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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 ones 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 dont take anything to extremes, but it also means that we are
open to new experiences and arent 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 overrun 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 dont 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 middleway 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 20years-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. Its when your shit falls apart and you take things too far that trouble starts. Based on
what Ive 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 thats 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 dont 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 dont
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