What is the Middle Way? And how do we live our life in accordance with it?
As you read on, you’ll discover the middle way prescribes a rather disciplined approach to living. It asks us to be very intentional and skillful about how we think, feel, and act in the world. Which means it requires time, practice, and effort. But is it worth it?
For free-spirited individuals, the word discipline can feel a bit edgy. It can beg the question – why not just follow my heart’s desire and focus all my effort on pursuing and acquiring whatever makes me happy? Why should I impose discipline on my life, when life already presents so many kinds of struggle? And I get it. I’ve pondered such thoughts myself more than a few times.
This is what I’d like to explore in today’s post. What makes the middle way worth all the effort? And how do we walk this noble path? Not from a dogmatic or heavily philosophical perspective. But rather, from a very practical one. Because at the start of this new year – as I reflect back on the hot mess that was 2020 – I find myself reflecting on how valuable the middle way really is. Against the backdrop of incredible, worldwide upheaval and uncertainty, I can see clearly how this path has been a refuge for me. While I’ve had my moments of fear and inner wobbliness in the midst of it all, for the most part, I’ve remained centered. In fact, I’ve come to know the center as my home. And there’s no question I have the middle way to thank for this.
The Middle Way Is The Centered Way
It’s in the name itself. The middle way is the centered way. It imbues tranquility and stability, and while it flowers into an overall sense of being at ease with life, it’s not effortless. In the same way holding our body in a stretch relaxes our muscles, the intentional effort of the middle way releases tension around how we relate to life circumstances. Most of us know flexible muscles make our body more agile, resilient, and less prone to injury. Likewise, the middle way keeps us more adaptable, tolerant, and less susceptible to suffering.
That’s the whole point of the middle way, after all – to free us from suffering.
Common Misconceptions About The Middle Way
One would think a path that can free us from suffering would be universally embraced. But the middle way – like any path – has its skeptics and detractors. One of the most common critiques I come across deems it passionless – like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold. For people not directly acquainted with what the middle way really is, it might seem a rather bland, emotionless way to live. It can appear at a glance to be a path that robs us of the full enjoyment of life. Moreover, its stoic reputation can be seen as a denial of vital emotions – like love, fear, and anger – leading to a lack of nurturing in relationships, or a tendency toward inaction when action is needed. (Of course, the danger of this kind of spiritual bypassing can be real. But that’s true of any spiritual path and isn’t intrinsic to the middle way.)
Upon deeper examination, we find the opposite of these critiques to be true. Because the middle way teaches us to sit with – and not resist – emotions, we feel them more completely. While they pass more quickly, and we resist getting hooked by them, it doesn’t mean we don’t feel them. It just means they stir up less turmoil in our life.
With regards to passion, I can say I do feel more even-keeled than passionate about most everything in life. But another, wiser kind of passion has arisen. That is, compassion – both for myself and for others. Compassion is an essential component of the middle path that asks us to hold what many of us don’t want to feel – suffering – in a loving and accepting way. It’s a complex topic we’ll explore in more detail in a bit, but paradoxically, compassion frees us from suffering as we practice increasing our acceptance of it. And unlike passion, which can cloud our vision quite easily in relationships, compassion supports us in seeing ourselves and others with greater clarity.
Finally, I can say unequivocally the middle way has taught me how to enjoy life more acutely and more sustainably than I could have ever imagined before stepping onto the path.
What Is The Middle Way: Brief History
The middle way is the path the Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) offered to his students (and in turn, the world) as a way to transcend the suffering that’s inherent to our existence here on earth. Growing up and as a young man, he lived a life of luxury, indulgence, and insulation from the world’s woes. When he became aware of the immense suffering less fortunate people endured, he realized he’d been living a life of ignorance. Confronted with the realities of sickness, death, and loss all humans must face, he knew nothing he had experienced or acquired thus far in life could remove such suffering.
Around this time, he came upon a meditator deep in meditation. Inspired by the meditative bliss he witnessed, he decided the answer to suffering must lie within one’s mind. So, he gave up his wealth and sought the path of an ascetic. But after years of searching – via extreme austerities and mortifying practices – he realized this path was flawed as well. It hadn’t provided a solution to suffering, and in fact had brought him nearly to the point of death. The answer, he discovered, lay somewhere in between these two extreme paths.
