Last week I talked about The Middle Way. This week we had a discussion, so that together we could find what the Middle Way is for us. Here are some of the questions I posed. As you read this post, answer them for yourself. You might want to reread the last post to refresh your memory.
As you read last week’s dharma talk, did you find yourself agreeing or disagreeing with any of it? Was there some part of you saying, ‘The Middle Way doesn’t sound sufficiently inspiring, fun or challenging?’
Are there any other reactions you noticed? Was there anything you noticed during the week after reading about the Middle Way?
So often the Middle Way is discovered through its opposite. We notice when we are over-extended. Just as in doing exercise, if we over-extend, instead of operating from our core, we run the risk of injury. Can you remember a time when this happened to you? Where you body spoke up loud and clear that you over-extended a muscle?
So too, in our lives, if we live at extremes, we run the risk of injury of a different sort.
Are there any areas of your life, or the lives of people around you, that you can see are extreme? In what areas and in what ways are they extreme? We can learn not just from our own experiences, but from the experiences of others, both people we know personally and people living their lives in public view. Instead of harping on how they should change their lives, we can use their experience to make any needed changes in our own.
In class, the meditators came up with some examples of extreme living and the consequences. One person told about how she had been so busy with her work that she forgot to eat and ended up with violent headaches every afternoon, until someone took pity on her and started feeding her. The headaches stopped and it was only then that she saw for herself what was happening.
One mentioned a young person they knew who believes in the ‘work hard, play hard’ playbook of life. As a group of women on the upper edge of mid-life, we recognized that the unnamed example was a young person with abundant energy. But that playbook only works if the energy is actually there. As it turns out this young person is often getting sick. We talked about our own experiences with the ‘do, do, do’ lifestyle, how a week on the beach was supposed to balance out 51 weeks of hectic paced office life. And how the moment you return to the office, it hits you even worse than before.
If you are caught up in that life and feeling, ‘Easy for you to say, if you don’t have to do the daily grind to make it,’ remember that even within that hectic pace there can be spaciousness. Finding balance means claiming some silence, some alone time for five minutes here and there throughout the day, where you can simply center in and breathe. It means taking walks with pauses in nature, not just running or biking through it at the same fast pace as your work day. It means using all your senses to celebrate any given moment of an experience. For example, as I write this I am aware of the sounds of the rain on the roof, and I have the door open a little so that the smells of moisture waft in. I look up often from my computer screen to gaze out the window.
Balance is not going from one extreme to the other, but finding a true middle way. When we don’t, we risk everything. I did the ‘work hard, play hard’ circuit myself, and ended up with an illness that ended my career in advertising. We are all human. Our bodies are vulnerable and rely on our common sense and compassion for well being.
For the Buddha the Middle Way was initially between over-indulgence and deprivation as he went from a life of material opulence to six years of ascetic self-denial. But these two words can be applied to many areas, not just material wealth. Where do you over-indulge or overly deprive yourself?
Does our culture support the Middle Way, or does it encourage going to extremes? Think about these terms: ‘All or nothing,’ ‘No pain, no gain,’ ’24/7/365.’ For our group, the very idea that anyone would, could or feels they should do anything non-stop around the clock, every day, was exhausting just to ponder!
‘But what about passion?’ asked one meditator. So we discussed the role of passion and if there is room for it the Middle Way. What is passion and where does it arise in your life? Does it mean you need to live at extremes? It reminds me of that old expression, ‘burning the candle at both ends,’ used to describe a person who lived at extremes and, it was understood, would burn out early.
‘Moderation in all things,’ is an expression that sounds both wise and boring at the same time. It could sound uncommitted, neither here nor there, wishy-washy. Does this expression define the Middle Way? Does it speak to you? If not, is there a better expression you can come up with that expresses the principles of the Middle Way?
Extreme living, as voiced in these expressions, has a certain romance to it. Culturally we often admire those who live at the extremes and we dread a life led in moderation. But is the Middle Way this kind of moderation rut?
Let’s return to the body to test the truth of this idea. I’m thinking of how if you did exactly the same amount of exercise everyday, without variation, how that in itself would be a kind of extreme, because it would be so rigid. The body would lose some elasticity. And so would the mind, if it was exposed to the exact same things in the exact same amounts every day. Would this be the Middle Way?
The Middle Way is not a rut. It is the opposite of a rut! The Middle Way is not boring. It is the opposite of boring! The Middle Way is not extreme. Yet it is radical! The Middle Way is opening to the truth of what arises in each moment. It has an aliveness and vibrancy that cannot be found by living life at extremes. When we find the Middle Way, we don’t need to chase, nor get lost in the chase, of extremes in order to feel fully, richly and deeply alive.
Explore for yourself in the coming week what is true for you. We will continue this discussion of the Middle Way.