The best way I have found to model and teach the middle way is that it is about showing up whole-heartedly.
Often I have heard the middle way described as finding the middle between two points. In the reframe that I am offering, the ‘middle’ in ‘the middle way’ could be understood as the middle of your being: your heart, which is at your centre physically and metaphorically.
This manifests differently to understanding the middle way as being a compromise between two perspectives or poles. The middle being whole-heartedness is a much more dynamic, embodied, alive and multi-dimensional way of understanding this full and yet also spacious way of connecting to experience.
Whole-heartedness feels like the best way to teach the middle way because being whole-hearted is what gives you the capacity to include varying perspectives and views, to understand as much of the full picture as possible, to be humble in your assumptions and still stand by a meaningful connection to your experience or ideas.
You are neither stuck in specific or closed-minded concepts about what is happening, nor disappeared into other people’s realities.
You can hold that there are almost infinite possible perspectives, without losing touch that there are clearly some that are more true than others. Or some perspectives that are more meaningful, impactful, loving or important than others.
You can be open-minded to receiving new information and contradictory evidence, without losing touch with your own truth.
Being truly whole-hearted, and embodying the middle way in this way, is a very challenging thing to do that takes an inordinate amount of practice, skill, depth and processing to be able to do even semi consistently.
Why Is This Important?
The understanding of the middle way as being a compromise can be damaging because your idea of what a compromise even is is so heavily influenced by your conditioning. It’s part of human nature that even before you have considered any options, you’ve ruled out the vast majority of possibilities. The information that you are willing and able to see, what you perceive as right and wrong and what you have normalised are all heavily filtered.
If you don’t start from a baseline of recognising this, then you will remain stuck in your limited perspective and lose touch with how you are reacting from a closed-minded place, rather than meeting experience with an open heart and mind.
An example of this is how people conceive of what the body and emotions are. Say you’re trying to describe what is happening in your experience and looking for a way to make decisions from the experiences you are having based on the information you have from your body.
Someone who has never experienced a subtle body or energy body, their potential perspectives are very limited. They might feel things like warm, cold, pain, tension, relaxation. If they’re suddenly feeling a lot of intense bodily sensations, the middle way might be to go to the doctor, or to rest and hope it gets better.
For someone who is deeply in touch with their energy body who can feel a wide-range of subtle feelings moving through their body, intense bodily sensations might be a sign that the meditation practice is going well, or that they need to release some emotions.
The point here is that there isn’t really such a thing as an ultimate middle way perspective and if people believe that there is, they are getting stuck.
An example for how someone can get stuck is that the person who has never experienced their energy body, might believe that a middle way of how to understand the body is dictated by scientific materialism. When really they are excluding a ton of potentially valuable information from their perspective.
People believe that they can have a rational viewpoint of things and this belief is one of the things that keeps them out of an embodied and whole-hearted middle way.
The reality is that both of these perspectives have useful information within them and you’re never going to have a final perspective where everything is perfectly clear, so all you can do is be committed to being present with what is front of you in as much of a whole-hearted and open-minded way as possible for you at the time.
An aspect of the purpose of meditation practice is to liberate yourself from illusions and unhelpful fixed beliefs about yourself and the world. This liberation frees up space to have a more open-minded perspective on what reality, experience and you are. It can create the space for the full range of your experience to arise, without being fused to ideas or perspectives.
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 sometimes to choose this more embodied, dynamic and alive middle way requires being willing to ruffle a few feathers or do something that feels scary.
To stay both open-hearted and centred, requires a lot of courage. It also requires a lot of capacity to stay calm under pressure and to not lose touch with the depths of your embodied reality and truth. Getting sucked into fixed ideas is a sign that you are being pulled out of the middle way and into reactivity, habits or grasping.
The Brahma Viharas, or the heart states create a good model for understanding the realm of the heart. It can help to understand how each one is describing a slightly different form of non-dual love, or way of connecting with yourself, experience, the world and others in an open-hearted way.
The heart states can be understood as:
- Equanimity or inclusion, which has a very spacious feel to it
- Compassion, which manifests as deep connection to experience
- Sympathetic joy and joy, an infusion of subtly pleasant connection
- Loving kindness or friendliness, a warm and open way of greeting experience
These experiences are lovely to cultivate more of through heart practices.
Accessing the heart stats within daily life makes it possible to embody the middle way. The different heart states create a map to the different aspects of the heart, which can also help you understand how to embody a whole-hearted way of being in the world.
Here is how each of the heart states opens the door to an aspect of being with experience whole-heartedly:
- Equanimity or inclusion – you welcome all of experience and stay open to things that might be outside your current world-view
- Compassion – you notice what you care about and how that makes you feel
- Sympathetic joy and joy – you embrace where you are on the journey, without going into unhealthy comparison
- Friendliness – you allow a response to emerge that is kind to yourself and others
It requires some courage and a lot of practice to be able to embody these values, especially when you are in a situation that is stressful.
Part of the middle way is that it’s not about turning away from challenging situations or information, you are welcoming them into experience and deciding how to meet them.
When you are naturally aligned with life, your heart’s natural response will flow out of you, you won’t need to think about it. It is when there is difficulty that you will resist choosing the middle way, or the heart’s path. This is when courage is demanded of you and cultivating the capacity to meet difficulty with an open heart is one of the reasons to practice.
Equanimity creates peace and space, compassion compels you to stand up for things that matter, joy makes it possible to connect with experience and friendliness stops you from being in fundamental conflict with experience.
A more closed hearted response is likely to create one of the following scenarios:
- Aversion – you run away from the situation and hide behind judgements
- Craving – you look for something to escape to and make excuses
- Overwhelm – you feel overwhelmed by the situation and collapse into a useless heap
- Over-extension – you take too much responsibility for the situation and try to manage it all
If you can find the courage and capacity to connect to a situation with your heart, it gives you an opportunity to respond in a different way.
The middle way can be understood as describing how an open mind and heart will create the space for you to meet experience in a full, embodied, spacious and engaged way. From this place you will be able to see what is most important in a given situation.
This is the path that it is most meaningful to walk; that is the most rewarding for yourself and the most helpful for others. It takes a lot of practice and skill to develop this capacity, but it starts with the seed of 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 yourself and others.