It’s said, the day after this realization, he attained enlightenment.
What Is The Middle Way: Between Indulgence & Asceticism
Having experienced the opposite extremes of indulgence and deprivation, the Buddha dismissed them both. He’d found neither life path had led him to freedom from suffering. In fact, upon attaining enlightenment, he saw within each extreme a root cause of suffering equal and opposite to the other. While desire propels a life of indulgence, aversion drives the ascetic pursuit.
Thus, the middle way first arose as a recognition we can’t free ourselves from suffering by seeking pleasure and indulging every worldly desire. This entangles us in a never-ending quest that can never be fulfilled. As soon as one desire is met, another springs up, leaving us in a perpetual state of longing.
But this doesn’t mean the answer lies in the opposite extreme – the path of renunciation. We don’t have to drop out of life, renounce all worldly experience, or reject the physical world in favor of the spiritual in order to attain enlightenment. In fact, attempting to do so depletes us and keeps us in a state of inner conflict, wherein we battle our basic and natural needs for comfort, social connection, and in extreme disciplines, even food. Ultimately, the Buddha determined the ascetic path leaves us averse to the experience of life itself. Which means it binds us to a state of suffering rather than releasing us from it.
The Middle Way offers a more moderate approach. It’s that Goldilocks sweet-spot of not too hot, not too cold. By taking the middle position between indulgence and asceticism, the Buddha found the answer he’d long sought. The way to free one’s self from suffering is to abide in that balanced, contented state which is neither aversion nor desire.
The Roots Of Suffering
The most practically applied answer to the question What is the Middle Way involves the middle position between aversion and desire. Much has been expounded upon this topic in Buddhism’s rich, insightful tradition. It’s a many-layered onion that would take much more than a single blog post to unpeel. So for the purpose of this introductory article, I’m going to focus on its most practical wisdom. What does it mean for our everyday lives? And how do we develop our capacity to abide within the middle position?
The Middle Way & Desire
To be in a state of desire is suffering. The more we feel desire, the more we suffer. The Middle Way tells us it’s not the fact we don’t have whatever it is we desire that causes our suffering. It’s the prolonged state of desire itself that leads to suffering.
For example, let’s say you really want a new car, but you can’t afford it. You look at your dream car online regularly, imagining how amazing it would feel to sit behind the wheel. You feel the pang of jealousy and longing when you encounter someone else driving this car on the road. Life’s not fair, you think. And every time you get into the car you have, you notice all its little flaws. All in all, when it comes to your car, you’re discontent.
The path of indulgence would tell you to focus all your effort on acquiring this car, so you can deliver yourself from your suffering. The path of renunciation would advise you to reject cars altogether. Like everything else of this physical world, cars are meaningless distractions on your path to enlightenment. The Middle Way recognizes all you need to do to relieve your suffering is stop taking your desire for a new car so seriously.
The Middle Way Harmonizes Our Human Nature
The fact is, it’s part of human nature to desire things. We can’t escape this fact, because it’s hardwired into us. To try to snuff out your desire for a new car altogether would go against your nature, creating inner conflict. While you might manage to suppress it for a while, it wouldn’t last. And even if it did, another desire would surely soon pop up. Attempting to suppress desire is essentially like playing a game of Whack-A-Mole with your human nature.
On the other hand, if you were to move mountains to find a way to pay for your new car, your satiated state also wouldn’t last. Soon, a desire for something else would arise. The satisfaction you received from fulfilling your desire for the car would fade, and the car itself would no longer serve the function of easing your suffering.
The solution is to take your seat in the middle position – the state of tranquility, stability, and ease. Firmly grounded in this position, you can experience desire without getting hooked by it. Using our example, as the desire for a new car arises, you can allow yourself to feel it – noticing how it arises and finds expression in your body and mind. If you neither act on it, nor feed it, inevitably it will subside. Witnessing desire arise, peak, and then dissipate, you come to realize it’s momentary. Quite brief, really. And then it’s gone. You’re free to go about the ordinary business of your life unfettered by your desire. You don’t have to seek to fulfill it. Nor do you need to reject it. Because you haven’t taken it too seriously, you’re free from it.
