Updated: May 7, 2022
Is excitement good? Is criticizing others bad? Is it better to talk too much or talk too little? If your answer is, "You need just the right amount," then you are a wise person!
Ancient philosophers call this principle The Middle Way. Another way to explain The Middle Way is a state of equilibrium and balance. In that state, we are totally at peace. I think of The Middle Way as finding the optimal degree or amount of something. Furthermore, the optimal degree will be different depending on the situation.
When we understand The Middle Way, we don't ask if something is good or bad. Instead, we ask if WE are following The Middle Way.
The great philosopher Aristotle explained the Middle Way like this:
"Anyone can get angry – that is easy – or spend money or give it away; but to do all this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right manner, is not a thing that everyone can do, and is not easy."
Now that we understand The Middle Way and its importance, how can we use it in our lives? Here are 8 major areas we can apply The Middle Way:
You can click on an item to jump to that section. Each section will provide explanation, examples, and self-reflection questions.
Part 1: Emotions
"When the emotions such as liking, anger, sorrow, and joy have not arisen, the mind is in The Middle Way. When such emotions arise but restricted to a proper degree, the mind is in harmony."
(From The Doctrine of the Mean. Original Text: 怒哀乐之未发，谓之中；发而皆中节，谓之和。)
Recall that The Middle Way is also a state of equilibrium, where everything is peaceful and still. Emotions stir the mind and disrupt equilibrium. If an emotion arises to an appropriate degree, then we are still in a harmonious still. But if it exceeds the optimal threshold, we are no longer balanced.
To give an analogy, imagine you are in a boat on the water. When your mind is calm and still, free of emotions, then the water is very calm, so the boat is very stable. When emotions arise but to a proper degree, the water now has some small waves. The waves don't threaten the boat, so you are still safe.
But if emotions become excessive, then the waves are now very strong, and they rock the boat or even flip the boat over. From this analogy, we can understand why extreme emotions are harmful.
We can imagine that someone who likes or dislikes something too much will become biased and irrational. Someone who gets a lot of anger or sorrow will be miserable. Someone who gets extreme joy will be depressed shortly after. It is no wonder all the wise sages taught us to cultivate emotional stability, to remain calm and peaceful no matter what happens in the outside world.
The two keys to emotional stability are wisdom and selfless love. Wisdom helps us to upgrade our thinking, replacing our ignorant ways of thinking with timeless principles taught by past sages. Having wisdom is like having a good guidebook for navigating life. Selfless love is about forgetting yourself in the service of the greater good. Helping others is the simplest way to have a meaningful life.
Self-Reflection: Do I have good emotional stability? If not, how can I improve it?
Part 2: Desire
Most people are either attached or averse to things. We like this and dislike that. We want this and avoid that. Aversion, by the way, is just another form of attachment. It is being attached to "don't want" as opposed to "want". All the wise sages taught attachment and aversion leads to suffering.
The Middle Path is detachment. I heard a great quote that explains detachment:
“Detachment is not that you own nothing, but that nothing should own you.”
–Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammed
In other words, The Middle Way is to neither be attached nor averse to anything. Instead, we should appreciate and make the best use of everything that happens for the greater good (as opposed to selfishness).
Stoicism calls this Amori Fati: To love everything that happens
Buddhism calls this Going with the Flow: To respond to the present situation without any attachment
Daoism calls this Non-Action: To act or respond without any self-imposed will or desire
The key to detachment is to get rid of selfish intentions and replace them with intentions to benefit the greater good. For example, I am planning to apply for a university program. If I am attached to getting in the program for my own ego, then I will feel bad if I don't get in. But my intention is to benefit the world by upgrading my wisdom. Even if I don't get in, I can still pursue this intention through self-learning at home. Hence, I am not attached to the result, so I feel free rather than nervous or stressed.
When bad things happen, always view it as an opportunity to improve your character and virtues, which will then allow you to serve the world better. For example, when I got some painful canker sores recently, I tried hard to not let that pain make me impatient and rude towards other people. Although the pain wasn't pleasant, I found a noble use for it.
Part 3: Challenge
Most people dislike pain and hardship. Obviously, too much challenge is unbearable. But a life with too little challenge becomes boring and stagnant. Growth requires challenge, and the optimal degree of challenge is to live in the stretch zone.
To live in the stretch zone, we need to have challenging but attainable goals in life.
