On retreat this summer, Willie Grieve asked a question well worth asking: “What would be a Middle Way first aid kit?” A question that I take to mean, what are the most immediate applications of it in a variety of everyday situations? I didn’t really have an effective answer to this question at the time, but I wonder if I’ve found at least one possible answer now after stumbling on a series of very simple, practical videos by Senseability.
These videos describe six basic types of thinking error and also then go on to offer ways of addressing them – all in an extremely accessible format. This could be described as ‘critical thinking’, or indeed as ‘cognitive behavioural therapy’. To make it into practical Middle Way Philosophy, all one needs to add is the recognition that all six of these errors are different types of absolutisation. Here’s the first video, that introduces them:
The six errors introduced here are as follows. For each one I’ll give the label used on the video, plus some other labels in terms of biases or fallacies, plus what it absolutises:
All or nothing: false dilemma or false dichotomy. Absolutises a limitation on the number of options and/or boundaries between them.
Over-generalisation: sweeping generalisation fallacy. Absolutises one or a few examples into a universal truth about a whole category.
Mind reading: projection. Absolutises an idea we have about someone else or their motives by assuming it must be true.
Fortune-telling: forecast illusion, or pessimism/optimism about oneself. Absolutises a particular idea about what will happen to use in the future by assuming it must be true.
Magnification/ minimisation: ad hominem. Absolutisation of a view of oneself as good or bad regardless of the arguments. Anything else might also be magnified or minimised as a general feature of absolutisation.
Catastrophising: slippery slope. Assuming one bad event will necessarily lead to a worsening situation.
It’s worth noting that all of these also have opposites. In the case of 1 and 5 two extremes are already noted in the presentation, so it’s already obvious that a Middle Way is needed. In the case of 2, the opposite would be denying generalisation, in 3 denying all knowledge about others, in 4 and 6 denying all knowledge of the future.
The next video gives some example of these thinking errors without comment. It’s a helpful exercise to ask yourself which is occurring in each.
The third video suggests solutions to these thinking errors.
Here are the five solutions suggested on the video, all of which could be helpful for quite a wide range of absolutisations.
Consider the evidence
Is there an alternative?
What would you say to a friend who was thinking like that?
What is the likelihood?
Is there a more helpful way I can think about this?
All of these strategies in some way prompt wider awareness beyond the absolutised belief you’re holding onto.
Of course, these responses to everyday absolutisation are only a start to the practise of the Middle Way. There are a great many more biases and fallacies (these all being discussed in my book Middle Way Philosophy 4: The Integration of Belief). In order to make strategies like these effective in the longer term, you may also need longer-term integration practices such as meditation, the arts and (a fuller training in) critical thinking. But this is a first aid kit. It might help patch you up in the face of immediately overwhelming absolutisations so you can then start to think in a longer-term way.
With the recent podcast interview with Karen Armstrong, Barry Daniel (with occasional assistance from Susan Averbach) has now completed one hundred podcasts. Congratulations Barry! To mark my appreciation of this significant achievement, I want to celebrate the podcasts in general and pick out a few highlights.
When the society was first founded, in 2013, Barry quite early on had the idea of doing podcast interviews to stimulate discussion in and around the Middle Way. Podcasts were then, and remain, a popular format for communication and exploration of ideas on the web. Of course there were lots of popular podcasts that we could emulate, but perhaps one substantial prior influence that should be acknowledged is Ted Meissner with his Secular Buddhist podcasts (even though the MWS podcasts are also very different from Ted’s!).
We also had ideas about the role the podcasts would play in the society, and what would make them distinctively different from other podcasts. The Middle Way and Middle Way Philosophy is unusual in being rarely discussed in explicit terms, but nevertheless being widely appreciated implicitly, and having many overlapping areas of interest. So the main task of the podcasts is not so much to expound the Middle Way explicitly, as to explore some of the huge range of related ideas and practices as they are found in the live experiences of people. In that way we hope to touch on the interests of a wide variety of people, and stimulate discussion of the Middle Way from a variety of perspectives.
In many ways Barry was exactly the right person for that job. It primarily needed someone who was good at engaging with people and listening, which are amongst Barry’s prime skills in my experience. Of course, it also required a lot of hard work: contacting people to set up the podcasts, doing the interviews, sound-editing them, creating a visual version for YouTube and publishing them online. I know that Barry also does a lot of careful preparation in other respects – for example, often reading the book of an author before he interviews them about it, and consulting about the best questions to ask. So the podcast also requires someone with wide interests and curiosity about a range of subjects: again, Barry’s your man.
Nearly three years on, then, what do I think the podcasts have achieved? Well, there are a wide range of people from a range of backgrounds and disciplines who have all communicated something helpful and inspiring to the podcast audience. All these people have also been asked that ultimate or penultimate question: “What is your understanding of the Middle Way, and how might it relate to what we’ve been talking about?” and in the process of answering it, the interviewees have engaged with the core ideals of the society. Some knew nothing explicit about the Middle Way, whilst others had well-developed ideas about it, but all have made new connections. Some interviewees have stayed in touch, become personal friends, and even joined the society. A few, of course, were already members before they were interviewed. The podcasts have thus created a wide range of connections, both intellectual and social.
The answers to that question about the Middle Way have varied enormously in style and approach, but there are very few, if any, with which I would disagree as characterisations of the Middle Way – all of which goes to show the huge variety of ways it could potentially be approached and understood, without losing a basic similarity. That similarity comes from our shared experience as human beings of what sorts of attitudes are progressive, helpful or integrative, and how these contrast with dogmatic positions whether positive or negative. To get a taste of the variety of answers to that question, have a listen to episodes 29 and 30, where Barry collected together the first batch of answers he received.
Any selection I could offer you of the best podcasts is inevitably going to reflect my own tastes, and the easiest way of selecting them according to your own is to look at the podcast list page or any of the thematic pages that spring from it on the menu above (see picture). But here are some of the ones that I personally think are most important or interesting.
In Episode 6, Barry interviewed Iain McGilchrist, the author of ‘The Master and his Emissary’, the wide-ranging and important book on brain lateralisation and its effects on human thought and culture. Iain is the patron of the society, and his work has many connections with the Middle Way, as we can understand the Middle Way as avoiding the absolutisations created by the over-dominant left hemisphere of the brain. This link between the Middle Way and the brain was also explored further in the dialogue I had with Iain in episode 33.
Episode 32 with Ed Catmull is another early highlight. Ed Catmull is the President of Pixar and Disney Animation and a life member of the society. His connection with the Middle Way comes from his own experience of developing a business that fosters creativity: creativity that can only be found in the ‘messy middle’ that Ed talks about.
Episode 39 with Stephen Hayes is by far the most popular podcast, having over 16,000 views on YouTube. This is an in-depth exploration of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, illustrating just one of the very many links that can be made between the Middle Way and psychotherapy. Barry has also interviewed some important academic psychologists whose ideas bear a close relationship to the Middle Way, such as Ellen Langer and Elliott Aronson; as well as neuroscientists, philosophers, social scientists, environmental thinkers, politicians, and scholars of religion.
But if that gives you the impression that the podcasts are rather academic in flavour, it’s important to stress that they’re also often about telling personal stories or discussing practices. Some of the most moving podcasts in the series are with Arno Michaelis, a former racist skinhead, and Bjorn Ihler, survivor of a massacre on a Norwegian island. Both of these have inspiring stories to tell about an integrative journey that involved moving away from the absolute positions associated with hatred. Then to my mind one of the best podcasts about practice is the one with Elizabeth English, teacher of focusing. But there are also discussions of (for example) Tai Chi, biofeedback, sleep, ethics, politics, and building community.
That doesn’t exhaust the riches of the podcasts at all. I haven’t even dropped all the famous names Barry has interviewed. But I’ll limit myself to a small and personal selection here. There’s one final one I must mention. In episode 69, Barry himself was interviewed by Susan Averbach. So, if you want to find out more about the interviewer, that’s the place to go! I’ll embed that video at the foot of this blog.
What about the future of the podcasts? Well, Barry still seems to be going strong, but I know that he would very much appreciate some help. Susan Averbach has helped out by doing a few interviews, which has been a good way of varying the voice and style of the podcasts, and there could be scope for more people to get involved in interviewing. However, it’s at the time -consuming ‘back end’, i.e. the editing, that I’m sure Barry would most appreciate offers of help. In addition, if you have ideas of future people for Barry to interview, or you want to be interviewed yourself, just get in touch with Barry (at middlewaysociety.org). If the podcasts have weaknesses, these will also be best raised and addressed by new people with new perspectives getting involved. If it becomes more of a shared venture and less dependent on one individual, I’m sure the podcasts can continue to engage new people in thinking afresh about the Middle Way in the long term.
Rigorous even-handedness seems to me a central skill involved in practising the Middle Way, and I’ve been thinking about it especially after recent discussions on the site with Richard Flanagan and Mark Vernon. I thought I’d share a bit more about what I think even-handedness means, how we might practise it and why it is important.
The central metaphor involved in the Middle Way is balance – trying not to lean too far either to one side or to the other, because both sides offer rigidities of view that stop us making provisional judgments that address the changing conditions around us. Of course, the way we each find a point of balance as individuals depends on our background, and our approximation to balance may seem like a series of corrective lurches from one side to the other. But we can only maintain even corrective lurches if we have a clear idea of what we are avoiding. If we’re avoiding both positive and negative metaphysical claims, we need a clear view of each so that we can spot them before we hit them. Even a drunken steersman with a rather blurry idea of the strait ahead of him still has to have a sense of both sets of rocks to be avoided.
