Media Project: Buddhism Part 5, “Finding the Middle Path”

By Zach, GGY 2019.  See the full blog at https://mollyshaefox.wixsite.com/buddhism

In Buddhism, there exists a concept named the Middle Path. What this essentially means is that each one of us is meant to walk life in the center, without retreating to any extremes materially, physically, mentally, and emotionally. This idea originated after Siddartha Guatama (later to be known as The Buddha) spent several years living an ascetic life, rarely moving and eating only the seeds that fell into his lap. Eventually, the Buddha was on the edge of starvation, and though he was still putting all of his energy into his meditation, his mind was clouded and he was unable to focus. Thus, he came to realize that one should not deprive themself of things they need, just as one should also not live with so many distracting things that, though may cause pleasure in the short term, ultimately only increase their suffering.

Learning about this middle path has been very thought provoking for me. While beginning to question whether I really do walk the middle path in my life, I’m simultaneously beginning to question what that middle path really looks like. In each core country we visit (Guatemala, Thailand, and Ghana), we have a What Is Development seminar, questioning how “underdeveloped” countries got that title, and what the future of those countries should look like, as well as our role in that process, if any. One fundamental thing I’ve taken away from these seminars is that we are able to live the way we do, with the luxuries that we do, only because others can’t. The idea of everyone having the same choices and availabilities that most inhabitants of the Western world have is impossible, because the system simply isn’t built in such a way that everyone could enjoy those privileges.

With this knowledge, I’ve become unable to discern a clear middle path for myself. Is my middle the real middle or do I need a big calibration? Even the objects most Westerners justify buying by calling them necessities, such as refrigerators and freezers, aren’t really necessities, and could easily be community shared objects, saving both electrical energy, and the energy and resources used to assemble so many of these chunky objects. Now, just to be clear, I’m not saying having a refrigerator and freezer in your home is a bad thing, but rather that with mindfulness and awareness of the broader world around us it is possible to begin to think of each of our words, actions, and even thoughts within a broader scope of the world and universe, rather than just our own immediate surroundings.

However, the middle path is about more than just the consumption of material goods. It is also about becoming able to remain centered emotionally. Obviously it is not possible to simply stop having negative emotions, but it is possible to learn how to create a space in your mind where you can observe and understand your own emotions without engaging them further. As a wise friend recently described it to me, it is like watching clouds go by. You see them, you acknowledge them, but you also acknowledge that they will soon float by and disappear. On the other hand, this also means not giving in completely to pleasure, but rather acknowledging that it is a temporary feeling.

Throughout my exploration of Buddhism here in Thailand, this idea of the middle path stuck with me for two reasons. First of all because of the mindfulness and intentionality that goes into realizing what and how you consume, and whether this consumption brings true happiness or fleeting pleasure. Second of all because the constant changes and flexibility that traveling requires that stability come from within the mind rather than from our external surroundings. Through distancing ourselves from our emotions, we relieve ourselves from so much of our suffering and are able to embrace change and all of the uncertainty that comes along with it. For a better explanation of how Buddhism suggests we begin this process of acknowledging our emotions and relieving our suffering, check our Molly’s blog post on meditation and mindfulness. I encourage each of you to observe your own thoughts and actions over the course of the next week, day, or even hour and beginning questioning what the middle path looks like to you, and whether or not you are walking on it.