Monthly Archives: May 2014

The MWS Podcast: Episode 23, Kristin Neff on Self-compassion

In this episode Kristin Neff, Associate Professor in Human Development and Culture at the University of Texas talks to us today about self-compassion, how she feels it differs from self-esteem, its contingent nature, and why it’s such a useful thing to cultivate in life. She goes on to talk about remorse, responsibility, shame and guilt and what her understanding is of the Middle Way.

MWS Podcast 23: Kristin Neff as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_23_Kristin_Neff

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Migglism: A Beginner’s Guide to Middle Way Philosophy, now published

After a number of months of preparation, and helpful input from a number of people in the Middle Way Society, my new introduction to Middle Way Philosophy, Migglism, is now finally published. It aims to provide a brief and accessible way into the ideas, and is illustrated with cartoons by Norma Smith and Peter Goble.Migglism Cover Katja

Migglism is the first book to be approved by the Middle Way Society publications committee, which is formed to give the society’s support to self-published books about the Middle Way. This facility is open to any author who wants to publish a book relating to the Middle Way and submit it to the society for approval.

The book is available in both paperback and e-book versions. Currently it is only available from Lulu, but within a few weeks it should also be available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other major online sources. Please note that a greater proportion of money goes to me, and less to Jeff Bezos, if you buy from Lulu rather than Amazon.

Here are the links to the Lulu pages where you can purchase the book:



Here is the ‘blurb’:

‘Migglism’ is a short term for Middle Way Philosophy, a practical philosophical approach developed by Robert M. Ellis in a Ph.D. thesis and a series of books. Middle Way Philosophy brings together insights from Buddhism, philosophy and psychology to offer a framework of thinking for a range of integrative practices. This book aims to introduce these ideas in an accessible way.

‘The Middle Way’ is not a compromise, but a process of navigating between dogmatic extremes. By avoiding either positive or negative claims that go beyond experience, we can find a new way of thinking, valuing and practising.

“The middle is the chaotic and confusing place between the extremes. While the extremes are simpler and more attractive, it is the mess in the middle where the interesting and creative activities occur – it is where we should be. Robert sets out a foundation for a way of thinking about the middle ground as a place to move towards.”
Ed Catmull, President of Pixar and Walt Disney, and author of Creativity, Inc.

Meditation 14: The hindrance of doubt

There are two possible senses of ‘doubt’, just as there are two senses of ‘confidence’ as its opposite. Doubt can be a disabling paralysis preventing us engaging in actions we have decided upon, or it can be a liberating questioning of views that have previously been understood dogmatically. How do you tell the difference? Well, disabling doubt is disintegrating and disempowering, but liberating doubt is integrating and empowering. Disabling doubt is a voice making negative dogmatic assertions that undermine you without justification, whereas liberating doubt is balanced and merely makes us aware of our degree of uncertainty as embodied beings.

This distinction between two types of doubt is found in the traditional Buddhist discussion of doubt as a hindrance in meditation. Doubt as a hindrance is a translation of the Pali term vicikiccha, and is something every meditator will have come across regularly. Unfortunately this is sometimes badly translated as ‘sceptical doubt’, which can only be based on a major misunderstanding of scepticism: I much prefer the translation ‘disabling doubt’ which tells you about its practical effects. Sceptical doubt as I understand it is liberating doubt, enabling us to let go of attachments to dogmatic claims wherever they are found.

The way I experience disabling doubt in meditation is as a loss of confidence that meditation is worth doing, or is worth persisting in. For example, I could sit for a while, find myself going round a spiral of distractions, and conclude “There’s no point in sitting here any longer – I’m just wasting my time.” Or  maybe I don’t even start in the first place. Perhaps I get up in the morning, feeling a bit groggy, and “Oh, it’s obviously not worth trying to meditate this morning – I’ll never get anywhere.” At this point I also hear the voice of past meditation teachers from somewhere in my superego saying “Ah! But that just goes to show that meditation is the very thing you need most!”, but, if the disabling doubt is disabling enough, I will of course ignore them.Doubting Thomas Johann Jaritz

