A personal perspective on what it means to tread the Middle Way and how meditation is the path and the goal and the Middle Way!
I have noticed when I sit in meditation and go through the process to relax my body speech and mind that there is a distinct connection between all of these parts of ourselves that is revealed through the practice of meditation. Moreover, since practicing meditation for many years, I notice that these days, my heart naturally, without any effort, just opens when I synchronise my body, speech and mind. When my heart opens, I am aware of a sense of inner strength, compassion and warmth emanating from my heart which I can then dedicate to the well-being and enlightenment of all beings. I am also aware of the connection within us between our body, heart and mind with the habitual speech and self-talk that constantly replays like a record going round and round in our heads. When we don’t take the time or make the effort to synchronise our body, speech and mind and don’t acknowledge the holistic nature of our beings, the record will just continue on replay. It is only when we can synchronise our total being through meditation that we can discover what the so-called Buddhist term, the Middle Way actually is pointing out to us.
One of the first teachings given by the Buddha was that the way to enlightenment is by treading this middle way. A search on Google reveals that the middle way is not very clearly defined. It mainly seems to imply that Buddhists are advised to practice avoiding extremes, excesses and steer clear of sensual indulgences. The Buddhist 8-fold path is said to be the means to treading the middle way. Tricycle magazine writes:
“The eight steps are:
- Right view
- Right intention
- Right speech
- Right action
- Right livelihood
- Right effort
- Right mindfulness
- Right concentration
The path begins with right view, also called right understanding. We need to see clearly where we are headed before we begin. Right intention means the resolve to follow this path. Right speech and right action refer to what we say and do—to not harming other people or ourselves with our words and behaviour. Right livelihood means how we live day to day, making sure our habits and our work don’t cause harm to ourselves and others.
Right effort refers to focusing our energy on the task at hand. Right mindfulness means awareness of the mind and body with discernment. With mindfulness, we might pause and consider whether what we are doing is harmful to ourselves or others. Finally, right concentration refers to dedicated practice, whether it is meditation or chanting. In other words, once we have directed our minds and lives toward awakening, we can proceed. Though the eightfold path is always listed in this order, it is not strictly sequential, and does not need to be followed in only this order.
The eight steps can be divided into three areas for training: ethical conduct (sila), concentration (samadhi), and wisdom (prajna.) Right speech, right action, and right livelihood concern ethical conduct. Right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration relate to the practice of concentration. Right view and right intention are related to the development of wisdom.
The eightfold path may not always be easy to follow, but we make the effort because we believe it will lead us out of suffering.”
This of course all makes sense. If we want to follow a spiritual path then all of these things need our attention, but it can actually lead to us being very judgemental about ourselves and other people and also make us feel guilty if we transgress the written law. This set of 8 principles can be something we can hide behind and use to justify our actions and the witch trials of the middle ages (although not based on Buddhism) show how when we use the tenets of religion to our own ends and to determine our actions we can justify anything.
It is very difficult to balance the extremes of duality and not go to extremes and although the Buddha taught this it came as much as anything, from his personal experience of treading his own path to enlightenment. Before he became Buddha, as Prince Siddhartha, he did at one point, adopt an ascetic life going to extremes when trying to discover the secret of how to achieve enlightenment. He practiced severe ascetism only to realise eventually that it was not useful and so he rejected it as being not the way to achieving enlightenment. When Siddhartha did achieve enlightenment and at that point become Buddha, he was sat under the Bodhi Tree in deep meditation. Whilst in deep meditation he was constantly tempted and bombarded by the maras who did everything they could to derail and distract him. Finally, when nothing the maras tried worked they asked him who would bear witness to his enlightenment. Siddhartha simply touched the earth and it is said that the earth became his witness. There are many different stories of how this happened such as the Earth Goddess arose and proclaimed with a roar that She bore witness. Other stories say that Arya Tara came to his aid and frightened all the maras away. Whatever the actuality is, the main and significant fact is that the Buddha was sitting in meditation at the time and I think this is the crucial and relevant point.
So for these reasons I would like to suggest from personal experience, a different and maybe more relevant way of understanding what is actually meant by the middle way. Meditating is treading the middle way and understanding that and realising that, we discover more about what we are working with (i.e. our hearts and minds). We are trying to attain enlightenment and the goal of the path we are treading by practising meditation.
