The untold riches of taking the road less travelled

Tuesday, 21 July 2020 00:30 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

M. Scott Peck


Psychiatrist and spiritual explorer M. Scott Peck wrote the monumental ‘The Road Less Traveled’ (RLT) which unexpectedly, but blessedly for the rest of us, spent over 10 years on The New York Times best-seller list. When writer Phyllis Theroux remarked, “Not just a book, but a spontaneous act of generosity,” she referred to the book reading like an outpouring of rich and rare wisdom, at times not seeming to be fashioned by strictly human agency. 

From a correspondent relationship that led to our inviting Dr. Peck’s Foundation for Community Encouragement (FCE) to both Sri Lanka and Pakistan, and then post 9/11 the blossoming of a deep relationship and friendship undertaking numerous projects flowing from that, and subsequently co-authoring a manuscript, and for many years spending deep personal time at his home, I can report that the relationship and the wisdom that flowed from it, remain among the greatest privileges and treasures of my life. 

Life and suffering

The RLT starts, as Buddhist teaching does, by pointing out that life is difficult. However, it reminds us that when we accept that life is difficult, that this is the nature of the beast, at least as a starting point in our experience, then the fact that life is difficult is no longer a problem.

In other words, “stress” comes not from having a problem, but the additional mental and emotional step of thinking “I” should NOT have problems! The anger at our problems, our resistance to them, takes a “situation” or “challenge” and converts it into a “problem.” 

When we realise life is a series of problems to be faced, embraced, experienced, grown through, that they are the cutting edge of meaningful living (from the “problem” of being born, to separating from our mother, to learning to walk and talk, to becoming conscious of an identity, to learning to socialise, to coming to grips with deferring gratification, to puberty, to early and subsequent adulthood, to marriage, to career, for some parenthood, to facing illness and reversals, to managing time and resources, to aging and dying), we realise that to shun these problems is to shun our own life experience and duck our own potential for growth.

Out from the garden

Like Joseph Campbell, Scott Peck reminded us that myths are “true,” insofar as embodying psychological, emotional and spiritual observations about us. And the founding creation myth of Adam and Eve, whatever its other faith-based credentials, is a first-class primer in the human psyche. 

The “original sin” led to the anguish of consciousness. Humans became aware of their “separateness,” and that there is no way back to Eden, except to reclaim “wholeness” (the root of “holiness”) by adventuring out and through the proverbial desert. Feeling separate, apart, disconnected, is acutely painful. And so, drugs or other ways to chloroform that, particularly if one has to perpetually “check out” from that reality, are often called forms of “cheap grace.” They are shoddy stand-ins, and by being addicted to them, our spirit shrivels.

One of the implications of the founding myth is to point out that to be human is to be in many ways “shy.” Anyone who is not to some extent, in their own way, shy, in the sense of not wishing to impose or project themselves upon every person and every situation they encounter, is to some extent, damaged. And we all are to some extent damaged in this way, to the extent that our suffering is neurotic rather than existential, to the extent that we do not use it for our “salvation” which has the same root as “healing.” The seminal psychotherapist Carl Jung ascribed most mental illness to the refusal to meet one’s shadow.

And when our desire not to face troubling realities, our commitment to duck various “problems” or rites of passage in our emotional and personal lives grows desperate, when we express “militant unconsciousness,” then we lash out, individually or collectively, to seek to destroy anything that disturbs our pathetic pseudo sense of well-being or agitates us by being different or threatens us by shining any kind of light on our pretences and defences. A lot of human horror emanates from this twisted root.

Scotty would often repeat the following quote, “The path to holiness lies through questioning everything.” That includes of course also questioning ourselves. Truth – and any holiness must be grounded in such truth – has no reason to fear our little questions or to be wary of our understandable confusion or disquiet. In fact, in the presence of holiness and truth, the act of exploring, is itself healing and redeeming.

Ego boundaries and learning to love

Love is a verb Scotty teaches us, it is not just a feeling. We all “feel” ourselves to be loving, though we frequently behave in demeaning and disdainful ways to others. Love is the ongoing “will” to “extend” ourselves for our own or someone else’s, nurturing and growth. That at least is what we would term an “operational definition” of love. When that will is present and naturally flows, we are a prism for love. 

But “extend” ourselves past what? And here we come to ego boundaries. Our ego boundaries are our sense of self and personhood. Outside our ego boundaries we are often dismissive or apathetic, inside we are passionately interested. The more constricted our ego boundaries (do they make room for family, or neighbourhood, or nation to some extent, for example?), the more limited our range of vision, and the more hemmed in is our spirit. Our ego boundaries determine our sense of identity and what and who we care about.

