The Elusive Middle Way

It occurred to me recently that I like extremes.

I go to extremes a lot with my diet. The strict elimination diet I did when my daughter was two-and-a-half is one example. No gluten, eggs, dairy, soy, nuts, beans, chocolate, alcohol, or sugar of any kind (including grapes). You are right to wonder what I ate during this time. Then my “meat at every meal” diet. This was actually healthier than the “cheese, bread, and beer” vegetarian diet I consumed for nearly seven years because the meat diet actually included vegetables. Then there’s my most recent (largely failed) experiment in vegan, gluten-free, no-oil eating. And in case you’re wondering, no, I do not ease myself into these dietary changes. I’m one Whole Foods trip away from a major dietary shift at any given moment. No wonder my kids refuse to eat the food I cook anymore.

I go to extremes with choices about where to live, too. I joke that I don’t travel; I move. It’s a joke, but it’s also true, and I have the six states’ worth of drivers’ licenses to prove it.

I binge-read like nobody’s business. I either check Facebook 235 times a day or I delete (or attempt to delete) my profile. I buy those yummy mini-meringues at the store and eat the whole package before bedtime. I let my hair grow to my waist and then hack it off dramatically all at once, only to let it grow out again for the next three years (by which time I need to find a new hairdresser because we’ve moved to a different state again). I stop running for eight months then immediately jump back into running 3-5 miles three times a week. I end a yoga fast by doing a 1.5-hour vinyasa practice every morning. I wake up at 4:30am for 6 weeks to meditate. And then I meditate again before I go to bed (at 8:30pm).

I’m keen on Buddhism, and when I’m engaged in these reactionary and extreme patterns of behavior, I remind myself of Siddhartha’s quest for spiritual enlightenment. After attempting all manner of extreme religious practices, Siddhartha eventually adopted a more moderate path, attained enlightenment, and started a religion to boot. The “Middle Way” continues to be at the core of Buddhism, and while it seems like a really good and simple idea, it’s a lot more complicated to apply to real life.

When I envision the Middle Way, I picture something very much like Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” only with three roads diverged in a wood rather than two. The decision about which path to take should be simple: take the one that’s in the middle. But, for me at least, that middle road isn’t easy to discern. Not only is it grassy and wanting wear, it’s so overgrown it’s practically indistinguishable from the rest of the forest.

If I want to take the Middle Way, I’m going to have to keep a very keen eye on the faded blazes along the path and the subtle signs that there actually is a path here. I’ll need to have my machete handy to hack away the vines and poison ivy. The going will be slow and punctuated by frequent stops to move fallen trees off of the path and to pick off ticks that have found their way into my hair and are fixing to burrow into my skin and give me Lyme disease. (I’ve never been a fan of ticks, but moving to New England has made me remarkably paranoid about Lyme disease.)

Today my osteopath told me that the “neck headaches” I’ve been getting are caused by the extreme tension in the muscles all the way along my spine. She recommended finding ways to release tension, specifically changing my perspective on exercise from building towards something or training towards a tangible goal to being a way to quickly release tension in my body.

With this suggestion in mind, when I got home I turned the kids loose with some Wild Kratts DVDs and went back to reading Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn. I started it months and months ago, but I stopped reading when I got to the chapter about stress, which is rather amusing when I think about it.

Kabat-Zinn writes about the fight-or-flight response and the negative effects it has within the body if it’s triggered too readily and not allowed to dissipate in a healthy way. The thing that stuck out to me was the broad range of circumstances that can trigger a fight-or-flight response:

Anything that threatens our sense of well-being can trigger it to some degree. If our social status is threatened, or our ego, or our strongly held beliefs, or our desire to control things or have them be a certain way (“my” way, for instance), then the sympathetic nervous system lets loose. We can be catapulted into a state of hyperarousal and fight-or-flight whether we like it or not.

Maybe I stopped reading the book at the stress chapter because I wasn’t ready to admit that I’ve been fighting against threats to my ego and my sense of control (because there sure aren’t any tigers around here threatening me). None of the information about stress is new to me, but every time I encounter it I read it with new eyes. This time it’s in the context of my realization about my going to extremes and my osteopath’s suggestion to cool it a bit.

So, here I am at the head of these three paths, machete in hand and a vague idea in my mind. I might just stand here for a bit before I head out.

6 comments

  1. Tina Brown · May 10, 2012

    I have this same type of behavior with homeschool styles and food. You are not alone. I attribute it to that I must have a superior intelligence and I have to keep my mind busy somehow…mothering is not the most exciting or intellectually stimulating profession.

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    • CJ · May 10, 2012

      The “superior intelligence” angle is a much more compassionate one than the one I usually go with. Good to know I’m not alone, Tina. I suppose it’s not the busyness I’m after but the depth of experience. Motherhood is plenty busy for me, but it’s all over the place. Intense focus would be a real luxury, even if what I’m focusing on is washing kale three times a day.

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  2. teresa · May 10, 2012

    I would have called myself an extremist before I read this. You, my friend, are the Queen!! I used to even do the moving thing… California to Martha’s Vineyard… back again.. but that was in my single days. Oh, and I hear you about the ticks!!
    I really admire your ability to dive right into new things. That’s part of what you describe.
    I suspect it all points to some kind of genius.
    And now you’re brilliant enough to challenge yourself in a whole new way.
    I can’t wait to hear more about it.
    Great passage from the Kabat-Zinn book. Now I want to read it.

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    • CJ · May 10, 2012

      Thanks, Teresa!

      The Kabat-Zinn book really is quite good. He’s a little wordy at times (I get the impression that his later books are more to the point) but the two chapters about stress really hit home for me. I’m looking forward to the chapter about “Time and Time Stress.” During the day if I’m yelling, it’s usually because we are (once again) late for something. Or my son’s drawing on the walls again, but there isn’t a chapter that specifically addresses that stressor. For the first time I have something of an answer (albeit not a simple one) to the question, “If I’m not supposed to yell and I’m not supposed to ‘stuff’ my emotions, what the heck am I supposed to do?”

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  3. This was familiar to me. In recent years, I’ve worked hard to do things in moderation. Just lately, though, I’ve been feeling a bit too stymied and restless so I’ve been contemplating letting some more extreme behaviors back into my life. Still, I feel like I’m standing on a similar trailhead.

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    • CJ · May 10, 2012

      I think “extreme” isn’t necessarily bad, and sometimes an extreme action is the best action for the situation. But I think that, for me, they often end up being maladaptive stress-coping strategies, so my quest for the Middle Way is a reflection of the need for more healthy and responsive (rather than reactive) methods of coping with stress.

      Thanks so much for reading and for your comment, Renae.

      Like

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