Welcome to The Middle Way Society

The Middle Way Society was founded to promote the study and practice of The Middle Way. The Middle Way is the idea that we make better judgements by avoiding fixed beliefs and being open to practical experience. We challenge unhelpful distinctions between facts and values, reason and emotion, religion and secularism or arts and sciences. Though our name is inspired by some of the insights of the Buddha, we are independent of Buddhism or any other religion. We seek to promote and support integrative practice, overcoming conflict of all kinds.

The MWS Podcast 124: Abeba Birhane on a person is a person through other persons

Our guest today is Abeba Birhane. Abeba is an Ethiopian cognitive science PhD student presently living in Dublin. She blogs regularly at abebabirhane.wordpress.com on topics including philosophy, psychology, feminism, anthropology. She recently drew quite a bit of attention on the internet in an article for Aeon entitled Descartes was wrong: a person is a person through other persons and this will be the topic of our discussion today



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Announcing the Introductory Course

You can now learn about Middle Way Philosophy in a structured way, but going at your own pace, by following the 27 videos of the introductory series. Each of the pages for these themiddlewaysocietylogovideos now also offers questions for reflection that encourage you to think about how the ideas can be applied in your own life, as well as recommendations for further reading and a link onto the next video in the series.

Click here to find out more about the Introductory Course and set out on it!

Meditation 17: Establishing a meditation practice

Meditation is simple, but not easy. As proponents of the Middle Way we recognise that meditation is a valuable practice: it helps us to avoid delusion by making us almost instantly aware of our own relative lack of integration, and it can help us to make incremental progress with the process of integrating conflicting desires. So, we have a simple, valuable practice which we believe will be of benefit but one that is also not at all easy to do, and one that is not at all easy for many meditators to establish.

Setting the scene
This whole article is based on the assumption that it is better to meditate, than not. And if one meditates, I assume that a frequent, regular practice is better than irregular. The only justification I’m going to give has already occurred in the paragraph above! I’m also going to assume that the reader aspires to establish a regular meditation practice, but has not quite got there yet. This is a fairly common situation, as I understand it, and this is no surprise when you consider that meditation is usually a process of continually failing. We’re not well conditioned to being confronted with this!

There are plenty of articles out there on the internet that provide instructions on (for example) ‘How to establish effective habits’ and I don’t intend to replicate them here. Instead I’m going to work with an analogy from my own personal experience and explore the connections between establishing an exercise regime and establishing a meditation practice.

Runner runningIt was only a few years ago that I established a regular, daily meditation practice, and I’ve maintained it ever since with only the occasional day off. I know I’ve got the determination and self-discipline to do something like that if I think it is worth pursuing, and I still think it is worth pursuing now – that’s why I’m keeping it up. However, trying to give helpful advice in this context is a bit like the adults who, in my church-going youth, told us teenagers to refrain from sex until we were married: easy for them to say, they were invariably already married! So, I’m going to use the example of something that I’m still working to establish, and that’s a regular running regime.

A running commentary
Over the years I’ve obviously run – there were the enforced running activities in PE and games lessons at school. Later on, when the running was not mandatory, it did not happen particularly often. I used to cycle to get from A to B, and that seemed like sufficient exercise – I’m talking about the kind of exercise that gets your heart rate up, that strengthens your cardiovascular system. After gaining some weight during my undergraduate years at university, the influence of my more active postgraduate peers led to me exercising regularly at the university gym – and although I concentrated on lifting weights, I also felt obliged to mix that with some running, mainly using treadmills. It was not rewarding, although I did get fitter (and thinner) – but as soon as I started full-time teaching that also stopped. There were other demands on my time and I didn’t prioritise running (or any other kind of cardiovascular exercise) as it was inconvenient and painful.

In my early 30s, when my wife was pregnant with our son, I was rather stressed and had borderline high blood pressure – exercise was recommended by the medical professionals. I tried a few things, none of them stuck. In time my blood pressure went down and the pressure I felt to exercise also declined. Which brings me to the end of my 30s, roughly this time last year, when I had arrived at a point where I’d realised that there are all sorts of things one can do (or stop doing) to improve one’s well-being, and regular physical exercise was probably the final one that I was dodging.

bruno-nascimento-149663I settled on running for its simplicity. It can be done anywhere, at any time, alone or with company, and requires minimal specialist equipment – and I already had suitable footwear. The financial implications were practically zero, which helped. The technique, too, is simple: left, right, left, right, etc. I’m sure you know: it’s a bit like walking, but faster. My body was already reasonably well-prepared for it: I’ve never been slimmer, my knees were still in good working order and I was otherwise in good health. Just not at all fit.

