Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance and order and rhythm and harmony.
Some time ago I watched the documentary “Man on Wire”, which chronicles Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Center. My palms got sweaty and my heart raced as I watched him cross between the buildings 1,350 feet above the ground without protection.
The image of Philipe methodically and carefully walking the thin wire has stayed with me as I navigate my own wire in daily life, with all its opposing and contradicting pressures and demands. How do I stay physically, emotionally and spiritually balanced over the middle of this thin wire? How do I avoid falling off?
Eastern and Western Monastics espouse a spiritual way of living they call “The Middle Way”. This middle way refers to an appropriate, reasonable, and balanced approach to the three aspects of living the human experience: physical, emotional, and spiritual.
In the physical area, both gluttony and extreme fasting are seen as enemies to the development of the mature person. Likewise, too much work, or too much leisure is seen as harmful as well. As William Shakespeare wrote, “They are sick that surfeit with too much, as they that starve with nothing.”
It is in the emotional area that I wobble over the wire, buffeted by emotions way out of proportion to the situation. If a Saber tooth tiger jumps out at me, I should run in terror. But if my boss calls me to his office, it simply is not the same.
Anger as well can flare up without a moment’s notice as the person on the interstate weaves in front of me so close I have to brake. How dare he? Does he not know who I am?
In the spiritual area of being human, I can get way off the beam as well. Spirituality is classically divided between action or contemplation. Between reaching out in service to others, or in reaching up to God. Yet, this is a false dichotomy and a sucker’s choice.
A spiritual life of care and activism that is not supported by prayer and meditation eventually shows itself burnt out in frustration, impatience, intolerance, and anger. I may become critical and impatient with the very people I am trying to help.
The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his work of peace. It destroys his own inner capacity for peace, it destroys the fruitfulness of his own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful. – Thomas Merton
Conversely, a spiritual life consumed with solitude and prayer in a selfish pursuit of personal spiritual growth will grow out of touch with humanity. If my prayer does not lead me to others, it is not authentic.
So here I am on this tightrope, from morning till night, being pressed in on every side by these seemingly opposing forces, and trying not to fall and make a mess out of my day.
This is the result of what the psychologists term dualistic thinking. It is all or nothing, either/or thinking. It says I must choose between every idea, concept, and practice as if they are in competition with each other.
The tight rope walker says “Not SO!”
Tight-rope walkers, as well as gymnasts and dancers, practice what is known as kinesthetic awareness— the ability to know where their body parts are in three-dimensional space.
In every moment, every muscle is brought to bear on the body in order to keep it balanced and in the middle. In the practiced rope-walker, the adjustments are so minute and constant that it appears to us that they are absolutely balanced, when in fact they are in the constant act of coming out of and getting back into balance.
This is the image that serves me today. It reminds me that there is a “middle way”— a balanced approach toward my appetites, my activities, my rest, my work, my prayer, my service, my reaching up to God, and my reaching out to others.
The middle way requires a certain attentiveness on my part as I move through my day, and a willingness to make those many minor corrections to avoid disproportionate emotions and responses.
How often do I really need to fight in anger or run in terror? Mild irritation or concern is almost all that is ever appropriate – and those I can manage without making a wrong decision I will later regret.
The middle way requires I include actions in my life that balance each other; rest/work, prayer/service, eating/abstaining.
I don’t have to choose between eating everything I see and fasting. I don’t have to work out two hours a day. There is a middle way. I don’t have to choose between a life of solitude and prayer and service to others. It is all good, it is “Both/ And”.
The middle way also applies to my expectations of life. It does not demand blissful peace, exuberant happiness, and ecstatic joy. Neither does it accept the extremes of terror, wrath, or hatred. Occasional concern for others, or mild irritation are common feelings for even the most spiritual, and is enough to handle in a day.
The middle way is my way to contentment, to a reasonably happy life, trusting that all will be well as long as I stay on the wire, on the beam, and in the middle.
I want to finish my thoughts with this prayer written by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. An abbreviated version is used in AA meetings all over the world.
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things, I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.
To the Middle Way,