The Middle Way & Aversion
On the flip side of the coin of desire, we find its opposite – aversion, which brings about suffering in the form of anxiety, fear, anger, and disgust. When we don’t want to experience something unpleasant, these emotions tend to arise in our attempts to ward it off. The irony is, whether or not our attempts at preventing the unpleasant experience are successful, we suffer these distressed emotional states regardless. And what’s worse, when we act out these averse emotions, it often multiplies our troubles.
For example, suppose you really dislike social gatherings. But, your office is having a party that management has strongly encouraged all employees attend. Though you want to skip it, you feel your favorable position at the company is dependent upon your participation. Anxiety took hold the moment you heard the announcement and has been growing inside you ever since. With the event approaching, it feels almost unbearable. Every time you think about it, your stomach plunges, your chest tightens, and you begin to sweat. No doubt, you’re suffering.
But what’s the cause of your suffering? It’s not the social gathering itself, because you haven’t even experienced that yet. If you think about it, you can see it’s your aversion to social settings that’s causing you so much distress. And the more you feed this aversion with thoughts about how uncomfortable you’re going to feel and how awful it’s going to be, the more anxiety you feel.
Now, you could just decide you’re not going to attend this company function. Momentarily, this would bring some relief, albeit while likely spurring another worry – that of how your position at the company might be affected. However, your aversion to social gatherings will still be with you, a seed waiting to sprout its ugly head again when the next event pops up.
The Aversion Solution
What is the Middle Way’s solution to aversion? The same as its solution to desire – we face it from the middle position. We don’t indulge our aversions by running away from what we dislike. Nor do we attempt to renounce our aversions by rejecting their existence, or by deeming what we dislike as wrong or bad. Instead, we acknowledge our tendencies toward aversion as part of our human nature and learn to move through them skillfully.
Taking our seat in the middle position, we can allow ourselves to experience the discomfort of anxiety, anger, fear, or disgust that arises around whatever it is we’ve come to view as unpleasant. We know this emotion isn’t our true nature. It’s just an experience that arises and inevitably will pass. Just like a cloud moving across the sky only temporarily covers the sun. We connect with our true nature, which is that of the tranquil, steady witness. And in doing so, we know we’re the observer of the ever-changing states of body, mind, and world that make up our life experience. But we’re not the transient experience itself. Nor are we the reactions to it that arise and fall away within us.
Using our example of the social gathering, when the anxiety surrounding this upcoming event arises, we can sit with it – noticing its rise, peak, and dissolution within our body and mind. Instead of resisting it, we allow this aspect of our human experience to express itself. As we do, we find not only is it temporary, but ultimately, we’re untouched by it. And the more we practice holding this space for uncomfortable sensations and emotions to rise and fall – without acting on them – the more they lose their grip on us. We discover we can tolerate the discomfort of unpleasant experiences. Further, we come to accept they’re an undeniable part of the human experience. We can see clearly that to organize our life around avoiding them is not only futile, but our resistance to them actually prolongs and increases our suffering.
This is the wisdom of the Middle Way. Freed from the bondage of our emotions, we can act in spite of them, not because of them. That means, we can go to that office party, if we determine it’s the wisest choice. We can see it for what it is – one passing experience among many. And the extent to which we empower our aversion to it is the extent to which it will make us suffer.
The Bigger Picture
I’ve illustrated the middle position using some specific, practical examples, which you may or may not relate to. However the bigger picture is this – the Middle Way asserts that suffering is a part of life. We can’t escape it by avoiding all unpleasant experiences, or by chasing after only pleasant ones. Undoubtedly, we will experience things that hurt us and make us feel uncomfortable. We will lose people and things we cherish, and yes, we will die someday. Just as assuredly, every wish our hearts can conceive will not be fulfilled. Given this reality, what can we do?
We can train ourselves to accept the reality we’re faced with in the most skillful way possible. In doing so, we transcend our suffering.
What Is The Middle Way’s Path For Transcendence?
