The Buddha’s Middle Way

After last week’s exploration of finding balance in our lives amidst the inconsistent causes and conditions that abound, I wanted to bring the Buddha into the conversation because his first discourse after his awakening included an explanation of what he called the Middle Way, and what is the nature of the Middle Way if not balance?
Remember that the Buddha’s life had been marked by two extremes. Siddhartha Gautama was raised in opulence, luxury and sensory indulgence. When he left that life, he joined a group of wandering mendicants who practiced asceticism, denying not just the pleasures of the flesh but as much of the basic needs of the body as they possibly could without dying from their rigorous practice. Siddhartha was quite gifted at the various ascetic practices, mastering them quickly. But after six years he found that this extreme did not satisfy either. So he set off on his own, sat under the Bodhi tree with clear intention and a willingness to be present with whatever arose, and ultimately awakened.
After he awakened, thus becoming a buddha or awakened one, it is said that he sat by a river and listened to a lute being played. He noted that the strings of the lute needed to be neither too loose nor too taut in order to play beautiful music. Just so he realized that over-efforting and under-efforting both create discord, that only when tuned to what he came to call The Middle Way could true happiness be found.

This was an important insight for him and an important message for the ascetics to hear because their whole practice was imbued with extreme deprivation and self-mortification.
How important is this message to us? Is it a message only for people living at extremes? Can those of us who live moderate lives feel smug and move on to the next lesson? Is living at extremes a real problem for us?
The Buddha said we should neither force ourselves to do things we cannot do, nor lose ourselves in sensual pleasures. Those two words ‘force’ and ‘lose’ are key to this teaching.

Force. Hmmm. When have we ever forced ourselves to do something that it turned out well? How present can we be when we feel forced. What inner aspect is in charge of this forcing? Is it a wise inner aspect or a fear-based one? I think of some inner Gestapo with threatening words and weapons that will be used if I don’t tow the line. How whole-heartedly will I do whatever task is at hand under these conditions? How much of my mind is preoccupied with plotting escape routes?

But wait, sometimes I do have to just force myself to get out of bed in the morning, and the minute I do I am glad to have done so. So isn’t a little force necessary? When I stop to think about that moment, I can notice that my body wants to rise, wants to move, wants to greet the day. The inner Gestapo has nothing to do with it. What keeps me in bed is any of a number of emotions that have already scoped out what the day might bring and are pulling back in aversion. Or, there is simply a greedy self-indulgent aspect that finds the coziness of bed quite addictive. So there is a subtle but powerful difference between forcing myself to get out of bed, pushed by some name-calling inner drill sergeant, and being present with the natural call to rise.

The idea of losing ourselves in sensual pleasure actually sounds pretty good but in truth the more present we can be with any state, the more pleasurable it is. When we lose ourselves what are we losing? Our access to inner wisdom? Who is making the choices when we are lost? Some greedy aspect that wants to gobble up all the goodies before they are gone? Is the jagged edge of fear really adding to our experience or taking away from it? An interesting exploration for each of us.

Last week we studied the image of a gyroscope as an illustration of how our twin intentions of being present and compassionate keep us stable rather than subject to the extremes of the events that may happen in our lives. These two intentions are the mainstay of our practice. If they were the only things we learned, they would be enough to make an enormous difference in our lives. But the Buddha in his initial teaching spoke of The Four Noble Truths, and the fourth among them was The Eightfold Path, which provides us with actionable means to create the Middle Way in our own lives. By following the Eightfold Path we not only can survive and even thrive in adverse conditions, we can actively create conditions most beneficial for our welfare and the welfare of others.

If you are unfamiliar with or would like review, look up both explorations of the Four Noble Truths, including the Eightfold Path. Since this is the primary teaching of the Buddha — the most important thing he wanted to share when he began teaching — it is certainly going to be worth your time to find out about it.

The Eightfold Path supplies us with tools or guideposts to see when we veer off into extremes and get out of balance in our lives. Every day we are in a position to make conscious skillful choices that will create either happiness or havoc in our lives. So the Middle Way is not just being able to tolerate what arises, but developing the skillfulness to actively create balance in our lives. We develop behaviors that support health and well being, like eating a balanced diet, getting sufficient exercise, and working without over-efforting. We may recognize the way we speak or act out of fear and anger, and then have to live with the drama that unfolds. With awareness we recognize how we are often causing the events around us. Hopefully as we grow older, we grow wiser, and maybe we don’t need to Buddha to tell us how to be skillful, but the Buddha and his concepts help to make the process of being skillful so much more satisfying as we develop a sense of presence and compassion rather than a scolding tone that diminishes all life.

Sometimes when I work I think about the yogi jobs on retreat. A yogi job is what each retreatant voluntarily undertakes for about an hour each day for the benefit of the whole community of retreatants — chopping vegetables, washing dishes, cleaning bathrooms, vacuuming a hallway, sweeping a terrace, etc. At the beginning of my first retreat, I wanted very much to do a great job, to be the best yogi possible. But it is difficult to sustain that kind of intention when you begin to feel the interconnection of all beings. The intention shifts to a joyful sense of participation. I found myself doing the job at hand in a whole-hearted way without any sense of needing to be the best at it, or looking for approval, or being afraid of not doing it well enough. While at first a job like scrubbing a shower might seem boring, ultimately it isn’t at all. And even if it were, the yogi job is for a set amount of time, no more than an hour and usually less. For most of the jobs, we simply do the best we can within that time frame allotted and then put our tools away and go back to our sitting practice. We accept that no one is going to break silence to exclaim what a shiny shower stall we’ve polished, and any need for praise has been replaced by something infinitely more satisfying, a sense of being present and interconnected.

After a retreat, I bring home that wholesome attitude toward working, but soon I am back to the habit of over-doing and being goal-oriented, forgetting that it doesn’t all have to be done right now. And sometimes I find I am full of thoughts that show me I am doing the work for approval and the fear of not being good enough in the eyes of the people I care about. But now when that happens, at least I notice it, and I can make the shift into a more wholesome relationship.

For further exploration of the Middle Way, you might review these three posts: Middle Way, Middle Way, Don’t Tip the Boat!
 Pilgrimage: Sarnath

As we study the Middle Way we want to remember that it is not the mediocre way, not the straight and narrow path, not the bucker up, put up and shut up way. It is the wisdom way, the alive way, the present way, the treasure way, the juicy way, the rich way, the Way.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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