Now, just over a year later, I run regularly but not frequently – at least once a week. I am able to run at least 10 km without stopping, in less than an hour. I have no idea if that’s “good”, but it’s where I’m currently at. I haven’t injured myself, and I’ve kept it up through all the (admittedly mild) seasons, and I want to continue. I don’t do it for company, as I run alone, and I don’t do it to win, as I’ve never entered any kind of race. So how over the past year have I gone from basically no fitness to this, and what has it got to do with meditation? Read on through the following six points…

1. Just do it, and really do it
kristian-olsen-114779I did a lot of thinking about running. Not much talking, but a fair bit of listening. I pondered the best time, place, clothing, technique and so on. But you’re not actually running unless you’re actually putting one leg in front of the other, and probably working up a sweat at the same time. In the analogy that I’m making, meditation is much the same.

There is a lot of advice out there, probably too much. As many different opinions and options as there are people offering those opinions and options. But at some point you’re going to have to sit down (or lie down, or stand, or walk) and meditate. So do it, pick something simple and go with it, and don’t dress it up with a lot of unnecessary accessories.

2. Be conscious of self-consciousness
Maybe this is something that is more of an issue for me than it is for others, but at first I felt very self-conscious about being seen to go running. I didn’t see myself as ‘a runner’, and I had pretty much no experience of running. What if I was doing it wrong? I found a way around this – simply by going running at 6am on Sundays, when I was pretty much the only person out on the streets. It also helped that it was dark in the autumn and winter when I was getting established.

You may find the same thing with meditation – I certainly did. It helped me when I was starting to meditate to do it at a time when I knew that I wouldn’t be interrupted – so first thing in the morning, before my son had woken up. It also helped to have a friendly guide who you won’t feel ‘judged’ by – for me it was impersonal guided meditations via my phone, but for you it might be a meditation teacher in person. In time the feeling that I had to look and act like ‘a meditator’ has faded away.

3. Establish a regular time
I’ve already mentioned that I found a time that worked for me, both for running and for meditating. And for both it was first thing in the morning. Of course, this may be different for you, but don’t fool yourself with ideas like ‘But I’m not a morning person’. You might surprise yourself. There was a time that I thought I would simply die if I did not immediately eat breakfast when I woke up. Turns out that’s not true, but I only found out by actually doing it! The main thing is that you have a time when, in the usual routine, it is time to meditate: it is much easier to make it a (virtuous) habit then.

In terms of duration, I’ve always used a timer. When I started running I’d take a timepiece with me, as I’d have alternate between running and walking and without a timer I’d end up walking for a long time and running for only  a short time. Now that I can run without stopping I leave the smartphone at home, but afterwards I record in my diary how far I ran and how long it took me (roughly). It appeals to the part of me that likes data, and provides a more objective way of tracking what I’ve done. As for how long, I’d just run until I felt that I really couldn’t run any further.

File_000 (11)With the meditation practice, as I said I started with guided meditations so they were of a fixed duration. I don’t often use guided meditations now, but I do use a timer. Mainly because sometimes there are time constraints (for example, I’ve got to get to work on time). If there aren’t any constraints, then I meditate until I feel like I can’t meditate any more. I still have a timer running when I meditate, in fact I use the ‘Insight timer’ app on my phone. I don’t meditate for points (or to ‘win’ at meditating) but there is something satisfying about having it tell me that I’ve meditated for 222 consecutive days (or whatever).

4. Establish a regular place
The analogy here is a bit weaker, but it still broadly works. There are various constraints on the routes that I run – they usually need to start and end at my house, they need to be suitably challenging (right amount of uphill and downhill), the fewer roads I have to cross the better, sometimes there needs to be the option to quit part way through. The main thing is that I have favoured routes which I tend to stick to, but I don’t always run the exact same route in the exact same direction. Variety, here, being the spice not the main ingredient.

In my analogy, the running route becomes the meditation location. It has to be convenient and conducive to the meditation you’re doing; you don’t want to be easily interrupted, but you’ve got to accept that there will be times when you can’t meditate in your preferred spot. My preferred location varies to fit the circumstances, but it helps to have a place that is ‘where I meditate’. In the winter I usually roll out of bed (in the dark) and sit next to my bed. In the spring and autumn, when it is lighter and warmer, I get up and go downstairs and sit by the patio doors. If it is summer I sit just outside on the decking. But there are times when I mix it up: for example, I might put on gloves and a hat and sit outside in the garden in the winter.

Runner with hands on head5. When things don’t go to plan…
When establishing the running I had a regular time, regular routes, etc. but of course things don’t always go to plan. There were times when, for example, I’d be ill on a Sunday morning and not capable of getting out of bed, let alone running 5 km. Or maybe I’d be OK, but my son was ill and needed more attention than normal. Or I’d run a few miles then feel the need to urgently visit the toilet when the only real option was to run back home again. These are the occasions to be open to the idea of being flexible, of not being too rigid. A few weeks ago I had a huge headache on Sunday morning, but it had gone by the evening and so I ran instead in the evening. This might sound obvious, but it needs saying: it is so easy to say ‘Well, my habit is to run on Sunday morning and if I can’t run on Sunday morning then I won’t run at all’.

Astute readers will have noticed that there will be a clash in my schedule on Sunday mornings, as my habitual meditation time coincides with my habitual running time. Do I, perhaps, see the running as a meditation, to put one foot in front of the other and to really feel myself placing and lifting my feet, to follow the deep inhalations and exhalations from my diaphragm? Or do I just meditate first and then go out and run. Or maybe I run for a while, sit down to meditate on a park bench, then run back home again. I’ll leave that as something for you to ponder.

6. You’re not alone
My running is a solitary activity. I have always done it alone. But have I really? I sometimes talk to friends who also run about their running: why they do it, how they do it and so on. When I’m out running, even when it’s before 7am on a Sunday, I pass other runners: some wave, some give a dignified nod, with some it is just a knowing look. But there’s a kind of community in that – especially when you start to recognise them week after week.

ian-keefe-245920You will probably get stuck with your meditation. At the point where I got stuck I was pretty much going it alone. However, through some connections that I’d made with more experienced meditators (via the internet) I was able to get un-stuck. They didn’t remove the blockage for me, but by discussing their own experiences and how they found a way through I was able to do the same thing myself, in time. I’ve also been able to return since to the things that were causing me to get stuck, and they now look very different to me. What was a source of frustration in my meditation has become something more helpful.

This probably depends a great deal on your personal preferences, but it may be that you’ll find it easier to meditate regularly if you are involved with other meditators. It might be someone more experienced who can offer guidance, or it might be someone similarly inexperienced who is willing to muddle through with you, and to share encouragement. My wife has been meditating for significantly longer than I have. We often sit together in the evenings. It really is quite a different experience to sitting in meditation on my own, and it means that sometimes when I don’t feel like meditating there is encouragement from her to take a break from whatever else I’m doing and join in.

curtis-macnewton-12711In terms of being part of a larger group – I’ve never done that with running, but I have friends who keep up a regular running practice mainly because they ‘have to’ as part of a group they’ve joined. Similarly, I wasn’t part of a meditation group when I was establishing a regular practice, but for others I know that is their way of reminding themselves of their intention to regularly meditate. I’ve already mentioned the Insight timer app – this also has a social side, in that it can show you other people using the app, all over the world, connecting you to a rather loose community of meditators. My feelings about this vary, but generally I see it as being akin to my very low-key interactions with the other runners that I meet when I’m running alone.

In conclusion
The point in all this is that establishing a regular practice of anything is going to take some effort, and there are things you can do to try and make the establishment more successful. I can offer various points from my own personal perspective, which might be broadly helpful but they probably aren’t going to be a perfect fit to your own personal situation. So what I’m recommending is to draw on your own experience. The things I’d encountered whilst establishing a regular meditation practice, in particular the things I’d learned about my own inclinations and preferences, could be applied to new virtuous habits that I’m trying to establish, hopefully making the process much easier.

igor-ovsyannykov-219668If you’re trying to establish a regular meditation practice then I won’t wish you good luck – I don’t even know what that really means, other than wishing you well in your venture. Instead I will conclude by giving you this encouragement in the style of one of history’s most famous meditators (The Buddha):

Such is a regular meditation practice. It can be established. It has been established.