So, when we “fall in love” our ego boundaries temporarily collapse relative to that person. This can feel exhilarating and bewildering in equal measure, heady and intoxicating, exciting and nerve-wracking. And then when we discover that this other person is not like us in all aspects, does not unconditionally approve of everything we do, has tastes and priorities that clash with our preferences, our ego boundaries snap back into place, to some extent at least, and we experience “falling out of love.” It can be a dispiriting and depressing experience. 

And then we either keep distracting ourselves together, or forge a union of mutual convenience, or take on “projects” like buying a house or being parents that divert our attention away from the force field of our respective egos. Or else more healthfully, and soulfully, we have the option to “grow” in love, and genuinely “expand” our ego boundaries rather than have them temporarily collapse which is more like a relapse to childishness. 

When our ego boundaries grow to take in another person, new views, and tastes, tempos and preferences, and the will is there to nurture and grow together in and through that shared expansion, then the exhilaration is not a temporary salve. Then we truly have found love.

Someone whose ego boundaries are permeable and porous enough such that the whole world can be affirmed, nurtured, served, in other words, loved, becomes one of those loving savants we often honour as saints.

What to do, forgiveness and games people play

So, let us say we seek to serve Love. And at work, in our marital lives, as parents, we are at a crossroads and just don’t know what to do. How do we proceed? 

The answer is simple, but far from easy. The answer is to “suffer.” In other words, to agonise and suffer over the decision, honouring the people and issues involved, and finally setting aside our ego preferences while fully seeking the nurturing and growth of everyone. And so we ultimately surrender and allow ourselves to be guided.

A teenage daughter asks for a dispensation to attend a late-night party. On the one hand she has shown herself to be responsible and trustworthy. On the other hand, her boyfriend seems somewhat flighty, and people will be drinking at the occasion. So, what do you do?

If you do not consider it, or consider her request without considering the person making the request, and formulaically answer either “yes” or “no,” you may be more or less popular, but you will not have given loving attention, and subliminally and perhaps even deeper, she will not feel “important” or “valued” or worth being unsure about. 

A reflexive, “Sure!” or a reflexive “No way!” are both disparaging and undermining. 

And if you do deeply consider and agonise, then even if she doesn’t like the answer, at a deep level, she will know she is honoured and loved.

And so, whether it is on behalf of someone else or your own choices, as Scotty often said, remind yourself, “The truth is that I want it. And the price I have to pay is to ask the question again and again.” Our subconscious as we learn runs the show far more expansively, adroitly and ecumenically than our conscious mind, it is one step ahead of our conscious awareness at the least. 

So, we have to surrender to growth, to submit to the more loving path even if we don’t consciously see it. And if we commit to health-giving growth and are willing to suffer even when, and perhaps especially when, the call to growth seems inconsistent, challenging, paradoxical, unclear…then the subconscious will be one step ahead of our conscious Scotty reminded us, in the right direction…though we won’t have the luxury of consciously “knowing” it.

And so, we come to forgiveness. To forgive is divine, it is holy, it is freeing, it removes us from drinking poison while hoping the other person dies from it. But you cannot “pardon” someone you have not first bothered to find guilty. So paradoxically, hold your parents to account. Damn someone who hurt you. Bring all the charges you can summon internally relative to an outrage, let rip with the worst language and seething outrage you can conjure. Better “out” than “in”. Get the poison out of the system.

And once you have the guillotine prepared (metaphorically), and the final judgement is ready to be rendered, when you have exhausted all the suppressed anger and vanity and hurt, you will find something strange. You will discover it was for your own edification. Another of Scotty’s favourite quotes, “You cannot lose when you realise that everything that happens to you is designed to teach you holiness.” And you will find peace glowing gently like an ember in the ashes.

After bringing all the charges, you now see a fellow “sinner” (defined simply as “missing the mark”), someone who needs forgiveness and understanding and love not because our ego thinks they “deserve” it, but because only forgiveness can possibly free us from not having that wound perpetuated or embalmed.. And we have to ask ourselves, where we least deserve it, isn’t that where we ourselves most need forgiveness? 

What do we want to emerge with, more grief and pain, or joy and healing? Now, when you forgive after letting it all come up and out, it means something, it is truly transformational, and we are deeply rescued and healed ourselves. 

Otherwise, we are not actually “forgiving,” it is again cheap grace, with denial and suppression holding sway.

And finally here, to “Games” people play. The phrase “Game” in this context was minted by therapist and psychodynamics expert, Eric Berne. It refers to any ritual set of interactions, with a defined “trigger”, leading to a pattern of responses, providing some emotional payoff.

