Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Choosing the Middle Way

If you're like most of us, you occasionally (I'll give you the benefit of the doubt) engage in extreme or black and white thinking. In some situations, and for some people, this is fine, or even desirable, but for most of us, amping up an already-dualistic world just leads to trouble.

For example, last week we talked about how blaming and judging other people is usually just an elaborate way of not taking responsibility for our own lives, and how it's impossible to see fault in others that you don't also see in yourself. We project our uneasiness onto others. It's what people do.

This week, I wanted to talk about the middle way, which I bring forth as a general concept, but also is a Buddhist term that implies a balanced (not passive) approach to life, and requires us to regulate our impulses and behavior.

Similarly, in Philosophy, Aristotle's golden mean teaches that "every virtue is a mean between two extremes, each of which is a vice." The classic example is courage, a virtue whose extremes are recklessness (if in excess), and cowardice (if deficient). In Chinese philosophy, Confucius pointed to the same wisdom in his Doctrine of the Mean.

So, what does this "middle way" look like, and how do we regulate our impulses and behavior? This is a big question, with a myriad of answers, but let's look at a few basic recommendations:

1.  Recognize that we humans are emotional, fallible creatures who sometimes behave improperly. When someone makes a mistake, try to cut some slack. It feels better to live and let live.

2.  Avoid all-or-nothing thinking, such as: "Oops, I ate a potato chip, thus blowing my diet. I might as well eat everything within a six block radius, and start over on Monday." You don't have to be perfect. Forgive the infraction and move on.

3.  Notice any drama-producing tendencies you might have, such as: always running late, using provocative language, picking fights, behaving passive-aggressively, being irresponsible with money, dating the wrong people, abusing substances, acting carelessly, etc. Ask yourself if this added drama serves you.

4.  Notice any inherited family-based or culturally-based tendencies you might have that cause you to overreact to certain situations, or overreact in general. Some people/groups are even-tempered, while others are more high-tempered. Regardless, if you want to learn to calm down, there are many methods for doing so.

5.  Whenever you find yourself judging or wanting to slap a label on your experience, ask yourself if that's really necessary. Just because there's traffic or rain or grumpiness, doesn't mean that something's wrong. Accepting real life can be freeing.

This week, I invite you to look for, not necessarily for the high road, but the middle road. If you enjoy the roller coaster ride, then this practice is not for you. But if you'd benefit from having more balance in your life, I think you'll enjoy the relief you get from learning to smooth out the rough edges of your thoughts and feelings.