When I teach Shamatha Vispassana (maybe in common with other teachers), I always work to establish relaxation with the sitters with their body speech and mind. This is important as we live in such a fast past and stressful environment that without taking care to prepare ourselves first we could very easily give up and not go any further. We would be fighting with ourselves and the practice of Shamatha Vispassana is first and foremost a practice of non-struggle. We don’t struggle with anything. Whatever happens during our practice of meditation is fine and we just acknowledge that and don’t try to make it any different to what it is. So just coming to the cushion, sitting down and starting to practice without preparation may only be useful in so far as it just reveals to us what we already may know, which is that we perhaps feel stressed and the result is that we stay in our heads for the whole session, talking to ourselves reviewing our life and about what has been happening, what is going to happen, and not being present with ourselves particularly.
So to that end, I begin with getting the sitters to release stale energy by taking deep breaths. The deep breaths bring fresh energy into the body and start the process of relaxation. Then I get the sitters to do a body scan starting from the feet and working their way up their body with the aim of releasing tension, relaxing the body and settling the body. Next I tell them to bring their attention to their breathing and feel what it is like to breathe by feeling the breath as it flows in and out of the nose or noticing the feeling of the rise and fall of the chest and abdomen. I remind them that there is nothing for them to do, nowhere for them to go, no plans need to be made, they just need to sit with their body and notice the peaceful flow in and out of the breath. During this time the sitter is made aware of the 7 points of posture and the reasons for those points to be attended to. They are also given permission to return to their body and take more deep breaths to resettle if they get uncomfortable.
The next stage is to pay attention to the speech i.e. the thoughts, the self-talk that is going on and practice letting it go. I invite them to let the thoughts go with the out breath and come back to the breathing with the in breath and start afresh. I liken the thoughts to clouds in the sky – they are just thoughts, distractions, let them go and come back again and again, as many times as we become aware that our minds have wandered, we just let the thoughts dissolve, go and gently bring our attention back to the breath. After time and with regular practice, we might start to notice repetitive thoughts and habitual patterns to our thoughts, but again, we just let go of whatever arises and come back to the breath.
The next stage is working with the mind – the sensual distractions that come via our 5 senses, the sounds, smells, feelings of discomfort and so forth. Again, the sitter is advised to just notice them and then let go and come back to the breath and to our body.
Doing this, coming back to the breath without trying to control it the breath becomes the middle way, the path that we tread, the practice. The middle way is the way to the in between. For example, every time we become aware that we’ve become distracted, we stop doing anything for an instant, there is a gap where nothing is happening in that moment. In that gap we are constantly arriving, settling back ‘home’ into ourselves, arriving back at our centre. When we return to the breath we are training our minds, it is all very gentle and not at all aggressive. We are sitting doing nothing, just ‘being’ with our breathing, in the present moment and this is the middle way. It is the middle way because it is beyond any kinds of extremes, it is gentle, non-judgemental and safe and allows our hearts to start to open. It is the middle way because it is the present moment which is the middle place between the past and the future. It is the middle way because in the present moment, in the gap provided at the moment we become aware we have got distracted and choose to go back to the breath we give our hearts a brief space to reveal our innate goodness, our innate wisdom, our insight and innate compassion. Our hearts can breathe a sigh and we can fully experience what it means to be human. For an instant we become fully present.
Regular practice is the way we tread the middle way. Treading the middle way eventually strengthens our hearts, tame our minds and give us more control over our minds and the noble 8-fold path can seem more realistic and achievable. But this can only be achieved when our body, speech and minds are relaxed enough and, in that relaxation, that space, our hearts can start to open. This is the crux, the real issue. Our hearts close when our minds and body are not synchronised. All the habitual negative talk that goes on in our head keeps our hearts closed and allows the ego to be in control. We desperately need to quieten the constant negative usually untrue chatter generated by our ego and allow space for our hearts to open if we want to create a better world, a peaceful environment, a healthy environment to share for ourselves and for everyone and all the sentient beings that inhabit the world.
Meditation is the middle way when we can take the steps to synchronise our body speech and mind as this opening of our hearts is what leads us to a better healthier, saner state of mind. Meditation is the way to enlightenment. Meditation is the only way to attain enlightenment. Furthermore, I propose that meditation is the way to save mankind from the self-destruct course we seem to be on currently. If we want to save the planet and make it a better place for our children and grandchildren then we need to practice meditation and tread the middle way, the middle way towards acts of kindness, compassion and respect for all living beings and this includes our planetary home.
So why not come along to Peaceful Abiding www.peacefulabiding.uk and experience a guided meditation and experience the benefits for yourself. The above description of how I present the guided meditation is only an outline. A much deeper guided experience of meditation is achieved when someone who has trodden the path can lead you gently and safely in the preliminary steps.
May all beings benefit from this blog.
Written by Christine Jeffcutt