Follow this link to read my previous meditation blog post: Meditation 16: Conscious listening.

Index of previous meditation blogs

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The MWS Podcast 123: Amod Lele on Literal Conservatism

We are joined today by Amod Lele, who teaches Indian philosophy at Boston University. He is also Visiting Researcher at the Center for the Study of Asia, and an Educational Technologist with Information Services & Technology. He writes a regular blog in cross-cultural philosophy, called Love of All Wisdom on which I came across an article he wrote on ‘Literal Conservatism’. I was struck by his contention that in recent times the political left has been far more conservative in this sense than the right and this will be the topic of our discussion today.



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Policing by consent?

It took me completely by surprise to see two men armed with semi-automatic weapons heading straight towards me.

Of course that opening sentence – although true – is a deliberate attempt to grab your attention. I hope I don’t lose you by revealing further details: the two men were Authorised Firearms Officers of the Hampshire Constabulary on patrol in Winchester city centre. It was just by chance that I happened to be walking towards them with my family on a sunny summer Sunday afternoon.

Photograph of armed police officersSo it would seem that there ends the story, except… as our paths crossed I took a closer look at the gun of the nearest officer. The weapon’s magazine was made of a translucent material, and I could see the individual rounds within. And it struck me that it was possible that one or more of those bullets could be shot into me or my wife or my son, probably causing fatal damage. In the short time it took before my slow-thinking processes dismissed the idea as totally far-fetched, I felt my blood run cold.

Anyway, this short experience at the weekend led to certain lines of thinking: How flimsy is the barrier that separates the living me from the horror of a sudden, violent, mechanised death? How it has come to pass that some people can walk down Winchester high street on a Sunday afternoon carrying semi-automatic rifles, and others can’t? And, of course, what has all this got to do with the Middle Way?

I can supply a little more background information here, especially for any readers from outside the UK. In Great Britain police officers are not routinely armed and the public are, with a few exceptions, not permitted to carry firearms. I have seen British police officers armed with similar weapons before, but this was in high security locations such as Whitehall in London, or at Heathrow Airport. In contrast, the city of Winchester, where I crossed paths with these armed officers, was last year proclaimed ‘the best place to live in the UK’ due to its high employment, good wages, low crime and above average health and life expectancy. I assume they were patrolling as a kind of reassurance to locals and tourists that any acts of terrorism would not go unchecked, in the wake of recent atrocities in Manchester and London.

This paragraph from Chapter 6 of Robert M. Ellis’s book “Middle Way Philosophy 2: The Integration of Desire” helps set the tone for any discussion of policing in terms of the Middle Way:

The state’s responsibility, then, is to support the integration of desires by preventing the grossest expressions of conflict – those which would create an environment in which further integration is impossible. [… O]ur environment needs to strike a balance between security and challenge in order to prevent the arising of unintegrated desires, but that means that a basic level of security needs to be created by government. In order to do this it is obliged to use force to suppress those who would perpetrate conflict by violence or other coercion.

18815853363_c91b9befb4_oSo these armed police officers were one of the means by which the government ensures a basic level of security, so that I can, for example, feel free to walk up Winchester high street (pictured on the right) on a Sunday afternoon without needing to carry arms myself. If there were any people in the city centre who intended to perpetrate conflict by violence, or the threat of violence, then I would reasonably assume that these armed officers would use (possibly lethal) force in order to suppress them. In this way I am able to continue my business of becoming a more integrated human being.

I have little appetite for physical violence. I actively avoid it, and I certainly don’t have the physique or the weaponry to excel at it. I’m sufficiently appalled by the violence inherent in the food industry that I choose to eat a strict vegetarian diet. But if I tried to make the principle of non-harm an absolute – thou shalt not kill, ever (even if you’re a police officer) – then it isn’t workable, it doesn’t address conditions in which there are people who are willing to perpetrate conflict by use of lethal force.

A very similar sentiment was expressed (perhaps more bluntly) by Brad Warner in a blog post in March this year. He put it like this:

Human beings are fair and inclusive, when we have the resources to be. This ability to be fair and inclusive has a high price. A society that values fairness and inclusivity also has to be able to defend fairness and inclusivity. It has to be able to kick the shit out of those who threaten fairness and inclusivity.

