What precisely is the middle way?… (To find it) you have to stay conscious.
One Continuous Mistake, Gail Sher
This postcard has hung for years, pinned to the frame of the window in my study. Each time I look at it, I feel a mix of fear and calm tumbling through my abdomen. I wonder sometimes what she’s doing walking down the center line of highway. At other times, I envy her courage and trust in herself – whatever rounds that bend, she will meet it with equanimity.
There’s a lot of weight place on equanimity in practice. It is often seen as the lodestone in treading the Middle Path. Conventionally, equanimity is explained as an even-handed presence to all things arising. It is the practice of non-discrimination, non-preference, the absence of desire for things to be one way or the other. I’ve never been much of a fan for equanimity although I do try to cultivate it, a bit like knowing a bowl of hot oatmeal will do good on a cold day but chocolate would be so much better.
Lately however, threaded through my readings for chaplaincy and just plain interest, is a nuanced understanding of the Middle Way. I think I have taken (and perhaps it is unavoidable given the way it’s verbalized in teachings) the Middle Way as the Mean or Average of the extremes. Living the Grand Mean, as some statisticians might put it! Little wonder it has felt like pabulum and has contorted my sense of right and wrong, beneficial and harmful actions.
In Bhikkhu Bodhi’s mind-boggling anthology of the Buddha’s discourses (In the Buddha’s Words), the Potaliya Sutta addresses the pitfalls in sensual pleasures. (No real meaning in picking that one; the book falls open at random.) Potaliya asks the Blessed One how to “cut off (the business transactions, designation, speech, and intentions)” of a householder. The sutta runs along several allegories of letting go, cutting off the attachments through right understanding of their nasty consequences. Then the Buddha says,
Having seen this thus as it really is with proper wisdom, he avoids the equanimity that is diversified, based on diversity, and develops equanimity that is unified, based on unity.
Bhikkhu Bodhi’s notes explain that “diversity” means the five cords of sensual pleasure and “unity” means the fourth jhana or level of consciousness. But that isn’t what struck me. “Equanimity that is diversified” versus “equanimity that is unified” suggested that equanimity itself is not a singular concept. Balanced practice or the Middle Path is not about “absence of equanimity” versus “presence of equanimity.” It is the quality of the state of equanimity. I’m struggling with this concept and attending to the way equanimity is diversified – scattered across all the pleasures, distractions, wanton ways (oh Yes!), equally loving all the things I hate.
Further along in my reading on pastoral ethics (and I so wish that had something to do with meadows and bodice-ripping), this point arose: the challenge of doing good and not doing harm does not lie in the absolute statements of “help… but at least do no harm.” It is in the middle space between right and wrong. In Gentle Shepherding: Pastoral Ethics and Leadership, Joseph Bush, Jr. writes:
(E)thics is not solely a matter of philosophical abstraction from life. Rather, ethics makes contact with life itself, but it does so utilizing the philosophical and theological resources that are accessible to us “in the middle.”
In other words, we are challenged at points that are pivotal in our lives. Joseph Bush suggests that the middle is where we are trying to determine what to do, how to act, how to respond beyond the context of what is absolute good or bad, right or wrong. To push the point a bit further, while we acknowledge the right thing to do, we struggle with what we should do. Among the many models he discussed, one impacted my thinking most because it broadens the need for practice and deepens the intention. It categorized actions that we are, as spiritual practitioners, obligated to cultivate:
Do no harm
Remove (the potential for) harm
The two middle dimensions of practice he presents are the messy middle ground of being for me. They call for a willingness to step forward and act with discernment and an inability to know the real outcome.
Sher talks about becoming Olympians of middle-way points. And it’s not easy because equanimity is more quickly diversified than my mutual funds.
Before figuring it out you must want to figure it out. After figuring it out you must demonstrate the courage to say “no” to the forces all around you that will tempt you away. Universities, corporations, the media, spiritual authorities, even friends and family will push you to squelch the part of you that knows. A tremendous amount of consciousness is required to stay with your hard-earned understanding. (Sher, pp.28)
Thank you for practising,
My copy of Ven. Song Chol’s Opening the Eye just fell open the the verse,
“Everything in the universe sings of the Middle Way. So let’s hold hands and walk together in this magnificent scene, which, through its very nature, sings praise of Buddha.
The Buddha offered one version of the Middle Way in his first teaching (avoiding extremes) and another version much later in life (don’t attach to “this exists” or “this doesn’t exist”).
The latter teaching – which is about refraining from attachment to conceptual views – seems relevant to considerations of equanimity.
My own experience suggests that equanimity doesn’t involve being cool all the time – unruffled by life’s circumstances. But it does certainly involve active participation without attachment and “good intentions.”
Much to consider . . .
It seems equanimity is a process, a way of flowing through the co-arisings moment by moment. I’ve noticed lately that when the word comes up, there are concepts of what it “should” look like that come up for me, and others, fairly quickly after. But as Barry points out, the Buddha’s later teaching is trying to break us from the habit of acting from a set view of equanimity. Which is why I’d say it’s a verb – staying in between those road lines when a bus is coming at you probably isn’t equanimity in other words.
Equanimitying… equanimousing… equaminiting…
😆 So true that it works as a verb better than a noun. I love how these congealed concepts fall apart in the light air of your breathing…
buddhaing my way to bed after a day of failed equanimity. 😦
(I so value all of you on days like this when I really think I should go find an ice floe… with dlink wireless, of course!)
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