What is the Middle Way?
Updated: Nov 28, 2022
Exploring the science, spirit, emotion, and holding of Middleness.
“That’s yuck, Steve can have it,” my 3 year old daughter said, pushing away the yogurt-in-disguise that Camma had given her. Couldn’t fool her, “That’s not ice cream.”
We are drawn to the extremes for a reason. I want all of that and none of that! Once we have a taste of something so powerful, our brain-bodies want that hit of dopamine from fully loaded ice cream. Not just for food, but also for rare, bizarre, and incredible feats against insurmountable odds that get more clicks than the quiet herculean acts of being patient in line for coffee or doing someone else’s dirty dishes on a Friday night. Gradual change over time stone-by-stone on the Middle Path usually creates much less memorable impact than stories with pivotal moments, dramatic makeovers, and rapid transformation. We are less likely to enjoy watching a plant grow.
We need dopamine; it is necessary for learning, growth, and evolution of our brains. It is part of the story of how we developed consciousness. Dopamine, the chemical bath we get with something novel - like the first bite of ice cream - is rewarding. It also propels us to try new things and create original works that are part of the cycle of emergent properties of life itself. Allostasis teaches us that because of how the brain and body anticipate dopamine, to maintain sustainable levels of it, we need small hits throughout the day from non-life-threatening sources. This creates a seeming paradox: our brains and bodies crave routine and simplicity (to predict and use biological resources), but also demand novelty to evolve.
The dictionary definition of sober means serious, sensible, solemn, not intoxicated, quiet, sedate in demeanor, marked by gravity, and temperate. Is this the Middle Way? When we are sober in our thinking, we are not a slave to whatever it is that may control us. It could be typical addictions but really anything that grips us and takes precedence over what we really value most deeply. It could be an addiction to knowing, controlling, worrying, or obsessing. It could be our own personal dogma or whatever lures us away momentarily from how we really want to be.
The Middle Way is not an averaging or splitting of the difference or an attempt to please everyone. Sometimes it may be choosing the narrow path of a broad and inclusive perspective. Perhaps a gradual taper from the daily drama to the unadorned present brings us to the Middle Way. Fasting from whatever it is that competes for our attention may then allow us to re-engage in a new way with awareness and openness. The simple and often overlooked beauty found in any moment becomes more apparent as we discover what is already here. Maybe it’s allowing ourselves to be intermediate, content, or just to be.
Science and spirit are palpably integrated within mindfulness practices that predate controlled research trials of recent decades. We can appreciate the deep wisdom, creativity, and emergent properties of both science and spirit far beyond a fashionable or whimsical way to combine two things that have been viewed at times as opposing.
Whether we look through the lens of recent science or thousands of years of historical spiritual practices, we can see how the value of scheduled pleasant activities, contemplative practices, spiritual rituals, passions, interests, hobbies, joyful awareness, and connection are necessary parts for daily life. In Zen, the Middle Way is an intentional way to neither rigidly grasp nor carelessly abandon whatever already is. The following action then naturally fluctuates depending on your circumstances. (Is driving 45 mph good? It depends on where you are. To drive this way all the time may not be the Middle Way).
The Middle Way of emotional coping may mean simmering with the feeling of anger rather than acting on it. It could be calm abiding with feelings of rejection, failure, or despair before trying to duck and dodge these intensities. It may also mean not piling on more feelings on top of raw emotion. Pausing and trusting that there is no need to shut down whatever we are feeling, no matter what our judgments are about it. Feeling past the judgment and holding ourselves in a Middle Way may be the most extreme display of self-compassion we could ever muster.
This may be very different from how we usually go about things. If we pause here frequently and long enough, it may allow us to feel the awe that lies beneath just about every big feeling of fear, terror, anger, rage, sadness, grief, joy, or despair. Holding in the Middle could allow us our full experience rather than cutting it short with outbursts or intellectualizing. Rather than clamor or avoid, we can be curious about the unknown, sometimes a mysterious and intense experience, and loosen just one iota around the tightly wound knot in our stomach to open to the Middleness of every thing.
Image by: victorfusionart/Shutterstock
For further reading: No Better Place: a New Zen Primer by Hoag Holmgren