We can also train ourselves for hardship before hardship strikes. The Stoic philosopher Seneca said,
"I may wish to be free from torture, but if the time comes for me to endure it, I'll wish to bear it courageously with bravery and honor. Wouldn't I prefer not to fall into war? But if war does befall me, I'll wish to carry nobly the wounds, starvation, and other necessities of war. Neither am I so crazy as to desire illness, but if I must suffer illness, I'll wish to do nothing rash or dishonorable. The point is not to wish for these adversities, but for the virtue that makes adversities bearable."
Which hardship should you train for? Well, that depends on what hardship you are afraid of. If you are afraid of going hungry, try fasting. If you are afraid of people judging, try going to a public speaking class or stand-up comedy class. If you are afraid of being poor, try living a week like a poor person. You get the idea.
Part 4: Personality
Every personality trait has its good and bad points. To optimize our personality, we need to Follow the Middle Way. If we maintain The Middle Way, we can bring out the good. If we have excess or deficiency in a personality trait, or we use it in the wrong situation, then it becomes negative.
Kindness is a wonderful trait, and no one likes a mean person. Most of us could improve our kindness, consideration, and care towards others. As Aesop said,
"No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted."
At the same time, we need to be wise with kindness. Examples of unwise kindness includes
Making the other person spoiled, entitled, and ungrateful
Making the other person dependent on us and weak
Doing improper favors and things to make them happy
Therefore, when we help others, we need to make sure they feel gratitude and not entitlement. We also need to help them become independent in the future rather than dependent on our help forever. Finally, we should not break any rules or do anything illogical out of emotional attachment to them.
We also need a certain amount of strictness when teaching others. For example, the first time someone makes a mistake, we could teach them kindly. The second time, we can be a little more strict. The third time, we would need to be more strict and serious. If we don't, then they might develop a bad personality that would hurt everybody in the future.
Attention-to-Detail is a great attitude to have towards matters, and carelessness must be corrected.
The Daoist sage Lao Tzu said,
"All great matters are accomplished in the small details."
(From Dao De Jing. Original Text: 天下大事必作于细。)
But if we become too attached to perfecting the details, we may create problems such as
Being too demanding towards others, which creates conflict
Wasting time on unimportant things
Create unnecessary stress for ourselves
Missing the big picture
Therefore, we need to make sure our attention-to-detail does not give unreasonable pressure to others, waste time, or lose sight of the big picture.
Planning is definitely an important ability. Confucius said,
"In all things, preparation leads to success, and lack thereof leads to failure. Prepared speech prevents stumbles. Prepared tasks prevents hardship. Prepared actions prevent remorse. Prepared principles are inexhaustible."
(From The Doctrine of the Mean. Original text: 凡事豫则立，不豫则废。言前定则不跲，事前定则不困，行前定则不疚，道前定则不穷。)
To not plan properly is to be negligent. But excess planning also has negatives, such as
Becoming rigid and unable to deal with things outside our plan
Becoming stubborn and creating conflict with others
Becoming indecisive and then procrastinating
We should do our best to plan during the planning stage. The planning stage should not be too long either. Once the planning stage is over, it's time to act, and when we act, we need to go with the flow, to adjust the plan as we go along.
Being serious and conscientious about our work and relationships is a great trait, but sometimes we need lightness too. If we are too serious, then we will feel stressed, and others will feel pressure from others. If we are too light-hearted towards things, then others won't trust us to do a good job.
It is good to push ourselves to do our best, but if we push ourselves too much, we burn out quickly. Marathon runners have found that running at 85% intensity results in optimal performance. It is quite a lot of effort but also sustainable.
I think this applies to our mind as well. When we do time-consuming mental work, we should do it at 85% intensity for optimal performance.
It is great to be serious about commitments and promises, but we must also be wise. Circumstances are always changing. If what you promised made sense back when you promised it, but now it no longer makes sense, then don't be stubborn, and don't create unnecessary trouble for small things. Always act for the greater good.
For example, I said I could do some extra tutoring classes for my school. Later, I had more important matters come my way. I felt bad about cancelling on my previous promise, which shows that I am too serious about small promises, and I need to improve my lightness.
Nowadays, it seems life is becoming more and more fast-paced. From the moment people wake up, people are rushing. We rush to get dressed, rush to brush our teeth, rush to eat our meals, rush to get to places, rush to finish TV shows, even rush to fall asleep! If that's the case with you, then you probably need to slow down to find The Middle Path.
