Spirituality and Self-Discipline

the-road-less-traveledIn a recent email dialog with one of my readers, I was reminded of the works of Dr. M. Scott Peck (1936-2005), one of which I’ve been reading over the holidays: The Road Less Traveled. First published in 1978, it has sold over ten million copies. The first section of the book is about discipline. I have long believed achieving spirituality cannot be complete without self-discipline.

One of life’s greatest truths is that life is difficult. It was meant to be that way. If you have been taught or believe otherwise, you have been deceived. It would serve you well to cast off such a defective map and replace it with the truth. Because the sooner you do so, the sooner you accept this truth, then life is no longer difficult. Well, maybe it is, but that no longer matters, does it?

Life is a series of problems. They are presented to us for our growth and benefit. We can either moan about them or we can solve them. Discipline contains a basic set of tools we use to solve life’s problems. Without discipline we can solve nothing. Dr. Peck elaborates on the four tools as 1) Delaying Gratification, 2) Accepting Responsibility, 3) Dedication to Truth and 4) Balancing.

The Only Decent Way to Live

“Delaying gratification is a process of scheduling the pain and pleasure of life in such a way as to enhance the pleasure by meeting and experiencing the pain first and getting it over with. It is the only decent way to live.” (Dr. Peck, p. 19) A sure-fire indication that someone has learned this character trait is in the way they use their time. It also reveals how they feel about themselves.

The feeling of being valuable – “I am a valuable person” – is essential to mental health and is a cornerstone of self-discipline. When one considers oneself valuable, one will take care of oneself in all ways that are necessary. Self-discipline is self-caring. If we feel ourselves valuable, we will feel our time to be valuable. We choose how we spend time. We will want to use our time well.

Time is one of the greatest gifts of life. If we take the time, we can solve most of our problems. But we must choose to invest the time required. We live in an age of instant gratification. This does not help when the only way to solve problems is to invest precious time. Problems do not go away by themselves and we cannot solve our own life’s problems except by solving them.

The Pain of Freedom

That last statement may appear to be self-evident, but it is seemingly beyond the comprehension of much of the human race. This is because we must accept responsibility for a problem before we can solve it. We can’t solve a problem by saying, “It’s not my problem. I was born that way.” We can’t solve a problem by hoping someone else will come along and solve it for us someday.

The problem of distinguishing what we are and what we are not responsible for in this life is one of the greatest problems of human existence. It is never entirely solved. We seem to spend our lives continually assessing and reassessing where our responsibilities lie in this ever-changing course of events. It is not a painless process. It requires a willingness to suffer self-examination.

In desiring to avoid the pain of responsibility, millions, even billions of people, daily attempt to escape from freedom. Whenever we seek to avoid the responsibility for our own behavior or our own condition, we do so by attempting to give that responsibility to some other individual, organization or entity. That means we give away our power to that entity. We give up freedom.

A Total Dedication to the Truth

Truth is reality. That which is false is unreal. The more clearly we can see the world, the better equipped we will be to deal with the world. The less clearly we see the reality of the world – the more our minds are befuddled by falsehood, misperceptions and illusions – the less we will be able to determine correct courses of action and make wise decisions. We need an accurate map.

While this may be obvious, most people choose to ignore it. The route to reality is not easy. We are not born with maps. We have to make them. It takes effort to make an accurate map. Maps need to be continually revised. The world as well as our vantage point is constantly changing. Major revisions are painful, excruciatingly so. Change can be frightening, even overwhelming.

Yet we must revise our maps when new truths are learned, otherwise we will not grow and fulfill our purpose in life. We must be open to change, even to challenges to our maps. We must live a life of total dedication to continuous, never-ending, stringent self-examination. Study, pondering, meditation and prayer are a few tools of this total dedication. They bring light, peace and safety.

Life Balancing, a True Art Form

Self-discipline is a demanding and complex task. It requires both flexibility and judgment. We must push ourselves to be completely and courageously honest with ourselves yet know when it is appropriate to withhold opinions from others. We must take total responsibility for ourselves, but in doing so we must possess the capacity to reject responsibility that is not meant to be ours.

To be organized and efficient, to live wisely, we must daily delay gratification and keep an eye on the future. Yet to live joyously we must also possess the capacity, when it is not destructive, to live in the present and act spontaneously. In other words, discipline itself must be disciplined. Balancing is the discipline that gives us flexibility. It is a key skill that requires constant practice.

Life is not an all or nothing proposition and our response system should reflect this. An adequate response to each situation requires judgment to balance raw emotion. Anger, passion, temptation and challenges can all be met with an appropriate, balanced response. Not all situations appear in our lives the same each time. What is appropriate for one circumstance fits not at all in another.

The Healthiness of Depression

What I’ve presented in the preceding fourteen paragraphs is a summary of the first section of the book, The Road Less Traveled, on discipline. If you’re like me, there was probably something in at least one of those paragraphs that triggered a thought similar to this: “That’s a wonderful ideal, but it’s not the reality of my world. I’m nowhere near perfection in that particular characteristic.”