That lays some conceptual demands on us, as the way people are accustomed to talk about views does not necessarily make it very clear what the positive and negative metaphysical poles are. We’re probably all fairly clear that the Taliban on one side, or an addict trying to fill a meaningless life with drugs, on the other, represent extremes of both belief and practice to be avoided. However, in between such obvious extremes there are lot of positions that lay claim to the middle ground. The sheer amount of jostling for the middle ground itself provides evidence that in some sense people intuit the Middle Way to be right. Labels that we may have thought were extreme may be re-presented as the Middle Way, or at least a middle way. To some extent they often are, but to some extent also mingled with metaphysical commitments.
The first name that springs to mind to illustrate this is Tony Blair with his ‘Third Way’. The Third Way was quite a specific policy, and was about combining a goal of increasing social equality with the pragmatic effectiveness of market economics. Blair’s Third Way was a re-labelling of a once Socialist British Labour Party, a re-orientation of its economic policy. Although he made little impact on rising levels of inequality in Britain, Blair did manage to change the agenda. Since then British politicians (in marked contrast to the polarisation of the US) have been jostling for the centre ground, all claiming to offer the middle way between extremes. Many of them may be sincere about this. But I’ve yet to find a politician that I found convincingly rigorous, consistent or even-handed in developing a genuinely Middle Way position. The middle was appropriated mainly because Blair showed how politically advantageous it was, not because it was perceived as the morally objective option. It was a partial achievement, but Blair’s Third Way has also become a bit of a hazard for a practitioner of the Middle Way – a narrow interpretation of it that might be mistaken for the whole thing.
As with the Third Way, there are a number of other positions that I continue to argue are at least partially inspired by metaphysical assumptions, but that various people have suggested (some on this website) are compatible with the Middle Way. These include Scientific Naturalism (particularly of the ‘methodological’ variety), various types of liberal Christianity, Stoicism, Utilitarianism, Kant, Natural Law, Deep Ecology, the ‘Radical Middle Way’ in Islam, Social Democracy, Conservatism, Atheism, Humanism, and of course, Buddhism. Now, I don’t want to be mistaken for a purist simply rejecting all these positions because they’re not perfectly right. The Middle Way Society isn’t perfectly right either. All these positions address some conditions to some extent, whilst neglecting others. But we will only be in a position to assess them critically if we maintain some conceptual distinctions between the Middle Way and any one of them, not allowing any of them to appropriate the Middle Way as we understand it. I would then expect lots of quite reasonable disagreement on the extent to which any of these ideologies fall short of the Middle Way, but you won’t be able to assess that extent unless you have an idea of the Middle Way that is distinct from any of them, to start with.
That’s where the practice of even-handedness comes in. I’d suggest the following method, whenever you’re in doubt as to whether a particular belief is part of, or is compatible with the Middle Way:
Identify the extremes of view in the area you’re thinking about – i.e. a pair of polarised beliefs that lie beyond experience. See About Metaphysics page for examples.
Clarify the vocabulary, checking that you’re not just using the same word for a position that might or might not be interpreted metaphysically. If necessary, stipulate two meanings for yourself, e.g. atheism 1 & atheism 2 (this might be a temporary measure just to avoid confusion).
Reflect on the need to avoid both extremes. Most likely your background will steer you in one direction or the other. But both extremes offer equal dangers.
Imagine that you come from the opposite background (e.g. Conservative instead of left-wing, or theist instead of atheist) and see if what you thought was the Middle Way still looks like that from the other angle.
Try to define the Middle Way for yourself in rigorous avoidance of both the extremes.
Think about the practical implications of the Middle Way in this area.
I hope this kind of method might help you to avoid confusions merely arising from terminology. I have developed my own uses of terminology in Middle Way Philosophy in accordance with this method, but I think it’s the method that determines the use of terminology that is more important than the terminology itself. If you can use this method, I hope I will accept your corrections if you can show me that I haven’t used it rigorously myself.
I think this is important for individual practice of the Middle Way, but it’s also vital for the society whilst it is still in its early phase of development. It would be very easy for the Middle Way as a concept to be appropriated and eclipsed by one of the ‘false friends’ mentioned above. The consequences of this would be disastrous, because the whole purpose and central originality of the society would disappear. It would also cease to have the reconciliatory role it could potentially have in entrenched conflicts, because it would start to be seen as a cover for ‘the other side’. Theists would assume it was really atheistic, scientistic types that it was a cover for woolly new-ageism, Conservatives that it was really Socialist, etc. Even-handedness is just a vital part of what I conceive the society to be about, but it would be all too easy to let it slip.