How do I know that this disabling doubt is not liberating, sceptical doubt? A case could be made. Perhaps I am hanging onto an idea that I should be meditating every day, regardless of the evidence. But perhaps it really isn’t very useful to try meditating at this juncture. Meditation is not a panacea for every situation, as you need a basic degree of starting integration to make any progress with meditation in the first place. Perhaps this doubtful voice is just saving me the trouble of wasting my time when meditation would indeed be fruitless? Perhaps I am also attributing dogmatic authority to the voices of past meditation teachers?

Of course, this is possible, but I think there are also some ways to spot disabling doubt when it tries to assume the mantle of liberating doubt. One, that I’ve already mentioned, is that disabling doubt is negative dogma. It won’t be open to real examination of the question of whether meditation would be useful – it will just be offering rationalisations to support a feeling of not wanting to meditate. If it’s liberating doubt, you should be aware of arguments on both sides, and be in a position to weight them up. Ask yourself whether that’s really the case. Another way of spotting disabling doubt is that it will probably be accompanied by quite a negative emotional state: a retractive, shrinking away from things.

The traditional Buddhist answer to doubt is usually ‘faith’ – involving at least an element of unconditional commitment to metaphysical claims, such as the Buddha’s enlightenment. Interpreted in this way, I don’t think that approach is any help at all. At best it is a way of experiencing group pressure to conform and do the things that the group does, symbolised by their metaphysical commitments. You might decide that some group pressure will help you stick to your commitments, but this will just be repressive if the commitments themselves are made under group pressure, especially if this is reinforced by appeals to tradition.

Instead, I’d suggest that, yes, we do need to commit ourselves to meditation practice, and follow it with some sense of discipline, in order to make it work. If we allow ourselves to re-assess that commitment every time we meditate, regardless of the mental state we are in, it will undermine the practice. However, in order for meditation practice to be justified by experience rather than group pressure and dogma, we do need to review it regularly and thoroughly. Is it really worth doing? Is it really making progress? The answer ‘no’ has to be a real possibility if you are really asking these questions, rather than just going through the motions to satisfy a group that claims to be open and critical but isn’t. If you know that you have thought through your commitment to practice for the time being, it makes sense to suppress (not repress) any contrary impulses for the moment, and just sit down and meditate regardless.

My personal experience is that sometimes I have answered ‘no’ when I asked myself if meditation was working for me. At that point it wasn’t. But I have always come back to it, because if I don’t do it then I miss it and notice the effects. By allowing doubt free enquiry in the appreciation of uncertainty, I am reasonably confident that my commitment to meditation is founded in experience rather than dogma.

Index of previous meditation blogs

Picture: Doubting Thomas photographed by Johann Jaritz  (Wikimedia Commons)

William Hogarth. 1697 – 1764. Marriage a la Mode.



William Hogarth was born in Smithfield London in 1697, his father was originally a Latin teacher but he ventured into a coffee house business which made him bankrupt. Young Hogarth went to drawing classes where he copied from casts and drew from live models. He soon became an apprentice in a silver workshop where he was to reach the level of Master engraver, he opened a print shop which is where he met Sir James Thornhill and became one of his students in his drawing academy, he married Thornhil’s daughter Jane in 1729, it was a happy marriage, with no children. He was fond of going to the theatre and enjoyed satirical plays and also cartoons which made fun of the royal family and politicians.

