Why the current fascination with extremes—extreme sports, extreme makeovers, extreme minimalism? Is it really necessary for us to prize things only in the extreme?
Yogis and those on other spiritual paths know that extremes can be dangerous. They upset the valuable stillness of the mind. For example, it’s easy to understand this if you consider extremes in weather. Our sensitive human bodies can’t survive in extreme cold or heat. Even before we reach extreme cold, we bundle up with more clothing. When it gets too warm, we seek an air-conditioned building.
Extremism causes disturbances in our minds. Think of a rock thrown into a calm lake: first, there’s a splash and then concentric waves that last for a long time. When the waves meet an obstacle, like the shore, they bounce back and converge on themselves, making even more disturbance. The same happens to our minds, even if we’re not aware of it.
Importance of the Middle Path
Just as our bodies can’t tolerate extremes, neither can our delicate intellects. Yogic scriptures place a great deal of importance on understanding the mind and caring for it. Caring for your mind is not that much different from caring for your car. If you let your car run all day, it would run out of gas. The same goes for the mind: if you don’t give it regular rest, it weakens, sputters, and then quits. And just like your car, your mind needs regular maintenance—sleep, meditation, and good company.
Spiritual aspirants understand the importance of the middle path—also called moderation. This notable quote from the Bhagavad Gita offers both instruction and a promise:
“Yoga is not for him who eats too much nor for him who eats too little. It is not for him who sleeps too much nor for him who sleeps too little. For him who is temperate in his food and recreation, temperate in his exertion at work, temperate in sleep and waking, yoga puts an end to all sorrows.” (Bhagavad Gita 6:16-17)
There it is, in all its simple clarity, the recipe for the “end of all sorrow” — the middle path.
How to Avoid Extremism
What can we do about living in a world of extreme influences? The first step is to pay attention, observe how the mind is affected by various inputs. Notice how the visual world creates thoughts. Examine reactions to what you hear. How do you regard inputs from your other senses: smell, taste, and touch?
A meditator learns to watch the mind, being an objective observer. It’s only when we can see the effects of our actions and environment on the mind that we can appreciate how extremes disturb our peace. Witnessing your mind is the first step to avoiding harmful influences.
As a practice for the next week, pay attention to the extremes and references to them that you see around you. Watch how you and others use extreme language, like exaggeration, to make a point. Notice television commercials and the extremes in language, sound, and images that are designed to draw your attention.
Once you’ve learned to recognize these inputs, you can start to reduce them: mute the television during commercials, avoid involvement in fruitless arguments—train yourself to seek the facts about news reports, and dismiss the hyperbole.
Walking the middle path is a many-faceted, lifelong challenge. Awareness of extremes is an early step to walking the middle path—to life-balance, and to peace.
Remember the verse mentioned earlier: use moderation in food, sleep, recreation, and work. Find your middle path.
Chityānanda has been a disciple of Svāmī Gurupremānanda Sarasvatī since 1975. She teaches meditation and yoga as a spiritual path in Santa Cruz, California.
I think just keeping it simple and not complicating oneself with extremes is best. Moreover, I think extremes contradict the practice of yoga.
Thank you, Nakisa. You must be a yogi. Yogis are renunciants. They know that living a simple, uncomplicated life is conducive to spiritual practices — and consequently to peace of mind and happiness. Namaste.
Hello Svami. You make a great point about the middle path.
Extremes are the norm here in America, especially the advertising and politics.
Ads create a powerful, alternate reality, for example a new car.
A new car makes its owner an object of envy…and it has a siddhi, a special power, to empty roads of all traffic so he can speed along in fabulous glory.
My Guru used to share a middle path analogy—it may have been a poem or scripture—about a stringed instrument. If the strings are too tight they break. Too loose and they make no sound. The middle tension is just right. Thank you.
Thank you for joining the conversation, Rob. If memory serves me, the stringed instrument analogy comes from the Buddha. And your Guru. — Talking about advertisements, I get a good laugh when I watch TV ads showing how happy people can be if they … take this medication, buy this household appliance, or use this particular kitty litter. If happiness came from “stuff” we’d be living in a different world! Namaste.
As you mentioned in a previous lesson, make it a habit to meditate regularly, put your ego “on the back shelf”
Thanks, Tosh. Maybe we shove our egos off a cliff. From a back shelf, it could sneak up and grab us again. Namaste.
I like what you have said about keeping a watch over the mind and how we are affected by our surroundings. To witness how one’s thoughts and actions affect the mind is very important.
A truism, Gary. Thank you for mentioning it. Namaste.
It’s wise to avoid extremism.
When you are at the top you only see shadows and when your at the bottom you are blinded by the light, but from the middle everything is pleasing… day and night
And… moderation in all things (middle way) will free you from the tyranny of your cravings.
Thank you for your words of wisdom, Sue. Moderation is a form of bliss that people don’t understand until they practice it for some time. But then — surprise! — life is effortlessly peaceful and joyous. Namaste.
Extremism seems to a symptom of a big ego which is the enemy of happiness. I realize nobody really cares how great another is. I’m learning to walk the middle path in all I do. Walking the middle path doesn’t mean giving up. It just means chill out, do the practice, and whatever happens will happen. It’s great not trying to be great!
Thank you for commenting, Modesto. Walking the middle path takes awareness and effort–like balancing on a razor’s edge. It sounds like your practices are bearing fruit. Namaste.
Perhaps, instead of not partaking in fruitless arguments, one should avoid arguments altogether. Just accept ‘what is’ and move on.
Sounds like a good idea, James! Namaste.
The middle path is sustainable.
That’s an excellent point, Roxie. Thank you!
Re Tony’s comment: Perhaps the (often boring) ruts that people find themselves in is a motivator toward the extreme experiences. What people don’t realize is that the extremes only provide temporary relief from the ruts; whereas, moderation brings stable, on-going joy. The Stoics knew and know this.
Thank you for mentioning the Stoics, Richard. The Stoics were well grounded in common sense, and their teachings are a good complement to yogis on the spiritual path. Namaste.
What is the difference between moderation and a rut? Too much dishwashing, too much business, too much going out? Maybe a rut takes over, whereas moderation leaves room for discrimination. Garbage in – garbage out.
Thank you for your comment, Tony. Effort is required to practice anything in moderation. It’s much easier to let the pendulum swing from extreme to extreme. Vigilance, awareness, and discrimination come to mind. These are all required to walk the razor’s edge of the spiritual path. Namaste.