by Marshall Bowden
The Path of the Middle Way is a concept espoused by Buddha in his first sutra (teaching) after becoming enlightened. And in many ways it is an encapsulation of Buddhist philosophy, but you don’t have to be a Buddhist to find this concept inspirational. It refers to the idea that one should not exist in any extreme state.
One should not live completely materially and self-indulgently. This path leads to overindulgence of the body, living for material pleasures such as food, drink, and sexual pleasure. It also means living, as our society does, merely to consume and to use other people, animals, and the environment for our own purposes, without regard for the interdependence of all beings.
On the other hand, one should not live an ascetic lifestyle. In the time of the Buddha, this literally referred to monks, adepts, yogis, seers, and others who turned away from the world and sought to live lives that were without embellishment. These seekers often became isolated, living as monks or hermits, and ate very little, drank very little, and spent hour upon hour in meditation and prayer. Sometimes they also engaged in practices that actually abused their bodies, such as self-flagellation.
In our time, ascetic practice is rarer, but we still see this extreme in the way people sometimes become obsessed with improving or perfecting their physical bodies, including those who spend hour upon hour in the gym, or who follow strict eating regimens such as cleansing, paleo, clean eating, and raw foods to a fault. Obviously it is good to care for our bodies, since we depend on them, but there is a line where it ceases to be healthy and is too obsessive.
Extremes are very attractive in some ways. They edge those varying grayish hues that life is made of into less subtle, more primal colors: black and white. Good or bad. When you reside at the end of either continuum, things fall into one or the other category, and life is easier to negotiate, but it keeps people from bumping up against the edges of their comfort zones. Without some discomfort, there isn’t any growth.
Our modern society fluctuates between extremes: We binge and purge. We consume what is empty and we deny ourselves what we really need. We waste resources and we refuse to invest in ourselves. We are increasingly violent and intolerant.
Traveling the Path of the Middle Way does not imply passivity. On the contrary, it requires constant focus and attention, and a great deal of energy. It is so easy to drift off the path in the direction of worldliness or of isolation. The path of the Middle Way is about learning how to reconcile these two extremes. The Path of the Middle Way is very much like the Chinese idea of Tao, the flow of life which one seeks to be in touch with.
I’m trying to focus on following this middle path in my practice and my life. When I take the time to actively, consciously breathe and become mindful during my day, I try to determine where my mind and emotions are residing at that moment. Do I feel angry? Needy? Sleepy? Bored? Whatever it is, I simply try to note it, not influence it.
Just focusing on breathing is enough to make most emotions pass. Studies show that most emotions only last around a minute and a half.
After that, it takes conscious effort of the mind to recall the set of circumstances that created the emotion and to recreate it. So focusing on one’s breath creates enough space to allow strong emotion to dissipate.
Whatever we give our energy to, we strengthen. So if we give our energy to focusing on keeping to the Path of the Middle Way– not too tight, not too loose– then we strengthen our ability to remain there when there are storms or the road ahead becomes obscured.
Our ability to walk a path that is free of the black and white thinking of extremes strengthens the world. It creates just a little more space out there for everyone to react to things less and to think about them more.