It bears repeating, the answer to the question what is the Middle Way has a rich, profoundly philosophical body of teachings behind it. The full depth of these teachings explores the nature of reality, illuminating a path that ultimately leads to enlightenment and liberation. Here, I’m focusing on its key concepts anyone can apply to their everyday life to relieve suffering and to find tranquility, stability, and ease. These components are compassion, discipline, and wisdom.
The Middle Way & Compassion
Compassion is essential to the middle way. It arises naturally once we’ve accepted the truth that suffering is an inevitable part of our human experience. And once we’ve stepped outside the impulsive cycles of aversion and desire we’ve been using to avoid that suffering. As I’ve already illustrated, neither aversion nor desire eliminates our suffering. In fact, each in its own way keeps us bound to it. So neither of these approaches to suffering is skillful. However, when we stop the never-ending cycle of resisting what we dislike and chasing what we desire, we’re left with the truth of what is. What are we to do with this truth?
The middle way tells us, if what is includes suffering – and we’re no longer attempting to deny this through aversion or desire – then the most natural and skillful response we can have is compassion. And this includes compassion for ourselves as well as for others, because we all experience pain, loss, illness, and death.
The Nature of Compassion
Compassion means to feel someone’s pain, in a way that makes us want to ease it. To really feel someone’s suffering – our own or someone else’s – we can’t avoid it through aversion or desire. We have to sit with it and face it. And when we do, a sense of sadness and a tenderness of heart naturally arises.
Compassion asks us not to avoid this discomfort either, but rather, to give it space to express itself. What happens when we truly acknowledge someone’s suffering – and respond with compassion instead of fear, anger, despair, or any other means of rejecting it – is love awakens in our heart. That is, unconditional love – the kind that recognizes how our shared human experience connects us. We can see that, beneath the storylines that tend to divide us, we all grapple with pain, loss, illness, and death.
Compassion Accepts & Eases Suffering
Compassion then is a form of accepting suffering – our own and that of others. And it leads us to love, which makes us want to ease that suffering. Where we can take direct action to ease it, we do (i.e. offering food to one who’s hungry, holding the hand of one who’s grieving.) Where we can avoid increasing someone’s suffering, we do (i.e. not speaking or acting harshly out of fear or anger, not stealing what one needs or cherishes.)
Additionally, compassion eases suffering by compelling us to see ourselves and each other more clearly. We come to understand how suffering – and our desire to avoid suffering – lies at the root of so many choices, actions, and words. With this clarity, rather than judging ourselves or others for unskillful responses, we can see the truth of suffering that lies beneath them. So we summon compassion instead. Rather than being drawn into the turmoil of angry, fearful, or otherwise hurting reactions, this wiser perspective facilitates tranquility, stability, and ease. And when needed, it empowers forgiveness, which is a healing force – for us and for others.
Of course, responding to life and its inevitable suffering in this way doesn’t come naturally. It requires practice and discipline, especially in the beginning, as we’re learning a new way to be in the world. Which brings me to the next key component of the middle way – discipline.
The Middle Way & Discipline
Most of us can readily agree a child needs discipline to keep them safe and to prevent all kinds of life problems – in the present as well as the long term. However, for adults, the importance of discipline can seem less clear. There’s no parent, teacher, coach, etc. to oversee us. While we may have supervisors at work, their reach is confined to our work duties. Overwhelmingly, our lives are lived according to our own choices. And that’s a good thing. Most of us don’t want someone else looking over our shoulder, telling us what we should and shouldn’t do.
However, the need for discipline doesn’t disappear magically when we become adults. If we want to stay safe, prevent suffering, and make wise choices that truly serve our well-being, we have to look out for ourselves. We have to cultivate self-discipline. The middle way shows us two types of discipline we can use to alleviate suffering and live harmoniously. They are discipline of the mind and discipline of lifestyle.
The Middle Way’s Discipline of the Mind
Let’s start this section with the Buddha’s own words:
Everything we experience in life is shaped by our mind. How we perceive life events and circumstances determines to a great extent whether we’re content, at peace, and in touch with joy. Even when we experience loss, illness, and pain, it’s how we process these situations that determines how much we suffer and for how long. Additionally, what we allow our mind to habitually focus on becomes our experienced reality.
