness”.
There it is, what more do we need to know. If we accept Peck’s conclusions and advice, then we know our path. Do not delay for our time is short and the distance to be traveled considerable.
Before we end, let us visit that famous poem by Robert Frost, ‘The Road Not Taken’ which inspired the title of Pecks book.