Friday, April 24, 2009

The Middle Way

I once heard someone say that mediators make such quick spiritual progress that they are unaware of their evolutionary momentum until they do something that is counter-evolutionary. It's as if we are flowing at incredible speed through an invisible tube completely unaware of our motion until we drift from center and come in contact with the wall of the tube. Touching the wall of the tube traveling at that speed will be uncomfortable to say the least. It may be quite painful or even catastrophic!

After brushing against the side a few times, meditators learn to not drift far from the center or they eventually stop meditating. When we establish a daily practice of meditation, we quickly expand the breadth and depth of our awareness. We become more sensitive to things that dull our awareness or inhibit the clarity of meditation.

But sometimes we may not be entirely conscious of our progress and we might temporarily fall back into old habits. We might get too busy to meditate and start skipping our daily sitting. Or we might stay up late and be too tired to meditate the next day. We're getting close to the wall of the tube. Then, we begin to loose the contentment we generally experience and start thinking we need things we normally wouldn't desire. Perhaps we go out with friends and have a few drinks on the weekend. We wake up dehydrated and feeling miserable. This affects our mood and because we lack the clarity to be mindful of our state, we are irritible and easily annoyed by things that otherwise wouldn't bother us when our practice is steady. It's a downward spiral from there. Life can quickly become very unpleasant and since we've now completely lost our perspective, we chase after any fleeting sensory pleasure that makes us forget our miserable existence. The good fortune we used to take for granted seems to have waned and we get a traffic ticket, drop something and break it, or something is stolen from us. Bad things start happening and our life no longer feels blessed. We begin to feel insecure and doubt our future. Life close to the wall is turbulent!

If we are fortunate enough to realize that we've drifted dangerously from center, we'll rededicate ourselves to our practice and to a lifestyle that helps us maintain it. As quickly as this happens, our life once again seems to be blessed, to just flow. Our perspective expands, we once again become aware of the rising and falling of our breath, of fleeting thoughts and emotions. We are once again more steadily mindful.

The Buddha spoke of the Middle Way with respect to the eternalist and nihilist views predominant in India of his day. But he also offered the perspective of the Noble Eightfold Path and recommended following precepts of moral conduct to ensure the quickest progress possible could be maintained by his followers. Practicing Buddhists, especially those cultivating their minds through meditation and mindfulness, should hold to the five most basic precepts to keep to the center and tread the Middle Way:
  1. Abstaining from killing and supporting life.
  2. Abstaining from stealing and practicing generocity.
  3. Abstaining from sexual misconduct and cultivating loving kindness, compassion, and altruistic joy.
  4. Abstaining from divisive or false speech and pursuing truth.
  5. Abstaining from intoxicants and cultivating the mind through meditation and mindfulness.
Although the 5 Precepts are generally discussed in terms of the abstentions, Buddha also emphasized their positive correlates since there is no better way to abstain from something that drags us down than to make energetic progress in the virtues that lift us up and give true meaning to life.

There is an unfortunate trend in the West and also in the East to fashion ones own version of Buddhism by de-emphasizing the importance of the precepts, of regular practice, of the Eightfold Path, and in essence, of Buddha's teaching. This is rooted in self-pride, craving, and ignorance, which are in direct opposition to what true Buddhism naturally cultivates when properly followed with respect for the teaching and the Buddha. These self-deluded, would-be Buddhists love to say that the Buddha himself said to question everything. They use this as license to craft their own version of Buddhism that allows for their personal foibles, vices, and vexations. Buddhism without sincerely striving to cultivate the mind through meditation and mindfulness, and the heart through the practice of generosity and compassion, is without value, just as Christianity without practicing what Jesus taught is just a cult of convenience. The life of the Christian faith is in feeding the Christ in the poor, visiting the Christ in prisoners, caring for the Christ in the physically and mentally ill. Likewise, Buddhists should strive to see clearly everything that arises and passes away from moment to moment while working for the liberation of others. The five precepts help greatly in this regard.

When we feel our lives are getting a bit rough, when we feel our luck is down, when we no longer feel grounded or centered and everything overshadows our clarity, we need to take that as a sign that we may be straying from the Middle Way. This is true for individuals, for families, for companies, communities, and for nations. We should take it as a sign that we are straying from the center, or in Christian terms, the narrow gate, and rededicate ourselves to the practice of medition, mindfulness, the study of Buddha's teaching, and compassion for others. Life will quickly and naturally return to a more comfortable flow, contentment will grow, and kindness and clarity will again be the common, everyday experience.