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.

Confidence and the conditions of life

There’s a dominant tradition in our culture that there are certain absolute assumptions we have to make to think about our experience at all. This is ‘metaphysics’ in the sense that many philosophers use it: but this is not just a matter for philosophers, as this tradition also affects our thinking about everyone’s immediate practical beliefs. If you see this dominant tradition in the light of embodied meaning and in a recognition of the specialised roles of the two brain hemispheres, though, it can be recognised as narrow, unnecessary and unhelpful rather than inevitable in the way it presents itself. I want to argue that the conditions of our experience and thought are not absolute, and that the assumptions we make about it, though pervasive, are embodied ones. They are a matter, not of necessity, but of confidence.

What are these absolute assumptions that we are supposed to be making? They are assumptions about space and time; about our own existence and that of objects and others; about numbers, maths and logic; about causality and the regularity of ‘nature’; and perhaps even about our freewill and values. I cannot sincerely doubt the existence of the table in front of me, it is claimed, nor even that when I communicate with others (as I am doing now), these others have minds. Once absolute assumptions are supposedly established in this way, it becomes easy enough to apply them to other areas by further reasoning. For example, if I can’t help assuming absolutely that nature is regular, it’s a short step to assuming the independence of ‘facts’ or even values based on an appeal to ‘nature’. Dogmas line up in mutually supportive positions with a click.

To show this whole approach to be basically wrong does not need convoluted reasoning so much as a little reflective bodily awareness. Take a short walk across the room, or whatever space you happen to be in now. What is ‘space’ as you’ve just experienced it? It’s something you move through and relate to through your body. What is ‘time’? It’s experienced in relation to your pulse, which may have raised slightly as you moved from a sitting position to walking. What are the ‘existent’ objects you encountered? The ones you presumably avoided bumping into in the space you traversed. What are ’causes’ as you experienced them? The movement of your muscles set off by nervous impulses, which in turn led you to move across the room.balance beam gymnast 195x300 Confidence and the conditions of life

As you move across the room you were, I hope, confident in these assumptions. From long practice of walking you were confident in your ability to stay upright, avoid obstacles, traverse space and reach your immediate goals. These are not abilities we generally reflect upon. We take them for granted as part of our embodied experience, but nevertheless they have a basic meaning in that experience rather than anywhere beyond it. Our early childhood experience helped to form that confidence.

Nevertheless, embodied confidence is not absolute. Indeed, the reason we can be confident is because it’s not absolute. That’s because it involves not just a representation in the left hemisphere of the brain (which may seem to be absolute at a particular moment) but also an alertness in the right hemisphere (which specialises in responding to new stimuli). It’s just possible that as I walk across the room, I may encounter an unexpected obstacle: perhaps it could be something as mundane as a child or pet’s forgotten toy that I might slip on, or perhaps a sudden and unexpected weakness in my body may stop me being able to walk across the room in the way I expected. My body retains the capacity to respond to such surprises. Of course, the biggest threat to my experience of time, space, existence and so forth is death, and that may also come unexpectedly, removing all these taken-for-granted conditions at a stroke.

I am justified (again in an embodied, not an absolute sense) in my day-to-day confidence. However, if I insist on absolutising that confidence and turning it into metaphysics, I am not at all justified. The conditions of time, space, existence etc. may or may not be absolute in any sense beyond my experience – but since I can only experience things through my experience, I have no possible way of knowing. These things may just be constructions of ours, or they may not. However, it seems obvious that the absolutisation of them is just a construction of our left hemispheres.

This matters because it provides a constant basic reinforcement of our tendency to give a disproportionate and absolute status to the facts or values we believe in and identify with at the moment. Perhaps I believe that my love for my partner will be eternal, or that Tories are the scum of the earth, or that Buddhism is the ultimate true religion. We may have some evidence from experience to support any of these sorts of beliefs, but to absolutise them and make them a basis of conflict, we wheel in metaphysics. These truths, we assume, are self-evident. Well, I’m afraid that whatever your ‘truths’ are, and however self-righteous you are feeling about them, they are subject to sceptical doubt, Staying in touch with that doubt is important for arguing your case confidently rather than dogmatically.


