The concept of the Buddhist Middle Way can help us stay sane and be effective. You definitely don’t have to be Buddhist to appreciate the idea that human beings often think dualistically and end up clinging to one side of a dualism or another. This constrains our perceptions, creativity, and ability to respond skillfully. I discuss the approach of the Middle Way, which involves preserving our freedom by refusing to get stuck in extremes.



Quicklinks to Article Content:
My Story of the Middle Way with Respect to Our Environmental Crisis
The Attraction of Extremes
The Drawbacks of Getting Stuck in Duality
The Freedom (and Responsibility) of the Middle Way


The Middle Way is a central teaching of Buddhism, but you definitely don’t have to be Buddhist to appreciate it. Here it is in a nutshell: Our human minds tend to function dualistically. When we’re faced with a question, a decision, or a challenge, we usually think only in either/or terms. For example, something is right, or it’s wrong. Something is possible, or it’s not. You can either resist something, or you can accept it. Because of our dualistic thinking, we often get stuck in extremes and cause problems for ourselves and others. I’ll explain more later about the kinds of extremes we stuck in with respect to the climate crisis.

The alternative to getting caught in extremes is the Middle Way. In some ways, that’s not the best names for this approach, because it implies – incorrectly – that we’re looking for some kind of middle-of-the-road compromise between extremes, or that we’re camping out in the safe zone by refusing to take sides. The Middle Way is best defined in comparison to what it is not: It’s maintaining our freedom by refusing to get stuck in dualism. When we walk the Middle Way, we meet each situation with an open mind and heart. Our perceptions aren’t clouded and limited by preconceived notions. Because we aren’t clinging to one side of a dualism, we’re able to recognize options for responding that are more creative and attuned to the actual situation we’re facing.

My Story of the Middle Way with Respect to Our Environmental Crisis

Concepts like the Middle Way are what have allowed me to remain sane in a crazy world, and to function in the world with some measure of effectiveness.

I became deeply concerned about the state of our environment as a child. I loved animals and plants of all kinds, and I learned that many of them were quickly heading for extinction. I loved the natural world and saw how it was being exploited, used up, and trashed. This inspired me study biology, and eventually to get a master’s degree in wildlife science. However, in my mid-twenties I lost my enthusiasm for being a biologist. I realized the state of our knowledge about how to treat the natural world was vastly greater than our willingness to apply any of it, so what was the point? I’d be spending my life studying things that were vanishing before my eyes. My subsequent depression and despair led me to Zen practice.

What was the Middle Way I needed to find with respect to our environmental crisis? To answer that, I needed to become familiar with the dualism that I was falling into. This isn’t easy to do. After much time and reflection, though, I’d put it like this: I can either do something to save life on earth, or I can’t. When I found myself getting pulled toward the extreme of “I can’t do anything to save life on earth” – or the related extreme of “nothing can be done, given the power of greed, hate, and delusion in the world” – I would find myself feeling cynical and disengaged at best, and befuddled with grief and despair when things weren’t going so well.

The other extreme – “I can do something to save life on earth!” – may sound positive, but it was one half of a duality and therefore limiting and, at times, very painful. When I believed I could save life on earth, I felt a deep conviction that some particular course of action could make a meaningful contribution to a successful effort to redeem humanity. Such a conviction can be extremely energizing and motivating. It comes along with an inspiring vision of what’s possible, and determination to rise to the challenge of bringing it to fruition. To those who aren’t caught in it, this approach is usually referred to disparagingly as “idealism,” but to the idealists everyone else looks like a morally bankrupt quitter.

The problem with idealism is… well… the world. It’s a really tough and complicated place out there. Even tiny actions end up requiring a huge amount of time, energy, resources, planning, and work. Ambitious or revolutionary actions seem likely to inspire the angels with their potential, but 999 times out of a thousand they are unceremoniously squashed in their infancy by the massive inertia of the status quo, along with a million-and-one reasons they’re impossible, or now is not the time. To get anything done you have to work with other people, and at least half of your time is spent simply trying to agree on what to do, or coping with neuroses, power dynamics, and communication problems. Any change you want to make will inevitably have its skeptics, critics, and staunch opponents. The list goes on and on…

Fundamentally, the world is a morally ambiguous place and, while change is possible, it is usually painfully slow and comes at an enormous cost to those trying to make it happen. Even the greatest victories are incomplete, as any student of the civil rights movement will have to concede if they look around and see the massive inequities still facing most Black Americans. The world is a cruel place to an idealist.

The Attraction of Extremes

Why do we get caught in extremes? Why do we usually think dualistically, and tend to see only either/or options?

