The Middle Way is a navigation between absolute extremes on either side

Absolutization and the Middle Way: An Introduction to my Work

The Middle Way is the common focus of all my work over the last twenty years as an independent philosopher and author, including around twenty books. In this article I’m aiming just to give you a quick and accessible introduction to what it’s all about.

You may associate the Middle Way with Buddhism, but my approach is to see the Buddhist Middle Way as only one application of a more general principle. That principle is universal, because all the evidence so far points towards it being a matter of human structure. The Middle Way can be best understood by focusing on judgement, because how we respond to our experience at each moment is the working ground of how we can improve our lives. Our judgement depends on how we think now, but also on the conditions we lay down from our previous actions — the channels we have etched through our brain networks that make possible what we can imagine and help to determine our mental states. Better judgement depends on practice.

The Middle Way is a practical strategy for avoiding absolutization, so what I mean by that is the next most important thing to mention. Absolutization, in brief, is the tendency to believe that we have the whole story at any one given moment, and to shut out any alternative ways of thinking. We find examples of this constantly in others’ thinking, but also in our own thinking. You may be frustrated by someone else being stuck in the mentality of a conspiracy theory, or being unable to shake off a resentment against their boss, or being locked into fundamentalist religious or political belief — all of these are examples of absolutization. It’s not just other people who suffer from absolutization, though, but you and me as well. We’re unlikely to ever be totally free of it, but we can make progress in reducing it.

There is already some recognition of absolutization in various places. In psychology, it’s understood in terms of bias, along with phenomena like projection and substitution, where we construct our own worlds and exclude new information that might challenge them. In Buddhism, there is the unholy trinity of craving, hatred and delusion that drives us around cycles of suffering. In philosophy, there is metaphysics — that is, dogmatic beliefs about how things ultimately are, as opposed to provisional beliefs about we experience them. Various philosophical schools, from ancient sceptics through to postmodernists, have sensed a problem with metaphysics and seen it as a problem in one way or another, though none of them to my mind have fully understood the problem. My approach is to synthesise these different kinds of sources and connect them to each other. Although in many ways I’m an academic writer (and I publish with an academic publisher, Equinox), I see most academic approaches to these issues as being handicapped by over-specialization and a lack of focus on individual practice.

The distinctive insight of the Middle Way is the recognition that absolutization is not only involves positive claims, but can just as easily be negative as well. That’s because absolutized beliefs form opposing pairs of claim and denial. You can see these opposing pairs at work in any polarized discourse — for instance between theists and atheists, or between believers in freewill or determinism. It can also be about any everyday belief, though, like which way round a toilet roll should be positioned. All it takes to be absolutized is for people to understand it in a framework that only allows their absolute belief, versus a mere contradiction of it that is rejected as a threat. No third options are allowed in the absolutizing world! The absolutizing world view often includes the belief that there cannot possibly be any alternative to the two options, pro and con. However, when you question the framework being used, there always is.

You just have to put the dualism in a bigger context to see that there are many other possible options. For example, the debate about the ‘existence’ or ‘non-existence’ of God often thrives on the insistence that those are the only two options: but when we focus on our own responses rather than only on what ‘exists’ or ‘doesn’t exist’, we find a third option, the agnostic one of admitting that we can’t possibly know. If we push our enquiries a bit further, we may also find that what God means to us, as an experience and an inspiration, has nothing necessarily to do with whether he ‘exists’ or ‘doesn’t exist’. The stage is then perhaps set for a more fruitful enquiry instead of a fruitless slanging match.

The effect of absolutization is intractable conflict, because each side insists that it has the whole story and that there cannot possibly be any bigger context. So, when we are in the grip of this view of things, we believe that we have to eliminate the other view, and are unable to learn from those who hold it. Absolutization is thus, in my view, the underlying condition of all the major problems humanity faces, from political polarization and failure to respond to climate change through to individual struggles with mental health. We need to understand it as a whole phenomenon, so we can address it as such.

Most existing responses to aspects of absolutization do not recognize it as an interconnected phenomenon, but rather try to deal with particular manifestations of it. For instance, mindfulness is an incredibly helpful technique to calm the anxiety and craving that often triggers absolutization, but it is not enough by itself, because it does not directly address our assumptions. On the other hand, merely intellectual responses to biases or fallacious thinking often fail because our underlying mental and emotional states have not been addressed. Different disciplines need to be integrated, individual responses need to be integrated with socio-political ones, and different religions traditions need to find the Middle Way through critical examination of the terms of their own traditions. Systems theory and embodied meaning approaches can also both contribute hugely to our understanding of the Middle Way, but again these need to be connected with a wider picture.

Exploring the Middle Way and supporting its practice is a big challenge, which I hope many others will get involved with apart from me. That’s why I founded the Middle Way Society to try to bring together those interested in mutual support. My own most recent books have been focused on applying the Middle Way for specific types of audiences: for instance ‘The Buddha’s Middle Way’ for Buddhist interest, ‘The Christian Middle Way’ for Christians, and ‘Red Book, Middle Way’ for those inspired by Jung. However, I’m now embarking on a detailed rewrite and update of my core material on Middle Way Philosophy, beginning with a book focusing on the nature of Absolutization itself as a starting point. I also have an introductory book, ‘Migglism’, which may help people encountering the ideas for the first time. The Middle Way is not just Buddhist, and it is not just a compromise — it is a distinctive and challenging way of looking at things that is unfortunately unrepresented in most of the thinking of our times.

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Multi-disciplinary practical philosopher. Author of around 20 books on Middle Way Philosophy and founder of the Middle Way Society

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Robert M. Ellis

Robert M. Ellis

Multi-disciplinary practical philosopher. Author of around 20 books on Middle Way Philosophy and founder of the Middle Way Society

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