Siddhartha Gautama was born a prince and lived in luxury. His father the King sheltered him from religious influences and the realities of poverty and suffering outside the palaces. Later in his life when he finally saw the enormity of suffering present in the world he left the privilege of royalty and became an ascetic monk.
In addition to discovering higher states of concentration he also adapted the ascetic practices of self-mortification and rejection of all worldly comforts, even to the point of living on a grain of rice or one nut per day. Upon his awakening Buddha realized that there is a Middle Way between indulgence and depravity.
The book of Ecclesiastes teaches, “Don’t be overrighteous. Don’t be overwicked. The man who fears God avoids all extremes,” (7:16-18). Religion and politics can both be loony or dangerous when practiced at the extremes. Contemplative practice of all kinds has pitfalls at the polarities, but a life of balance and moderation is where happiness, contentment, and well-being can be realized.
Most people who come to meditation are all too familiar with living on autopilot in this fast paced rat race we call Western life. We have come to know that having more stuff doesn’t satisfy, but the antidote is not found in rejecting our lives and replacing them with Eastern imitations. If you’re new to meditation practice, you can commit to sitting for hours everyday for the rest of your life, but it’s very unrealistic that you will be able to live up to that goal, especially when the realities of work and family interrupt the new spiritual life you’ve planned. There has to be a balance between spiritual ambition and apathy.
Buddha used the illustration of a stringed instrument. He told his student that if you tighten the string too much it will break. If you make it too loose, it will not make music, but if you tune it somewhere in between, the string will sound just right. Whether in our meditation practice, our yoga practice, or our work and family life, we need balance. Take it serious, but not too serious.
It would be better to start out small and slow than to blow your engine out at the starting line. The tortoise proved to the hare that “slow and steady wins the race.” If you’re just starting out, why not make a small commitment to spend just 5 minutes a day in meditation or whatever your practice is. In time you can increase it when you’re ready. It’s best to find a healthy balance between what is challenging and what is realistic. Yoga instructor Travis Eliot tells his students that “full effort always equals full benefit.” How we engage our practice is the key to finding the middle way in every other area of our lives.