As we navigate the world, our brain is wired to keep us safe. It’s constantly sorting things into good (attractive, beneficial, safe), bad (repulsive, harmful, dangerous) and neutral (who cares, makes no difference to me). It weaves narratives about what’s going on so we can learn, and so we can act efficiently (that plant is delicious and nourishing, that person betrayed me and I shouldn’t trust them, I can assert myself in these kinds of situations and get what I want). We gain confidence and safety with a sense that we know what’s going on. New things can make us uneasy until we’ve drawn our conclusions about them, categorized them, and placed them in our narrative.

All of this mental activity is fine in and of itself. After all, it’s what allowed our ancestors to survive and pass their genes down to us. The problem is that we mistake what I like to call our “mental map” for reality itself. All the stuff we think is just a picture we’re drawing of reality, for quick and easy reference as we go about our daily lives. No matter how accurate that picture is, it falls short of depicting reality. A picture always contains certain subject matter to the exclusion of other things. It’s always drawn from a certain perspective, and with the materials we have available. A picture drawn as a map will always lag behind the changes in reality, as when a real map points us down a street that no longer exists. Worst of all, our mental maps invariably center around ourselves, just like world maps in the west usually center North America or Europe.

When it comes to our compulsion to pick one of two sides of a duality (if we’re going to engage at all), we’re following a mental map constructed by our mind – and that mind is adapted to simplify our decisions: Yes or no, go or stop, fight or flee. When we’re faced with what looks like an either/or situation, we can be pretty sure our mental map of the situation is vastly oversimplified when compared to reality. Nonetheless, we’re attracted to the certainty and simplicity of choosing one side of a duality and then sticking to it. We then weave the decision we make into our larger narrative about ourselves and become identified with it.

The Drawbacks of Getting Stuck in Duality

What are the drawbacks of getting stuck in duality? No matter which side we choose, our decision is ultimately going to be dissatisfying, and may even cause pain and suffering. At some point our overly simplified story is going to conflict with reality itself. For example, when I fell into the view that nothing could be done to save life on earth, it conflicted with the fact that all life is interconnected, and I could no more refuse to try and save it than I could refuse to help my hand if it was on fire. When I fell into the view that I could save life on earth, dammit, it conflicted with the reality that the world is an infinitely complex system within which it’s impossible to “fix” anything in isolation.

Getting stuck in duality makes us less able to perceive things clearly, because we approach everything with our preconceived notions and existing narratives. We miss things, including new possibilities, because our eyes are glued to our mental map instead of actually looking around us. All we can think about is our side of the either/or divide. Because our sense of self and safety has gotten wrapped up in our position, we also tend to be defensive, inflexible, and reactive when we encounter people, information, or situations that challenge our beliefs.

The drawbacks of clinging to dualistic extremes are evident in all things human, from the individual to societal level. You may think you either have to forgive and forget something terrible someone did to you – and thereby take the position that it wasn’t so terrible after all – or you have to hold on to your resentment. You probably can’t make yourself embrace the first option, and the second means a well of bitterness brews inside you. We may think we either can help someone in our community who is dire straits – and thereby risk getting sucked into their drama of unendingly need – or we have to conclude we can’t help the person and therefore we need to avert our gaze from their suffering and cut off part of our natural compassion. Our societies definitely get caught in dualities, such as believing either the rights to abortion need to be preserved against the slightest infringement because no one should be forced to give birth, or abortion must be banned outright in all cases because it is murder.

The Freedom (and Responsibility) of the Middle Way

When I cite these examples and anticipate discussing the Middle Way, I’m conscious of my own subtle fantasy that the Middle Way will provide neat answers to thorny predicaments and conflicts. As if the Middle Way is magical Buddhist recipe for skillful mediation and the solution to all of society’s problems. Just don’t get stuck in duality, and a wonderful path forward will open up for all!

Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on how you look at it – the Middle Way is not about easy answers. Instead, it’s about responding authentically to each situation we find ourselves in. By “authentic” I mean we’re brutally honest with ourselves and admit that most of the time we don’t really know what to do or think. We bring a wealth of resources to each situation – knowledge, experience, skills, beliefs, values, convictions, hopes, and aspirations – but we acknowledge our preconceived ideas are unlikely to be enough to ensure the best response. We face reality with a sense of humility about our own opinions.

At the same time, the Middle Way is fully engaged. It’s not at all about opting out because the situation is too complicated for an easy solution. We show up with everything we have, asking sincerely, “What can be done here? What is a good way forward?” We allow the best response we’ve got to arise in us and act with sincerity instead of certainty that we’re right. As we act, we stay open and pay attention to what happens, instead of committing ourselves to a script and defending our approach regardless of the consequences.

