It often feels like we are living in a world that is constantly pulling us toward extremes. We hear calls for austerity and for indulgence. When talking about health, extreme diets, boot-camp style exercise, and rigid adherence to a healthy lifestyle are held up as examples. Our politics seems to ping-pong from one extreme to another– the conversation on nearly every hot-bottom political topic seems to be dominated by the most extreme positions. Even the structure of our society is trending towards extremes, with massive wealth or poverty, unlimited leisure time or never-ending work. And yet, this tendency to extremes does not usually leave us feeling particularly good, nor does it tend to lead to a happy, fulfilled life.
The middle way, rooted in Buddhist philosophy, is a guiding principle that advocates for avoiding extremes and finding a balanced approach to life. It was one of the key teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, who himself had experienced both the extreme indulgence of a royal lifestyle and the extreme asceticism of a wandering monk before attaining enlightenment.
The middle way suggests steering clear of the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. It encourages us to find a balanced path between the pursuit of sensual pleasures and the denial of worldly desires. In essence, it promotes an approach that is not dominated by excessive attachment to material pleasures, nor burdened by extreme austerity. It rejects rigid, binary thinking and invites a more nuanced approach to the complexities of life. This rejection of extremes can be confused for an acceptance of mediocrity or of compromise devoid of conviction. This is not accurate. Instead of getting caught in dualistic extremes, we are encouraged to embrace the shades of gray that characterize the human experience.
In practical terms, the middle way manifests in various aspects of life, from personal choices and relationships to societal structures and governance. It encourages us to find balance in their pursuit of our goals, to practice moderation in consumption (neither abstaining completely nor consuming without limit), and to cultivate mindfulness to be present in the moment. In the relentless pursuit of success, material wealth, and personal achievement, we often find ourselves teetering on the edge of burnout and emotional exhaustion. Conversely, a life devoid of ambition and purpose can lead to stagnation and unfulfilled potential. Neither of these are ideal. The middle way offers a pathway to navigate these extremes; if the unfettered pursuit of wealth and success is not the answer, neither is its total rejection. The total devotion to personal achievement is nor more the way than the total rejection of personal achievement.
In the realm of our relationships with each other, the middle way serves as a guide for navigating the delicate balance between independence and interdependence. Excessive individualism can lead to isolation, while complete dependence on others may result in the loss of personal agency. Striking a balance between autonomy and connection enables us to foster healthy relationships that contribute to personal growth and collective well-being.
In a broader social context, the middle way encourages political leaders to seek common ground, fostering collaboration and inclusivity rather than succumbing to the divisive extremes of ideology. Extremism of all varieties tends to stifle dialogue and hinder progress. Embracing the middle way involves seeking common ground, understanding diverse perspectives, and crafting solutions that address the nuanced realities of a diverse society. The middle way challenges the prevailing notion that compromise is a sign of weakness. On the contrary, it reflects a strength rooted in pragmatism and a deep understanding of the intricate web of human needs and aspirations.
The concept of the middle way serves as a reminder that the most sustainable and resilient solutions often lie in the synthesis of opposing forces. Transcending the dichotomy of us versus them, we can shift towards a more inclusive and compassionate society. When one perspective is ascendant and unquestioned, the loss of a countervailing view makes everyone poorer. Groupthink is not the middle way. The middle way challenges us to view diversity (including diversity of thought and opinion) not as a source of division but as a wellspring of strength, where different perspectives converge to create innovative and holistic solutions.
Happiness for us as individuals lies in balance between different, competing life needs. Neither self-denial nor indulgence leads us to feeling well. An excess of almost anything is a sign we have moved off the middle path. Where have you shifted off the middle way? What would it take to regain balance, to move back towards the middle way?