To Democritus it was euthymia, to Seneca tranquility, to the Buddhists equanimity. All of these concepts point to the same state of mind. The Greek original of “well-being of soul” describes the deft avoidance of extremes for peace of mind. Like Odysseus navigating between Scylla and Charybdis, we navigate our lives between pride and envy, between elation and melancholy, between riches and poverty, between anger and gloating, between cynicism and piety.
The solitary is not immune to any of these extremes of passion. We readily exchange the excesses of the crowd for those of the cell if not vigilant. The key to the middle way is to realize that it is not the mean or mediocre but truly a way with its own distinction, values, vision, and parameters to life. Not an Aristotlean avoidance of extremes but a conscious crafting of the self to capture what is lost and to renounced what is exceeded. As in any creative act, it is no mere middle way to sculpt away excess from a block of wood or marble, or to add or lighten shadow in painting or poetry, or to know when to attend or amend a planted tree. This is the art of living: attentive to when all is changing, in flux, and impermanent — as well as when it is apparently not.
The battle between religion and science (or at least some religions or sects) has always seemed to be rather a struggle between technology and ethics. To turn-of-the-20th-century physicists like Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, science and its discoveries revealed a mysticism in their writings to rival the most spiritually-minded writers. Likewise, Albert Einstein’s statements about technology in the guise of atonmic weapons are unmatched by clergy in moral strength. The abstractions of science, like the abstractions of religion, are never as compelling in daily life and culture as are the prevailing technology (and its effects on environment and society), or the ethics of a people, government, or culture.
The instinct of “fight or flight” is basic in wilderness animals, but society has changed this instinct in humans from a purely physical mechanism involving confrontation and survival to a psychological one that involves our entire environment. Situations require decisions as to whether to involve oneself or whether to avoid or ignore situations.
In modern consumer society, “fight” is largely driven by pleasure, for even common needs like food and shelter are “market” decisions full of marketed options. Most people let a minimal sensual level be their guide to likes and dislikes. No deeper analysis is called upon. Economic debt is a kind of “fight” instinct engaging and consuming the object of desire.
On the other hand, “flight” is apathy, boredom, lack of compassion, irresponsibility — not a true flight from danger but a flight from simplicity, nature, and the self that is revealed by the emptying of social contrivance. Thus to “fight or flight” might be added an intermediate state of contentment. To flee the grand porject of remaking oneself versus conforming to social contrivance and calling it contentment eliminates the need to stir moral passions.
Animals at rest, confident in the security of their surroundings, may experience the equivalent of this state, but it can be a bane to humans, a false reconciliation with society and society’s values. We might call this a false contentment. A positive form of contentment would be a harmony with larger patterns of reality, but society and civilization is so overwhelming that most people cannot imagine a set of values outside of this vast configuration of power, structure, and authority.
Only the hermit has, irregardless of era or culture, been able to show the way past fighting, fleeing, or the hazy ennui of contentment with the world.
We appeal to logic, reason, and argument to overcome what we judge to be lower instincts: emotions and feelings. But rationality devoid of emotions and feelings has created political and technological horrors throughout history. We can no longer tolerate a separation of the two.
Embedded in our feelings of joy, pain, and grief is our capacity to appreciate what is good and wise. From those deepest emotions we can glimpse (if we can see ourselves from afar) a groping for value. Despite its tools for analysis and dispassionate assessment, rationality cannot secure this good. Its description of what is good and right for us is often a flawed argument for power and control over our better intuition.
Reason can provide the detail for enriching our experience of nature and everyday life, just as details can be spiritualized and serve creative ends. But wisdom comes from the intersection of knowledge with our deepest intuitions. Our lives are best when we can enrich our feelings with order, and we can order our feelings with enrichment.
I like the Zen saying “Can you be a hermit in the crowd?” but, of course, the sentiment is not exclusive to Zen. Here is a version attributed to Amma Syncretica, one of the women desert hermits (Desert Mothers) of early Christianity:
Many who live in the mountains behave as if they were in the city; they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living amidst a crowd as it is possible for one who is a solitary to live in the crowd of his own thoughts.