The Middle Way

commusings Oct 03, 2020

Close your eyes. Sit tall, with your back straight. Plant your feet solidly on the ground below you. Take a deep breath in through your nose.
 
And hold it until November 3. Probably longer.
 
Shut-eye doesn’t come easy right now, thoughts are swinging from branch to branch like a monkey. That debate debacle bore some semblance to the chatterbox in my head, where two imaginary frenemies incessantly prattle over each other:
 
“Please go to sleep.
Why didn’t you go to the bathroom before you lay down?
You really seem to be going a lot.
God, maybe you have diabetes?
Or maybe it’s a prostate thing?
You’re such a hypochondriac.
Still, you should probably go see the doctor.
But he moved.
Yeah, that motherf**ker moved.
You never really liked him and you should find someone on the east side.
The east side is much hipper anyways.
Yeah, better restaurants.
The west side is so … Gwyneth.
Screw Goop.
I like the Politician, though.”
 
If this inner dialogue was amplified out of my mouth, you would consider me certifiably insane. Yet, too often, such is the chaos of our psyche.
 
After I have tamed my cortisol-fueled hysteria with half-a-dozen CBD gummies and rubbed lavender copiously on my temples, I drift in and out of a restless slumber. I roll around fitfully, obsessing over my latest Facebook troll, conjuring come-backs. Really, Jeff? After all the meditation and tiresome exercises in self-transcendence, concocting social media barbs is how you’re going to spend your brief time of this planet?
 
Breathe. Count backwards from one hundred.
 
And then, like Rip Van Winkle, I am lucid. It’s November 28 and my girls have baked me a cock-eyed carrot cake. They are singing happy birthday painfully if beautifully off-pitch. I stroke my long white beard. A cool rain blankets the gilded hills of California. And democracy is preserved.
 
Of course, the real dream is that this dream is not a dream.
 
Back in the frenetic custody of the moment, we find ourselves utterly polarized. Have you ever pulled a fraying shoelace from each end, eyeing the middle as it unzips, until there’s a mere single strand tenuously and bravely holding communion? This is our country. One eye shut in denial, one eye reticently open, the undertow pulling us out into a choppy uncivil war.
 
The vase of truth lies shattered on the floor. We are but millions of shards of individuated and machine-curated modifications of an unshared existence. It’s no wonder we debase and not debate. Silicon Valley serves up a different feed of reality to each one of us. How can we cooperate without a shared foundational understanding of fact? And, now, the sane among us must take on the project of gluing together some semblance of inter-subjective reality.
 
The problem is that truth ain’t dressed in a mini-skirt. It won’t be propagated through memes. Truth is not sensational. It doesn’t go viral. It lives in the thicket of nuance, in the gray zone.
 
In the very first lesson Gautama Buddha delivered after his awakening, he spoke of the middle path. In this sutra, Buddha describes the Noble Eightfold Path as the middle way of moderation, a life between the extremes of any polarity as objective reality.
 
The middle way is the course we must chart, as we sense the emergence of a new paradigm. In this moment of profound instability, there is the potential for substantial progress. We are questioning our systems and structures, putting a microscope to institutions that have long provided stability, sometimes at the expense of justice and equality. But here we must use discernment between baby and bathwater.
 
For example, we should hold the “mainstream” media to account for its many shortcomings. But let us remember that these many outlets compete with one another. There is no solitary cigar-smoking plutocrat directing them all à la Operation Mockingbird. Still, the insidious ad-revenue model that rewards sensationalism and hyperbole dribbles a popcorn trail to the extremes. The 24-hour news cycle values speed over depth. Misaligned incentives propel biased reporting. And the inability of many outlets to platform legitimate issues can push us to the thin edges of the branch.
 
Still, though, we must recognize the utility of journalism to hold government, the private sector, and bad actors to account. In 1972, Woodward and Bernstein, reporters for The Washington Post, led the investigative work that shed light on the Watergate scandal and precipitated the eventual resignation of President Nixon. In 1984, Bob Parry and Brian Barger broke the Iran-Contra Affair for the Associated Press. In 2002, a scrappy team from the Boston Globe uncovered cases of widespread and systemic child sex abuse in the Boston area by numerous Roman Catholic priests. This work was chronicled in the award-winning film, Spotlight. In 2003, former diplomat Joseph Wilson called out the non-existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in a New York Times op-ed. In 2018, Miami Herald reporters, Julie K. Brown and Emily Michot did the harrowing work of reviving the Jeffrey Epstein case, which had been cold for a decade. The Pulitzer Prize-winning series “Perversion of Justice” not only took down Epstein but also unveiled profound culpabilities in our criminal justice system. And, right now, the most comprehensive work to expose child pornography and hold Big Tech to account is being done by Gabriel Dance and his investigative team at the New York Times.
 