The Words of Children is a book that the Chinese use to teach their children how to be good from a young age. The first line of this book is,
"All speech and actions should be peaceful and serene. Most mistakes result from haste."
(Original Text: 一切言动，都要安详，十差九错，只为慌张。)
On the other hand, some people do things too slow. They take forever to pick their clothes, to do their work, or to make a decision. If that's the case, people are probably complaining that you are delaying them, and you should try to increase your speed.
The Middle Way is to do things with a calm and serene mind. When we do things calmly, we focus well, make less mistakes, and complete tasks in a timely manner.
Self-Reflection: For which things do I need to slow down or speed up?
Part 5: Speech
Speech can be separated in to general speech, praise, and criticisms.
5.1 General Speech
If we draw inference from Aristotle, then we can say
"Anyone can speak. But to do speak to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right manner, is not a thing that everyone can do, and is not easy."
All the wise sages of the past gave similar teachings on speech.
Socrates taught the triple filter test: Is it true? Is it good? Is it useful to the listener?
The Buddha also had a triple filter test: Is it true? Is it beneficial to the listener? Is now the right time?
Confucius taught many rules of speech: Be trustworthy, don't use foul language, don't exaggerate, make sure the volume and speed are comfortable, be concise.
If we all improved our speech, imagine how much more happy our relationships would be and how much more harmony society would have
5.2 Giving Praise
Giving praise to others is a good thing, and most of us could give more praise to the people around us. According to communication expert Alan Zimmerman, the most common workplace complaint is,
“You can do a hundred things right and not hear a darn thing about it. Do one thing wrong and they're right on your back.”.
This is true for all bad relationships, not just work relationships. Marriage research from the Gottman Institute found that happily married couples have at least 5 positive interactions (praise, appreciation, love) for every 1 negative interaction. Meanwhile, happiest couples have 20 positive interactions per negative one.
Despite the importance of praising others more, we also need to be wise with our praise. We should praise people's virtues and effort rather than on their results. In other words, praise their input, not their output.
For example, instead of praising students on getting high grades, we should praise them on how they worked hard and asked lots of questions, the result of which is their high grades. If we only praise the result but not the input, then people might resort to doing unethical things for the result.
Another example is praising people on their character and virtues rather than superficial things like appearances or possession. What we praise others on is what they will seek more of in life. If we praise people on physical appearances or possessions, they will waste their life and money trying to improve those things, and they would always feel bad because other people look better or have more possessions. If we praise them on being a good person, on virtues like love, respect, humility, and responsibility, then they will work hard to improve those virtues, and they would have a great life.
5.3 Giving Advice and Criticism
Most people don't like hearing criticism. But if we truly want the best for their future, then we should try to advise them.
When giving criticism, it must come from a heart of care rather than blame. A caring intention will naturally result in a gentle tone of voice and warm facial expression. A blaming intention will naturally result in a harsh tone of voice and ugly facial expression.
We also need to make sure our criticism is not overly demanding, that it is doable for them. If our demand is too high, they would feel pressured, unmotivated, and unloved.
For example, as a teacher, I give my top students very nit-picky feedback to improve their assignments. But for the weaker students, I just focus on the next do-able step for them so that they don't feel overwhelmed.
Part 6: Health
Our body needs food, movement, and rest for health. Following The Middle Way results in good health, while excess and deficiency both create illness.
Traditional Chinese Medicine follows The Middle Path by advocating balance. It uses the term Yin Yang to refer to balance. Furthermore, everyone's body situation is different, so everyone needs different things to bring their body back into equilibrium.
For food, we need to eat the right type of foods for our situation and in the right amounts. In the west, people often think that a certain food or nutrient is amazing, and then they eat as much as that as they can. That easily results in excess, which then harms the body. For example, when I heard that raw fruits and vegetables are very healthy in the past, I ate tons of them. That made me very cold and hurt my digestion.
Later, when I learned about Traditional Chinese Medicine, I learned that everyone has a different body constitution, and we should eat according to our body's specific needs. In other words, foods that are good for one person may be different from food good for another person. The optimal amount of different foods also varies by the person. We should also only eat to 80% full for optimal digestion.
For movement, we need an optimal amount and variety in daily life. If we just lie on the couch or sit in a chair all day, our muscle strength and health will deteriorate. But if we overdo ourselves in physical activity, then we might injure ourselves.
The type of movement is also important. In the Blue Zones, which are areas in the world with the longest lifespans, people don't go to the gym a few times a week for intense workouts. Instead, their daily life is full of natural movement. They walk to places, carry groceries home, do gardening, take the stairs, clean the house, etc.
