“Keeping Your Shit Together”:
A Perspective on the Buddhist Middle-Way Approach
Some people like fast cars, some people like fine dining, and some people like expensive clothes. Some people are partial towards liquor, some towards gambling, and some towards tobacco. Some people like men and some people like women. Some people have a penchant for extreme sports, some for hot climates, and some for partying. Some people are passionate about video games, some about film, and some about photography. Some people like technology, some like nature, and some like travelling.
Some people like some of the above, some like none of the above, and some people like all of the above. People like certain things when they are young, other things when they are middle-aged, and different things when they are older. Likewise, people like certain things in the morning, other things in the afternoon, and different things in the evening. Some people are comfortable with the fact they like some, all, or none of the above, some people are indifferent about this matter, and some people are uncomfortable or feel guilty about the things that they are partial towards.
As far as the Buddhist spiritual teachings are concerned, there are lots of different methods of relating to the various desires and partialities that we have in life. Some Buddhist paths advocate separation and renunciation from potentially desirous objects and situations. Other paths advocate being in the presence of our various desires but exercising advanced levels of mental discipline. There are also some (often misunderstood and incorrectly practised) esoteric Buddhist paths that advocate accepting and embracing one’s desires.
When correctly taught and practised, each of these approaches represent valid spiritual paths. They have their own rules, they lead to their own spiritual fruits (i.e., levels of awakening), and they are intended to suit the needs of individuals with differing degrees of spiritual capacity. Nevertheless, although the three paths referred to above appear to represent very different modes of spiritual practice, these paths often intersect and feed into each other. For example, an individual who chooses to renounce and completely separate themselves from potentially desirous objects and circumstances may reach a point in their spiritual development when they feel that in order to move forward, they need a greater level of interaction with people and phenomena (i.e., in order to ‘put their practice to the test’). Eventually, the same person might decide that in order to grow even further as a spiritual being, they have to embrace all phenomena and experiences, including those typically considered to be incompatible with a spiritual way of life.
Although there are points of intersection and convergence in the three spiritual paths outlined above, a person who embarks on a path that they are not suited for, or who switches from one path to another before they are ready, is likely to find that the path is of little benefit or that it actually does them more harm than good. In other words, there are many different ways of interacting with the objects, people, and situations that are a potential source of attraction, but in order to grow in spiritual realisation, it is vital to employ the method that is most suited to our particular stage of spiritual development.
Recently, we were giving a talk to a group of young adults from a socio-economically deprived inner-city suburb of a northern English city. The theme of the talk was the principle of the ‘middle-way’. The Buddhist teachings on the middle-way basically assert that the best way to relate to the various desires and partialities that we have in life is to do things in moderation. Too much of something is generally not good for us, and completely avoiding things can also be detrimental to our wellbeing. Following the approach of the middle-way means that we don’t take anything to extremes, but it also means that we are open to new experiences and aren’t afraid of responsibly enjoying our lives. We use the term ‘responsibly enjoying’ here because implicit within the Buddhist teachings of the middle-way, is the premise that however we decide to spend our time, nobody (including ourselves) should be hurt or taken advantage of as a result of our actions. If we keep this basic premise in mind, then the approach of the middle-way seems to provide us with a means of exploring, enjoying, and engaging with life, but without letting our mind be ‘over-run’ by the various objects and activities of our desire.
If we want to embrace spiritual living to a slightly greater extent, then in addition to ‘responsibly enjoying’ life (i.e., by making sure we don’t hurt or take advantage of anybody), we should try to undertake everything we do in a gentle and compassionate manner, and whilst maintaining meditative awareness. If we expand our understanding of the middle-way approach to embody these three basic spiritual principles (i.e., 1. Responsibly enjoying life, 2. Being gentle and compassionate, and 3. Cultivating meditative awareness), then the middle-way philosophy becomes a practical, effective, and expedient means of fostering spiritual growth.
In terms of where the middle-way approach fits within the schema of the three Buddhist paths referred to earlier (i.e., the paths of relating to potentially desirous objects and situations via: 1. Renunciation and separation, 2. Applying advanced mental discipline, or 3. Acceptance and embracing), it could be said that the middle-way teachings apply to each of these different paths. For example, if a person is practising the path of renunciation and separation, then there is a ‘middle-way’ philosophy that they can apply to that path (i.e., by moderating the degree to which they cut themselves off from the world around them). Likewise, if a person chooses to engage with potentially desirous objects by either applying advanced levels of mental discipline or by meditatively accepting and embracing them, then there is a corresponding middle-way approach towards relating to and following each these paths. Thus, whichever spiritual path we choose to adopt, the teachings and approach of the middle-way remain valid.
The above discussion concerning the middle-way teachings and how they relate to different types of spiritual path was basically the subject of the talk that we mentioned above, which was given to a group of approximately 35 young adults. At the end of the talk, the floor was opened to questions and comments. At this point, a young lady who was about 20-years-old stood up and commented as follows:
“What you are saying is that as far as Buddhism is concerned, life is basically about keeping your shit together. If you keep your shit together, then so long as you are not hurting anybody, you are free to thoroughly enjoy life. It’s when your shit falls apart and you take things too far that trouble starts. Based on what I’ve understood, it seems that you are also saying that if you manage to keep your shit together and be a kind person at the same time, then that’s even better. I think I can do that. It sounds like common sense to me.”
After the talk, we spoke briefly with the young lady and informed her that we liked her comment and thought she had provided some sound words of advice. We asked for her permission (which she kindly provided) to make use of her advice in some of our writing projects. We don’t really consider ourselves to be particularly up-to-date with modern phrases or expressions, but based on our understanding, it appears that an aspect of the meaning of the Buddhist middle-way teachings is captured by the expression ‘keep your shit together’.
In terms of giving some examples of what ‘keeping your shit together’ means in practice, we would say that if you like gambling or alcohol, then by all means enjoy placing a few bets or having a few drinks. However, if you bet to the point of bankruptcy or if you drink yourself into a state of severe inebriation on a daily basis, then it probably means that you are not ‘keeping your shit together’. The same applies to all of the other things mentioned at the start of this post. It is good to responsibly enjoy some of the things that we are partial towards, but if we take things too far (in either direction), then there are likely to be negative consequences.
In terms of the things in life that we are partial towards, people have different levels of tolerance. Therefore, it is up to us as individuals to work out what constitutes a middle-way between extremes, and what amounts to not keeping ourselves together. Similarly, in light of the fact that people have different tolerance levels, it is also important that we don’t judge people by projecting our own ideas of what is right and wrong onto them. What amounts to not keeping it together for one person, might constitute a middle-way approach for somebody else. In other words, if we try too hard not to ‘lose our shit’, and get all haughty and wound up when we deem that others have lost theirs, then this might actually mean that we have ‘allowed our shit to fly all over the place’.
Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon