We can cultivate “an open state of mind that can relax with paradox and ambiguity.”
Note: This article was inspired by this 2009 post by Elephant Journal founder Waylon Lewis. Gracias!
Pema Chödrön‘s dharma teachings on the middle way:
In the middle way, there is no reference point. The mind with no reference point does not resolve itself, does not fixate or grasp. How could we possibly have no reference point? To have no reference point would be to change a deep-seated habitual response to the world: wanting to make it work out one way or the other. If I can’t go left or right, I will die! When we don’t go left or right, we feel like we are in a detox center. We’re alone, cold turkey with all the edginess that we’ve been trying to avoid by going left or right. That edginess can feel pretty heavy.
We are undoing a pattern that is not just our pattern. It’s the human pattern: we project onto the world a zillion possibilities of attaining resolution. We can have whiter teeth, a weed-free lawn, a strife-free life, a world without embarrassment. We can live happily every after. This pattern keeps us dissatisfied and causes us a lot of suffering.
As human beings, not only do we seek resolution, but we also feel that we deserve resolution. However, not only do we not deserve resolution, we suffer from resolution. We don’t deserve resolution; we deserve something better than that. We deserve our birthright, which is the middle way, an open state of mind that can relax with paradox and ambiguity. To the degree that we’ve been avoiding uncertainty, we’re naturally going to have withdrawal symptoms—withdrawal from always thinking that there’s a problem and that someone, somewhere, needs to fix it.
The middle way is wide open, but it’s tough going, because it goes against the grain of an ancient neurotic pattern that we all share. When we feel lonely, when we feel hopeless, what we want to do is move to the right or the left. We don’t want to sit and feel what we feel. We don’t want to go through the detox. Yet the middle way encourages us to do just that. It encourages us to awaken the bravery that exists in everyone without exception, including you and me.
Meditation provides a way for us to train in the middle way—in staying right on the spot. We are encouraged not to judge whatever arises in our mind. In fact, we are encouraged not to even grasp whatever arises in our mind. What we usually call good or bad we simply acknowledge as thinking, without all the usual drama that goes along with right and wrong. We are instructed to let the thoughts come and go as if touching a bubble with a feather. This straightforward discipline prepares us to stop struggling and discover a fresh, unbiased state of being.
Wow. Isn’t she amazing? Seriously, I often feel so calm and peaceful when I read articles or books by Pema. Her words are like medicine. Let’s take a closer look at a few of the ideas she mentions above.
“The mind with no reference point does not resolve itself, does not fixate or grasp.”
Notice how often your mind wants to resolve a situation, to fixate on an idea, to grasp at an expectation. Even in the span of a few minutes, our minds are typically, constantly doing these things. What a revolutionary yet beautifully simple meditation intention — surrendering mental fixation and grasping. (Naturally, this is easier said than done, but even starting to let go a little bit is pretty thrilling.)
“We are undoing a pattern that is not just our pattern. It’s the human pattern: we project onto the world a zillion possibilities of attaining resolution.”
Of course we want resolution. We want the story to finish. We love a Hollywood ending. But if we can drop the need for a tidy ending, the yearning to understand everything, for it all to make sense… that is freedom.
Every time I realize that I am repeating one of my old, unhealthy patterns, it hits me hard. Especially if I had thought, “This time, it’s different.” But it wasn’t different, it was exactly the same. And then I go through a little self-pity and negativity over perpetuating the pattern. (At the very least, that last phase keeps getting shorter and shorter…)
Even in this realization, there is progress. Identification of a pattern is step one. Choosing to take actions that will undo that pattern and develop a more empowering habit in its place is the second vital step.
“[The middle way] encourages us to awaken the bravery that exists in everyone without exception, including you and me.”
It is not easy, this path of moderation. It’s easier to go to extremes, to fly off the handle, to shield our hearts from potential breakage. But the more we can stay in the middle, away from the polarized edges, and open to whatever is happening, the more happiness and connectedness we will feel. It takes courage. It’s hard to stay open. It’s easier to close up. So squash that urge. See if you can remain in the middle and watch what happens.
“This straightforward discipline prepares us to stop struggling and discover a fresh, unbiased state of being.”
The world is a complicated place. Everything is simple and yet extremely complex at the same time. Life is paradoxical. Lucky for us, this spiritual path, this mindful life is available to us at all times. It is straightforward, non-dogmatic, practical. This daily practice is what makes life livable — and often magical!
Try it out. See how it feels to release yourself from the old judgments and expectations and patterns that no longer serve you. See how it feels to dwell in the middle.