In broad terms, the liberal versus conservative divide also characterizes the difference between Eastern and Western spiritual traditions. This is not to say that Western traditions focus on institutions while Eastern traditions focus on freedom. Rather, it is that Western traditions invest power and authority in exemplars, while Eastern traditions tend to focus on advancing the ability of the individual to manage his or her interior life.
The focus on personal truth generated oscillations in Eastern – and in particular Indian – speculations. Starting at one end with a focus to learn how the world operated, the Indian philosophers would examine the reality around them, and then realize that the senses and psychology of the investigator influenced their observations. Delving ever deeper into theories of human experience with the goal of eliminating bias, the investigator would encounter levels of interior truth, until a deep mystical connection to a benevolent presence was encountered. The mystic’s desire to bond permanently to that presence would lead them into deeper and deeper introspection, and eventually a complete withdrawal from society. This led to irrelevance, vulnerability and ridicule, which would cause a shift by later generations back towards concern with material realities. The cycle would repeat over the time-scale of centuries.
It was through the lens of this philosophical context that I first interpreted the Buddhist concept of “The Middle Way”. It was a set of practices and principles that helped the investigator to maintain a presence in both worlds. The principles include compassion for all sentient beings and mindfulness. The most widely known practice is meditation, although tantra expands more broadly into human sensory experience. Less well known is “emptiness”: the skill of relating to reality without imposing a personal agenda upon its unfolding.
I am bemused by the way that this wisdom is being repackaged for consumption in modern Western culture. It appears that there is a cycle being created within the cycle. I don’t know whether the teachers are conscious of the program they are constructing, or whether they are simply focusing on what makes sense to them in the context of modern psychology.
In this new framework, the “middle way” is a path between narcissism and social engagement. The focus is relation with each other, and in particular removing the impediment of aggression against human bonding. “Mindfulness” is a method for being conscious of and therefore maintaining some influence over our reactions to events around us. Meditation is first and foremost a means of developing mental discipline.
I call this a “cycle within a cycle” because it appears that establishing these skills is an important precondition for entering into the greater “Middle Way” that leads to participation in the evolution of spiritual principles. This is terribly momentous and psychologically hazardous work with “infinite” dependencies, as Ethan Nichtern pointed out in his last lecture. It is not a place for people that are confused about the boundaries of their personalities.
What bemuses me is the conflation of the “Middle Way” and the “middle way”. I am concerned that the leap between the two is far greater than is suggested by the casual use of shared terminology. Between the surrender of the self and entry into negotiation between principles is a long, confusing and often blundering exploration of how the principles are arrayed about us. They penetrate into material reality with subtle and non-local manifestations. Upon being uprooted from one location, they drift – almost literally – on the wind until they find a place to root in sympathetic circumstances. When excluded, they gather in concentrated form, which is why our avatars, both good and evil, tend to arise in paradoxical circumstances.
One of the practices upheld in Bodhisattva teaching is that of patience. As Ethan emphasized, those that adopt the path are doing the work of generations. Given that insight, I am hoping that a practice of shared spiritual cartography would be offered to those trying to make the leap across the “middles”.