“I know no medium,” says Jane Eyre, speaking of the way she typically responds to people and events. Like many of us in real life, this great fictional character finds herself reacting automatically, and either passively or aggressively. “I never in my life have known any medium in my dealings with positive, hard characters, antagonistic to my own, between absolute submission and determined revolt. I have always observed the one, up to the very moment of bursting, sometimes with volcanic vehemence, into the other.”
What does it mean to find the Middle Way? Not in the sense of picking up a book on Buddhism or contacting a teacher, but in ourselves and in our lives. There is always a draw to act, a restless wish to move, to create, to do something. And there is also a wish to submit–and I’m not talking about depression or being a mouse or some unwholesome slavish quality here but to a wholesome impulse to be still and know a greater wholeness–to bear witness to greater life.
There are always two different currents operating in most of us–a push outward and a pull inward and upward, up out of this worldly mess. Yet sometimes, when we sit down to meditate or walk in nature or otherwise try to be very aware of what is happening in the present moment, we can find an attitude and an attention that can embrace all the disparate parts of ourselves, including that irreconcilable push-pull. Sometimes, we can be actively quiet inside–passively active, embracing and observing and delving into what we are like and what life is like. This is the Middle Path: it is that vibrant attention that can be medium–that can stay between those opposite pulls, that can unite our thoughts and feelings and sensations–parts that have so little in common they haven’t spoken to each other in years.
This is what I love about meditation. I can sit down in the grumpiest, most preoccupied state of mind. I can have a thousand things on my mind; my emotions can be just barely be on this side of overwhelm; and my body can be contracted like a spring, ready to bolt up and do something about all those dire predictions in my ears. Yet if I can just manage to stay on the cushion for ten minutes or so there inevitable comes a shift, a kind of subtle gift of grace. I’ve also heard it called a “movement of availability.” What happens quite simply is that the surrounding stillness, the field of awareness that seems to draw close and surround a person when they meditate becomes more vibrant and interesting and alive than the turbulent thoughts, emotions, tensions and sensations that are usually entrance us (literally entrance us). When this shift occurs, I become interested in myself in a new way–not taking my own side, arguing my own case–but seeing what I am like with the kind of acceptance the stillness itself seems to express. You know what I mean. Think of what it is like to be surrounded by tall trees. There is a feeling of a grave but peaceful witness, as if we are being shown or fed something about what it can mean to practice patience and peaceful abiding.
I once heard that the Pali word “metta,” which means loving kindness or friendliness (a quality of the heart that supports the cultivation mindfulness) also refers to the sun and to sunshine. The sun shines evenly on all things; it is not responsible for the clouds that drift by like thoughts passing through the mind. The sun is naturally radiant; it refuses nothing and demands nothing. What I’m calling medium or Middle Path awareness is just like that. And not only is this awareness capable of embracing the disparate parts of ourselves–not passively submitting but humming with quiet interest. It is also not separate from compassionate and friendly acceptance–and not separate from wisdom. We discover in such moments that wisdom is not about words and thoughts but about connecting with a special energy that is inside and outside, an energy that brings acceptance, letting go, reconciliation.
In the sunlight of such awareness, we don’t care anymore (for a second) about what the ego cares about, about being right or looking good. In that beautiful place of being radiantly medium, we would agree with Jane Eyre when she said: “I would always rather be happy than dignified.”