For example, if we regularly ruminate on the ways in which we’ve been slighted or hurt by others, we bind ourselves to the state of being hurt. If we often worry about what others might be thinking about us, we dwell in the realm of not being good enough. It’s our mind’s fixation on these types of thoughts that keeps us in these unpleasant states. As soon as we turn our mind’s attention to more peaceful, contented thoughts, we experience peace and contentment.
Unfortunately, the mind has a way of drifting toward troubling thoughts. If there’s a potential problem to solve, or an old unresolved issue lingering in our psyche, our mind wants to chew on it. Even if there’s no readily available solution. In fact, our minds like their task of figuring things out so much, they’ll often look for problems to solve. Even when there’s nothing presently wrong. Or, they’ll conjure daydreams when the task at hand doesn’t feel rewarding enough. Basically, our minds love to be active. And they’re not discerning about what kind of activity they engage in. Which means, your mind oftentimes works against your well-being.
The bottom line is, if we want to have a more peaceful, ease-full life, we have to master our mind. And we do this with discipline.
How To Discipline Your Mind
The middle way teaches us to discipline our minds with right concentration and right mindfulness. Right concentration means you have the ability to focus your mind. I like to think of it as taming a wild horse. Rather than letting your mind wander wherever it may, you rein it in and teach it to calmly follow your lead. The best way to develop this capacity is through regular meditation practice. Just like a wild horse initially bucks any attempt to control it, our mind resists our efforts to hold a single point of focus for a sustained length of time. However, the more we practice meditation, the more our mind relaxes its resistance. Eventually, with practice, you become the master of your mind and can channel its energy in directions that truly serve you.
Right mindfulness means you can observe yourself, your mind’s activity, and your life experiences with equanimity and present-moment attentiveness. You can step back from your sensations, thoughts, and feelings enough to become an objective observer – simply witnessing. And because you’ve created this little space between yourself-as-observer and whatever it is you’re experiencing, you can more actively choose your response to it. In fact, you can watch as sensations, thoughts, and feelings arise and fall, without having to respond at all, if you choose to.
The Importance of Non-Judgment
Additionally, right mindfulness means not judging what you observe. When you start paying attention – through your cultivation of mindfulness – to the ways in which your mind tends to respond to sensations, thoughts, feelings, and life events, you discover how compulsively you produce judgments. I like this; I don’t like that. This is beautiful; that’s ugly. I want more of this; I don’t ever want that again. etc, ad infinitum. This tendency of the mind is what social networks have staked their whole business model on. For some reason, our minds love to exert an opinion about what we like and dislike. It’s a deeply engrained habit.
Unfortunately, it’s a habit that feeds our suffering. It binds us to the indulgence-aversion cycle, keeping us discontent. But when we cultivate non-judgment, we free ourselves from these root causes of suffering. We learn how to relate to what-is with neither resistance nor attachment. Which means, we’re at peace and content with the present moment as it is. (To learn more about cultivating mindfulness, you can read my Ultimate Guide To Mindfulness.)
The Middle Way’s Discipline Of Lifestyle
Beyond disciplining our mind, the middle way asks us to get intentional about how we live our life. We can’t expect to ease our suffering while doing and saying things that are harmful, whether to ourselves or others. To apply discipline of lifestyle, then, means to practice right action, right speech, and right livelihood.
What determines the rightness of our actions, speech and livelihood? It’s pretty simple. We do whatever we can to avoid doing and saying things that might cause someone to suffer, including ourselves. And when it comes to our work, we seek to ease the suffering of others where we can, while doing nothing that would increase it.
Some occupations lend themselves more obviously to the easing of suffering than others. However, we can all contribute to the easing of suffering in some way through our work. Something as simple as greeting everyone you encounter with a smile and some kind words can make a difference. If you contemplate the ways in which your work benefits others, and in turn do your work with a heart of service, you’re exercising the discipline of right livelihood.
The Importance of Right Speech
Given our recent social environment of heated exchanges – online and in person – regarding everything from politics to Covid, I feel compelled to emphasize the importance of practicing the discipline of right speech. It seems hateful, vitriolic speech has become part of our normalized social discourse these days. Fueled by out-of-control emotions, many people seem to feel it’s okay to spill their toxins into the collective consciousness, with little regard for the impact. We can disagree without being hurtful or wishing harm on others. (See my article on Mindful Disagreement to learn how to disagree respectfully and preserve peace.)