For example, someone is perpetually late, and they continue to stockpile things to do, until finally, it dawns on them, they are late. So, they arrive huffily (trigger). The frequently delayed, annoyingly held up person erupts (response). 

“Why can’t you ever be on time?”

“Do you know everything I had to take care of? You have no idea how hopelessly busy I am!”

“That’s not an excuse for keeping everyone waiting.”

“Excuse? Well, which of the following would you have liked me not to have taken care of…?”

And so it goes…one feels ignored and superior for being long-suffering, the other feels beset and superior for having so much on their proverbial plate. Both feel misunderstood and aggrieved and are running a “duress” clinic for each other on the sly…or not so sly!

As Dr. Peck pointed out, Eric Berne articulated one of the truly few non-paradoxical truths in the world. Namely, “It takes two to play a Game, and one to stop. And the only way to stop, is to pull the plug on the payoff.”

In our description of NLP last week, we spoke of “pattern interrupts” which can be very helpful here. 

So, the person now decides to interrupt their own pattern and leaves to arrive everywhere 15 minutes early; they build in a large payoff, they create a tracking system, and they arrive well in time, to the shock (and annoyance of the other person). Game over!

Or, they are still late: “You’ve kept me waiting again!” The reply now is, “It’s terrible, forgive me, I’m going to keep working on it.”

“You won’t!”

“Maybe you’ll help me?” And now the game changes, and eventually the sputtering will exhaust itself.

Or on the other side, “If you knew how busy I am…”

“I’d love to hear about it. But next time, beyond 10 minutes, I won’t be here waiting.” Again, if done, game over! New payoff will need to be sought.

Any repetitive pattern that triggers predictable emotions and reactions is a “Game.” And however seemingly illogical or sordid, you participate due to a “payoff.” Interrupt the payoff, change the stakes, find a healthier way to get attention or feel important, and the game, which operates “unconsciously” fizzles out.

There are corporate Games, national Games, developing country Games, military Games…and so Scotty advocated for dedicating ourselves to the widest possible consideration of the most diverse and imaginative possibilities, collectively.

The taste for mystery

One of the barriers to creativity, fresh thinking, constructive imagination, is our mistaken assumption that we “know” far more than we actually do. Scotty frequently pointed out that we “know” virtually nothing.

We do not know precisely what gravity is, how electricity actually works, why we have successful immunity to some diseases at some times and not others, how and why placebos work, the nonanatomic differences between women and men (and every gradation in between it is being argued these days), which of numerous geometries best describe reality, exactly how “evolution” takes place, and so much more. 

We have marvellous technologies and various hypotheses that track evidence to the extent that we currently have evidence and to the extent of our current tools, but science is nothing if not the ongoing refinement and overturning of hypotheses in light of better technology and better evidence, it is not fixed in stone. 

Meteorologists rarely successfully predict the weather, and economists can “model” but rarely predict very much economically, so what do we really “know?” 

So, we seek to advance knowledge, realising the more we know, the more we know how much more there is to know. And those who are terrified of “mystery”, of reality being larger, more vast, and more bountiful than the limits of our paradigms or perceptual apparatus, flee from mystery.

They read what confirms their thinking, they go into careers where they can master some “subset” of knowledge and cling to that with all their vanity and ego tenacity, rather than exposing themselves to something wider or broader. 

We see this in spirituality too as Scotty mapped out for us. Level 1 is where we are self-serving, egotistical. We idolise ourselves. Level 2 is submitting to a code, in religion it is dogma or a type of spiritual legalism. We want no contradictions, we want unthinking clarity. Level 3 is when we fall out with such faith and become sceptics, scientists, rationalists. And then when we discover we don’t know what we don’t know and even that which we know is riddled with uncertainty, so again we surrender to wonder, we embrace mystery.

And the word “mystic” which represents Level 4, is someone who cherishes and successfully navigates mystery. And be you scientist, or philosopher, or spiritual traveller or business leader, you are then “turned on” by the vastness of what there is to test and dive into and experience, rather than narrowly trying to “own” that which you can corral and tether.

Scripture says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Dr. Peck interprets that as “blessed are the confused, who are “students” of life and reality and thereby again humble enough to be students of what actually works, rather than trying to force life to fit into their own personal theology. As Scotty so powerfully put it, “If you are truly humble, you will find humility is always realistic.”

Community building and peace

So, there are four stages by which groups of people seek to relate to each other. The first we can simply call “Pseudo Community”. This is akin to cocktail party dialogue where everyone is cloyingly polite to each other, pretending that we're all the same, that we all like, agree with, and are attuned with each other. It is absurd, enervating and frankly appalling as a surrogate for real communication, and horrifyingly it is what we do most of the time with most people. We were wearing “masks” well before COVID in this regard.

