Middle Way Philosophy Retreat – Aug 2013

My first encounter with Middle Way Philosophy was about 18 months ago on the Secular Buddhism UK site when Robert M Ellis introduced it with the following post: The Middle Way – A core principle for Secular Buddhism? In it he put forward an incremental, provisional, non-metaphysical approach to living a balanced, integrated ethical life. He seemed to do this by taking the Middle Way as the core insight of Buddhism, running with it and adapting it to a more Western philosophical and psychological perspective. At the time, I had felt drawn to the idea of secular Buddhism, especially through the work of Stephen Batchelor with its focus on practice rather than belief. However, what Stephen’s ethical model seemed to lack was a coherent overarching principle that held everything together. Robert’s suggestion in his post was that the Middle Way could provide that. I found this intriguing and decided to investigate further.

Over the next year or so I read several of Robert’s books. Some of them were pitched to reach a wider audience, most notably “The trouble with Buddhism” and “A New Buddhist Ethics” and slightly less so “Truth on the Edge”. These I found very accessible and informative. “The path to Objectivity” and “the integration of desire” were more challenging due to my unfamiliarity with various philosophical terms and there was a fairly high level of abstraction. Nevertheless, they had a coherence and robustness about them along with lots of practical examples which has encouraged me to be patient with my comprehension of this material.

At the same time I got involved in several discussions with Robert online and this process helped me to understand more. Indeed, Robert’s exchanges with other people were what really brought these ideas to life and gave me a more holistic sense of the Middle Way. One of the things that especially interested me about Robert in dialogue with other people was that he would argue his case very articulately and with a lot of critical thought. However if he was presented with a sound counter argument he appeared to be quite comfortable accepting this. It seemed clear that he was more interested in furthering understanding than proving his point. This impressed me. Around the same time, he recommended a book entitled “Being Wrong” by Kathryn Schultz about cognitive biases and dissonance. I read it and I thought it summed me up beautifully.

So when the opportunity came along to go on a retreat focussing on Middle Way Philosophy in August in Malvern, I didn’t really have any second thoughts. I’ve been on several retreats in the past few years and the structure of this one seemed to draw on best retreat practice but also had a strong emphasis on the group really getting involved in various integrative practices, in terms of integration desire, meaning and belief. See: Practice

A routine quickly took shape through a process of consultation with the group. The first part of the day was conducted in silence. We got up about 0730, and then sat for the first of two meditation sessions at 0800. These sessions of 45 minutes were not the main focus of the retreat but were there to provide balance. The only ritual was to sit in a circle and we sometimes burned incense. We then had breakfast (there was a rota set up so that we all took turns in preparing and clearing up after meals). I should mention that this first retreat was held at Robert’s house. We were a small group of five people and often with a group of that size in such close quarters I have found that there is often the potential for some friction. However, everyone rubbed along together really well and I thought the early morning silence played a part as it enabled us to feel comfortable in silence very quickly with new people. This is something that maybe we are normally only used to with family and close friends.

Anyway, the silence was broken at 10am when Robert would give a talk introducing a certain aspect of Middle Way Philosophy. The talks had quite a dynamic quality to them as the participants were encouraged to jump in if clarification was needed about anything. This was a really useful in processing and engaging with the topics. The talks generally took just over an hour, then after a tea break we had a group discussion about what we’d understood and felt about the topic, how it related to our experience and what the practical applications were. This seemed to set the tone for the rest of the day as then in contrast to the early silence we couldn’t shut up.

After lunch we had the afternoon to ourselves. Robert’s house is right at the foot of the Malvern hills which have some wonderful walks. Sometimes members of the group would go off together for a walk or a cycle ride but more often than not people did their own thing which for me was great.

We had another meditation session at 5pm followed by the evening meal. Then around 7pm someone gave a talk or introduced some kind of integrative practice. These included talks on the Samaritans and Non-violent communication, an introduction to origami and a drum circle. We also had an evening where poetry was read and songs were sung and played both individually and as a group (it was great fun).

All in all, it was for me a really lovely experience. There was lots of discussion, with some disagreement at times but which was always good natured. There was also lots of laughter, banter and one or two tears too.

At the end there appeared to be a general consensus that Middle Way Philosophy really has something to it. There seemed to be an understanding within the group that moral progress is possible both at an individual and social level. For me personally the Middle Way seems the most coherent and well thought through strategy for helping one to achieve such progress that I have so far come across. I recognise as well that increasing my understanding of it and putting it into practice will be a lengthy process that will take patience and application. However, I think that effort will be worthwhile as simply put, I feel it can help me become a better person.

Finally, there was also a general understanding that Middle Way Philosophy is itself a theory that is provisional and a work in progress. For this reason it seemed to make sense to form a society, so it could be developed further, not just by Robert but by a group of people who can see its potential.

With this in mind, I’ve volunteered to be the treasurer and also to run a regular podcast. I’ve not done either before but I’d like to try and rise to challenge of both (gulp).

Barry Daniel

About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

11 thoughts on “Middle Way Philosophy Retreat – Aug 2013

  1. Hi Barry,
    I think I would have enjoyed being with you all, it seems that a great deal of groundwork was covered.
    I look forward to reading online the recorded talks, once they have been edited.
    I am reading A Path to Objectivity, I admit that for me it isn’t easy reading, I haven’t learnt the language of philosophy, my next read will be one of the books by Robert you recommend. I am having to think in a different way, considering a middle way in all that we do, which I find challenging and exciting.
    Norma Smith.

  2. Hi Norma

    It would have been nice to have had you along! Hopefully we can meet at some stage.

    As I mentioned in my post, I also found “A Path to Objectivity” initially quite a challenge to read and felt I needed a better understanding of philosophical terminology and concepts in order to more fully engage with the text. I then proceeded to read several introductions to philosophy and ethics aimed at a general readership . This was a really rewarding experience in itself. I found Robert’s Key Concepts of Middle Way Philosophy helpful as well. I then reread “A Path to Objectivity” and was able to engage with it a lot more effectively.

    If you’re interested, there are three books I’d really recommend as introductions to philosophy: ”Philosophy the basics” by Nigel Warburton, “Philosophy: All that matters” by Julian Baggini, and “Who am I and if so how many” by Richard Precht. I’ve found some video lectures by a philosopher called Mariane Talbot really useful. Here’s a link to her series: A romp through ethics for complete beginners. There is also a very engaging series of online lectures on introductory ethics by the American philosopher Michael Sandel entitled: Justice .

    “Truth on the Edge” is for me the book to start out with. There is still a certain degree of abstraction in the book, but by and large I found it very readable and it gave me a good grounding of the key concepts and how they fit together. If you want to really get a feel of how the Middle Way can be employed in various scenarios, I would suggest trying “A New Buddhist Ethics”. This particular book brought home very clearly to me how useful the Middle Way is from a practical perspective. Like you, I also find this challenging and exciting, for example. the section on Animals recently persuaded me to become a vegan.

  3. Hi Barry,
    Thank you for the book list, I can see that I’m going to be reading a great deal over the next few months! Also I have signed up for a free online course, starting in the middle of next month, called Introduction to Philosophy, which will also be helpful. There is a mass of information to catch up on, I will pace myself and take it slowly.
    I hope an opportunity to meet you does come along one day.

  4. Hi Norma
    You’re welcome. Like any ethical strategy, arguably a certain amount of intellectual work needs to be involved in order to engage with Middle Way Philosophy more fully. However, I don’t see an in depth knowledge of philosophy as a prerequisite for getting to grips with it. I have found that discussing it with other people has been the most helpful method for me. I hope to continue this process not only with you but with other members of the society/ visitors to this site. I feel in this way, we could make a real contribution to making it more accessible.

  5. Hello again Barry, I entirely agree with your comment about philosophy, I could only hope to scrape the surface of such a vast subject. It is mostly the language/words used in philosophy that perplex me, I hope to resolve that problem! If people wish to understand the Middle Way more fully, – and there are many leading lives, who take a middle way approach to life, I include my family in that group, although they have no religious faith – who would like to learn more, it could be, that difficult language would tend to put them off from delving further. I would like to think that there is a thirst for such a philosophy, when blind ‘faith’ is being tested and found wanting.
    I listened to Robert’s podcast, given I guess in America, which I found very interesting, also his talk about the Middle Way philosophy on Utube – I do rely on Utube a great deal for listening to discussions! This morningI listened to his talk on Trust. I wondered if it was a difficult decision to give this talk, painful but necessary. I thought of Jung, when he found it necessary to distance himself from Freud, whom he admired greatly.

  6. Hi Norma,
    If you’re referring to the podcast on the US Secular Buddhism site where I’m interviewed by Ted Meissner, that was all done on Skype – I didn’t have to go to Minnesota to do it, fortunately!
    You’re right that the talk on trust was difficult to give. I also had to deal with a lot of adverse reactions from Order Members afterwards. It was really a way in which I decided to test out the Western Buddhist Order (as it was then called) to get a clearer idea of how far they were really committed to the Middle Way and how far just to loyalty to Sangharakshita and the Buddhist tradition. It was the only opportunity I ever got to give a public talk to the Order like that. It was shortly after that that I finally made the decision to resign from the WBO, concluding that, although there were many people in the Order who seemed to be getting it right, the weight of emphasis was too far against them in the Order as a whole.

    On the wider issue of making the Middle Way accessible, I can only say that I very much recognise the need, and we’re working on it! I’m writing a ‘Beginner’s Guide’ short book, and we hope to get a wide variety of accessible resources up on this site as time goes by. The basic problem I have had with Middle Way Philosophy for some years is that of knowing who my audience is, and thus pitching the material appropriately for them. Through MWS I’m rapidly getting a clearer idea of that audience – but the more feedback I get the more it will help with that issue!

  7. Hi Robert, I can fully understand how difficult it is to reach a wider audience, since Middle Way philosophy isn’t widely known as a subject. The very word philosophy is sometimes, mistakenly, considered to be only about religions and puts many off searching further. On the other hand, philosphy courses are very popular among groups, who, for example, belong to the University of the Third Age. I joined last year, to study a different subject, there was a philosophy course I could have signed up for. Perhaps if retired people studied the course, ( they have more free time ), the information would trickle down to interest their families, just a thought, the members come from all walks of life intterested in learning. Groups are run by volunteers, interested in their chosen subject, with adequate qualifications to do so.
    I have read more of your work, metaphysics is beyond human experiecnce, I understand that, and relativism is seen as an alternative by the absolutists, I see why you reject that, both are a fantasy. Why do scientists have a different view, when you say that psychological states can be more or less objective. I can sort of understand how objectivity is integration. I don’t expect there is an easy way to explain it to me?

    1. Hi Norma, Scientific naturalists (rather than scientists as such) tend to subscribe to the fact-value distinction (see page on this). Psychological states are seen as subjective values, in contrast to facts, which are seen as (absolutely) objective. The idea is that one gains understanding of the universe by ruling out such ‘subjectivity’ or anything to do with one’s individual standpoint. Scientific progress is usually understood to involve abstracting away from the individual standpoint, even though it depends on that standpoint in every case. Analytic philosophy builds on this distinction in all sorts of ways, and contributes to it being taken for granted by most scientists. Of course, you could have facts about psychological states in this view of the world, but these would be distinguished from the psychological states themselves.

  8. Thank you Robert for your answer, I appreciate that you give time to reply to my queries. I’m going to think much more about it.
    I would be inclined to think that subjectivity plays an integral part in our understanding of facts, how could it not be so. Is it because subjectivity is influenced by thoughts/emotions that are constantly changing, that the scientific naturalists reject it. Facts are objective, values are subjective? I think I will read Gilchrist’s book about LH and RH sides of the brain and how they work, I read some of your review of the book. The bossy LH side I call it!
    I can’t find the section that was about metaphors and the diagram you created, I expect I’ll find my round the site more easily in time. One log in I try rejects my password, I think that may be because my painting website is also with WordPress. could that be so?
    I was thinking of another metaphor:- A snowball rolls down a mountain gulley, growing incrementally larger, collecting more snow (knowledge) as it bumps against snow covered rocks on each side (negative and postive) until it becomes integrated into a whole, (pysche). My imgination can run away with me at times. It may be difficult to use the moving image of the snowball, to create a diagram without the use of arrows for direction?

  9. Hi Norma,
    I tend to avoid the term ‘subjectivity’ because it’s the opposite of absolute objectivity (God’s eye view), though alternatively one could use it incrementally – in which case its meaning would not be very different from ‘objectivity’. Yes, scientific naturalists do tend to see facts as (absolutely) objective and values thus as ‘subjective’.

    You might be confused by the fact that my post about metaphors is on my blog site (http://middlewayphilosophy.wordpress.com) rather than on this site. If you use the login at the bottom of the home page on this site you shouldn’t get taken to the wrong WordPress sign-in.

    I like the image of a snowball. The only limitation of it is that it perhaps conveys the idea of progress being uncontrolled, rather than being to some extent under our direction.

  10. Hi Robert, I realise that I can become too hasty, in thinking that I understand a point, when it later becomes obvious to me that I don’t! I will be a lttle more thoughtful before I reply to a thread in future. Running before I can walk!

    I agree with you, the snowball does seem to be uncontrolled, but in its defence, it is ruled by gravity and must fall to earth! Far too complicated though, to compact into a simple graphic design.

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