I’m not saying this is a good thing. But it is a fact. I hope this is not always the case. I believe that someday, in the distant future, when neither I nor anyone else alive here in the year 2017 is around any longer, it is possible that this will not be the case.

But we will never get to that point unless we understand the real situation right now. Which is that if we want a fair and inclusive society (and I do), we need to employ people whose job it is to kill — or at least have the capacity and willingness to kill — other human beings who threaten fairness and inclusivity.

In short, monks need soldiers.“

So who are these people who have the capacity and willingness to kill on my behalf? I don’t mean this personally, I’m not questioning the virtue of individual officers – in fact two of my good friends from teenage years are now police officers, one of them a firearms officer, and I’m satisfied that both are competent and ethical individuals. I ask what is their status, and what do we have in common and what separates us?

The idea (in the UK, and many other nations) is that these people are citizens in uniform, rather than soldiers: their primary principle is to prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment. The soldiers mentioned above by Brad Warner are probably more relevant to conflicts between nation states. Note that the capacity and willingness to kill is part of a preventative process, which, if it is effective, is far preferable to resorting to repression by military force. The ideal is that in the act of prevention all citizens (uniformed and un-uniformed) are better able to maintain their integrity than would be the case during any after-the-fact violence.

439px-Robert_Peel_PortraitWhen I say that this is their primary principle, I’m referring to the so-called Peelian Principles which were set out in the ‘General Instructions’ that were issued to every new police officer from 1829. [N.B. The Peelian Principles were named after Sir Robert Peel (illustrated on the right) but apparently there is no evidence of any link to Robert Peel and the principles were likely devised by the first Commissioners of Police of the Metropolis, Charles Rowan and Richard Mayne]. This kind of policing is known as ‘policing by consent’ because the power of the police is supposed to come from the common consent of the public, as opposed to the power of the state. However there is the important corollary that no individual can chose to withdraw his or her consent from the police, or from a law.

If you’ve not come across them before, I recommend that you make the effort to find out more about them. I hadn’t heard of them until earlier this year, but when I started looking into them they made a lot of sense and helped to make more concrete the vague ideas I’d developed about the principles of policing in the UK.  It has also changed they way in which I relate to police officers – which has been increasingly helpful as I’ve continued to get older and the police officers get ever younger.

The issue of public consent is elaborated further in principles 2, 3 and 4. Specifically, the fourth stated principle is

To recognise always that the extent to which the co-operation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.“

So in my Sunday afternoon example, if I (a member of the public) see police officers carrying lethal weaponry, but refraining from using it because the situation does not call for it, then I am more likely to approve of their presence. It is not just for safety’s sake that they carry their weapons with the muzzle pointing towards the ground. The authority of the armed officers is not supposed to stem from the fact that they are armed, but because the public approves of the way that they conduct themselves whilst armed in the broader context of preventing crime and maintaining order.

There’s another issue involved in police officers being armed so that the rest of us don’t have to be: armed officers put themselves at greater risk of being harmed in the course of their duty of protecting other citizens from harm. This ‘ready offering of individual sacrifice’ is also mentioned in the fifth Peelian principle.

The sixth principle involves addressing conditions in an incremental way:

To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public co-operation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.

Again, the idea being that public consent will be maintained if police officers do their duty in an even-handed and proportionate fashion – and their duty does not extend to avenging individuals or the State, nor does it include judging guilt and issuing punishments (as it says in the eighth principle). The sixth principle urges the use of physical force only to the extent that it is necessary to address the specific conditions of a situation.

In conclusion, then, I’m reasonably satisfied that the Peelian Principles of ‘policing by consent’ are compatible with the Middle Way, and that only political extremists are likely to reject them as being a sound ethical foundation on which to organise the maintenance of civil society. The big issue, as ever, is to what extent the Peelian Principles are actually realised in the way that policing is carried out in practice. In my privileged (and compliant) position in society I’m pretty unlikely to find myself on the wrong end of an armed officer’s gun, so perhaps my role is more as a protector of the standing of the Peelian Principles. As I see the Principles as a valuable working system then I should speak out if I see them being flouted by corrupt individuals or being undermined or perverted or otherwise absolutised by political figures. What do you think?


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Further fodder for consideration