The limitations of lockdown have given me, and many other practictioners, the opportunity to spend our now spare time doing some extra work that we don’t usually have the time or space to focus on. For me this has involved some gentle striving, a bit of finding my edges and seeing if I can go past them.
But whenever we strive we always need to make sure we are doing it from the right place, from a wise place and not from an egotistical perspective – I am going to push myself, I am going to prove that I can do it! The thing that helps us to go from the right place is the middle way, one of the defining teachings of Buddhism.
The middle way is an important principle to remember because Western culture seems predisposed to going to extremes. It’s always all or nothing, go big or go home. Extreme sports and extreme relaxation, everything has to be the most of whatever it is, everything has to be done to the nth degree. When we bring this approach to practice it can be a great impediment.
This is why we have to be so careful when we are taken by the urge to do some striving. We either throw ourselves completely into it and inevitably go too far and burn out, or we stay too close to our comfort zone and never experience the benefits of our efforts.
Sometimes we think to be a ‘proper’ Buddhist we have to go to a hardcore retreat in Thailand and sleep on a stone bed. Or conversely we think we can have it all, a great practice and peace of mind while still living a busy life with all the comforts of the modern world and a glossy instagram account.
The middle way is a particularly important principle for us to understand because we are so bad at naturally finding the right balance with anything that we do. Even when we think we are living a bland life, we live an extremely bland life. There aren’t many people who go to WI one night then to an illegal rave the next, for instance, although it could be fun if there were.
The Buddha described his teaching as the middle way. But when people are new to Buddhism or perhaps don’t know much about it, they can take the middle way to mean something about compromise, or making room for everything to be allowed. They look at culturally Buddhist countries like Thailand, with its apparently liberal approach to things like sex and gender, and assume that the middle way is something to do with open mindedness and accommodating a multiplicity of views and approaches.
In the ordinary use of the phrase, taking the middle way does usually mean compromise, finding the best of both worlds, or not going to extremes. While some aspects of these ideas do relate to the Buddhist use of the term, not all of them do and it is useful to understand the difference between the two.
The middle way is not a compromise, nor is it finding the best of both worlds. It is not like one of those diets where you can eat a bit of anything that you want as long as it is in moderation – ‘a little of what you fancy does you good’, there are no cheat days in Buddhism. Ajahn Sumedho was once asked by someone if the monastics ever go on holiday, and he laughed at the idea that they might go to the beach or something for the day. Once you have committed to the practice there are no days off, it just doesn’t work like that.
The middle way is so important to Buddhism because it was the realisation that the Buddha had before his enlightenment that allowed him to finally see into the cause of suffering and find the way to end it. It is the first thing he explains in the first teaching he ever gave, and does so before he goes on to describe the Four Noble Truths, so it’s principle is absolutely crucial to frame the rest of the teachings.
At that time in India many practices occupied either side of the extremes, either extremely austere or extremely hedonistic, so realising that the answer lay not in both but in neither is why he called it the middle way.
The Buddha lived in a time of extremes, and experienced both sides of the coin. He was a prince from a very rich clan in an area that is now part of Nepal. He gave up that life to live in extreme hardship as a spiritual seeker.
While he was still just Samana Gotama, the Buddha tried several spiritual practices, and in the period before his enlightenment he had thrown himself fully into ascetic practices such as only eating tiny amounts of food every day, and holding his breath for a very long time.
In the suttas he recounts this time very graphically, saying that he became so thin that if he touched his stomach that he touched his back at the same time, he became so weak that he would fall over when he tried to urinate, and his physical condition was so poor that people observing him frequently thought he was dead. Bear in mind he was only in his early thirties at this point, and previously had been a fit, athletic, prince from a warrior clan; clearly his physical condition had deteriorated massively.
He said that although he could carry out these difficult practices without any wavering, he still found that they did not end suffering. He saw that without a healthy body it was impossible to take the search for the ending of suffering any further; so seeing that he decided he would stop his strict eating regime and rebuild his fitness. This was the first realisation of the middle way, that he needed to reduce physical suffering to give himself more mental strength. He saw that not everything that was strenuous and arduous was good for practice.
