Or = Oar Along the Middle Way

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In the last post I shared an embellished version of the Buddha’s analogy of the Middle Way being our course as we boat on the river of life, steering clear of the seductions of either bank that represent overindulgence and self-denial. You can read that post if you have forgotten or didn’t see it.

In the analogy, we focused on both banks but didn’t really spend much time exploring the river or the boat. For example, how do we keep our boat in the middle of the river and not stuck on either side?

That’s right, we need an oar. This is a very powerful oar, and it’s spelled O-R. Or: Perhaps the most powerful word in the English language. Powerful enough to steer our vessel along the Middle Way. How?

At any moment, inserted into a sentence, the word ‘or’ creates a pivot point, full of possibility.
Whatever we are doing, however close we are coming to either shore of over-indulgence or extreme self-denial, we can use ‘or’ to remind ourselves that we have other options.

This has worked well for me when I’m on the way into the kitchen to look for a treat. My inner sweetie is all excited by the prospect of some tasty treat even though I’m not hungry, and then, if I’m paying attention, I can hear the strong, clear, calm wisdom of the word OR rising up: “OR I could go out to the garden,” “OR I could go for a hike,” “OR I could wash the dishes,” “OR I could call a friend I haven’t talked to in a while,” “OR I could sit and enjoy being in this moment.”

This same OR rises up in other situations as well:

  • I’m walking by a store that has something I want but can’t afford. I simply offer myself the word OR – as in ‘OR I could walk on by.’
  • ‘I could keep channel surfing mindlessly, OR I could turn off the TV and do something more fun.’  
  • ‘I could keep stuffing food in my mouth even though I’m full, OR I could push away from the table.’

This word ‘or’ is very empowering. It gives us choice. Sometimes we have made a commitment to do something, and so our choices may seem gone. We’re in a committed relationship. ‘Or’ doesn’t give us the option to go home to someone different tonight! But even then we have the choice of how we approach our commitment, what attitude we take. ‘I could complain about this situation, or I could whole-heartedly take it on, remembering why I committed to it in the first place.’

Sometimes we find ourselves in situations that are not of our choosing. We find that we or someone we love has had an accident, is seriously ill or is dying. The ‘or’ is not a means of escape from the situation, but a means of finding a new relationship with it, finding how to be present with causes and conditions of life with compassionate attention rather than getting lost in the mire of regret or fear of the future. ‘Or’ is not an escape route out of a sticky situation. It’s an awakening to consciousness, a reminder to be alive and alert to the reality of the present moment.

In class a student mentioned that the oar is also used for getting unstuck, so it has a quality of mobility. True! That’s an important aspect to bring into the mix. The word ‘or’ creates options for any moment.

But again it’s important for us to use our ‘or’ skillfully. The skillful, wise ‘or’ always brings us back to the river, back to awareness, back to compassion. An unskillful ‘or’ would have us paddling back and forth from one shore to the other, trying to find balance by going to both extremes. An example would be gorging ourselves and then going on a strict minimal intake diet. Another example would be the person who works beyond the point of exhaustion all year long and has a flat on the back on the beach vacation to make up for it. This isn’t skillful paddling! This is taking the oar and paddling ourselves with it! The Middle Way is being fully present and compassionate, not going from one state of extreme mindlessness to another and believing we have found balance.

In French the word or means gold, but what fool would choose gold over the infinite possibilities of the English ‘or’ or the French ‘ou.’

In Spanish or translates into ‘o’ – How that sunny perfect circle captures the essence of the infinite rays of choice, all those potential pivotal turning points available in any given moment.

So next time you find yourself doing something mindless, see if you can empower yourself with the word OR.

We have talked about accessing our Buddha nature, our wise inner voice that is our access to universal wisdom. This word ‘or’ radiating options, keeping the world spacious and open, keeping us conscious, is a simple way to access that inner wisdom. Listen for it!

The word ‘or’ can also be used unskillfully to divide up the world, as in: ‘It’s either you or me, us or them, your way or my way, and it better be my way.’ The word ‘or’ can be very divisive. When we are wandering on either shore, away from the river, an oar is no longer a useful tool but a useless appendage, or worse a weapon. So notice how you are using the word ‘or’ to recognize if you are stuck on one of the shores or in the flow of the river, embarked on the Middle Way.

Something else we didn’t discuss about the Buddha’s Middle Way analogy of a river is the river itself. What is the river? What is this that runs through the center of our being to which we return? This is the river of awareness and compassion. We return to it from states of unconscious habitual patterns that don’t serve us or the world.

Where does the river go? Is there some place we are getting to on this river?

Where does any river go? Yes, to the sea. And then what happens to the water in the sea? It evaporates and becomes clouds, which become rain, which eventually makes its way back to the river. This natural cycle of water, how it turns from liquid to gas (and sometimes to solid) is the easiest example we have to understand the nature of things, the nature of life and of our own part in it. For it isn’t just water that cycles through in infinite transformation, but all of life, including ourselves.

Once while attending a mountain camping retreat, I had the experience of observing a cascade with the drops of water flying above the creek, each drop fleetingly solitary. And I saw how that was true for each of us as well: This sense of solitary existence, of being in an isolated encapsulated body is indeed temporary and illusory. The drop of water is part of the ongoing cycle of life. It will momentarily return to the creek and then to the sea and then evaporate into a cloud, then rain in an ongoing cycle — as will our fleeting moment of seemingly solitary existence that we call ‘life.’

The drop of water is held separate by surface tension. Interesting to think that we hold ourselves separate by tension as well. When through meditation we release bodily tension, we access our awareness of being an integral part of the whole, not an isolated drop. How refreshing! How much easier it becomes to live in this world when we feel our connection to all that is. How much easier it is to be compassionate when we understand the unitive nature of life. There is no ‘us or them,’ but the interconnected cycles of life and this wondrous gift of awareness.


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