I have been thinking recently about the Fall – no, not the leaves falling off the trees, in American parlance. I mean the story in the book of Genesis of the Bible, about how Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, then were expelled from the Garden of Eden by God. Just mentioning this story may raise the hackles of secularists, who associate it with metaphysical dogma. However, I think there is an important distinction to be made between metaphysical claims, which are dogmatic, and stories and symbols, which are not. To make a claim like “Adam and Eve made all humans sinful” is metaphysical, and we can see the negative effects of the Christian dogma of Original Sin in terms of psychological conflict. However, to tell and re-interpret the myth of the Fall so as to relate it more usefully to experience is a different matter.
The myth is a potent one. Take this very famous picture by Masaccio of the expulsion from Eden. For me this communicates a very basic experience of suffering and links it powerfully to a sense of exclusion. The story is exploring the meaning of human suffering through creating a story about its causes. Obviously, the way these causes are symbolised is to some extent dependent on the culture of the early Hebrews in which the story developed. However, one would also expect it to tap into more universal human experiences. How we interpret the story in terms of these is something we can play around with. I’m going to offer an interpretation which I think helps to relate the story to universal human experience. That doesn’t mean that I think that’s what the story is “really” about (the “really” would take us back into metaphysics). Rather it’s an interpretation, which I take responsibility for as such.
Let’s think about the basic elements of the story. It divides roughly into three: (1)God creates the Garden of Eden, (2) Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, and (3) then they are expelled.
If we take a Jungian interpretation of God and his meaning, he represents the integrated psyche, just as a Buddhist mandala does. God is a represented idealised form of how we would be if we were entirely free of conflict, internal or external, and we may associate this symbol with people we know or have heard of who may have got further on this road than we have – Wise Old Men and Wise Old Women. The Garden of Eden, said to be created by God, bears a similar interpretation. It is an idealised symbol of complete contentment through full integration.
However, this garden-mandala contains the seeds of conflict – the tree of knowledge of good and evil. I think one helpful way of interpreting this would be as the ego, or the obsessive function of a detached left hemisphere of the brain. When we eat the fruit (develop the representational functions of the left hemisphere) we gain power and insight because we are able to manipulate the world to our own ends far better than we were before. We can use language to make plans, instructions, warnings etc and communicate them to others. We are capable of gaining an increasingly coherent view of the world in which we act. However, this ability also comes at a price – the tendency of the left hemisphere to absolutise, to believe that it has the whole picture, and to turn its beliefs into metaphysical ones. This might be thought of as ‘knowledge of good and evil’ because of the ego’s tendency to accept and reject things dualistically, thinking of what it happens to like at the moment as ‘good’ and what it dislikes as ‘evil’.
By eating this forbidden fruit, then, we create suffering as well as power, because we exclude ourselves from the degree of integration between the hemispheres we might have otherwise. We emerge from an undifferentiated and implicit awareness into a world of concepts – a process that can be disorientating and alienating. We have been thrown out of the garden because we no longer feel whole in the sense that we might, and yearn for a missing integration.
One of the early church fathers, Irenaeus, described the sin of Adam and Eve as felix culpa, a ‘happy sin’. This suggests that he was getting to grips with the contradictions involved in the Fall. We feel shut out, but we also feel empowered by the ego and its associated conceptualisations. He perhaps implicitly recognised that the ego is not a bad thing to be destroyed, but the basis on which we can develop further. However, stretching the ego so as to gradually dilute its weaknesses requires effort and practice: we can’t rely on a salvation from the effects of the Fall from Christ, as the metaphysical doctrines of Christianity have it.
The story of the Fall is such a basic part of Western culture, that it would be a great shame to merely shut it out by dismissing it as ‘untrue’, as some secularists appear to do. ‘Truth’ is really not a relevant test to apply in understanding what this story – or any story – has to offer. I would suggest that the Middle Way here involves finding creative ways to engage with it and harness its power – whether that is through the kind of interpretation I am suggesting or some other way. Even if we also recognise its limitations, every myth can speak to us in some way.
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).
The pages on this website have been gradually developing, to give a coherent account of the Middle Way in theory. However, theory is never enough. I’d like the posts on this site to often have a more practical or inspirational flavour. Here’s an example to start off with. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra seems to me a strikingly inspiring example of the Middle Way in action. Here’s a video introducing it.
Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said have created something that integrates across entrenched boundaries and contributes to the breaking down of fixed metaphysical models that create conflict. They have done this, not through creating an idealised peace when the conditions for peace do not yet fully exist, but by creating some of the conditions for peace in shared meaning. If we recognise meaning as embodied rather than represented, music can be understood as highly meaningful to us because of its relationship to our basic physical processes – our pulse, heartbeat, physical movements and vocal processes. This sense of meaning forms a basis for metaphorical extension into the more abstracted meanings of language. A shared meaning based on music at least creates the conditions in which young people on different sides of the divide begin to talk to each other, and to recognise the meaningfulness of each others’ perspectives.
I’m delighted to announce that Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and his Emissary and fellow of All Soul’s College, Oxford, has agreed to be a patron of the Middle Way Society.
The Master and his Emissary is an important work of synthetic thought, focusing on the differing specialisations of two hemispheres of the brain and their massive effects on human thinking and cultural history. Although not discussing the Middle Way explicitly, it does so implicitly in a great variety of ways, and provides a possible scientific approach to understanding the physical conditions that give rise to the need for the Middle Way.
Iain’s life also shows a multi-disciplinary approach to experience that has enabled him to gain synthetic understanding of a kind that is very helpful for engaging with the Middle Way. Starting out his academic career as a scholar of literature, he then retrained and practised as a psychiatrist. He is now devoted to his writing work and lives on the Isle of Skye.