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The Pursuit of Genuine Joy
How a simple idea called "the middle way" leads to lasting liberation
Hello & welcome to another edition of Beyond Self Improvement! Last Wednesday, I published The Subway Serenade, an inquiry into awareness.
A warm welcome to the 10 new subscribers to Beyond Self Improvement since last Wednesday. If you aren’t already, join 605 lovely people by subscribing right now.
If you’re wondering why you’re receiving this on a Saturday, I hadn't planned on a client asking me to attend an event at the last minute. This excuse morphed into avoidance, followed by gleeful irresponsibility. After publishing every Wednesday for nine months, flaunting the schedule was great fun, like a kid rebelling against his parents. All is well and back to “normal.”
Summary in Three Sentences
Embracing the middle way unveils the secret to enduring joy. When insight and calmness are balanced, we experience contentment beyond conditions. Rather than chasing extremes, happiness is found in the middle ground between deep knowing and calm being.
Much like life, happiness can feel unpredictable and unreliable at the whim of ever-changing conditions. Whether it’s the right job, the perfect relationship, the ideal amount of money, or perhaps a combination, we’re taught that joy is contingent on external factors.
We set up dependencies for ourselves: I'll be happy if I achieve this. I’ll remain content if I avoid that. But these conditions, these rules we unconsciously set for ourselves, may be the very chains holding us back from realizing genuine, lasting joy.
In exploring the world of happiness, we come across a concept in Buddhism called "four-star happiness." This is different from how we feel when we receive a raise, watch a John Mulaney comedy show, or get an A on a report card. It's a resilient happiness independent of external and internal conditions of body and mind.
How does one realize such a lasting joy? By practicing the middle way.
Though simple, the middle way has profound implications for our lives. At its core, the middle way is about finding a balance between the qualities of concentration and insight. To realize lasting peace and contentment, we need to find the middle ground between calmness of being and penetrating insights into the nature of being human.
Like a steady diet and exercise program leads to better health, maintaining an equilibrium between calmness and insight leads to more profound and enduring happiness.
To simplify, imagine four types of people:
The Calm Yet Clueless. Such individuals have an abundance of calmness. They're the ones who can sit on a beach and watch the waves for hours, feeling serene. Yet, they're somewhat oblivious about life. “That's me,” you may think. “I feel pretty calm but never seem to understand people and the world.”
The Insightful But Restless. On the other end of the spectrum are those with many insights but little to no calm. They’re in deep philosophical conversation or thinking endlessly about which refrigerator to buy or how AI will change the world. Yet they are challenged to sit still. Their minds are forever racing, seeking answers to life’s mysteries. Maybe you know such creative yet restless people.
The Uninitiated. Then, some have neither the calmness of the first group nor the insights of the second. They're in perpetual flux, trying to find footing in an overwhelming world. Most of us usually think that's who we are, adrift in the vast ocean of life.
The Balanced Beings. Lastly, some are well-established in both calmness and insight. They understand the essence of the middle way. The storms of life neither sway them nor are they lost in its mysteries. They walk the tightrope with grace, understanding, and an inner peace that many seek but few find.
For those with lots of calm and little to no insight, the instruction is more mindfulness, more inquiry, and more looking to see the nature of impermanence and suffering. For those with more wisdom and little calm, the instruction is more focus and steadiness of attention to allow their insights to integrate into their being.
The middle way is about having enough concentration so that one’s mindfulness is continuous, subtle, and penetrating to see through life’s most fantastic illusions: permanence, me and mine, and “I must have this for my well-being, my happiness.” We want enough concentration that our mindfulness has these qualities, but not so much that we use our mind to repress or block out the natural, everyday arising of body and mind. So it’s a balance.
The middle way, as a practice, is neither passive nor aggressive. It is not about rejecting the world or embracing it unquestioningly. It's about understanding, about piercing through life's many illusions. It’s about having the right concentration to see things clearly and the openness to let life flow as it is, without resistance.
The path to genuine happiness and liberation is not a straight line. It's a delicate dance, balancing understanding and experiencing, knowing and being. When we tread the middle way, we find a happiness independent of conditions that transcends our limited ways of perceiving.
These days, I find myself with greater wisdom but less calm than in years past. Changing careers and living with my partner and her kids means my life is more complex. But more importantly, my mindfulness practice could be more solid and consistent today.
I’m pulled toward the artificial excitement of juggling projects, moving quickly, and checking things off the list. I grasp at the fleeting feel-good of productivity. I check my email and Slack frequently to be sure I’m not missing anything urgent. I eat lunch while scrolling my phone to see what I missed.
Ultimately, the more that needs to be done, the more scattered my attention, and the weaker my mindfulness practice, the more I believe the solution to my happiness lies in getting through my to-do list. Deep down, everything will be okay if I can control everything. But is this true? Can I prevent a fly from landing in my coffee? An aging dog peeing on the sofa? Or whether or not I get eight hours of sleep?
When I’m in that space, I’m just not that happy. I feel resentful of life, the one I’m choosing. So, the instruction for me is greater concentration. When redundant thoughts come, and I remember my practice, I let them go. When the internal pressure builds, I let go of the urge to speed up. When my mind begins ruminating, I tend to the task at hand. In other words, I return my attention to the present repeatedly. I need to redevelop that steadiness and focus of attention.
In the grand web of existence, finding this balance, this middle way, might be the most profound path one can undertake. It's not about extremes or absolutism. It's about harmony, understanding, and the realization that true liberation lies in the balance between depth of knowing and calmness of being.
Live the middle way,
When you’re ready, I can help you transform chronic stress and worry into ongoing calm—making you feel in control in 90 days. Schedule a free, 30-minute discovery call today.