Buddhism is often described as the middle way, most commonly between the extreme views of nihilism and eternalism. And there’s certainly a great deal of profound madhyamaka philosophy thoroughly examining the cognitive implications of that description, but that may not help us less accomplished practitioners with the emotional responses that are the immediate cause of much of our suffering. That’s not to say that starting from the correct view isn’t crucially important. However, there are deeper attachments and obscurations that will interfere with our attempts to attain and manifest that view. Yet Buddhist practice can indicate a middle way between the extremes of our most primal urges as well.
From Freud‘s later perspective, those most primal urges were Eros and Thanatos, which, based on my reading of Beyond the Pleasure Principle and my own experience, can be understood as the urges underlying the wrong views of nihilism and eternalism. Eros can be seen as the drive to reify a self and impose it upon reality, while Thanatos can be seen as the drive for a quiescence safe from reality. Both instincts are based, like the views of nihilism and eternalism, on the ignorant belief that the subject of these instincts and views is somehow separate from reality. Even nihilism depends upon the existence of a nihilist believing that nothing exists. We hold a view of existence as either real or unreal and, informed by that view and our psychic and karmic history, are driven by these urges to either control or escape from that existence. To the extent that we doubt the genuine existence of reality, we’re likely not to want to be affected by it, and to the extent that we believe in the genuine existence of reality, we’re likely to want to control it. And, of course, we can vacillate between those perspectives, and even hold them simultaneously.
My own inclination seems to be more toward the nihilist/thanatotic perspective than others’. I’d love to be able to claim that it’s a subtler and more refined perspective, but I suspect it’s just the less common mistake. Yet I’m also given to the eternalist/erotic perspective as well, just less often than most people. And it seems that I exhibit different mood issues depending on which of those urges is being thwarted. My DSM-IV diagnosis for all mental health-related paperwork is cyclothymia, which is a vacillation between anxiety and depression. Since receiving that diagnosis years ago, my understanding of the relationship between my anxiety and my depression has been evolving. The anxiety generally seems to precede the depression, so that in some cases, effectively addressing the anxiety leads to depression, and in other cases, the depression just follows from the anxiety. At first, I tended to think of it in the vaguely Freudian terms of psychic energy: Anxiety is a psychic excitation that masks or prevents depression, and once that excitation is calmed (either through treatment or by its own momentum), depression manifests. But now, I’m beginning to see it differently.
My initial or predominant impulse toward reality seems to be the thanatotic urge for quiescence, and my reaction to the inevitable thwarting of that impulse is to be anxious about this unbidden imposition of reality upon my subjective experience. This anxiety is an astonishingly focused hypersensitivity to any unwanted stimulus, real or anticipated (most often anticipated). Once I have reconciled myself (or been reconciled) to the fact that I cannot escape reality, the erotic urge to control that reality asserts itself, and I become depressed at the equally inevitable thwarting of that impulse. This depression is a feeling of hopeless and helpless surrender. That’s my current understanding of how my depression follows my anxiety, and based on this understanding, I’m starting to get a sense of how the Buddhist notion of a middle way, might prove useful.
The term “middle way” can initially be misleading. It isn’t meant to identify a literal middle between two extremes–I can’t really imagine what would be halfway between nihilism and eternalism. Instead, it identifies a view free from the extremes of those two poles: Things don’t autonomously exist, but instead merely appear through continuous dependent co-origination. Thus, nothing is permanent, but neither is anything utterly non-existent. And, of course, nothing is separate. In practical terms, the immediate cause of most of our problems isn’t that we believe that we’re permanent or that we’re non-existent, but that we believe that we’re separate from the rest of reality. I seek to escape from or control reality because I believe that there’s some way in which I’m separate from it, and I suffer from the failure to do either because I’m not actually separate. If I can correctly understand the cause of my suffering as my ignorance or denial of interdependence, then a means to ending that suffering presents itself.
As a child, vacations on Cape Cod were the simplest sorts of erotic revelries (in the sense described above): Biking, hiking, fishing, camping, swimming, kite-flying, and eating. It was like a couple of weeks in an effectively unlimited playground every summer. Returning as an adult, I was well on my way to developing a preference for more thanatotic vacations, a process concluded over the course of my first few adult visits. During those visits, I found myself a bit depressed, I’m now guessing because of my unrealized subconscious expectations of a more erotic experience. Once we found the quiet bliss of the Oxford, my thanatotic preferences were more fully developed, and I learned to relax into the experience. But then we got a dog and were banished from the Oxford’s Eden, and I’ve spent our last couple of visits here fighting an anxiety stemming from what I know are insufficiently realized (and quite possibly unreasonable) expectations of peace and quiet. On the other hand, when those expectations were realized on those stays at the Oxford, going home was painful. Now I can’t wait to get back home and into the rhythm of my daily life. It’s kind of like squeezing a balloon partly full of suffering and having that suffering disappear somewhere only to bulge out elsewhere. I can be depressed or anxious up here and/or depressed or anxious back home. The ideal is to do away with the balloon all together, to achieve an equanimous relationship with the interdependence that I can neither control nor escape.
I’ve suffered anxiety about my interdependence with other guests here–the fact that the sounds of their staying in rooms around me will impinge on my experience–of which I’ve been aware. But, in response to my plea for assistance, family and friends have helpfully suggested a number of other interdependencies that are affecting me, and from which, it occurs to me, I would like to be free, including technology, my body, the weather, and even Provincetown itself. Yet in that very plea, I also tried to cultivate interdependence, quite against my native instincts and with no small sense of trepidation. Rather than trying to act entirely independently, I sought the guidance and insight of those who affect and will be affected by me. Pragmatically, I received the benefit of a good deal of experience and wisdom, but more significantly, I found a way to engage interdependence. I’m still not entirely at ease with it, but if I can persevere in the practice of depending on others and use that as a basis for becoming familiar with and further cultivating interdependence, I may come to experience the truth of interdependence as both reality and liberation from suffering. It may take a few lifetimes yet.