One of the most important ways that the Middle Way can be applied to meditation is through the idea of balanced effort. In fact, I think one could put it rather more strongly than that. One could even say that the practice of meditation, in a broad sense of the term, is balanced effort. That is, whatever one is doing, whether it is formally labelled ‘meditation’ or not, one gains more effective awareness through an immediate experience of balancing between extremes.
The two extremes that one is avoiding can be conceptualised in all sorts of ways, as the assertion or negation of ill-adapted fixed views. However, those extreme views are likely to be associated with reasons for either straining or slacking in meditation. For example, you might be too wilful in meditation because of anxiety about what your meditation teacher or other people in your meditation class will think – which could be identified with a fixed view about absolute value being placed with the authority of the group. On the other hand, you might be too lackadaisical in your meditation because of a fixed view that whatever you feel you want now is OK – which could be identified with a fixed view of yourself.
It is the views behind it that make the practice of balanced effort a practice of the Middle Way, but actually it’s probably not helpful to spend too long analysing the views behind your feelings in meditation. Rather, you can just experience extremes of feeling, whatever the reasons behind them, and respond to those extremes by relaxing what is too stressed or tightening what is too slack. The Buddha used the analogy of a lute-string for the Middle Way, and this applies very well to balanced effort as well. You need to be sounding just the right note.
Too much wilfulness may well be detectable physically, in the form of tension in your body. The shoulders and the face seem to be particular barometers of it, so initial relaxation as you start off in meditation needs to pay attention to the muscles in these areas. It can help to clench each muscle and then relax it. Other indicators of tension might be a tight chest or clenched teeth. I find it very helpful to deliberately open the chest at the beginning of meditation, and an openness of the chest seems to be associated with warmth of emotion.
On the other hand, too much relaxation may well result in a slouched posture. Assuming you’re doing sitting meditation (which you might not be, following Peter’s previous contribution on standing meditation!), you can try to find a balanced uprightness by imagining a thread attached to the top of your head, that is gently pulling your body upwards. If you follow the sense of such a thread, it should lead to a straightening in the shoulders and neck, though without rigidity.
Apart from developing the conditions for balanced effort through posture, there is also an ongoing process of responding to distractions that drag you one way or the other. If you are encountering high-energy distractions such as anxious thoughts or obsessive desires, you can try to balance them out by focusing more on your rooted body, particularly your abdomen. On the other hand, if you are feeling torpid or sleepy, then opening your eyes slightly, or making your object of meditation more stimulating, may help.
Every time you sit down (or stand up) to meditate, you are also tightrope walking. To practice their skill, though, I imagine that tightrope walkers have to get used to regularly falling off. Let’s hope there’s a safety net.
Picture: Sculpture of Charles Blondin, tightrope walker, at Ladywood in Birmingham