Monday, February 18, 2013

the middle way ... not

A Zen teacher whose name and era my mind refuses to cough up was once asked what "the middle way" meant. Without hesitation he replied, "It means the extremes."

In one sense, it's the kind of response that these old dodgers might be expected to give ... "paradoxical" or "whimsical" or "challenging" or simply "kool." It's the kind of response that listeners might set off to understand, gnawing on the response like a dog on a beef bone.

Intellectually, when gnawing on the beef bone, it is comprehensible ... nothing too personal, just comprehensible and non-threatening. The middle way would have no meaning without the extremes to intellectually define it. And in a safe-sex sort of way, it can be applied personally: The extremes in my life have generally led to one kind of blood-letting or another so ... chill your jets, simmer down, be more circumspect and ... 'follow the middle way' between joy and sorrow, love and anger, need and greed.

In the fairy tale that came to be known as "Goldilocks and the Three Bears," a little girl, lost and hungry, comes to a cabin inhabited by three bears. The bears are out when Goldilocks arrives, but on their table are three bowls of porridge, one each for Mama, Papa and Baby Bear. Goldilocks is so hungry that she attacks the food without a second thought. But the first bowl is "too hot." The second bowl is "too cold." But the third bowl is "just right" ... and Goldilocks eats her fill.

And intellectually, "just right" becomes a big-boy version of the middle way ... something that doesn't hurt too bad or feel too good, but seems to fill the bill. A compromise, a place of ethics and enforced serenity, a place well-modulated and even-tempered and, most important, meaningful and in control.

With this appreciation, anyone might be inclined to wonder no longer about the middle way. What the hell -- I've got it nailed: The meaning is in hand. I'm in control. I can explain it to all and sundry and also remain content within. I may not always be able to act in accordance with what I know and find meaningful and believe, but, well, I've got a handle on it. I'm kool ... thanks for asking.

But life is full of pesky extremes and this mediocre interpretation of the middle way takes a licking as days and weeks and years pass. "Just right" can't seem to hold the extremes at a safe and smarmy  distance. And if this is the case, then perhaps instead of kowtowing to an intellectual fantasy -- looks good, sounds good, wins applause from others -- it is worth looking more closely at the pesky visitors.

Two aspects of what the ethical, Goldilocks version of the middle way might call extreme are a loss of control and a loss of meaning. Ever been enraged? Ever kissed a beloved friend? Ever eaten chocolate? Ever been consumed by grief? Ever sneezed?

In such moments there is neither control nor meaning. Later the formats of control and meaning may be brought to bear ... but for the moment -- this moment -- meaning and control can go suck an egg: This is this ... period. There is no precipice to fall off, nor anyone falling ... this this is all there is -- complete, uncompromising, ineffable. This moment is proof-positive ... minus any proof or anyone to say so.

Sometimes such complete moments have some very painful results. Sometimes they seem to serve up wondrous results. And sometimes the results are impact-neutral. But whatever their impact, there is nothing second-rate or contrived about them. It's only later that Goldilocks can go to work, that well-modulated assessments can attempt to sand off what may feel like very rough edges ... OK, I'll try to be good, talk sweet, go along to get along, play the middle way concerto.

Friends are interesting. No one became a good friend overnight. It took time and small incidents and mutual enjoyments that included disagreement ... drip, drip, dripping until one day, somehow, the bucket called friendship seemed to be full.

And maybe it's the same for the extremes and the middle way -- drip, drip, dripping with time and experience and practice until, somehow, the bucket called friendship is full. No longer are there two aspects. No longer is there even one aspect. The middle way is the extremes, the extremes are the middle way and prattling about it is left to the Goldilocks faction of this life.

To call it friendship would be too much.

Friends just go out for a burger without a backward glance. It's time for lunch and everyone gets hungry around lunchtime so ... eat your burger. Accompanied or unaccompanied ... eat your burger.

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