The Real Point of the Middle Way

When I first encountered Buddhism’s Middle Way, it was as a conclusion to The Buddha’s misadventures as a prince and an ascetic.  The Middle Way was described as avoiding the excesses of hedonism and mortification.

I originally dismissed this as obvious.  After all, didn’t I learn to avoid excesses when I was 5?

However, The Middle Way is quite insightful, but it took some probing and a willingness to look at The Buddha in a different way.

The first step was  to treat hedonism and mortification not as lifestyles, but attitudes towards things:

  • Hedonism = (inordinate?) desire
  • Mortification = (inordinate?) aversion

With that done, an overview of Buddhism and The Middle Way emerges:

We suffer because of our desires.  It’s tempting then to turn to the opposite of desire — aversion — as the solution.  However, this doesn’t work either.  What works is to tread a fine line between desire and aversion — a middle way. This middle way is non-attachment, also known as acceptance, indifference and letting go.

There are two problems with hatred (aversion).  First, it may be caused by a desire — a desire for the opposite of the hated object. So where hatred is, so may be desire.  Second, hatred fosters clinging.  Clinging ensures the thing takes residence in our mind where it can continue to hurt us.

The way to be free of something is to let it go. As long as I hold on to something, it holds on to me.

Seek the Middle Way.

With this in mind, The Buddha’s life stops being about a historical figure and becomes an allegory of our lives.  His life as a prince mirrors our typical lifestyle in which we live to gratify our desires.  Maybe like him we even had it all — the perfect job, the perfect mate, the perfect home, the perfect …

His dissatisfaction with the princely life mirrors our realization that our life is not fulfilling (it may even be painful).   Maybe like him we also encounter illness, old age (mid-life crisis?) or death and can no longer live as if they were mere abstractions.  Or maybe in a moment of insight we realize we will never be fulfilled with the way we are living — that it isn’t our specific life circumstances, but the rat race BY DESIGN that’s the problem.

His turn to asceticism mirrors a natural reaction (or dream); to get away from it all.  But what then?  Do we really leave it behind or do we still cling to it in the form of hatred or bitterness?  Do we look upon the rat race, society, our consumer culture with disgust and still suffer from it, despite supposedly no longer being a part of it?

At this point, we may find ourselves at an impasse.  The rat race didn’t work.  Retiring from the rat race didn’t work.  We went from hungry hedonists to bitter grumps.  Was this an improvement?  This is where the Middle Way comes in.  It tells us that it’s the strong reactions towards things that were the problem, and not the things or even the specific reactions themselves.  The solution is to abandon both extremes of reaction.

Interestingly, some older spiritual texts speak of things like “contempt” for the world.  However, contempt may have meant something closer to indifference back then.  If so, this advice to seek The Middle Way might have been more widespread, yet may have been lost thanks to the vagaries of etymology.

14 thoughts on “The Real Point of the Middle Way

  1. I forego the Internet for a couple of days and suddenly find 3 articles of yours! So much for having nothing left to say…
    Lovely as always. When you talk about the rat race “by design” are you talking about the way society is designed or the way our bodies are?

    1. ROFL! I guess it comes in bursts.

      By design, I mean just about everything. Society is probably the biggest factor, but it also has to do with the way our bodies are, the way our minds are, even the laws of physics which guarantee things like erosion, rot, etc… After all, while society may be an emergent phenomenon, it is ultimately based on minds which are based on bodies which are based on physics…

  2. Very interesting (I know I’ve said this often!) This article is about something I still haven’t come to terms with. I remember reading that we experience positive, negative and neutral feelings and that we should perhaps appreciate the ‘neutral’ experience more instead of wanting to be happy all the time. What do you think about that?
    PS: It’s German.

    1. It would be in German 😦

      I think trying to appreciate the neutral is a good thing, although I’d be careful about what is meant by appreciation. I read that we’re often dismissive of the neutral feelings — to the point of often not realizing they exist. So I’d say that this appreciation would consist of being aware of the neutral feelings as feelings in their own right, and perhaps allowing that to transform our perspective on feelings.

      I think a more general approach is to try to get out of the “happiness trap”, although happiness is such a nebulous concept, it’s debatable if the trap we’re getting out of is “real” happiness or a particular view of what happiness is, or even trying to self-consciously seek happiness, which ironically could make us unhappier (do we seek what we already have?).

      1. Isn’t it? Would it be possible for a person to avoid wanting to be happy? Even in the face of old age and death? I hadn’t thought of this before. I suppose it’s possible, .

        If I met someone who didn’t seek happiness I’d assume that they didn’t believe happiness was possible, not that they believed it was possible but just didn’t want it.

        I suggested that seeking happiness is important because if we don’t seek happiness then religion will be no use to us.

      2. I think it’s possible to avoid wanting to be happy, and we achieve that in limited spans. There are moments when I just am. I’m immersed in something, content, or simply not thinking of happiness. Of course this is taking “want” as an active idea of the mind, and a general tendency, yet a question is could we extrapolate something like this to a lifetime, or even to the default state of one’s functioning?

    1. What is it about looking for that dominates, to the point that we think life should be about looking for anything? Maybe that’s a rhetorical question, but it seems there’s a fundamental relationship to life that may be the issue here. I mean desire isn’t just a thing we feel, it’s a fundamental relationship to life. Life should be about fulfilling it… yet what is desire but a lack? It’s almost like we elevated the lack as an important property of life on its own.

  3. Yes, I think we do elevate this lack, rightly so, and also that desire has a fundamental relationship to life. Some say it is even the cause of life,, and is subsequently the motivator of survival and evolution .

    Perhaps we intuitively know that there should be more to life than there appears to be and seek to be reunited with infinite bliss, even if we do not always realise this. At any rate, I can’t see how anyone could be particularly happy if they think they are no more than a soon-to-be-scrapped thinking machine. .

    Maybe we’re heading for a discussion of impermanence and suffering.

  4. Yes it is. The idea that we can be permanently happy is bound to seem idiotic to someone who believes we are no more than thinking machines. This is why it seems worth noting that it is also an untestable hypothesis. To prove this hypothesis would require falsifying just about everything I say on my blog, but I’m not worried.

  5. Just thought to add that the Middle Way view may have an infinity of applications. In philosophy it is the idea that Mind and Matter are not fundamental, for there would be a middle answer as well as these extreme views. So the Middle Way view would be that computation would not be sufficient for consciousness.

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