Practicing the Middle Way-not too much, not too little

Lately I been thinking a lot about what right effort is in Buddhist practice. Right effort is, of course, one of the elements of the Noble Eightfold Path. Regardless of what some others may teach or say, the Buddha taught that liberation requires effort, but not just any effort, but right effort. Just what is right effort?

I was delighted this morning to find help from the Buddha himself. During my dharma study, I came across this helpful commentary on the Devadaha Sutta by Andrew Olendzki, the editor of Insight Journal . The Devadha Sutta is one of the Buddha’s core teachings on the subject. Here is an excerpt from the article, which I hope you will find helpful in your practice:

“On one occasion, when he was visiting his homeland among the Sakya clans, the Buddha is said to have given a lengthy discourse on the nature of exertion and striving. The context of the discussion was his criticism of the Jain ascetic practices, so common in ancient India, but his remarks on the subject are of immense importance to the contemporary practice of insight meditation.

And how is exertion fruitful, bhikkhus, how is striving fruitful? Here, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu is not overwhelmed by suffering and does not overwhelm himself with suffering; and he does not give up the pleasure that accords with Dhamma, yet he is not infatuated with that pleasure.

He knows thus: ‘When I strive with determination, this particular source of suffering fades away in me because of that determined striving; and when I look on with equanimity, this particular source of suffering fades away in me while I develop equanimity.’

He strives with determination in regard to that particular source of suffering which fades away in him because of that determined striving; and he develops equanimity in regard to that particular source of suffering which fades away in him while he is developing equanimity.

When he strives with determination, such and such a source of suffering fades away in him because of that determined striving; thus that suffering is exhausted in him. When he looks on with equanimity, such and such a source of suffering fades away in him while he develops equanimity; thus that suffering is exhausted in him.

“This is the dilemma: If we ‘try’ too hard to practice meditation, if we deliberately exert ourselves to ‘succeed’ at the task, then we may tap into an entire complex of unwholesome conditioning so prevalent among Western students. ‘Striving mind’ can be extremely counterproductive, unleashing a crippling self-judgment if we don’t match up to the goals we have set for ourselves. On the other hand, if we do not strive at all, and merely ‘go along’ with whatever is arising in all situations, then we may simply drift to wherever the ‘monkey mind’ happens to take us. Our underlying tendency to pursue pleasure and avoid pain, left to its own devices, can result in our mindfully avoiding any significant transformation.

The Buddha’s profound teaching of the middle way, applied particularly to the dynamics of meditation practice, is the theme of this passage from the Devadaha Sutta. The point is finding the right balance between ‘striving with determination’ and ‘looking on with equanimity.’ Neither approach is correct all the time, but each can be used as a skillful technique for addressing certain mental states. The two approaches complete one another.”

Practicing the Middle Way
Devadaha Sutta
Majjhima Nikaya 101
You can read the full article here:
http://www.dharma.org/ij/archives/1998a/devadaha_sutta%20.htm

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About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

17 Responses to “Practicing the Middle Way-not too much, not too little”

  1. p.s. thanks Michael J for pushing Steven’s silly button! You both are very humorous, as most humans are who have come along way on the way…

  2. A beautiful reminder Steven and it actually works wonders. Regardless what I struggle with, as soon as I turn ‘within’ and let go of the matter, the matter no longer matters. It is as they say, “if you don’t go within, you go without”. And to me letting go of it all and turning within is the ‘right’ effort. I must reach for It in order to become It; It does not ‘come’ to me as It is always there…

    A very simple thing, albeit not always easy.

    Thank you for sharing.

    Namaste
    Snædís

    • Thank you, Snædís. And a great reminder from you that what we are looking for is already here, and I think it’s absolutely true that “if you don’t go within, you go without.” Great point.

