On our pilgrimage to the sites of the Buddha’s life, we talked a bit about the Middle Way. So, thoughts about it have come up for me a number of times these past few weeks. As I talk to friends and relatives, I see this undercurrent of seeking balance, finding the Middle Way in all things.
One old friend in her early sixties finds she is still hanging on to the tail of lifelong ambition in her successful career. She has begun to notice the passing scenery and a part of her wants to let go of the tail and experience life at a slower pace. She talked about how much she hates her computer but needs it to stir up business. She talked about chucking it out. I suggested perhaps a middle way, a compromise: setting an intention to spend a set amount of time, like a half hour a day, on the computer. She said she could never spend that little time on it. It could only be one way or the other. Either she chucks it all, abandoning her career for a life of leisure, and feels guilty for doing so, or she slaves away endless hours at the computer and her career, depriving herself of a great deal of the joy readily available in the rest of her life, if only she looked up from her screen enough to enjoy it. But she feels too guilty when she does. Does this sound familiar?
Setting a sensible daily, weekly or monthly time period for doing some loathed but necessary task, like dealing with an emotionally charged problem that needs regular attention, means that any time outside that prescribed half hour or hour is your own to do whatever else you want or need to do, guilt-free! Procrastination saturated with guilt is one extreme; drudgery and resentment is on the other. Finding the ‘Middle Way’ whenever our life feels out of balance is important for our own well being, and the well being of those around us.
In another conversation, a relative in her early 80’s found herself sinking into an energetic funk when suddenly her main source of socializing, her main squeeze in fact, was out of town for a few weeks. How quickly life suddenly seemed less worth living. She even found herself asking her doctor, only partly in jest, whether he’d be willing to over-prescribe her something. Her view was that we all have to go some time and she’d led a good life. The doctor said he could appreciate her feeling, but that wasn’t his job description. Instead he signed her up for a couple physical therapy classes. Thinking about being in a class with other people cheered her up. She realized that perhaps she had gotten out of balance, relying solely on her boyfriend for her social life. Being out and about in groups, learning new things, was stimulating too. Clearly, finding the Middle Way is sometimes a matter of life or death!
In my own life, I notice that I take on projects with a passion, then feel overwhelmed with mostly self-imposed deadlines, as if I don’t have a moment to rest and breathe. I remind myself that I am doing, for the most part, exactly what I wanted, that at every point I have choices. I try to savor the experience, to relax and enjoy the work itself. Sometimes I lose my balance, veer off the Middle Way into over-doing, over-thinking, over-stimulating and I lose sight of just being.
Finding my way back to the Middle Way is a process of noticing. First, I notice the tension in my body and question its source. Second, I make sure that I am giving myself stable patterns of self-care, like my daily meditation practice, yoga, walks in nature and balanced eating. Third, I try to recognize the difference between these stable patterns and negative habitual ruts, like watching too much television, spending too much time on the computer, and spending too much time indoors. The antidote is not to throw the TV and computer out, sell the house and go on a year long camping trip. The prescription is to be present and aware of what’s happening, to recognize it with compassion, not disgust, and to find some Middle Way that broadens and enriches life rather than narrows and depletes it.
I saw a movie the other night called Bright Star, which I am not recommending, but there was one moment that made it worthwhile for me. Keats was asked by the central character to explain poetry, which she was struggling to work out. He said that to read a poem is like swimming in a lake. There is no purpose other than to experience being in the lake fully with all your senses. You don’t have to 'work out' a lake or your experience.
This resonated deeply. It helped me when I was hiking in the redwoods yesterday to just experience with all my senses being in the redwoods. As it happened, on this circular trail we ran into another hiker circumambulating in the opposite direction, whom we had earlier crossed paths with on the other side of the circle. “Oh, you’re making good time too!” she called out. This reminded me how often we get caught up in that aspect of our experience in life, thinking more about our pace, our goal and the rewards that await us at the end – the shower, the rest, the meal, etc. – rather than just ‘being in the lake’ or being in the forest with all its deliciousness.
But what if we are not looking forward to the future? What if it seems to be promising something threatening to our happiness? One member of our sangha talked about her mother in her late 80’s whose apparent low quality of life brought fear into both their lives. I suggested she get to know other elders to get some balanced insight into potential futures. We often look to our parents for clues as to what our experience of aging will be like, but they are not us. We share genes but we are not clones, and we have the benefit of meditation and other practices, a greater understanding of the importance of exercising our brains and our bodies, as well as the ever growing wonders of modern medicine. In any given moment we face abundant choices, virtually infinite paths that change the outcome of our future lives. There is no sure thing, which can be scary, but it can also be liberating.
We can easily get out of balance through the portal of fear. It knocks us off our natural course, constricts us, and has a self-fulfilling quality that then seems to confirm our fears. The Middle Way asks us to challenge all assumptions as they arise in our awareness. ‘How do I know this is true?’ we continually ask ourselves. The Buddha encourages us to be ever present, ever questioning, ever testing for ourselves the truth of any belief we may hold, in this case, the belief that a mother’s experience will be our own. This is an assumption worthy of serious exploration, if holding the belief is diminishing our ability to enjoy our present experience.
When the future or the past casts a deep shadow over the present, the Middle Way is to set aside some dedicated time to explore it, cast light on it, question it, and find out the message hidden in the bottle of fear that has landed on the shores of our experience. We can do this on our own or with the help of a therapist.
The Middle Way is accessed through the practice of mindfulness. What at first might seem like balancing on a slippery point of a pin, with intention and practice begins to expand to a larger platform of awareness. Sustained practice creates a spacious open field where arising situations, emotions, thoughts, chores or worries can pass through without threatening our equilibrium. We find inner balance, or at least are able to recognize it when we experience it, however briefly.
This experience of balance, being able to hold all of life in a balanced way is Upekka, the fourth of the Four Brahmaviharas, or Heavenly Abodes that are the gifts of the practice. The Middle Way is the path that leads to this state of Upekka.
May you walk it with an open heart and mind, your senses fully engaged, experiencing each moment of the walk as a destination.