The middle way, has a few ways of being understood or translated. In my experience the best way to understand the metaphor is in choosing to show up with our hearts. It is the middle as in the centre and our hearts are our centres, physically and metaphorically.
If you pay careful attention to experience, the idea of the middle way being choosing some kind of compromise doesn’t make sense.
It doesn’t make sense for it to be choosing the central point between two poles, which is how it often understood, because that kind of compromise comes from the judgements we create with our mind. And as so much Buddhist practice is pointing towards – the way that we perceive things with the mind is fundamentally empty.
The understanding of the middle way as being a compromise can be damaging because our idea of what a compromise is is so heavily influenced by our conditioning: the information that we are willing to see, what we perceive as right and wrong and what we have normalised.
People believe that they can have a rational viewpoint of things; what is actually happening is that they are rationalising their own personal experiences and dictating this onto other people. Inevitably, it is the people with the power who get to dictate to the people who don’t have the power what the truth and/or a compromise means.
For example, our idea of what is ‘middle’ is heavily influenced by the White-dominated Western patriarchal scientific materialist culture we exist in.
Using meditation to liberate ourselves from holding fixed perceptions of the world, doesn’t give us the truth. It helps us see that the mind can’t hold any truth and creates the space and perspective for looking at the world in a radically different way that makes space for the full range of our experience to arise, without being pulled around by it.
The truth emerges from a mind that is open to receiving experience and a heart that is able to be sincere about its experience and response.
Moving From The Heart
The middle way in the traditional sense of compromise, is very helpful for keeping the peace, but if keeping the peace was all that life is about then we wouldn’t have developed preferences in the first place.
I believe that we are also here to show up and give a fuck.
If you pay careful attention to your experience you will discover that the middle way is about choosing the heart. Staying centred and moving from this place within ourselves.
If you meet the world with an open heart it will simultaneously create plenty of space and peace for experience to arise in and tell you what the most important thing is – the things that matter and are worth standing up for.
If we open to the world with the heart’s natural states of inclusion, compassion, joy and friendliness, we will be able to:
- Welcome all of experience – Inclusion
- Notice what we care about and how that makes us feel – Compassion
- Embrace where we are on the journey – Joy
- Given all this, allow our heart’s natural response to arise – Friendliness
It sounds so calm and peaceful, but the ‘middle way’ can take us down some of the most extreme paths. We aren’t turning away from challenging situations or information, we are welcoming them and deciding how to meet them.
To show up in this way, and go through these steps with an open heart, we need courage. The word courage comes from the French ‘couer’, which means heart and one of the definitions of courage is strength in the face of pain or grief.
When we are aligned with life, our heart’s natural response flows out of us, we don’t need to think about it. It is when there is difficulty that we will resist choosing the middle way, or the heart’s path. This is when courage is demanded of us. This is why we practice.
Whole-hearted experience + perspective = the embodied middle way
Our hearts compel us to stand up for things that matter, to do the things that our mind is afraid of or thinks are ‘bad’ or that require some level of risk.
When we can’t move from the heart we typically fall into one of these:
- We run away from the situation and hide behind judgements – aversion
- We look for something to escape to and make excuses – craving
- We feel overwhelmed by the situation and collapse into a useless heap – overwhelm
- We take too much responsibility for the situation and try to fix it all – over-reaching
If we can find the space to connect with our hearts, it gives us an opportunity to respond in a different way.
In summary, an open mind and heart will create the space for experience to arise in a peaceful way. The heart also tells us what is important – what we really give a shit about. It tells us what is worth standing up for in life. This is the path we want to walk, it is the path that is most rewarding for ourselves and helpful to others.
It’s about having the courage to show up, notice what is really happening in experience, be honest about how you really feel about a situation and respond in the way that comes from a place of love for ourselves and others.