The middle way tells us when we speak harshly, we’re not just harming the person to whom we’re speaking. We’re harming ourselves too. Because we don’t live in isolation. What we put out into the collective consciousness creates ripples that shift dynamics, whether it be in our personal relationships or on a larger scale. And we have to live with what that shift looks like. Do we want to live in a world where hate is the norm?
No matter how right we may believe we are in our opinions, if we’re communicating them in a harsh or hateful way, we’re not engaging in right speech. Furthermore, when we speak in hurtful ways, we feed the emotions – such as anger, fear, or disgust – that triggered our words to begin with. This prolongs our suffering. It doesn’t relieve it.
Consider these wise words from Thich Nhat Hanh:
Sometimes we speak clumsily and create internal knots in others. Then we say, “I was just telling the truth.” It may be the truth, but if our way of speaking causes unnecessary suffering, it is not Right Speech. The truth must be presented in ways that others can accept. Words that damage or destroy are not Right Speech. Before you speak, understand the person you are speaking to. Consider each word carefully before you say anything, so that your speech is “Right” in both form and content.Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation
The Connection Between Discipline, Compassion & Wisdom
All the components of the middle way we’re exploring – compassion, discipline, and wisdom – are interconnected. As you develop one, you naturally cultivate the others. And each one supports you as you’re developing the others.
Discipline is necessary for us to learn to live in a more compassionate way. As we discussed earlier, our minds like to form opinions about what we like and dislike, what we want more of vs. what we want to avoid, etc. This kind of judgment can get in the way of compassion. Rather than seeing how the suffering of others – and ourselves – lies at the root of unpleasant or hurtful actions and words, our first instinct is usually to pass judgment. We might even lash out in anger or turn away in fear. We may hold onto grudges that poison us, keeping us trapped in that state of being hurt. Or, if it’s us we’re judging, we might feed the narrative that basically says we’re not good enough.
To break this tendency, we need to be mindful of our thoughts and feelings – able to observe our responses objectively. And we need to be able to exert control over our minds, so we can choose compassion over other less wise and more harmful responses. When we practice a discipline of cultivating compassion, it gradually becomes a more natural response for us. Working with a loving-kindness meditation nurtures this growth.
Just as discipline is important to our development of compassion, compassion is needed as we approach self-discipline. It can be easy to fall into the trap of rigidity and harsh judgment when it comes to discipline. We might judge ourselves for the kinds of thoughts we observe as we become more mindful. We might feel guilty for missing a few days of meditation practice, or get frustrated with the pace of our progress as we attempt to master our minds. None of this is useful, and in fact, can increase our suffering rather than alleviating it.
This is where compassion comes in. Compassion softens us. Rather than judging ourselves for having ugly thoughts, we can acknowledge our humanness. It’s part of human nature to think negatively, harshly, judgmentally, etc. Knowing this, we can extend loving-kindness to ourselves for this source of suffering. Likewise, when we struggle in our meditation sessions or miss them completely, we can support ourselves with the compassionate awareness that meditation isn’t easy. It’s a complete retraining of our brains. And life isn’t easy either. We do our best, and sometimes that may mean missing meditation practice. When we keep in mind our ultimate goal is to ease our suffering – not to meet a rigid standard – it becomes easier to offer ourselves compassion.
The Pearl Of Wisdom
Finally, the more we cultivate compassion and practice the disciplines of mind and lifestyle, the more we gain a wiser perspective on life. No longer dragged carelessly by our minds down every train of thought, or swept into the flurry of every emotion, we maintain a poise that enables us to see more clearly. We can contemplate the truer nature of things. Which means, we can see interconnectedness and identify causes that lie beneath the surface. And we come to understand others better, as we recognize our shared plight on this planet. All of this tempers and informs our responses, so we may choose more wisely words, actions, and thoughts that truly support our well-being.
To protect itself, an oyster turns an irritant – like a grain of sand – into a lustrous pearl, by coating it with fluid again and again. Likewise, the middle way shows us how to turn life’s irritants into pearls of wisdom – using compassion and the disciplines of mind and lifestyle – to ease our suffering.
