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.

Poetry 70: Household by Henry Shukman

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The tons of brick and stone, the pounds of piping,
the sinks and china basins, the tiles and bathtub,
the hundredweights of board and joist,
the yards of flex and cable that wrap the house
like a net, the heavy glassed door, the rippled sheets
of window, bookcases, pictures in their frames,
tables, piano: what would it all weigh? One kiss,
one breathed declaration: the mass of love.

Image courtesy of www.pixabay.com

An Acre of Forest

I am currently working on a book of 29 ‘Parables of the Middle Way’, each accompanied by commentary. I will be posting some example parables here from time to time, and any comments will help me refine them. I already posted ‘The Ship’ a while ago, and here is another one, ‘An Acre of Forest’

“In addition to the property we have discussed, your grandfather left you something you might not have expected in his will” said Mr Jenkins, looking over his documents.

“Oh, what’s that?” replied Petra, intrigued.

“An acre of forest.”Mixed-forest Oliver Herold

“An acre of forest? I didn’t even know he had an acre of forest to leave! Where is it?”

“In the Elwyn Valley, I believe, about five miles from here. It’s an odd little bit of land, and I’ve no idea how he acquired it or why. He doesn’t seem to have exploited it for timber, or anything of that kind.”

“He did love forests” said Petra. “Perhaps he just wanted to preserve it.”

“Perhaps that’s the best explanation” replied the solicitor. “Still, Mrs Dawkins, what do you want to do with it? If you’d like me to put it on sale on your behalf, I could set that in motion.”

“What sort of forest is it? Is it ranks of conifers, or are they broadleaved? Are the trees mature?”

“I’ve no idea, I’m afraid. I’ve never viewed it. We could go and look if you think that’s important.”

“Well, I don’t need to take up your time with that, Mr Jenkins. Just show me on the map where it is, and I’ll go and look by myself. Once I’ve seen it, perhaps I’ll be able to make a sensible decision.”

“Well, don’t expect too much. A single acre is not a very large area. And it may not have been well-managed so as to look its best. Here, you can see where it is marked on the map.”

Despite this premonitory warning, when Petra parked her car in what she was sure was the right place, and looked at her acre of forest, her heart immediately fell. All she could see were ranks of pines: Norway spruce of a kind that is grown all over the British uplands simply to make as fast a profit from timber as possible, of the kind that shades out all undergrowth and forms a thick mass of impenetrable dead branches under the trees. She found it difficult to believe that her romantically-minded grandfather would have bought a timber plantation just to make money, and her opinion of him began to take a plunge as a consequence.

She was about to drive off in a rage against her grandfather, when she thought perhaps she should look beyond the initial rank of pines, in case there was a clearing there or something. Also, if she was going to sell it, she’d better check what condition the trees were in and how mature they were. So, she barged her way through an initial row of dead pine branches. To her surprise, there were no pines behind the first row. Instead there was a stand of ash trees. Oh, and over there were some beeches, and there were some oaks too. A clearer way opened out between the trees, with undergrowth around her, and she found herself in a charming clearing, with wild flowers, birds singing and a squirrel scuttering off through the branches. Quite a variety of trees surrounded the clearing: sycamores, rowans, London plane… She couldn’t even identify all the types of tree.

No wonder her grandfather had bought it! Now she understood. Grandad had had an eye for the hidden and unappreciated. Her grandmother had been rather like that: an initial austere, utilitarian exterior, but when you got to know her she could be the warmest, kindest person in the world. This acre of forest was exactly the same: not just one type of tree but many. Not just ugliness but beauty too. Not just commercial timber, but beautiful mature broadleaved trees as well.

It was clear what she needed to do. She would preserve it too, and pass it on to her grandchildren as well. Her grandfather had left no particular instructions for his ashes, but now she also knew where to scatter them.

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Variation of beliefs in an individual

The acre of forest is a parable about the multiplicity of human individuals – and indeed the same point, more obviously, applies to human groups. Most of us have at least some awareness of the dangers of stereotyping a group of people, whether they are grouped by race, gender, age group, profession or whatever other criteria. However, we are far more likely to assume that if someone expresses (or implicitly shows) a particular belief, then this is essential and definitive of them. Far from it – the beliefs of a particular human individual are like the trees growing in an acre of forest. Some may resemble each other and be of the same species, but others may not.

We cannot know whether or not there is any kind of essential unity (a ‘self’) in an individual – this would be a metaphysical claim. However, we can judge from experience that multiplicity is quite likely, and that we are rarely single selves. This is perhaps most obvious in people who have conditions such as multiple personality or bipolar disorder, when we tend to regard extremes of differing belief in the same person as indicative of a mental disorder. However, it applies to a lesser degree to all of us. Nearly all of us, if we are human, make resolutions that we fail to keep, forget to answer emails, have more positive or more negative moods, and change our language to suit the company. This is not a question of pretence, masking who we really are (as if we could know who we really are), but rather of simply being innocently various.

We are perhaps most likely to take people’s beliefs as definitive when they themselves take them very seriously and believe that they are living their whole lives by those beliefs – as is the case, say, with strong religious or political beliefs. However, it is very unlikely that they are. Even a saint, deeply committed to certain religious beliefs, does not make all their everyday judgements with reference to those beliefs, but rather consults everyday practical beliefs. If St Francis needed to wash his robe, he would have made the same judgement that it needed washing whether he was a Christian, a Buddhist, or an atheist. A social belief like the correct way to greet someone is also usually the product of a particular cultural context, regardless of the religious or political beliefs in it.

