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.


Dismissiveness is the armour plating we use to keep out challenging alternatives to our dominant beliefs. Some dismissiveness is rude, but most of it consists of a polite brush-off or excuse for not engaging with something. There are plenty of rationalisations for being dismissive: we don’t have time for that, and we just want to get on with it (whatever ‘it’ is). When trying to discuss Middle Way Philosophy, I’ve met such responses many times. Of course, our time, attention, and capacity to engage with new ideas really is limited, so is dismissiveness unavoidable? As always, I think there is a Middle Way that respects those conditions, and is not afraid to make a practical judgement not to engage with something that is unlikely to be fruitful, but is nevertheless more open to new ideas than we often are.Youre not listening 300x203 Dismissiveness

Too often, instead of trying to strike a balance in their judgement, with clarity about their reasons for not engaging with something, people seem to rely on conventional credibility. This often comes down to how many other people are listening, but there are also conventional markers of academic credibility (has she published in peer reviewed journals etc?) or professional credibility (does she have a senior post?). Those who despair at the mass of ‘equally valid’ opinion on the internet and desperately want some certainty to hold onto are all too likely to rely completely on such criteria. But academics and professionals are likely to be highly specialised – which often means that they can provide accurate detailed information, but that their wider judgements will be skewed towards the assumptions of their narrow discipline. For that reason, many academics have off-hand dismissiveness down to a fine art. One of the encouraging aspects of the avalanche of views and ideas that is the internet is that – amongst the conspiracy theories and other rubbish based on narrow assumptions – the voices of synthesis are sometimes able to break through with wider perspectives than the specialists can offer us. Wikipedia is a wonderful example of this: generally more reliable on average than the specialist paid-for encyclopedias, because it is the product of a continuing exchange of views, rather than one view of a specialist who thinks he knows it all and never questions his wider assumptions.

The realistic, discriminating alternative to dismissiveness, I think, particularly involves two key criteria. I’ve developed these from thinking about the philosophy of science more than anything else:

  1. Considering the purpose of a theory in its context
  2. Comparing it to alternative theories rather than absolute criteria

All too often people seem to think of theories as ‘true’ or ‘false’, but as embodied beings with very limited perspectives we are usually in no position to assess theories as true or false. An implicit assumption that a theory must be false just because it is new to you seems to often be at the root of dismissiveness. Instead of thinking of it as true or false, we need to ask what function the theory fulfils. For example, a new theory about beetles has a very specific function within entomology, and probably few implications beyond it. One of the main problems I encounter with people’s dismissals of Middle Way Philosophy is that they make hasty assumptions about its purpose, often depending on where they encountered it. For example, if they encounter it in a debate about science they assume it’s a scientific theory, in a debate about ethics an ethical theory etc. But its purpose is actually to synthesise these approaches, not just to fulfil the more restricted purposes of one or the other. It thus needs to be judged on how well it addresses the conditions of science, ethics, religion, art, spiritual practice etc, in relation to each other, rather than of one more narrowly conceived.

If I don’t think a particular idea looks set to fulfil the purpose it aims to fulfil (usually because of the assumptions it makes) then I feel justified in devoting no further time to it and starting to look elsewhere. For example, conspiracy-theory based approaches to politics, which concentrate on blaming particular groups (bankers, conservatives, reptilians) for all our ills, are not fulfilling the purpose of political theory as I understand it, which is to help provide practical solutions on which sufficient agreement could be reached to start addressing our social and political problems.

The other element of dismissiveness is based on selective scepticism. It’s always possible to come up with some element of a theory that is insufficiently justified, since no theory created by humans is ever likely to be perfectly justified. But dismissiveness often involves picking on one particular problem with a theory and using it as an excuse to dismiss it, even though that problem hasn’t been looked at in context and the theory hasn’t been compared to alternatives. The nirvana fallacy is the tendency to implicitly compare a given theory to an absolutely perfect model of a kind that doesn’t exist in experience. Instead, to be realistic every judgement needs to be a comparative judgement. If you don’t like this theory, do you have a better one that addresses the same purposes better? Iain McGilchrist’s theory of brain lateralisation seems to be a constant target of dismissiveness due to the nirvana fallacy. People object that its account of such a complex matter as the brain must be over-simplified, but the only established alternative to the language of left and right hemispheres is the assumption of the unified self, which is hugely inadequate by comparison. Brain lateralisation is incredibly fruitful in synthetically explaining a wide range of phenomena in relation to each other, from cultural changes to mental illnesses, as well as potentially supporting an ethical model. The unified self theory has had many centuries to explain these things and failed to do so adequately.

Again, I do think it is justifiable not to give further time and attention to ideas that may be entirely coherent in themselves, but address conditions that can be much better addressed elsewhere. For example, I appreciate the positive motives behind Christian theology, and I have studied it to some extent (in fact my first degree subject has ‘theology’ in the title, despite the fact that it wasn’t central to my interests even then), but I give little attention to it these days, because I have concluded that an approach to issues of spirituality, ethics etc. that starts with the revelatory authority of God is likely to be less effective at actually bringing about ethical and spiritual development than one that starts with an integration model. But one needs to have some idea what the better alternative is and why, rather than only relying on conventional answers.

