M. Scott Peck: Wrestling With God
The Road Less Traveled may well have been a life-changing work and one of the best-selling books of all time.
By Robert Epstein Ph.D. published November 1, 2002 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Scott Peck had a station-wagon with plates that read "THLOST" in his driveway. They speak of his lifelong journey as a self-described mystic. His last book is a memoir titled Glimpses of the Devil. He said it was his last effort because of his affliction with Parkinson's disease. In 2002, Robert Epstein visited him at his home on Lake Waramaug, in Connecticut.
Most people struggle with issues of spirituality in one form or another. Sometimes they arrive at a place of peace, and sometimes they don't. Must we go through this struggle, or can you point us to a shortcut?
I do not think that everybody has to struggle. But to probably at least half of the people, it never seems to enter their minds that they might be engaged in a struggle or that there might be something to struggle with.
One of my shticks is about why we need to do hard scientific research on religion. A study shows that if you ask people whether they believe in God, probably 95 percent of Americans will say they do. And there is nothing particularly great about their mental health. But if you ask them whether they have ever had any personal experience with God, only about 15 to 20 percent will say "yes." Those few have also been judged as more mentally healthy than the others. And the experience is not necessarily one we choose. Everyone is different, so your spirituality is not going to be my spirituality; your wrestling match is not my wrestling match. But right off the bat, the wrestling match has been a gift of God to you.
In the 1970s, when you wrote The Road Less Traveled, where were you at spiritually?
Although I was raised in a profoundly secular home, I had a belief, an awareness of God, from as far back as I can remember. In poetic form, there is a footnote in The Road Less Traveled about my earliest memory: "In the autumn, when I was three, my mother woke me from dark sleep to see the northern lights dancing in the cold. In her warm night arms, I danced all the way to China before she carried me in. I still dance, and I do not know if I can ever forgive her for such love." That is quite a first memory. I credit my mother with that, rather than credit God.
In my senior year at Friends Seminary, a little Quaker school on the edge of Greenwich Village in New York City, I took an elective course in world religions. The book we used was very objective, and it contained quotes from the Upanishads and Zen Buddhism. It wasn't that these religions taught me mysticism, for I was already a mystic. But for the first time, I had a religious identity. I had come home. And so I called myself a Zen Buddhist at the age of 18.
Around age 30 I found myself thirsting for a less abstract religion. I'd always been into Jewish mystical stories, Hasidic stories. Then I discovered Sufism. All Sufi stories are about psychotherapy and teaching and learning. So I started being nurtured by the Muslim mystics; they were a little more down-to-earth.
I'd turned down a lucrative Harvard fellowship and stayed in the Army as a psychiatrist. Together with a senator's aide, we toured the new drug-abuse programs to get a feeling for how they were doing. One of the places we went was Fort Jackson in South Carolina. When we got there, everyone wanted to see this controversial new show coming to town called Jesus Christ Superstar. That show was a real eye-opener. It was the first thing that put me in touch with Jesus' humanity and realness.
The other major thing was reading the Gospels at the age of 40. I lay in bed at night reading the New Testament. And just as I had felt with Jesus Christ Superstar, I was blown away. Now I think a small part of the Gospels is made up. But I found this incredibly real person. Jesus was lonely and sorrowful and scared—an unbelievably real person. And it was at that point that I began to take becoming a Christian seriously. Some people who arrive at Christianity start with Jesus' divinity, and some with his humanity. With me, it was his humanity. And only later did I begin to get in touch with his divinity, which was initially difficult for me to swallow.
This whole time, you were a practicing psychiatrist. You were in a community of confident mainstream mental health and medical professionals, many of whom had research backgrounds. How were you reconciling your spirituality with what you did for a living, namely practicing psychiatry, where there is little or no religious orientation?
Well, when I began to practice psychiatry it was 1964, so I was 28. My spirituality had not developed, so I could not talk about it fluently the way I do today. But I already saw no great difference between the psyche and spirituality. To amass knowledge without becoming wise is not my idea of progress in therapy. As soon as I became comfortable doing so, therapy became for me a quasi-spiritual endeavor. And, often with trepidation, I would carefully use certain religious concepts in therapy when appropriate.