When a person seems to consist only in a rank of pines, then, perhaps we should bear in mind that there may be lovely rowans behind them – or, of course, the reverse.

 

Photo by Oliver Herold (Wikimedia Commons – CC)

The MWS Podcast 59: Rupert Sheldrake on Science as an Integrative Practice

Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist and research scientist and author of more than 80 technical papers and numerous books. He’s perhaps most well known for his book ‘The Science Delusion’ and his morphic resonance hypothesis. These will be the topics of the discussion today as well as exploring the idea of science as an integrative practice.


MWS Podcast 59: Rupert Sheldrake as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_59_Rupert_Sheldrake

Click here to view other podcasts

Poetry 69: Dragonflies Mating by Robert Hass

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1.

The people who lived here before us
also loved these high mountain meadows on summer mornings.
They made their way up here in easy stages
when heat began to dry the valleys out,
following the berry harvest probably and the pine buds:
climbing and making camp and gathering,
then breaking camp and climbing and making camp and gathering.
A few miles a day. They sent out the children
to dig up bulbs of the mariposa lilies that they liked to roast
at night by the fire where they sat talking about how this year
was different from last year. Told stories,
knew where they were on earth from the names,
owl moon, bear moon, gooseberry moon.

2.

Jaime de Angulo (1934) was talking to a Channel Island Indian
in a Santa Barbara bar. You tell me how your people said
the world was made. Well, the guy said, Coyote was on the mountain
and he had to pee. Wait a minute, Jaime said,
I was talking to a Pomo the other day and he said
Red Fox made the world. They say Red Fox, the guy shrugged,
we say Coyote. So, he had to pee
and he didn’t want to drown anybody, so he turned toward the place
where the ocean would be. Wait a minute, Jaime said,
if there were no people yet, how could he drown anybody?
The Channelleño got a funny look on his face. You know,
he said, when I was a kid, I wondered about that,
and I asked my father. We were living up toward Santa Ynez.
He was sitting on a bench in the yard shaving down fence posts
with an ax, and I said, how come Coyote was worried about people
when he had to pee and there were no people? The guy laughed.
And my old man looked up at me with this funny smile
and said, You know, when I was a kid, I wondered about that.

3.

Thinking about that story just now, early morning heat,
first day in the mountains, I remembered stories about sick Indians
and—in the same thought—standing on the free throw line.

St. Raphael’s parish, where the northern-most of the missions
had been, was founded as a hospital, was named for the angel
in the scriptures who healed the blind man with a fish

he laid across his eyes.—I wouldn’t mind being that age again,
hearing those stories, eyes turned upward toward the young nun
in her white, fresh-smelling, immaculately laundered robes.—

The Franciscan priests who brought their faith in God
across the Atlantic, brought with the baroque statues and metalwork crosses
and elaborately embroidered cloaks, influenza and syphilis and the coughing disease.

Which is why we settled an almost empty California.
There were drawings in the mission museum of the long, dark wards
full of small brown people, wasted, coughing into blankets,

the saintly Franciscan fathers moving patiently among them.
It would, Sister Marietta said, have broken your hearts to see it.
They meant so well, she said, and such a terrible thing

came here with their love. And I remembered how I hated it
after school—because I loved basketball practice more than anything
on earth—that I never knew if my mother was going to show up

well into one of those weeks of drinking she disappeared into,
and humiliate me in front of my classmates with her bright, confident eyes,
and slurred, though carefully pronounced words, and the appalling

impromptu sets of mismatched clothes she was given to
when she had the dim idea of making a good impression in that state.
Sometimes from the gym floor with its sweet, heady smell of varnish

I’d see her in the entryway looking for me, and I’d bounce
the ball two or three times, study the orange rim as if it were,
which it was, the true level of the world, the one sure thing

the power in my hands could summon. I’d bounce the ball
once more, feel the grain of the leather in my fingertips and shoot.
It was a perfect thing; it was almost like killing her.

4.

When we say “mother” in poems,
we usually mean some woman in her late twenties
or early thirties trying to raise a child.

We use this particular noun
to secure the pathos of the child’s point of view
and to hold her responsible.

5.

If you’re afraid now?
Fear is a teacher.
Sometimes you thought that
Nothing could reach her,
Nothing can reach you.
Wouldn’t you rather
Sit by the river, sit
On the dead bank,
Deader than winter,
Where all the roots gape?

6.

This morning in the early sun,
steam rising from the pond the color of smoky topaz,
a pair of delicate, copper-red, needle-fine insects
are mating in the unopened crown of a Shasta daisy
just outside your door. The green flowerheads look like wombs
or the upright, supplicant bulbs of a vegetal pre-erection.
The insect lovers seem to be transferring the cosmos into each other
by attaching at the tail, holding utterly still, and quivering intently.

I think (on what evidence?) that they are different from us.
That they mate and are done with mating.
They don’t carry all this half-mated longing up out of childhood
and then go looking for it everywhere.
And so, I think, they can’t wound each other the way we do.
They don’t go through life dizzy or groggy with their hunger,
kill with it, smear it on everything, though it is perhaps also true
that nothing happens to them quite like what happens to us
when the blue-backed swallow dips swiftly toward the green pond
and the pond’s green-and-blue reflected swallow marries it a moment
in the reflected sky and the heart goes out to the end of the rope
it has been throwing into abyss after abyss, and a singing shimmers
from every color the morning has risen into.

My insect instructors have stilled, they are probably stuck together
in some bliss and minute pulse of after-longing
evolution worked out to suck the last juice of the world
into the receiver body. They can’t separate probably
until it is done.

Image courtesy of www.pixabay.com