The story goes that a woman named Sujata saw Gotama and offered him almsfood, a little milk rice, something similar to rice pudding. Gotama accepted and ate it, the first real food he had eaten for a long time. He quickly regained some strength and went to the foot of a bodhi tree, where he determined to sit until either he died or he realised the answer to his search for the end of suffering.
Obviously we know that he did find the answer, but it was another element of going down the middle way that helped him to find it. Sitting under the bodhi tree he had a recollection of a memory from his childhood. When he was very young he had been sitting under a tree watching his father, and his mind had naturally become very calm and still. Gotama remembered the pleasant mental state he had experienced as a child, and decided he would try to achieve it again.
Up until this point his practice had been entirely focused rejecting anything that brought up any kind pleasant feeling, so this was a big step for him to take; he had to put down his previous opinions and try something new. So we could say that his second realisation about the middle way was that not everything pleasant and comfortable is bad for practice.
But the middle way wasn’t a simple statement that comfort is better than asceticism, that would just be taking up another extreme position. Sitting around eating milk rice all day instead of following ascetic practices wouldn’t have gotten Gotama to the point where he was able to see that he needed to do anything differently, after all where is the impetus to change when you have a nice comfortable life eating rice pudding? Comfort is just as much of an impediment to practice as strict asceticism is, the middle way is about being mindful of the short falls of either extreme.
So you could say that the middle way shows us that there are no absolutes, nothing is black and white. Eating milk rice all the time isn’t good for your practice, nobody needs that much rice pudding in their life. Starving yourself all the time isn’t good for your practice either. The difference between when it is right or not comes down to the specifics of that moment. In the moment Gotama took the alms food from Sujata it was the right thing to do, but if he had taken at any other point it wouldn’t have been. So the middle way is also about getting it just right: the right action at the right time for the right result.
In AN 6.55 Buddha is talking to one of his monks called Sona, who despite putting a lot of effort into his practice still hadn’t achieved enlightenment, and was wondering if he should just go back to his old life. He came from a wealthy family, perhaps rich enough to allow eating rice pudding all day, and he wondered if he could do more good making merit in lay life than he could as a monk. The Buddha understood what he was thinking and intervened with this advice:
“What do you think, Soṇa? When you were still a layman, weren’t you a good harp player?”https://suttacentral.net/an6.55 trans Ajahn Sujato
“When your harp’s strings were tuned too tight, was it resonant and playable?”
“When your harp’s strings were tuned too slack, was it resonant and playable?”
“But when your harp’s strings were tuned neither too tight nor too slack, but fixed at an even tension, was it resonant and playable?”
“In the same way, Soṇa, when energy is too forceful it leads to restlessness. When energy is too slack it leads to laziness. So, Soṇa, you should apply yourself to energy and serenity, find a balance of the faculties, and learn the pattern of this situation.”
After this advice, Sona then gains enlightenment.
The Buddha is talking about finding a sweet spot, a place where everything is just right. When we get it right the practice sings, like the perfectly tuned harp string; when we get it wrong the practice is discordant and creates as much suffering as it removes.
But often we find ourselves wondering how we can tell if we have got it just right.
The sweet spot doesn’t come from the striking the right balance, it comes from having the right frame of mind.
Ajahn Amaro talks about investigating the middle way not by looking at the extremes of comfort or austerity, but instead looking at the point in the middle where these two pivot from. He’s described it as being like the pendulum in a clock, or the mid point of a see saw; the pendulum swings from side to side, the see saw goes up and down, but it is the pivot point in the middle that allows the extremes of movement.
The pivot point is our mind, our sense of self. The Buddha was warning Sona about actions driven by ego: energy is too forceful when we have ideas about ‘I need to work hard, I need to break through this, I want to be enlightened’, and energy is too slack when we have ideas like ‘I’ve worked really hard, I deserve a break, oh it can wait until tomorrow, this doesn’t seem to be working maybe I should give up, doesn’t the middle way mean we should avoid extremes anyway?’