I could spend the better part of a day recounting the myriad instances that hard-nosed journalism unearthed malfeasance, bringing bad actors to justice. This work is heroic and, more often than not, unheralded. It is being done for meager financial reward and at great personal risk by women and men rigorously committed to exhuming the truth.
 
In 2015, Washington Post foreign correspondent, Jason Rezaian spent 544 days in an Iranian prison where he was informed daily of his impending execution. His colleague, Jamal Khashoggi, who had been sharply critical of Saudi Arabia's crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, wasn’t so lucky. He was assassinated at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018 by agents of the Saudi government and cut up into small pieces. This courageous and often overlooked work is pitted against YouTube, which recommended the spurious videos of Alex Jones over 15 billion times. (See my article on the ills of Social Media.) The migration of news to social media represents the divorce of power and responsibility.
 
My point is that – in evaluating our institutions, and, perhaps, life in general – there is a middle way that both recognizes good and bad, useful and broken, transcendent and redeemable. By moderating our own attitudes around a golden mean, we can focus on the betterment of these very systems.
 
Clearly, some of the caffeine has worn off along with the humor. Time for a refill.
 
I am no cheerleader for Western allopathic medicine or its villainous cousin, Big Pharma. I tend to dabble in alternative remedies and a good amount of Krasnopathy, the emerging field of sweeping ailments under the rug until they go away. A white coat generally reduces me to a puddle of nerves. But I can tell you that, right now, given that I have just returned home from excruciating dental work, I am grabbing my pom-poms and doing splits for that anesthesiologist.
 
Yes, there is a parade of examples of Big Pharma negligence. The Merck arthritis drug, Vioxx, was responsible for giving 38,000 people fatal heart attacks. Purdue Pharma persisted in marketing OxyContin even though it was aware of its addictive and deleterious impacts. This drug ignited the opioid crisis that has taken 500,000 American lives. Denvaxia, a vaccine designed to prevent dengue, actually exacerbated severe symptoms and increased the risk of a deadly complication called plasma leakage syndrome with children in the Philippines. Gerald Ford’s rushed and botched H1N1 vaccine led to an estimated 450 people developing the paralyzing syndrome Guillain-Barré and of those, more than 30 died.
 
For all these horrific shortcomings (and scores more), we can also celebrate the achievements of science and Western medicine that have greatly alleviated human suffering. 300 million people died of smallpox in the 20th century alone. This ravaging disease was declared completely eliminated in 1980. The discovery and development of the aforementioned anesthesia (1846), germ theory (1861), medical imaging (1895), penicillin (1928), organ transplants (1954), stem cell research (1970’s) and HIV therapy (2000’s), to name a few, have cured infections, prolonged life and minimized needless misery.
 
On a personal note, as a young boy, I spent hard times in the pediatric ward of Sloane-Kettering. And my father is currently recovering from colon cancer. I am both committed to living a healthy lifestyle and profoundly grateful for those who have devoted their lives to cancer research.
 
I use the institutions of media and medicine as examples as they are currently in the crosshairs of the polemic. However, you might apply the same thought exercise to any number of systems governed by humans. The media is populated by journalists, medicine is inhabited by physicians and scientists. And people are highly imperfect.
 
But as we imagine the world our hearts desire, will we let perfect be the enemy of good? 
 
Or can we stand in what T.S. Eliot called “the still point of the turning world”? In the same way that higher consciousness requires us to float above our perceived selves as witnesses, to be aware of our own awareness, our collective consciousness demands a similar discipline: an ability to discern from a place of non-duality.
 
Many of us are so obsessively staring at screens twelve inches from our faces that we seldom look up. But when we hike up the hill of consciousness, we open the aperture of our awareness and, from this vantage, witness the broadest swath of our humanity, warts and all. From here, we can commit to the right work, the right action, the right speech – the noble path – that slowly bends the moral arc of history.

As we descend back into our villages to chop the wood and carry the water of life, the middle way beckons.

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