the middle way: where even thoughts do not dwell

Vic Shayne
The Enduring Myth of the Buddha: a hero’s journey into enlightenment


Life is suffering, enlightenment, ignorance, joy, pleasure, pain, and The Middle Way: These are all associated with the life and travails of Siddhartha Gautama who was destined to become the Buddha. The idea of the Middle Way is worthy of exploration for anyone trying to figure out her relationship to life, death, suffering, and true happiness.

the myth of the buddha
To put the Middle Way into context, let’s consider a brief synopsis of the hero’s journey of Siddhartha who was the son of a wealthy warrior king, as the Buddha myth goes. He hungered for answers to life, especially why suffering exists and what could be done about it. After studying the Vedas and soaking in the words of his teachers, he still felt he had received little more than an intellectual understanding of suffering and its cause.

On a foray beyond the walls of his father’s kingdom, Siddhartha encountered sights and sounds that he had been sequestered from experiencing as his father sought to protect him from the harsh realities of life. Siddhartha found real suffering in the form of sick, aging, and dying villagers, some of whom were so poor and wretched that they spent their days begging for food and sleeping on the street. Coming from a rich and spoiled existence, Siddhartha was both appalled and intrigued by what he had seen and this spurred him on to find out why suffering was a part of life.

Without recounting the entire myth of the Buddha, which is included in my book on the topic, let’s move to the end of the story. Unsatisfied and knowing there must be something more to the root of suffering, Siddhartha vowed to meditate until he could find an answer, no matter what the cost. He felt that his mission was worth dying for. And, in a way, he did die, because his enlightenment meant the death of the egoic self, at least metaphorically.

finding the middle way
Siddhartha’s deep meditation conjured up the god Mara. If we can see Mara as a metaphor or archetype then we can glean what is meant to be gleaned. Mara represented the desires of the egoic self, which is the sense of a “me” or “I” that is created when our minds are conditioned by thoughts and beliefs about our identities, attachments, likes, dislikes, and so on.

The egoic self, embodied in the archetype of Mara, is sidetracked by sex, drugs, and rock and roll — as well as one’s myriad responsibilities. We may also call such things temptations or distractions. So Mara tempted Siddhartha with sexy women, power, wealth, and other enticements and fetters of this world — all of which eventually cause suffering, because once we have such things we become stressed out that we may lose them and we worry endlessly about our possessions and status. As egoic selves, we also become addicted to our passions, wanting to repeat pleasurable experiences and worrying about when we can have them again or whether they may be taken from us.

Mara’s countenance gave way to the Lord of Lust, Kama who paraded three beautiful maidens before Siddhartha. Their names were Desire, Fulfillment, and Regret. But as Mara was throwing everything at him, Siddhartha stopped identifying with the personal self, and melded into consciousness, which is the Middle Way. Thus, he became the no-person, so when Mara sent an army at him, he was not fazed. Mara’s third temptation was Dhama, or duty, and the god asked Siddhartha why he wasn’t on his throne doing his job as a prince and as a husband and father. In response, Siddhartha placed his hand into the earth, claiming he was already in the right place in the here and now; the earth was his witness. All is as it should be.

saying ‘yes!’ to it all
Mara tempted Siddhartha mercilessly and when the temptations didn’t work he threatened Siddhartha with demons, violence, warfare, and pain. None of his actions or words had any effect, and this is where the story climaxes. Siddhartha knows that identifying with the body and the self means giving into the self’s whims and fears; and this is the cause of suffering. Uncovering this truth about himself was a realization to be sure. Assuming the Middle Way is saying “Yes!” to all that life could throw at us, without fear, rejection or acceptance.

from bondage to liberation
A person, Siddhartha realized, suffers due to the way he thinks and how he views life from the limited and bounded perspective of the egoic self. In this way he lives in bondage to his own ideas, beliefs, fears, anger, obsessions, possessions, identities, passions, duties, and attachments. The Middle Way is the effortless stillness that is unknown and foreign to the egoic self that is built out of thoughts and distractions and is therefore always active, seeking pleasure and struggling to avoid pain.

As the story goes, since Mara is the metaphor for the egoic mind, Siddhartha transcends his own conditioned self and this breaks its hold over him. Without using the egoic mind to react to what life throws at him, Siddhartha realizes spiritual freedom — enlightenment — through neutrality.

what does this mean for you?
As with every myth we must ask what it means to us personally. If not, it remains an abstract story worthy only of intellectual and academic consideration. But myth is a powerful tool meant to guide us back to the essence of what we are.

The Middle Way is the way of non-engagement while at the same time it is the way to be fully engaged. Yes, this seems like a paradox on the surface, but what’s really happening is that the self must give way to the heart that opens and fully engages with life.

The Middle Way has been popularized by Buddhism, but it is by no means Buddhist in its origin. It is beyond religion and philosophy and has been called by various names. In sports it’s called being in the zone. In China it’s the Tao. It’s also the state of being Zen. Hinduism calls it the Absolute.

In the Middle Way can be found a pause, a respite, a timeless interval, the space between inhalation and exhalation, the space between thoughts, the timeless space just before and just after movement, the millisecond between sleep and awakening, and so on. In a spiritual sense, the Middle Way is spaceless and timeless space where engagement and non-engagement exist simultaneously — and not at all — and where silence becomes realized.



…writer for 40+ years, mind/body practitioner, self-enquiry meditation, NY Times best selling author (, consultant, researcher.

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Vic Shayne

…writer for 40+ years, mind/body practitioner, self-enquiry meditation, NY Times best selling author (, consultant, researcher.