The Middle Way is the Better Way

Let’s face it. We live in a dualistic, polarized society. Living in this type of environment can result in what I like to call “or-based” thinking. This OR that. Black OR white. Good OR bad. All OR nothing.

Take our relationship with food for a moment. In my work as a facilitator and coach with the Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating program, I have seen these extremes magnified. One day we decide we don’t like the way we look or feel in our own skin and we decide to do something about it. So, we diet and/or exercise to lose weight to achieve some artificial goal (weight, size, appearance, etc.) When we have achieved our goal, we go back to eating normally and all the weight comes back on…and then some. Or, maybe we never reach our goal and we just give up and throw the towel in and go back to overeating. On the diet OR off the diet. In control OR out of control. Being “good” OR being “bad”. And, so it goes…

As a Yoga Therapist, teacher and trainer, I don’t just see this in terms of people’s relationship with food. I see it manifest in nearly every area of their lives. Because, as Suzanne Evans said in her book by the same title, The Way You Do Anything is the Way You Do Everything.

I’m sure you get the idea, and no doubt, this type of thinking has impacted you in some way. It may even leave you feeling a little confused or conflicted sometimes. It can also result in our doing life in extremes. The problem is that extremes don’t work. They cause imbalance. They cause conflict, division, and separation. They are not maintainable.

Think of a pendulum for a moment. A pendulum can swing from side to side, to the extremes. But, it can’t stay there without a great deal of effort to keep it there. In fact, when we are way out at the extremes, and we let go of the pendulum, it violently swings to the other extreme!

What if there is another way? What if instead of “or-based” thinking, we could find something in-between. What if we started to think in terms of a “middle way”.

Interestingly, these concepts show up in lots of ancient philosophies. In Chinese philosophy, there are the concepts of yin(dark/feminine/soft) and yang (light/masculine/strong) in which two seemingly opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world. In Buddhism, the “middle path” or the “middle way” is part of is the term that Buddha used to describe the character of the Noble Eightfold Path that leads to liberation. In Taoism, the middle way (called “the way”) is the tao. It is the place of harmony and one-ness.

In yoga theory, the terms raga (attachment/clinging) and dvesha (aversion/repulsion) illustrate this as well. These dual forms of attachment lead to pain and suffering. Think of our relationship with food again. Let’s say we LOVE chocolate (or whatever it is for you) and we find ourselves eating too much of it (raga). We decide chocolate is “bad”, so we decide we must stop eating it altogether (dvesha). That type of extremes thinking causes us to fixate on that which we told ourselves we cannot have and leads to feeling deprived (attachment). This deprivation actually causes us to crave it more. So, when we finally can’t stand it anymore (holding the pendulum at the extreme), we eventually eat it and most likely we overeat it (the pendulum violently swings to the other side).

There are also two other yoga terms called sthira (effort/steadiness) and sukha (comfort/ease) that illustrate this idea. Applied to eating, you can think if it in terms of dieting (extreme effort) and overeating (extreme ease). But the yoga sutra that addresses these concepts (Y.S. 2.46) says that our posture (asana) should be BOTH steady (sthira) AND comfortable (sukha). As one of my teachers says, “the joining of opposites heals all opposites.” Interestingly, this sutra is also translated as “resolutely residing in a good space”. From this good space of harmony and balance, we practice surrender (ishvarapranadhana) in order to achieve peaceful bliss (samadhi).

Ahhh…the Middle Way leads to healing, residing in a good space, and peaceful bliss!

I came across an article recently in DailyOM entitled “Balancing Your Warrior Spirit” that addressed this concept too. Madisyn Taylor wrote “balance is the key that unlocks the door of peaceable coexistence where opposing characteristics of the self are concerned.”

There it is again…BALANCE! The Middle Way!

The fact of the matter is that rarely does anything naturally exist entirely in “OR”. Instead, consider using the word “AND”. We are strong AND tender. We have feminine AND masculine traits. We can feel pain AND joy at the same time. Rather than black OR white, “AND” exists in shades of grey (not like the book series, just sayin…). We can in fact find a balance between this AND that.

Now return to the image of the pendulum. No matter which “extreme” you may trying to hold onto, when you release the pendulum and let it go, it will naturally come to rest somewhere in the center.

This is how we work too!

Our body and brain are always trying to find balance, harmony, and equanimity. Our systems are always trying to recalibrate to achieve homeostasis. When we stop thinking in terms of “or-based” thinking, and stop trying to live life out there in the extremes, we too can find the Middle Way.