The feeling associated with giving up something loved – or at least something that is a part of us and familiar – is depression. Mentally healthy human beings must grow. Sacrificing or giving up a long-cherished but deficient piece of the old self is an integral part of the process of growth. Therefore depression is a normal and basically healthy phenomenon, if completed properly.

Depression sets in when one realizes in order to grow, to evolve or become better, one must leave behind old, incorrect patterns of thinking. We can no longer cling to unhealthy beliefs. There is a sense of loss and grief when we realize things can never be the way they used to be. This can be a depressing thought. The solution is to put our “self” aside, or, to lose ourselves.

Renunciation and Rebirth

It is in the giving up of self that human beings can find the most ecstatic, lasting, solid, durable joy of life. In Western culture, self is held sacred. Death is considered an unspeakable insult. Yet it is death which provides life with all its meaning. This secret is the central wisdom of religion, and more particularly, of faith. We must give up our old self in order to make room for the new.

It is an unusual person who has learned to silence the demand for the familiar and to welcome the new and the strange. Give it up. There is no other way to grow. We sacrifice, or give things up for something better. Self-discipline is a self-enlarging process. The pain of giving up is the pain of death, but death of the old is birth of the new. The pain of death is the pain of new birth.

In order to develop new and better ideas and theories of understanding, old concepts and ideas that may have served well for a while, must die. This lifetime is a simultaneous series of deaths and rebirths. Throughout life, we must learn to die. The farther one travels on the journey of life, the more births one will experience, and therefore the more deaths, the more pain, the more joy.

Thoughts on Personal Application

I’ve shared these notes from Dr. Peck’s bestseller because they have become the standard for so many who study the art of personal growth. I am in a transition phase of my life right now as are so many of my friends. The transition for me has been a death and a rebirth. I chose to sacrifice something I loved in order to move on in my life. Some of my friends had it ripped from them.

I am grateful for the rebirth. It is very real to me. The acceptance of responsibility for my life has become more tangible and pronounced. I deal directly with the Lord on matters of salvation. He and I are working things out in a way that seemed to elude me before. Things seem to be clearer. There’s no thought of a middleman anymore. There’s no need to explain myself to anyone else.

Conformity to an unrealistic orthodoxy is no longer a concern. Pleasing my Savior is my only guide. He lets me know when I am off-course more than ever before. The path is indeed strait, yet at the same time I feel a greater sense of freedom and prompting from the Lord on what is best for me. I am on a road less traveled, a journey back to God, walking as a disciple of Christ.

15 thoughts on “Spirituality and Self-Discipline”

  1. Tim,

    You remind me of someone very special. It was Eve that looked out into the wide world and knew she was prohibited from going there. She had a barrier, mostly self imposed. She enjoyed her state, but knew she needed to leave the safety from which she was used to. The idea of giving life into the world she knew nothing about must have been very disconcerting.

    The symbolism is astounding. We are all Adam and Eve, virtually…
    The first thing that Adam did when leaving the Garden was to build an alter, not the building of a shelter away from the elements. Eve did not gather food to eat to sustain the body. The first thing they did together was to gather stones to give of themselves spiritually, everything physically and spiritually to the God who gave them life.

    Their obedience or self-discipline allowed for growth, whatever uncertain things lied ahead. “The Road Less Traveled” is brought home as we see what God wants of and from us.

    Thanks for this introspective piece.

  2. Scott Peck is one of my heroes. It’s been a while since I checked in with him (via the book) but think I will do so again. Thanks for the reminder. I think you nailed it, Tim.
    We are all on the brink of a big decision which has eternal ramifications: act or be acted upon.

  3. This was beautiful thank you Tim.
    To give oneself fully to God will at times be akin to going down the rabbit hole. God will stretch us and challenge us and at times almost break us.
    I think it was hugh b brown who said something about how God will sometimes tear our our heart so that He can replace it with what He wants.


    I have been pondering in what you said about Adam and Eve. That is where we all are whether we like it or not. We all must be taught in the same way they were. No mortal can be trusted so we look to the heavens to be taught like upon line and if we take out eye off of God and care what everyone else is teaching or doing we will be lost in the lone and dreary world. Look to God as if we are the only ones here being taught the gospel for the first time by God Himself. What an awesome adventure.

  4. I purchased The Road Less traveled in the early eighties. The pages are yellowed and some of it has pulled away from the spine, which tells you how much I have referred to this book in past years.

    In fact, I just pulled it out a few months ago and read his definition of Love to my grand daughter: “The will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” I love that. He also teaches that even Love is disciplined.

    Thank you for this commentary on self dicipline, it’s a nice reminder for starting the new year.

