Philosophy Tuesday

This is a philosophical statement. It is intended to spark thinking and examining.

One of the concepts prevalent in Buddhist philosophy is that of the “Middle Path.”

In a descriptive way, it describes a tenant of the philosophy and of the Buddha’s path to enlightenment: it was a middle ground between severe asceticism and that of sensual indulgence, two of the prevailing “ways to wisdom” of his time. In a more metaphysical way, it also describes the Buddha’s teachings as a view between eternal souls and eternal constructs versus complete disappearance at death, or that objects do not actually exist.

In an everyday sense, however, I have been taking the idea of the Middle Path to heart as a lens to see that few things (likely not none though – for that would be precluded by the idea middle path!) work when performed as, or coming from, the ends of a/the spectrum.* And these “things” include actions, views, ways of being, and perhaps most importantly, systems and societies.

It is about a balance that shifts about. And it works on the micro all the way to the macro scales.

Small scale, we can look at our relationships, our interactions, our everyday activities and conduct, and see that while some of these things (actions, ways of being, etc…) may work well in one situation, they are not necessarily appropriate or work well in other or all situations.

Medium scale, we can look at our tribes, our views, who we create ourselves to be, how we approach life and problems, our workplaces, our buying habits, our identities. Again, what works in one situation may not work elsewhere, and living solely on the boundaries cuts us off from other avenues and possibilities.

Large scale, and again very importantly, we can look at how we’ve organized our society, our economy, our justice/education/etc systems, and see that the systems that work best harness the benefits of multiple ideologies, using them to strengthen each other. They experience better outcomes and happier people. Hewing too much to one direction or the other does not multiply the effectiveness of an ideology, it instead breaks down. Nature has been masterful at this over thousands of years.

And if we zoom in on a point, down to the personal scale, we can even see that we, as individual humans, work best when we embrace and embody and celebrate our own dualistic natures: emotion and logic, work and play, gut and rationality, hot and cold.

I’ve lately taken to asking myself “what’s the middle path here?” and been amazed to see the paths widen. It isn’t a binary assertive/hard (and thus an “ass”) versus accommodating/friendly (and thus a “pushover”): carrying both forward with me brings the outcomes wanted and leaves everyone empowered. It isn’t a binary all tension all the time vs floppy limpness in tai chi, it is both that provides the structure and the reactivity to redirect an incoming force.** It isn’t punishment vs reward, it’s something in between.  And so on.

This all works on these small scale areas; and they’ll all work on the bigger scale areas. How we treat each other, how we set up our policies and our systems and our culture and our countries, how we relate to our world and the world around us, all can walk along that middle path.

What’s really fun to realize is that all these extremes on all these spectrums are often falsely equated with being opposites, never the twain shall meet. It is a falsehood: it’s possible to be both. They can coexist.***

And when they do, together they, and we, shine.


* In many ways, this is the same idea as that of the Yin Yang symbol in Taoism – in the black there is (and needs to be some white), and vice versa. In the “way” there are no isolated extremes.

** In class we call this concept “Baby Bear”.

*** And we don’t need to defend one or the other to detriment, or to the death.

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