Finding the Middle Way
“Hence the purpose of Holy Life does not consist in acquiring merit, honour, or fame, nor in gaining morality, concentration, or the eye of knowledge. That unshakable deliverance, the sure heart’s release, that indeed is the object of the Holy Life, that is its essence, that is its goal.”
– Majjima Nikaya
Buddhist teaching is neither a path of denial nor of affirmation. It shows us the paradox of the universe, within and beyond the opposites. It teaches us to be in the world but not of the world. This realization is called the middle way. Ajahn Chah talked about the middle way every day. In the monastery we contemplated the middle way. At twilight, a hundred monks could be found seated in the open air meditation pavilion, surrounded by the towering trees and dense green forest, reciting these original verses: “There is a middle way between the extremes of indulgence and self-denial, free from sorrow and suffering. This is the way to peace and liberation in this very life.”
If we seek happiness purely through indulgence, we are not free. And if we fight against ourselves and the world we are not free. It is the middle path that brings freedom. This is a universal truth discovered by all those who awaken. “It is as if while traveling through a great forest, one should come upon an ancient path, an ancient road traversed by people of former days… Even so have I monks, seen an ancient path, an ancient road traversed by the rightly enlightened ones of former times,” said the Buddha.
The middle way describes the middle ground between attachment and aversion, between being and non-being, between form and emptiness, between free will and determinism. The more we delve into the middle way the more deeply we come to rest between the play of opposites. Sometimes Ajahn Chah described it like a koan, where “there is neither going forward, nor going backward, nor standing still.” To discover the middle way, he went on, “Try to be mindful, and let things take their natural course. Then your mind will become still in any surroundings, like a clear forest pool. All kinds of wonderful, rare animals will come to drink at the pool, and you will clearly see the nature of all things. You will see many strange and wonderful things come and go, but you will be still. This is the happiness of the Buddha.”
Learning to rest in the middle way requires a trust in life itself. It is like learning to swim. I remember first taking swimming lessons when I was seven years old. I was a skinny, shivering boy flailing around, trying to stay afloat in a cold pool. But one morning there came a magical moment lying on my back when I was held by the teacher and then released. I realized that the water would hold me, that I could float. I began to trust. Trusting in the middle way, there is an ease and grace, a cellular knowing that we, too, can float in the ever-changing ocean of life which has always held us.
Buddhist teaching invites us to discover this ease everywhere: in meditation, in the marketplace, wherever we are. In the middle way, we come to rest in the reality of the present, where all the opposites exist. T.S. Eliot calls this the “still point of the turning world, neither from nor towards, neither arrest nor movement, neither flesh nor fleshless.” The sage Shantideva calls the middle way “complete non-referential ease.” The Perfect Wisdom Text describes it as “realization of suchness beyond attainment of good or bad, ever present with all things, as both the path and the goal.”
What do these mysterious words mean? They are attempts to describe the joyful experience of moving out of time, out of gaining, out of duality. They describe the ability to live in the reality of the present. As one teacher put it, “The middle path does not go from here to there. It goes from there to here.” The middle path describes the presence of eternity. In the reality of the present, life is clear, vivid, awake, empty and yet filled with possibility.
When we discover the middle path, we neither remove ourselves from the world nor get lost in it. We can be with all our experience in its complexity, with our own exact thoughts and feelings and drama as it is. We learn to embrace tension, paradox, change. Instead of seeking resolution, waiting for the chord at the end of a song, we let ourselves open and relax in the middle. In the middle we discover that the world is workable. Ajahn Sumedo teaches us to open to the way things are. “Of course we can always imagine more perfect conditions, how it should be ideally, how everyone else should behave. But it’s not our task to create an ideal. It’s our task to see how it is, and to learn from the world as it is. For the awakening of the heart, conditions are always good enough.”
Ginger was a 51 year old social worker who had worked for years in a clinic in California’s Central Valley. A committed meditator, she took a month off to come to our spring retreat. At first it was hard for her to quiet her mind. Her beloved younger brother had re-entered the psych ward where he had first been hospitalized for a schizophrenic break. She told me she was awash with emotion, overwhelmed by fear, confusion, shakiness, anger, and grief. I counseled her to let it all be, to just sit and walk on the earth and let things settle in their own time. But as she sat, the feelings and stories got stronger. I recited to her Ajahn Chah’s teaching of sitting like a clear forest pool. I encouraged her to acknowledge, one by one, all the inner wild animals that come and drink at the pool.
She began to name them: fear of loss of control, fear of death, fear of living fully, grief and clinging to a previous relationship, longing for a partner but wanting to be independent, fear for her brother, anxiety about money, anger at the healthcare system she had to battle everyday at her job, gratitude for her co-workers.
I invited her to sit in the middle of it all, the paradox, the messiness, the hopes and fears. “Take your seat like a queen on the throne,” I said, “and allow the play of life, the joys and sorrows, the fears and confusions, the birth and death around you. Don’t think you have to fix it.”
Ginger practiced, sitting and walking, allowing it all to be. As the intense feelings continued to come and go, she relaxed and gradually she became more still and present. Her meditation felt more spacious, the strong states and feeling that arose seemed like impersonal waves of energy. Her body became lighter, and joy arose. Two days later things got worse. She came down with the flu, she felt extremely weak and unsafe, and she became depressed. Because Ginger also had Hepatitis C, she worried that her body would never be strong enough to meditate well or live with ease.
I reminded her about sitting in the middle of it all, and she came the next day, still and happy again. She said, “I’ve returned to the center. I’m not going to let my past karma and these obstacles rob me of my presence.” She laughed and went on, “Like the Buddha, I realized, oh, this is just Mara. I just say ‘I see you Mara.’ Mara can be my grief or my hopes, my body pain or my fear. All of it is just life and the middle way is so deep, it’s all of them and none of them, it’s always here.”
I’ve seen Ginger now over several years since she left the retreat. Her outer circumstances have not really improved. Her work, her brother, her health are all still difficulties she continues to face. But her heart is more at ease. She sits quietly almost every day in the messiness of her life. Ginger tells me her meditation has helped her find the middle path and the inner freedom she hoped for.
This excerpt is taken from the book, ” “The Wise Heart”