  5. Tim,
    Just in case you doubt your work with the blog.
    I have struggled with depression and self-doubt my whole life, at times its debilitating. These last few days it’s been extremely nasty, last night was off the charts. Finally this morning in my prayers it was like, you dope, how many times can you let him get to you like this? Snap out of it! It’s Satan trying to destroy you!!Again!
    Well the clouds immediately parted and then I checked my email and found your new post.
    I realized in my pain I had withdrawn and secluded myself from life, feeling of no worth to anyone, but FULLY aware of all my faults and failings! Who cares what I think, who would listen anyway.
    Satan’s lies had become my reality.
    I’m facing some major decisions with my business and religion and was avoiding, at all costs, embracing the changes/challenges and finding joy in growth and trusting the Lord that all things will be for my benefit and growth.
    Your post helped me put some clarity and reinforcement to it all.
    Your brother in Christ

  6. It is true that each person has certain personal responsibilities that no one else can take on for them, but I think we also need to be aware of how we affect each other so we can best support each other.

    I grew up in an environment that taught me to disdain others. I had no idea that I was like that. It was a self-preserving mental tactic. I had been so barraged by others’ negative opinions of me, in the home and out, that as a defense I mentally placed myself above all others. Though I never would have admitted it even to myself, any time it seemed someone else might be “better” than me, I freaked out and had to do all sorts of mental acrobatics to mentally make them “less” than me. I looked down on everyone.

    I learned a lot of things on my mission that helped me overcome that tendency, but the most pivotal was in the middle of my mission when I served with a particularly humble sister. She gave me genuine compliments and never expected any reciprocation. It was as though those compliments fed my soul with the acceptance and love that I needed to be healed from this spiritual malady.

    During the time this sister and I served together, I woke up to what I was doing mentally. At the time, I was unable to be as humble and loving as she was but I made it my goal to become that way and worked hard to do so. I have succeeded. But I never would have if I had never initially had someone love me like my companion did.

    I believe we need to recognize that people do struggle with these spiritual maladies that they have carried with them from their youth. It took time and love and patience from this sister, and other supporting experiences from others, to help me see the truth in myself. I think we need to recognize that others will also have these spiritual sicknesses and those of us who are more healthy can help them overcome them. It won’t be by telling them they just need to let go of the past or anything like that. It will be by treating them with unconditional love until the blinders start to fall away and they can see the love that their Savior has for them.

    1. This is interesting. I was thinking that the mission often encourages this spiritual malady you suggested. It encourages missionaries to believe that they are above everyone else in their views and behavior.
      For example just two nights ago I was working on a truck outside and two missionaries came up and we began speaking. I was open with them and told them that the stake president probably would not want them talking with me because I resigned. One was very intrigued and asked me all sorts of questions. At one point one of them said “well do you think that is why two missionaries came to speak with you tonight…” In there minds it could not possibly be that God brought them to me for me to share anything because they were above being taught and had the fulness. Of course God planned the encounter for everyone’s experience and benefit but if you have eyes to see you will see the church is manufacturing prideful clones who believe they know everything there is to know and they are pretty close to the Zoramites collectively.

  7. I am always grateful for comments and feedback, both public and private. I hope to share my notes on part two of the book, which Kathryn referred to, on love. The book has had a profound impact on my outlook on life. Carol and I have a saying in our home whenever it becomes obvious change is necessary in our lives. It’s a quote from Garth in Wayne’s World: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XU3qfDtWFmk

  8. “The Road Less Traveled” was interestingly one of the books that led me to be baptized. Another was “The Celestine Prophecy” by John Redfield. They both opened my eyes to things that were, by world standards, intangible but still real. In other words, they both opened my eyes to the possibility of things spiritual.

    I have also made an observation about life – it is that people strive constantly to get their world so that it’s “just so”, so we won’t have to change. However, we also resist change, which is the only way we can ever get things “just so”. To top it off, I have personally found that we are typically at our best, and find greater joy and meaning, when we are effecting change. It is a great irony that we so actively resist that very condition in which we thrive the most. If I’m not growing and learning, I may as well go sit in a corner and die.

  9. Ah, but Nathan…we don’t pass this way but once. The course of the Lord is one eternal round. We have got to learn to become Gods ourselves. It is the doctrine of Eternal Lives. The only way off this merry-go-round is, in the immortal words of Jim Morrison, to “break on through to the other side.” Thanks for the thought-provoking video. I loved it.

  10. Nathan Shackelford

    I completely agree! haha, it was my only complaint as well Tim!! Well,except, if I stretch it … are really only confined to one body, one place? It really doesn’t speak to the numerous aspects of our non-linear, non-local, non-physical, non-geographical, non-consecutive, multi-dimensional eternal existence! LOL 🙂

    That said … yes, though-provoking.

  11. Tim, thanks for pointing me in the direction of this book. I remember seeing it on my parents’ shelf as a kid and wondering what “the road less traveled” was, but I never even thumbed through it. I just bought a copy because of your post and it is wonderful and helpful!

  12. Pingback: Evil Spirits in Psychotherapy | Latter-day Commentary – Last Days – Signs of the Times

Comments are closed.