Tag Archives: Barry Daniel

One hundred podcasts: A retrospective

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!).podcast interviews

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.podcastDropdown

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.

The MWS Podcast: Episode 11, Monica Garvey

In this episode Monica Garvey talks to us about Family Mediation, an integrative, non-confrontational and progressive approach to family disputes that aims to be forward looking and solution focused. Monica talks to us about how the issue of children are tackled in mediation, the role of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, strategies for overcoming dogmatic positions and the power of an apology.

MWS Podcast 11: Monica Garvey as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_11_Monica_Garvey

Previous podcasts:

Episode 10: Emilie Åberg on horticultural therapy, agnosticism, the Quakers and awe.
Episode 9: T’ai Chi instructor John Bolwell gives an overview of this popular martial art.
Episode 8: Peter Goble on his career as a nurse and his work as a Buddhist Chaplain.
Episode 7: The author Stephen Batchelor on his work with photography and collage.
Episode 6: Iain McGilchrist, author of the Master and his Emissary.
Episode 5: Julian Adkins on introducing MWP to his meditation group in Edinburgh
Episode 4: Daren Dewitt on Nonviolent communiction.
Episode 3: Vidyamala Burch on her new book “Mindfulness for Health”.
Episode 2: Norma Smith on why she joined the society, art, agnosticism and metaphor.
Episode 1 : Robert M. Ellis on the skill of critical thinking.

Middle Way Philosophy Retreat – Aug 2013

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).

Barry Daniel