The Middle Way & Wisdom
As we practice mindfulness and meditation, we get to observe ourselves in a way we wouldn’t normally do. Over time, we learn how our mind works – its tendencies, preoccupations, reactions, etc. We also witness how our thoughts, emotions, and sensations are temporary. They arise, peak, and fall away or change. And the more we observe all of this, the more we come to realize we’re more than what we think and feel. We must be, since we’re able to observe it from a distance, objectively. Thus, we begin to know our true Self, which is that purer consciousness that observes all we experience while remaining unchanged by it. Gradually, this leads us to the wisdom of non-attachment.
Non-attachment means accepting the reality that nothing is permanent. Every thing changes and eventually has its end. Including us. Therefore, clinging to people, places, things, and experiences for stability, contentment, and peace is foolish. The same is true of clinging to our ego-based identity – the sustained sense of self we’ve compiled from a young age to help us navigate the world.
While our ego can serve the purpose of keeping us safe and helping us discern what’s good for us, it’s a complex construct that can also create much suffering. In our ego’s attempts to defend and assert itself, it can lead us down all sorts of unhelpful paths. In fact, it’s our ego that wants to cling to people, places, things, and experiences. Because to really accept everything is impermanent, our ego would have to sit with the fact of its own impermanence.
How Non-Attachment Eases Suffering
When we embrace the truth of impermanence, we begin to recognize all the ways we tend to resist it. How much of our anxiety, fear, anger, and despair has – at its root – a resistance to loss or change? And isn’t it our ego that thinks it can – and should – prevent that loss and change? How much of our desire is bound up in the illusion that what we want is lasting, and therefore it can bring lasting happiness? Or that its ability to make us happy will last? When we’re grounded in the knowing that everything is temporary, we can see the error in this thinking. And we can change how we go about seeking lasting peace and joy.
It’s humbling to deeply accept the truth of impermanence. But it’s also liberating. Because it’s through surrender to what is that we find the capacity to appreciate what is.
There’s a line of poetry I read in college that has stuck with me for twenty-five years now. It’s from Wallace Stevens’ poem, Sunday Morning. It says, Death is the mother of beauty. At first glance, that might sound morbid. But it’s a poignant extension of the middle way’s teaching on the truth of impermanence. When we accept impermanence, we’re finally free to fully appreciate the beauty of the present moment. Knowing how fleeting our time here is, and how everyone and everything we love will inevitably change and fall away, we awaken to each precious moment. Not from a place of fear of losing it, but from a place of delight at being gifted it.
It’s a simple fact we can’t appreciate the present moment while fearing the loss of it. The same goes for every person, place, thing and experience we might want to cling to.
The Middle Way’s Wisdom Teachings
In addition to the profound insights we can gain from the middle way’s internal practices, there’s an abundance of wisdom we can access by studying the works of great teachers. One of my favorites is Thich Nhat Hanh. You can find his books here. I also love Pema Chodron and Jack Kornfield. But of course there are many others to choose from if you want to learn more about this path.
You can also learn from other practitioners and teachers in your community by going to your local Zen or Shambhala center.
As I’ve already mentioned, this article is focused on some very practical applications of the middle way. But the full teachings are much more in-depth and explore far more complex and philosophical topics. You can choose how deep you want to go. But if you implement the practices of compassion and discipline, and seek wisdom with pure intention, you’re sure to find your suffering greatly relieved. You can live with more stability, tranquility, and ease.
This past year put my long-observed practice of the middle way to the test in many ways. As the Buddha said, we shouldn’t just accept what he shared on blind faith, as truth. We should apply it, see what happens, and discover for ourselves if it’s true and useful. I’ve long appreciated the value of these practices. They’ve seen me through quite a lot of loss, grief, and strife. But the sustained state of upheaval, divisiveness, and uncertainty 2020 brought to our collective forefront – which still lingers as I write – showed me just how powerful compassion, discipline, and upholding a wiser perspective can be.
I hope this article inspires you to step onto the middle path, if you haven’t already. It can be your key to stability, tranquility, and ease even – and perhaps most profoundly – in the midst of great turmoil. And it can awaken you to a life lived more joyfully every moment of every day.