The premise of the Middle Way is that the mind is prone to rigid, extreme ways of thinking that bring us considerable hardship. By learning to go beyond this inner rigidity, we can discover an inner freedom that will open the door to a more harmonious, fluid, open way of being.
The roots of the Middle Way date back 2500 years to the Buddha, an Indian prince named Siddhartha whose message set the foundation for the ideas of the Middle Way. Even the very legend of the Buddha symbolizes the Middle Way: A prince who saw the limits of wealth, fame and power on the one side, and of asceticism and self denial on the other, and who taught that the greatest well-being comes from the avoidance of extreme ways of thinking or behaving.
The central insight of the Middle Way is that what we perceive as reality is not the same as reality itself – that we live through stories that provide order and structure in our lives, but that also create dissonance and conflict as we encounter the limits of those stories. Because these stories are so real to us, this dissonance is often difficult for us to see, even when it is causing us much hardship.
The function of the Middle Way is to help us see where we are stuck inwardly and to go beyond it. It is not unlike the way a lens in a telescope influences our information about the stars. If we upgrade the lens, we upgrade the information. The mind is like a lens, constructing an image of reality that influences our experience. The Middle Way is a means to upgrade that inner lens and gain more harmony, peace of mind and clarity. We do this through understanding the ideas of the Middle Way together with the meditation practices that help us embody those ideas.
By overcoming limited and rigid ways of thinking, we can gain a shift in awareness that brings a deeper vision of life and experience. In the words of Nagarjuna, the Middle Way’s most famous philosopher: “Life is no different from nirvana; Nirvana no different than life.” This means that the difference between suffering and hardship on the one side, and wellbeing and joy on the other, is very often merely a shift in perspective. The goal of the Middle Way is to help us bring about that shift.
Adapted from the introduction to Juniper’s Hearing the Silence: The Wisdom of the Middle Way (unpublished)