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.