So, of course we need to make judgements about where to bestow our attention. However, dismissiveness is not inevitable. Avoiding dismissiveness whilst moving on is not simply a matter of being gentle and kindly about it (though that obviously helps too), but of having good reasons for doing so that relate to experience, rather than implicitly appealing to some absolutely right model that you instantly assume you have and the other person doesn’t have. If you get chance to explain your reasons in terms of the purposes of the theory concerned and in terms of having better alternatives, that offers no guarantee that the other person won’t take offence at your lack of attention to their ideas, but it does raise the probabilities of everyone being able to move on in a helpful direction.




Picture: ‘You aren’t listening’ CCSA 2.0 by Jesslee Cuizon (Wikimedia Commons) 

The MWS Podcast 41: Sir Harry Burns on the causes of wellness

My guest today is Sir Harry Burns, who is the professor of global public health at the University of Strathclyde and a former  Chief Medical Officer for Scotland. He begins by talking to us about why poor people take longer to recover from illness, the causes of inequality in health and the causes of wellness. He then goes on to talk about some solutions that he has implemented alongside other potential ideas and how this all might relate to the Middle Way.

My friend, Willie Grieve first brought the work of Sir Harry to my attention and you can find a very interesting and helpful article by him which gives an overview of the subject here.

MWS Podcast 41: Sir Harry Burns as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_41_Sir_Harry_Burns

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Poetry 52: Shadow by Lenni Sykes

 Poetry 52: Shadow by Lenni Sykes
Death is stalking you
Following you like a shadow
It clings
And claws
And has you in its grip
But you are resisting
You will not succumb
Not yet
Not today
But soon
Next week?
Next month?
Next year even?
I do not know when it will win
I only know you won’t give in
Not readily
Not easily
You will fight and stay
Until you have no say

(c) L Sykes 20 Nov 2014

Image courtesy of webring.org

The MWS Podcast 40: Alison Armstrong on Mindfulness & Compulsive Buying

My guest today is Alison Armstrong, who is a mindfulness teacher and researcher and founder of Present Minds. She’s going to talk to us about mindfulness and compulsive buying which began as a research project for her PhD and became a ground-breaking RESOLVE study. She’ll also talk about how all this relates to the Middle Way.

Here’s also an article Alison wrote for the Guardian which gives an overview of the topic.

MWS Podcast 40: Alison Armstrong as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_40_Alison_Armstrong

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Max Beckman 1884 – 1950. German The Journey of the Fishes 1934.



IMG 0721 2 Max Beckman 1884   1950. German The Journey of the Fishes 1934.

Max Beckman was born in Leipzig, Germany, when he was ten years old his father died and the family moved to Brunswick in Lower Saxony, his parent’s birthplace. Beckman attended the Grandducal Art School in Weimar in 1900, three years later he stayed in Paris and in 1904 he goes to Berlin, then in 1906 he travels to Florence where he spent six months, in 1905 he joins the Die Brucke art group which was formed in Dresden, – there is an earlier blog on this site about that art movement. Beckman’s work is called German Expressionist although his work is figurative, he rejected the description and became a member of a group called New Objectivity along with the painter George Grosz among others, they looked forward with a certain amount of cynicism, having seen the results of war.  Beckman was to become even more outraged by the activities of the Nazis after the 1930s  Returning to his early years, on the move again he  moves to Berlin in 1907, in 1908 he and his wife have a son, Peter.   At the outbreak of WW1 in 1914 he enlists in the German army field hospital corps but on health grounds he is discharged a year later. Max Beckman’s work was influenced by the experiences of living through both world wars, his time in the army was very traumatic and left a lasting impression which impacted on his art producing strong, raw images of people in different places with hard faces without laughter, at the circus, on the dance floor or sitting at a table in a restaurant, he also painted several self portraits.

In 1925 he married for the second time and taught art in Frankfurt for eight years, he exhibited work in New York, Hammheim and in Berlin. In 1933 the Nazi regime dismissed him from his post, Max Beckman moves back again to Berlin, his work is taken out of exhibitions by Hitler and along with the work of other painters that Hitler rejects an exhibition is set up called ‘Degenerate Art’ opened for the public to visit and ridicule. In 1937 Beckman and his wife move to Amsterdam where he is very productive, also spending some time in Paris. During a visit to London he gives a lecture called ‘On My Painting’ it was an anti- Nazi discourse. He exhibits work in the ‘Exhibition of 20th century German Art’. During 1938/9 he lives in Paris, he seems to be a constant wanderer, in 1947 the family moved to New York where he spent more settled years although he toured around the USA and taught in Washington until his death in 1950. I think the life that Beckman led and his experiences, especially the year working in an army hospital are reflected in his work, his paintings are not easy viewing.

I have chosen a painting called The Journey of the Two Fishes,  oil on canvas completed in 1934. We see a couple who are bound together and strapped to two fishes, a strange craft, Beckman’s mythology was his own but he was interested in Babylonian lore and myth which portrays a god named Dagon, a fertility symbol who has the head of a fish and a similar god called Oannes who brought wisdom to humankind. The fishes are diving to the depths of the ocean, the woman stares into the distance, the man is very afraid knowing that they are ‘heading for perdition’, both have removed their masks, their shallow lives revealed, for Beckman the fishes were a symbol of overpowering sexual desires, he had seen medieval paintings depicting the Last Judgement such as in the fresco at Composanto at Pisa, also Hindu myths. The black colour at the lower edge of the work is ‘ a tragic symbol of hopelessness.’ We can also see a glimmer of hope in the sailing ship on the right hand side, its mast is the shape of a cross, a coincidence or not?

Information from wikipedia, the image is taken from the book Beckman, written by S Luckner.