The second stage is called “Chaos.” Someone gets a bit too “real,” lets slip an actual opinion, contradicts someone, or showboats a tad too blatantly, and suddenly there is conflict, or cliques form, or we discover our ego boundaries are getting bruised. This is an intensely uncomfortable time. And the most common reaction is to either retreat right back to pseudo-community, the “shallow end” of communication; or if in an organisational or other setting where you have to be seen to be going forward, it is to retreat to administration or bureaucracy. Set up a committee, or subcommittee, have someone “study” it and “get back to us,” decide it’s not the right time, organise the responses so we can “bureaucratise” the exchange.


If eventually results demand better attention, or people frankly just get sick of the subterfuge and game playing, then people start maybe incrementally, or suddenly if someone acts as a spark, to honour and respect differences, to move towards accepting diversity as well as celebrating where we come together for common purposes and have unity. We call this stage “Emptiness.” It is not a vacancy, it is a “letting go,” and the moment this shift happens, and we make room for each other’s ideas and reflexes and textures, there is a palpable shift. Everything is lighter, appreciative laughter and not nervous or snide guffawing, is more plentiful. Silences are not uncomfortable; processing time is honoured rather than smothered.

And if a group of people hang in there long enough, there is a tipping point, and we enter the stage called “Community.” You cannot “achieve” it though, it is always a gift. We now can support each other without agendas, for the joy of being together. We can also challenge and fight gracefully for things we’ve agreed to safeguard or advance, it’s not personal. It is a space where we build on each other’s ideas reflexively and naturally, rather than seeking to tear those ideas down. There is productivity, creativity, joy and peace. These are remarkable treasures while still being able to grow in true competence and capability.

Scotty’s Foundation for Community Encouragement (FCE) brought this methodology of “emotional disarmament” and peacemaking around the world, and we were honoured to support and partner with them in this. 

I cannot fathom why it is not a mainstay of virtually every organisational development immersion today, hailing as it does from a vast ocean of psychotherapeutic insight, the deep “listening” of the spiritual practice of the Quakers, the demonstrably powerful Tavistock conflict resolution model, and so much more. 

The opposite of “community” is a “cult,” and we are seeing the corrosive impact in too many parts of the globe of a “cult” of vanity, personality, celebrity, social media narcissism and more. For truly that “centre” will not hold. As the poem says, “We have given our hearts away.”

Community is how we get them back, and how we can learn to share them with each other again.

Scotty’s legacy

The highest tribute I can pay to my beloved mentor and friend, is that he was courageously imperfect. That may sound strange.

If you read Scotty’s books you read of a resolutely imperfect man, prone to mistakes, addled with addictions, wrestling with demons, struggling to parent, failed marriage and multiple affairs, beset with physical ailments, controversially demanding we look at personal and group evil (defined in part as being unwilling to face our light, our challenges, our problems and militantly wanting to obliterate any reminder of them).

But this is the dross. Scotty exposed his demons and his failings willingly. He had the grace to share them with us. And then in engaging them publicly, he did so with such remarkable wisdom, depth and brilliance, that in his journey of healing, we were taken right along with him. He edified us by making his journey and tribulations public and almost invitational.

The light that shone from him was unmistakable. It is a light that comes from what he experienced as a loving God’s invitation to grow to leadership and accountability and acceptance and love. And even with faltering health, and devotees who had moved on, he whistled a blithe tune as he moved haltingly around, a music perhaps only he heard traversing that less travelled road. 

His house intriguingly enough was literally on a road in Connecticut called “Bliss Road.” It was a hermitage in more ways than one. He had originally left Christianity, alienated by its perceived “orthodoxy.” He delved into Sufism and then Zen Buddhism (which he was convinced every 5th grader should be exposed to for moving beyond either/or), and finally returned to Christianity, overwhelmed by the wisdom of its “paradoxy.” St. Therese of Lysieux suggested, and I am paraphrasing, that only when we can serenely bear the trial of being displeasing to ourselves, will we be able to harbour and shelter God, love and growth. Only then might we become a true vessel of both purpose and peace. If we fight this trial, revolt against it, and bail out of it, any spiritual or personal development becomes ersatz, and the “harbour” is pelted by a storm of self-deception.

Thanks to Scotty, for all of us, that trial became so much easier, and we have thanks to his life and work, the navigational tools we need to both find and become that vital, vibrant, safe harbour, moving on to becoming ever more whole (holy) in the process.


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