It will help to give you a couple examples of finding a Middle Way when facing what seems like an either/or duality. Let’s say you find yourself wrestling with two extremes when it comes to the climate and ecological crisis. You think that either you have to mostly ignore it because there’s not much you can do besides remember your reusable grocery bags and vote for political candidates who at least don’t deny the crisis, or you have to give your life over to climate activism and go vegan, stop flying overseas, stand on streetcorners angrily waving signs, and devote your weekends to planning climate activities that will probably never have much of an impact anyway.

If you relate at all to this duality, you probably feel a little sad, fearful, disempowered, and guilty if you figure there’s not much you can do besides make a few green consumer choices and vote. If, on the other hand, you feel driven to do more, if you actually think of yourself as a climate activist and are willing to make all kinds of sacrifices for the cause, chances are good you’re going to burn out at some point. You’ll get frustrated with the lack of progress we’re making on the climate crisis, and when you look around you at all the people enjoying their lives, things will stop making sense.

What would be the Middle Way in this example? What would it mean not to get stuck in either the extreme of 1) there’s nothing I can do besides the obvious things I already do, or 2) this is an f**king emergency and I’m going to turn my life inside out until the crisis is over. The first step is just to recognize the duality. The second is to reflect on the limitations of clinging to one extreme or the other. The third is to sincerely ask, “What other way is possible?” When we open our minds and hearts in this way, eventually something will occur to us.

It’s important to keep in mind that the Middle Way is not a fixed position or a set course of action. It’s a way of responding to and engaging in life as it happens. There’s no theoretical Middle Way, only a lived Middle Way. It requires us to get used to staying with what we Zen folks call “don’t-know” mind. The kind of “knowing” that can be a problem is knowing based on our mental map. However, “don’t-know” mind isn’t a refusal to engage with the question because it’s challenging, as in, “I don’t know what to do so I’ll do nothing.” Instead, we learn to trust that our best response will arise if we get out of the way and allow it to do so. Note that our “best” response isn’t guaranteed to elicit the results we hope for. We’re not omniscient or superhuman. But however imperfect our “best” response, there’s no way for us to do any better than that.

For my other example of the Middle Way, I’ll offer the story of the Buddha himself. According to Buddhist texts, Siddhartha Gautama (who later became the “Buddha,” which means “awakened one”) first lived a very decadent lifestyle. His father was very rich and powerful, and Siddhartha was surrounded by pleasures, luxury, and comfort. Nonetheless, as a young man Siddhartha became dissatisfied when he contemplated the inevitability of old age, disease, loss, and death. Eventually he left home and spent six years doing hardcore ascetic practice in the wilderness – meditating for days on end, starving himself, and denying himself any kind of pleasure or comfort. Despite his efforts, Siddhartha didn’t find any satisfaction from these activities either.

Finally, the future Buddha contemplated the futility of the two extremes he had tried. Simply ignoring the impermanence of life and trying to maximize pleasure and comfort had led to a deep dissatisfaction that meant none of his pleasures made him truly happy. Rejecting life because of its impermanence and seeking peace within that rejection didn’t bring him the peace and insight he hoped for either. As he sat there reflecting on what to do next, Siddhartha remembered a simple, mellow kind of meditation he had spontaneously entered into as a child. He though, “Might that be the way?” Then he tried it, and it was. Note that Siddhartha’s Middle Way wasn’t a philosophy he formulated and presented as being superior to sensual indulgence or asceticism. It was a way of responding to life, and he didn’t know it was the Middle Way until he tried it.


Hopefully all of this hasn’t seemed to philosophical or lofty… the concept of the Middle Way can be very helpful in your daily life as well as in your relationship to our climate and ecological crisis. For example, I like to keep the Middle Way in mind when I’m talking with others about problems in our personal lives or in the world, or even when I’m just contemplating them. I can feel myself grasping for a right answer. I want to plot the problem on my mental map. I want to carry around a sense that I know how to respond. I want to feel like I’m a good, smart person who stands on the right side of an issue. It’s very tempting to indulge these inclinations!

Then I remind myself that my estimation of the situation is just my best estimation. There’s a time and place for learning, contemplation, debate – for wrestling with an issue so you get a better sense of it. There’s value in knowing what your general opinions are and identifying what you’d like to see happen. But then we can let all of that go and move forward into the next moment. What we have learned will be present with us as we do so, our values will be present with us, but we don’t need to script our responses to the world based on our mental map. We don’t know what’s going to happen next. None of us does. Any script, any preconceived notion, any mental map is going to constrain our responses and limit our imagination as we move forward.



Picture Credit
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay



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