When we don’t have ideas like that we just experience whatever is there, and it isn’t unsettling for us, it doesn’t create suffering for us. When you are on retreat, just get on with it, and if you do it like that then there is no hardship despite not having the comforts you are used to. If you are on retreat and you have ideas about whether its too hard, or whether its too easy and you should make it harder then you start to suffer, because your mind moved to one of the extremes. When your mind stays still, there is no suffering, and there are no problems with whatever the situation is.
When the Buddha saw that he should eat food instead of following an ascetic practice he let go of an ego driven opinion, and having done so saw what was really there – his body was so deteriorated that he didn’t have the mental faculties to practice properly. When he saw that he should try a meditation practice that created pleasant feelings, but that this practice would allow him to understand his questions about suffering better, he let go of an ego driven opinion that all pleasant states were unwholesome and unskilful.
So when we can understand which of our actions are being driven by a sense of self, then we have the opportunity to let them go, to put them down, and to relate to the experience differently. This is what allows us to get it just right. If your mind is in the right place then there is no suffering regardless of the extremity of the practice, and likewise there is no suffering from being in extremes of comfort either.
That might sound like a strange thing to say, but comfort creates just as much suffering as hardship, we just don’t notice it so easily. When you have everything just the way you want it then suffering is inevitable, because at some point that has to end. Having tasted the sweetest of fruits you then hanker after it forever, and feel constantly at a loss when you don’t have it.
Comfort creates suffering because it makes you reliant on it for your mental and physical well being. As soon as you don’t have it, you suffer. Just look how difficult lockdown has been for some people, their lives were so sweet and comfortable that they have suffered enormously while it has been taken away from them.
To master the middle way we put our attention on that point in the middle that allows the movement to happen, and we work out how to make it stop. Finding a way to make the mind stay still and not be lured from one side to the other is finding a state of equanimity. And actually when we find that state of equanimity, it no longer matters to us how much movement is going on around us, we can remain like the calm centre of the storm, unmoved by forces or circumstances.
But we don’t have to wait until we have developed a state of unshakable equanimity before we test ourselves. Pushing ourselves gently out of our comfort zones helps us to see which comforts we think we really need but don’t really.
If you have never tried not eating anything after noon, as would be the case when you go on retreat, it sounds like it is incredibly difficult, but the majority of people are surprised to find that actually it’s not that hard.
If you’ve never meditated before sitting still for 45 minutes several times a day, as you would on retreat, sounds like really hard work. It is sometimes, but once you’ve tried it a few times you find out that it is completely achievable, and actually sometimes it’s even nice.
So many of our limits come from our mind, our perception that something is difficult, or impossible; or the perception that we need this thing and we can’t do without it. These kinds of austere practices help us to see through the stories our minds have told us.
Likewise when everything is pleasant and comfortable, don’t give in to it and just wallow in pleasant feelings, and hope that it can always be like this; look for where your mind is holding onto the experience, and let it go. Retreats can generate a lot of nice feelings, one of the most important skills is learning to let go at the end of the retreat and not be disappointed with the ordinary life that you go back to.
Sometimes the pleasant doesn’t come from whatever we’re currently experiencing but is instead the idea of something more pleasant than what we are currently doing. These ideas ring through our minds like a siren song, luring us away from the direction we were going in and convincing us to go the other way.
We make the mistake of thinking that going towards the pleasant thing ends the suffering, but when you investigate you see that it just maintains it. It maintains the mistaken perception of self which is the real cause of the suffering. We all give in to the lure of the comfortable, but when we reflect on it we can see that it doesn’t change anything about our experience; we are still at the mercy of the swing of the pendulum from one side to the other. It is only when we figure out how to stop being pulled from one side to the other, or from clinging to either extreme, that we stop suffering so much.
The middle way gives us freedom and confidence. We know that we don’t need as many creature comforts and can live simply. We know how to tell if we are doing too much or too little. But most of all it means we are getting it just right, and our practice will bring us closer to peace.