Picture: gymnast on balance beam by Volker Minkus (CC-BY 3.0)

Sliman Mansour 1947 – Palestinian Artist. Salma, a Poster 1988

Sliman Mansour poster 1988 Sliman Mansour 1947   Palestinian Artist. Salma, a Poster 1988

Sliman Mansour was born in Birzeit, Jerusalem in 1947, he went to a boarding school in Bethlehem. He is a painter, sculptor, writer and teacher, he played a part in the Liberation Art Movement in Palestine and was one of the New Visions group of Palestinians, he also served as the head of the League of Palestinian Artists from 1986 to 1990 and served as a director of the Al-Waihi Art Centre in Jerusalem, he organised exhibitions from 1990, his work is exhibited in Palestine, Israel, across Europe, Norway and America, he has written two books on Palestinian folklore and in 1998 he won grand prize at the Cairo Biennial. His work is aimed at reminding the Palestinian community of their roots and identity since territory was occupied by Israeli forces. The history of Palestine is far from simple, in the 18th. Century the population of Palestine was 250,000, 6,500 of them were Jews, by 1897 there were three times as many inhabitants, the majority were Gentiles and more than half a million were Arabs.

Mansour started experimenting with mixed media, such as mud, henna, lime on wood and assemblage materials, the idea behind their use was to use home produced materials and boycott paints from Israel. Mansour was working towards giving Palestinians their identity back while still being ruled by Israeli governments, the second intifada saw the death of 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis which ended with the PM Ariel Sharon and President Mahmoud Abbas committed to keep the peace in ‘Roadmap for Peace’. Mansour said ‘art helped and is still helping a kind of revival of Palestinian identity. And through art we helped in creating that…. creating symbols for Palestinian identity through art.’

I have chosen a poster, probably painted in water colour of a young Palestinian women called Salma, dated 1978, she wears traditional embroidered clothing, she holds a bowl of oranges, the fruits of the land with her labourer’s hands, the orange tree is a symbol of ‘catastrophe,’ – the occupation of Palestine, more about that later. Mansour is among the intifada group of artists who follow a third way of non – violence, ‘not succumbing to occupation nor getting overwhelmed by hate in confronting the occupation, keeping dignity in everyday life, connecting to the land, culture, religious rights and identity and having respect for the other’s source of identity,’ they were concerned too with Moslem- Christian relations.

Background to the conflict – with reference to a recent review I read in the London Review of Books by Nathan Thrall called My Promised Land; The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Savit, the grandson of  Herbert Bentwich who in 1897 sailed to Jaffa with a delegation of twenty one Zionists to investigate whether Palestine would make a suitable site for a Jewish national home. Bentwich shut out the fact that non Jews were already living there, he failed to notice the Arabs and Gentiles only planning a Palestinian land for Jews, soon 25,000 mainly secular Jews moved into Palestine and lived in communal agrarian settlements. By 1935 a quarter of the population was Jewish, in 1936 to 1939 there was the Arab Revolt against the British Mandate and Jewish immigration, ethnic conflict had become almost inevitable. In May 1948 Arab armies invaded the territory called Lydda, any rebellion was crushed by the Israeli forces, called the ‘ Catastrophe,’ tensions still exist. The UN idea to divide the land was rejected by the Arabs and fifty six per cent of the land was given to the Jewish population. Sliman Mansour was part of the second intifada working towards a resolution to the conflict. Shavit wrote ‘ that if Zionism was to be then Lydda could not be’ which perhaps  condones the actions taken. Although ‘ Ben Gurion was enlightened,’ his wishes to resolve the conflict did not last long.

Mansour painted a series village paintings to remember those inhabitants uprooted in the Jezreel Valley to provide new homes for Israelis. Mansour’s work was often seen as subversive by the Israeli government, he spent time in prison. Art critics see his work as possessing great maturity which shows an awareness of international currents in art. In other posters by Mansour like Salma we see a young woman in traditional dress, often the female image is used for the mobilisation for Palestinian Resistance filled with ‘complex meanings of nation, rootedness, resistance, fecundity and Palestine itself.’ Another poster called The Camel of Heavy Burdens, 1980, the camel depicted is an iconic description of a camel which goes on giving milk in times of drought.

On Youtube there is a clip showing Mansour’s work with music called Baghranni (I sing) sung by Amal Markos.



The MWS Podcast 37: Marek Duda from the Centre for Effective Altruism

Today’s guest is Marek Duda from the Centre for Effective Altruism. He talks about what Effective Altruism is, it’s five main principles, counters some of the more common objections against giving to aid organisations and how this all might be related to the Middle Way.

MWS Podcast 37: Marek Duda as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_37_Marek_Duda

Click here to view other podcasts

Poetry 47: The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats

Topsell manticore engraving 300x175 Poetry 47: The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons