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).