      You’ve sparked me to take a look at a Cheri Huber book I own, started, but didn’t get back to called “That Which You Are Seeking is Causing You to Seek.” As she says, “What we are looking for is causing us to look. That’s why we need not to go anywhere, do anything, learn more, figure anything out, or worry about going wrong. We need only to [and here’s the right effort, as you point out Snædís] stop, sit down, be still, and pay attention.”

      Of course, there are skillful things to do and unskillful things not to do when we make this effort to pay attention, but it all comes back to showing up and being present for our lives. 🙂

      Thanks for sharing, as well,

      Steve

      • I am not familiar with Cheri Huber’s work, but it sounds inspiring. Currently I am reading ‘Reflections On A Mountain Lake’ by Ani Tenzin Palmo, and she speaks of much the same, of course 🙂

        Yes, it is amazing isn’t it how long it takes and how much we first seek before we realize that there is nothing to find, nowhere to go and nothing to do… And it feels so good to connect with people who have come precisely to that realization.

        Great work Steve, its good to know of people like yourself ‘out there’ – and I presume you agree that any moment is as good as any other to become present and not only by sitting down; the now is always a good moment isntititit? Oh and how vitally important it is for life on this planet that we do so.

        Sigh… And Big Smiles

        Snædís

    • Hey Snædís!

      I highly recommend any of Cheri Huber’s books…I have them all, and every one is a gem. She’s Zen teacher, but also brings very skillful tools from western psychology, especially her idea of the “voices” we all listen to (she’s not talking about mental illness, though in a sense, we are all mentally ill to the degree we listen to these voices of our social and familial conditioning.)

      I’ve seen that Palmo book a number of times in stores…..almost bought it…is that the one where she spent a year (or more?) in a Tibetan cave, or am I thinking of another Tibetan teacher, perhaps? I’ll have another look at it when I get a chance.

      Agree about the connections! And yes, any moment is a precious moment, a time to be here. Sitting to meditate (or walking meditation) is like special training to me; like what an athlete does to get ready for her or his event. But the “big show” is our everyday life. 🙂

      Of course, even looking at it that way can set up a dualism, but what I’m trying to say is that dharma is so much more than “mat time” or “formal” mediation. So, yes, so I’m also very big on the idea that mindfulness and presence are for everything we do. But I think the “formal” sitting is very important as well.

      I agree — never before has our planet so needed us to wake up, so not a one of us is insignificant in what we do.

      Warm wishes,
      Steve

      • Cheri Huber sounds very worthwhile to read. Thank you for the tip. Palmo is indeed the one who lived in a cave for years. Having just this past summer visited some caves in which Buddhist nuns reside at the foot of the Himalayas makes me greatly respect Palmo – she lived in one of those in complete solitude, often unable to get out due to heavy snow. Also she is from the West and thus I find her teachings very accessible.

        Yes, I like walking meditations too. In fact it is my favorite method, possibly because I ‘developed’ it myself long before I learned that it is a common practice. I am strange like that; only recently have I felt confident enough to study others people’s teachings. Before, regardless where I went, and whomever I began listening to, my inner voice, my inner guidance fell silent, and I could not bear that.

        But now it does not fall silent anymore, and so I can study, and read 🙂 We truly each walk our own unique path towards the same goal, don’t we?

        Thank you for the conversation. It’s been a pleasure.

        Snædís

        • My longest silent retreat was two weeks, and in relative comfort. I can hardly imagine living in cave for years. A lot of people would just lose it; a kind of sensory deprivation. It must have been her path, or she wouldn’t have come out of it without damage. I admire the courage, that’s for sure.

          I was quite touched by what you said about your inner voice. I can’t tell you how long it took me to learn what you intuitively knew — that other people’s voices and teaching could silence the “guru” or “still, small voice” in your own heart.

          So often, I mistook other people’s voices and beliefs for the what I needed to find inside. Thankfully, that inner voice never stopped coming again and again as the voice of my own authenticity. I had to break away from organized religion before I could fully hear it, and when I did, then I saw how it, and not the beliefs systems I had accepted, had been guiding me all along. I almost weep when I think of it.

          And now, I’m very vigilant about taking care of that precious voice and respecting its integrity. I find that too much reading, too much listening to other voices, however inspired, tends to deaden and divert me from the path. And as far as “authority” goes; I don’t care who said it; it has to ring true in my heart, and in my practice, and if it doesn’t, I just don’t listen. 🙂

          Great talking to you, too.
          Steve

          • Feels like we could go on talking like this for a long time 🙂 Your generous transparency inspire me.

            Yes, all this stuff we picked up whilst growing up and then cumbersomely must rid ourselves off. I guess it is part of the process, no? Organized religion is something I luckily have never been fed with, and quite frankly it has never interested me. I was lucky enough to have been brought up in nature and nature is, as I know you know, a wonderful loving teacher and companion.

            As with you all wisdom must ring true within before I can accept it, and many times I discover it first in my heart and when I read about it later on it simply reassures me that it is ‘true’. I strongly believe that humanity is evolving in such a way that it is merging with that silent inner voice (however slowly!) and therefor organized religion soon has counted its days.

            It truly are exciting times to live here on planet earth in human form isn’t it?!? To be able to experience all this. Sometimes it just takes my breath away…

            Take care,
            Snædís

            p.s. oh yes, the caves… I would not want to do it but I do like what others have brought out from them 🙂

            • Having just read your stream of words,
              I feel the child in me has been proven right after all.

              Call it intuition, a “hunch” or a simple “guiding”
              light inside, that boy serves as “lighthouse” in my good and bad days.

              Inspirational, simply inspira-tional, you guys. Better than reading books in a cave.

              • That’s wonderful, Michael J. I’ve had the same experience reading conversations as “your place”, so to speak. I love your “lighthouse image a lot.

                And your “better than reading books in a cave” made me laugh out loud–seriously. You’re a witty guy! Thanks.

            • OK, it’s late, so I’ll keep it short — feeling is mutual!

              And your final point, yes a very exciting time to be here, amazing possibilities and amazing challenges. Everything we do helps.

              Rest well!

              Steve

              PS – loved you PS! 🙂

  3. Steven,

    With my Greek ancestry, i can see Aristotle’s Golden Mean through the “middle path.” But, I have trouble with understanding some of the language used in the quotations.

    I guess a person could get try too hard at times, or forget humility after they mastered one thing only to lose it to the pride that comes with a big head.
    thanks,

    michael j

    • Hey Michael J! Yes, I think there are a lot of similarities between the Golden Mean and “the middle path.” I don’t know if the Greeks went into the “nuts and bolts” as deeply as the Buddha, in terms of meditation and skillful means, but this Greek-born idea was still a breakthrough in human consciousness, and is a wonderful part of our human heritage.

      I think here, in this passage, the Buddha is saying, among other things, that there is a time to “strive with determination” and a time to practice non-reactivity with some source of suffering.

      I think “Americanized” or westernized Buddhism often conveys the sense that it’s all passive, all just “being here,” all just “going with the flow,” so to speak. But what the Buddha actually said and taught has passages just like this—the need to “strive with determination” sometimes.

      But as Olendzki points out, doing this we can fall into “striving mind,” so again, even the Buddha’s very own teaching on “right effort” has to be seen as a skillful means, something we feel and do artfully, patiently, like a person tuning a lute (an analogy the Buddha actually uses) or other instrument.

      • By Jove, I think I’ve got. “To strive, or not to strive?” That is the Buddha question.

        How close to “Be or not to Be” was Buddha? Two thousand years before the Bard /

    • LOL!

      OK, you pushed my silly button; here goes:

      “To be is to do” – Socrates;
      “To do is to be” -Sartre;
      “Do Be Do Be Do” – Sinatra;
      “Scooby Dooby Do”- Scooby Do
      “Yaba Daba Doo!”- Fred Flintstone

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