Hogarth was a painter, print maker, pictorial satirist, social critic and editorial cartoonist, he has been credited with pioneering ‘sequential art’, which is similar to a sophisticated comic strip. He created a series of morality paintings called a ‘Rake’s Progress’ in 1734 using his art to make a social comment on the times and on politics, Hogarth regretted the urbanisation of London and its accompanying crime. Between the years 1743 and 1745 he painted six works which were then engraved called ‘Marriage a la Mode’ now held in the National Gallery London. These works demonstrated how the lives of the wealthy were not without vice, they were a criticism of 18th.century life. It is the first engraving of this series that will be discussed. In 1747 he worked on a series called ‘Industry and Idleness’  in the following year he went to France and returned with an unfavourable impression of the people. Four years later in 1751 he produced ‘Gin Lane’ in which he railed against the Protestant work ethic, the view was that if the people did not find work they deserved to be poor, no matter for what reason, he was critical of the alcoholism, gin was cheap to buy and was called mother’s ruin.  In 1762 he painted ‘The Times’ which greatly upset certain politicians.

Paintings were copied to make prints, an engraver would use a tool called a graver to make incisions or scratches onto a metal plate, that in turn was covered in ink and pressed in a printing press onto paper. Hogarth would make limited editions but because prints were so popular many fraudulent copies were also made.

In the first of the series of six works for Marriage a la Mode we see the main characters, composed in two groups , this series is considered to be one of Hogarth’s best works. On the right we see Earl Squander who is planning to marry his son, the viscount to a wealthy merchant’s daughter, the earl is very miserly and wants more funds to carry on building his new home, which we can glimpse through a window, an architect is looking through this window with plans in his hand, the merchant on the other hand is wealthy and wants to climb the social ladder, hence his wish to marry his daughter to a member of the aristocracy.  The old earl is seen with one leg raised on a cushion, to ease his gout, he holds a scroll on which is drawn his family tree, the merchant holds the marriage contract while on the left of the scene we see the Earl’s son, the Viscount, admiring himself in a mirror, a solicitor called Silvertongue bends over the daughter, probably giving encouragement to her about the benefits of this marriage. Two dogs are seen chained together, a metaphor for this alliance? The room is grand,  we see a classical interior, on one wall there is a portrait in the  French manner, on another an image of Medusa, denoting horror.  In the second of the series we see that the couple have little interest in each other, the marriage is breaking down, a dog pulls out a cap from the young husband’s pocket, a hint that he has been unfaithful to his wife, there is a broken sword, he has been in a fight. The third picture depicts a quack’s consulting room, the husband has syphillis and the young prostitute with him rubs a scab on her lips. The viscount wants the money returned which he spent on the medicine which has not cured him. In the next engraving the old earl dies, the young couple take over the home,  when they entertain guests the wife turns her back on her visitors. In the next piece the husband discovers that his wife has been unfaithfull with the solicitor Silvertongue, who is escaping throught a window, the wife implores her husband to forgive her, the injured husband dies, the wife commits suicide and the solicitor is hung in Tyburn for the murder.

What an unhappy tale. It is hard to discover a middle way in this series of engravings, it shows extremely poor behaviour on each character’s part, it is a comedy of errors, a satire, which entertains the public and perhaps makes them feel somewhat happier about there own lives, perhaps the grass is not greener in the next pasture. It may provide a timely warning also that such behaviour produces unwanted results and it is far more important to tread a middle way.

Society was not stable at the time, the unpopular George 2 ruled, although he spent much of his life back in his much loved home in Hanover, Germany, his son George was at loggerheads with his parents and they had no time for him, the family was dysfunctional and did nothing to calm the unsettled conditions in the country.

Hogarth followed rules when he worked, he produced images that he knew the public would understand and like, he used variety to keep onlookers interested, he made sure that the images he produced were in sync with the main themes in each work, not using too many images which could confuse, he worked in the Rococo style, using loose free lines to create the beauty in the work, his brushstrokes were also free, we see this on the ruffle and frills on the clothing, his colours were warm and rich, restrained by light and dark browns. Hogarth died in 1764.



Middle Way Thinkers 3: Aristotle

raphael_athens_platoIn Raphael’s famous picture ‘The School of Athens’, the highlighted two standing philosophers in the middle are obviously intended to be the most important. They are Plato and Aristotle. Plato is pointing upwards, symbolising rationalism and its appeal to transcendent reason, but Aristotle is pointing downwards towards the Earth, to symbolise the empirical appeal to experience and the earth. The Buddha is also sometimes depicted touching the ground, in a way that could be taken to symbolise the ‘groundedness’ of his view of things.

The Buddha’s relationship to experience can be seen as the basis of his Middle Way, avoiding either positive or negative metaphysical claims. But can we say the same for Aristotle? The resemblances, at first sight, are striking. Not only is Aristotle often regarded as the first empiricist in the Western tradition (and also the founder of Western science, the first to seriously use observation to support his claims), but he also taught a virtue ethics, with the famous Golden Mean as a guide to how we could identify a virtuous quality. A practical virtue, he said, is found mid-way between the excess and the deficiency of a quality. For example, courage (a true virtue  in his view) is found mid-way between cowardice (the deficiency of courageous quality) and foolhardiness (its excess). Is this an ancient Greek version of the Middle Way?

Sadly, not quite. There is much to admire in Aristotle. He was a multi-talented figure who took an interest in everything from biology to poetry. He learnt from his master Plato and went beyond him. His Ethics, and particularly the chapter on friendship, are of particular interest today. Aristotle can be a great source of inspiration, but he should certainly not be assumed wholesale to have hit the Middle Way. Nor should the Middle Way be described as ‘Aristotelian’. For there are still some basic ways in which Aristotle remains in a set of metaphysical assumptions that might take us off in a different direction.

Aristotle did challenge the metaphysics of Plato, but he also developed his own metaphysics. Rather than basing this on absolute reason like Plato, he made the assumption that we could observe the truth about the world through the senses. Where Plato evidently believed that the Forms (ultimate essences) lay in reason alone beyond the world, Aristotle believed that they lay in each individual thing in the world. Through observation we could work out the essence of a thing, and thus its true purpose. He thus assumed that the world was formatted in a way that would allow scientists to understand it correctly, and that observation of human beings could also show us their true nature and purpose. ‘Man’ he famously wrote, ‘is a rational animal’: meaning that what is essential and distinctive about humans is their rationality. Our true purpose, he believed, can thus be fulfilled by developing that rationality.

The Golden Mean, then, needs to be understood in its context. It’s not a method for taking into account the limitations of our understanding in the whole of experience, as I take the Middle Way to be. Rather it is Aristotle’s account of how he thinks humans can be good and fulfil their true purpose. He believes that we should develop our rational virtues, which help us judge whatever we meet, but we should also develop our practical virtues , which are gained through practice and involve a balance between excess and deficiency. Instead of using the Middle Way to judge both facts and values, Aristotle treats each differently. The facts, he thinks, are known by examining the world and understanding the essential truths about each thing and its purpose. Right values, however, are developed by applying what we have learnt, even though doing that requires practice as well as theory. Even though he has an attractive ethics that emphasises balance and has a strong practical aspect, Aristotle was a naturalist.

Aristotle’s general approach can thus easily be used to justify practices that are believed to have been observed in the world, even though they’re obviously the product of the assumptions made by the observers. That’s why his ideas are still invoked by the Catholic Church today (via their interpretation by St Thomas Aquinas) to support the belief that sex is ‘naturally’ for procreation, and that to use it merely for pleasure is a sin. One can, of course, observe the link between sex and procreation, but the belief that procreation thereby becomes the essential purpose of sex, and then that to do otherwise is wrong, involves a whole pile of dogmatic assumptions.

To get closer to the heart of the Middle Way in ancient Greek philosophy, I think, we must look instead to Aristotle’s near-contemporary Pyrrho. I will discuss Pyrrho in more detail some other time, but the key point here is that Pyrrho was able to pursue sceptical arguments against the supposed ‘truths’ that Aristotelians thought they were able to observe. Sceptical arguments show that there can be no such known ‘truths’, only provisional beliefs. Pointing us downwards towards our experience is a step in the right direction, but empiricism, too, can be dogmatic. It’s only if we can hold our empirical beliefs with genuine provisionality that we start to get closer to the Middle Way.

Link to index of ‘Middle Way Thinkers’ blogs