The primacy of practice in the Middle Way

Middle Way Philosophy according to Robert M. Ellis and the Middle Way Society

The practicality of middle way philosophy

The practices of the middle way all contribute to an effective long-term response to absolutization. All need to be shaped by the five principles which are also practices [scepticism, provisionality, incrementality, agnosticism, integration]. The Middle Way as a whole provides an account of why these practices are beneficial and how they interrelate. It can also become a ready basis for archetypal symbolism to inspire our practice. The Threefold Practice is a taxonomy for Middle Way practices based on the levels of integration (desire, meaning, and belief) in connection with whether they operate at individual or socio-political level.  (Ellis, 2023, p212).

The Threefold Practice’s structure models the interaction of practices in a similar fashion to the Buddhist Threefold and Eightfold paths, except that it takes more coconut of meaning, and is based on an incremental integration model, rather than a discontinuous enlightenment model. This makes it more compatible with support from scientific and systemic sources. The ways that all the practices address conflict would become clearer if we think of them in relation to the five principles (Ellis, 2023, p217).

Individual integration of desire practices work on reducing the immediate press of conflict in our experience. This can be initially through ethical observance focused on dealing with major conditions that produce conflict such as addiction. Some everyday practices such as ordinary recreation, help to prepare the ground by reducing the stress of inner conflict too some degree. Bodywork, mindfulness, and psycho-therapy, however, provide much more direct and focused methods for reaching conflicts of desire in immediate individual experience (Ellis, 2023, p221).

Socio-political integration of desire practices are closely interdependent with integration of meaning and belief too, but primarily focused on reconciling interests. Mediation techniques resolve conflict directly, whilst provisional discussion extends the conditions for mediation more broadly and can even be applied in political campaigning. An ethical avoidance of violence removes an immediate disinhibition and entrenchment of conflict, while the positive practices of care and friendship develop relationships that can provide the conditions for integrating conflicts, both internal and external. Active listening and volunteering also provide some specific practices that can support the conditions. (Ellis, 2023, p226).

Integration of meaning practices help us both extend our ‘cognitive’ range of symbols and our ’emotive’ engagement with those symbols, to overcome fragmentation – gaps of understanding. The beauty of meaning and archetypal beauty found in the arts can help to do this, as well as developing intention of desire through aesthetic beauty and integration of belief through concepts. Focusing practice, loving-kindness meditation, and exploratory discussion can all also help to integrate meaning. Travel can be integrative as long as it actually extends experience, whilst learning foreign languages (and learning in general) help to integrate meaning more at the ‘cognitive’ end of the spectrum. Humor helps to integrate meaning through ambiguity, as long as we ‘get the joke’. (Ellis, 2023, p237).

Meaning is integrated at the shared socio-political level through communication in which all participants share sufficient of the meaning of symbols being employed. Ethical failings in communication, like lying, disrupt that shared meaning. Ritual also depends for its communal integrative effects on shared meaning, which needs to be ensured by ritual leaders rather than relying on representational assumptions. Longer-term integration of meaning practice is supported by education in the arts, and by meaningful education in general taking embodiment into account. The further conditions for these require political support, and politics itself also requires meaning integration (Ellis, 2023, p247).

Integration of belief is the process of making conflicting beliefs compatible by reframing. The process of reframing thought and feeling can be described as critical thinking, of which only one element is reasoning, but which also requires justification from experience, recognising context, avoiding biases and fallacies, interpretation, and credibility assessment – all of which are processes of contextualisation rather than reasoning. Critical thinking skills can be practised in the context of any academic discipline, as long as the discipline does not constrain the assumptions that can be questioned (which in practice it often redoes). Cognitive behaviour therapy, reflection practice, and autobiography also provide further rides of contexts where critical thinking skills cube used but should not be constrained  (Ellis, 2023, p255).

Socio-political integration of belief practice helps to create the conditions for individual integration of belief practice through communication. The media, education, politics, and academic activity provide obvious channels where critical dialogue can be created. However, the creation of genuine critical dialogue is always in tension with other social or economic priorities, so the cutting edge of the practice lies in finding th Middle Way, to enable that dialogue without destroying the conditions that allow it. The development of the Middle Way Philosophy itself can also be seen as a socio-political integration of belief practice helping to support the conditions for integration through understanding  (Ellis, 2023, p270).

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Centre for Mindful Educational Leadership

Tim Saunders PhD


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