These are all movements that the human body is designed to do, so they are in harmony with our body.
For rest, we obviously will feel bad if we sleep too little. But sleeping too much is inappropriate too. The optimal amount of sleep will be different for everyone, and you should experiment to see how many hours feels natural and best for you.
Moreover, sleeping at the right (or natural) time is important. Thanks to electricity and technology, people have lots of stuff they can do at night instead of sleeping. But this is not natural, so it is not aligned with The Middle Way. Western medicine has found that 10PM to 2AM is the most important time to sleep. Chinese medicine emphasizes 11PM to 3AM. Sleeping at those times accords with the natural equilibrium of nature.
Self-Reflection: Am I following the Middle Way when it comes to food, movement, and rest?
Part 7: Wealth
Wealth includes money and possessions.
7.1 Amount of Wealth
Most people think that the more wealth they have, the better. But that's not true. The reason we want wealth is to be happy, yet studies show that our happiness does not increase indefinitely with wealth. Instead, happiness increases at the beginning when we can afford things for survival, then comforts, then some luxuries. But more wealth after that does not improve happiness. In fact, it decreases happiness!
Why would more wealth decrease happiness? It's because of greed and ego. There's always more to want and wealthier people to compare yourself to. When we keep chasing more, we lose our time and peace of mind, which then reduces our happiness.
As Seneca said,
"It is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil."
For example, people will work hard in a job they don't enjoy to buy fancy things they don't need to impress people they don't like, and then they don't even have the time or health to enjoy their possessions. They spent great toil to obtain the possession, then they spend even more toil to maintain it. This is self-imposed suffering.
Hence, Epictetus said,
"Curb your desire--don't set your heart on so many things and you will get what you need."
We really don't need that much money or possessions if we can learn to be smart and frugal with our money. When our desires reduce, our stress reduces.
If we have the ability to make more money than we need, then we should use that extra money to help the world. Research shows that people who spend money helping others are happier than those who spend money on themselves. That's why billionaires like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are happy. They spend their time trying to help the world, not indulging in luxuries.
As Musonius Rufus said,
"How much better is it to be known for doing well by many than for living extravagantly? How much more worthy than spending on sticks and stones is it to spend on people?"
In summary, applying The Middle Way to wealth means only desiring enough wealth to live a stable and productive life, and then using extra wealth to help the world.
7.2 Quality of Possessions
Some people like to buy expensive things, while others like to buy cheap things. The Middle Way is buying the thing with the optimal quality-to-price ratio that is suitable for your situation.
It makes sense to spend more money on things if
It is required for our work
It is a gift for someone else
It is an important item that we will use a lot in daily life
For example, if I need a good computer for my work, then it is appropriate and optimal for me to buy a more expensive but high quality computer. Also, when we buy gifts for others, we should also buy good quality things to show our respect for them.
For things we use in daily life, we should care about quality. Such things include our food, clothes, bed, blankets, etc. If we go too cheap with these things, we might hurt our health or create a lot of unnecessary inconvenience. But we don't need to go super luxury either.
Self-Reflection: Do I spend the appropriate amount of money to buy the appropriate quality for different things?
Part 8: Time
Time is one of our most precious resources. Often times, we ask ourselves whether or not we should do something. The answer is not always a yes or a no, but rather how much time is most suitable for that thing?
When it comes to time management, we should prioritize people based on order of gratitude.
Parents and family come first because we owe the most gratitude to them. This doesn't necessarily mean we spend the most time with our family, but it does mean that their needs come first in our heart.
Next is our job because that supports our livelihood right now. Then comes our friends, and then everything else, such as hobbies and entertainment. Prioritizing others according to gratitude aligns with human nature, thus we will feel comfortable and at peace. This aligns with The Middle Way.
Another time management framework I use is the important-urgent quadrant from The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
According to this framework, we should prioritize the important but non-urgent things such as our health, relationships, and self-improvement. Focusing on these things will prevent emergencies from arising, such as illness, relationship conflicts, and problems.
Life is not black or white, and things are not absolutely good or bad. It is excess or deficiency of things that results in harm. Hence, we need to follow The Middle Path for things to obtain benefit, happiness, and peace.
This article looked at 8 major areas of life where we can apply The Middle Path:
How will you apply The Middle Way in your life? Are there any areas I missed? Comment below!