For example, take people with phobias. Two things characterize them. One is that they see this world as a very dangerous place. The other is that they see themselves as isolated in this dangerous world. So it is up to them, by their wits alone, to keep themselves alive. You usually treat them by converting them to adopt a more benign view of the world as a less dangerous place, or by persuading them that there is something called grace protecting them so they don't have to worry about everything all the time.
You must have had some serious doubts.
Are you familiar with James Fowler? He's the expert on the stages of faith development. I simplify them a bit. Jim's theory has six stages; mine has four. The fundamental stage, one I call "chaotic antisocial," is a stage of absent spirituality. The second stage is "formal institutional," in which the fundamentalists fall. Stage three I call "skeptic individual," where religion is either thrown out or seriously doubted. And then there is stage four, which I call "mystical communal." To get from stage two to stage four—if you can in a lifetime—you must go through stage three. You have to go through a phase of doubting. One of the great sins of the Christian church is the discouragement of doubting. There's a limit to doubting. If you become really good at stage-three doubting, you begin to doubt your own doubts. And that's when you begin to move to stage four.
Most people achieve this without being in therapy.
Right. But therapy can—although not very well without the use of religious concepts—sometimes facilitate this transition.
People who are trained in psychology and psychiatry keep religion at arm's length. In The Road Less Traveled you wrote, "My plea would be that psychotherapists of all kinds should push themselves to become no less involved but rather more sophisticated in religious matters than they currently are." That philosophy contradicts the training that's provided in the field. Even mental health professionals with strong religious beliefs don't bring them into the therapeutic exchange. You're saying this is wrong?
Yes. I said it was wrong many years ago, and I say it's wrong today. In 1992, the American Psychiatric Association, for political reasons, decided it needed to give me recognition because people were getting pissed off at [the APA] for not giving me any. So [the APA] gave me a plaque that read, "For his work as a teacher and clinician." I also gave a lecture. As did William Styron, the author of Sophie's Choice, who wrote a book about his own depression. The best-attended APA lectures were his and mine. [At my lecture] they started off with a room that seated 500. Then they removed a wall [to expand the room] and got 1,000 people in. Then 200 or 300 more came in, and then there were about 200 or 300 outside. At the end, there was a standing ovation.
I wrote to the president of the APA and said, "We've got to do more, and I am here to consult with you in any way you might like." And he said, "Yes, we have to do more." I never heard back from him. There are lots of reasons for this state of affairs historically, going back to Galileo, with the fight between science and religion. And psychiatry really does begin with Freud, who was extremely secular and scientific-minded. He was terribly conflicted about religion, as many people are. Of course, most people are familiar with stage-two religion. And by God, we're going to keep psychiatry scientific. And then, for often crass motives, the APA has run with the medical model for insurance purposes. Thank God I've been out of practice for 15 years now. There are a lot of reasons for this split. But that doesn't mean it's right, or it's real.
There's some irony here. They flock to you because of your spirituality, and then spurn you for the same reasons. Another irony is that your books sell well in the Bible Belt. And yet, you are down on fundamentalism, and the fundamentalist Christians are very down on you.
They picketed me twice some years ago as me being the Antichrist. Not an antichrist, but the Antichrist. That's power.
Can you tell me more about the roots of your spirituality—about the intellectual and experiential side?
All my work can be traced back to my Harvard college thesis, "Anxiety, Modern Science and the Epistemological Problem." I outlined three basic ways to try and look at things. They can be looked at as if they were caused by something external, or they were caused by something internal, or they were caused by relationships between things. Unfortunately, none of these three ways can answer all the questions we have. That is, our questions about the cause for intellectual anxiety. Increasingly, modern science is about our realization that we just don't know. Much of my life since has consisted of working out that thesis. The answer to understanding things is not one of those three, but all of them simultaneously. It's more than a paradox—it's a "triadox."
I am really an empiricist, a believer in the importance of experience. I've had all kinds of experiences with God in terms of revelation through a still, small voice or dreams or coincidences. Hundreds of them. Once, a secular Jewish woman wrote a negative review of me in The New York Times, ending it with the comment that unfortunately, most of us don't have a direct phone line to God. I wrote her back and said, "You know, please don't think that my phone works very well. A lot of times I can't get ahold of God, and sometimes the phone rings and I forget to answer. So I suspect there are a lot of people who deliberately leave the phone off the hook because they have these same experiences and they just don't recognize them as the miracles that they are."
I can remember years ago sitting on my bed and suddenly thinking, "I am God." And my next thought was that I better not go down to New Milford, Connecticut, and start talking to people about this. On further contemplation, I realized that, to a significant degree, it was my responsibility to decide who God was. And that, in some ways, made me God's creator. It was at that point that I began to feel sorry for God. I mean, think of the burdens that God shoulders with unfailing gaiety. That was the real beginning of my personal relationship with Him or Her. When I realized that we are "co-creators," for better or worse.
In The Road Less Traveled, you present us with an outrageous challenge: "God wants us to become himself or herself or itself. We are growing toward Godhood. God is the goal of evolution."
That idea has been recognized for ages. Unification with God is the goal of contemplatives. St. Paul clearly expressed it when he said, "It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God."
You've influenced tens of millions of people. Are you satisfied with your impact?
Oh, I'm more than satisfied. I was really lucky. Had I written my books much earlier, they wouldn't have sold at all.
But I am not talking about book sales.
That is just a measurement of the impact. One of the things I regret is that some of my books other than The Road Less Traveled have not been more successful. I think my best books are not my most popular, although they were the best reviewed. They are the more complicated and multileveled, and many people don't like complicated things.
How would you like to be remembered?
I've spent little energy thinking about it, and I guess I don't care much. I would like to be recognized. It amuses me that I've gotten all kinds of honors but never an honorary degree. But I think there are reasons for that. I'm a popularist. I have made a fair amount of money, and most academicians don't make a fair amount of money. They sneer at my scholarship—as well they might, because I am a poor scholar. My wife and I have long been involved with community building and set up a foundation [the Foundation for Community Encouragement], which spawned similar work around the world. Maybe I will be remembered for that.
I've said a lot of things that I think are new and true ideas that may someday be incorporated into psychiatry. In The Road Less Traveled, I said most psychological disorders were considered to have their root in the unconscious, under all these little demons of anger and sex and lust, etc. But the reason they are in the unconscious is because the conscious mind puts them there, because it will not tolerate the pain of dealing with them. But then they become ghosts that haunt us and ultimately cause more pain. As far as I am concerned, virtually all psychological diseases have their origin in our conscious minds. And that is not what we are taught.
Do you have any significant regrets?
A significant regret is that I was not as good a father as I would have ideally liked to be. I was not, I think, a bad father. I did fine until my children were two, two and a half. But from two and a half to eleven or so, they bored me. You need to flow with children, and it is hard to flow when your mind is filled with working on an article about religious ecstasy. I also regret very much, every day now, the lack of sympathy that I had for my parents in their old age. There was a lot I could have given them if I had only been empathetic. Of course, I had not been through their aches and pains.
You had, many years ago, a problem with infidelity that you later overcame.
I didn't overcome it, I lost my libido.
You still smoke and drink. There's the occasional cynic who says, "This man is a hypocrite because he is saying this, but he is doing that." How would you reply?
Cynicism is a terrible disease. I don't think I ever suggested that it's good to smoke, or that people should drink or have affairs. I am not going to justify it. I've never said anywhere that they are supposed to imitate me. I've gone to great lengths not to be a guru. I think the notion of guruhood is utterly pathological, and I couldn't live that way. I am just a person. It isn't my choosing, but my fault. In a number of ways, I don't understand who I am. I have an unpublished first draft of a novel about somebody very special who was born that way—born the son of a sultan, and consequently, he ruled the region. And he, the sultan's son, kept asking throughout the book, "Why me? Who am I?"
You can tell [the cynics] that if by some chance I am a saint, I'm one who smokes and drinks. I'm somebody who often, like so many people, preaches what he needs to learn.