The Golden Mean revisited

I complained in an earlier post that the Golden Mean is nearly useless advice because it doesn’t tell you what constitutes moderation in any given situation and implies that extremes just are wrong. But I think I get it now. At least, I have found a way of following an interpretation of “all things in moderation” that resonates with me.

Before, I had in mind absolute moderation by external standards– say, that there was some appropriate number of bananas a week for each person. Now, I see it more as internal moderation relative to your level of craving or aversion, and using those as a gauge does make the Golden Mean actionable advice. When you’re moderating relative to your internal states, the number of bananas you can eat without avoiding them or completely giving in to your lust for bananas could vary substantially from person-to-person or day-to-day. In order to moderate your out-of-control cravings for bananas, you might need to stop eating them entirely for a time. Abstinence doesn’t represent a “moderate” level of banana consumption by external standards. It represents no banana consumption. But it may be what someone needs to do to moderate their craving for bananas. And it’s no contradiction to resume eating bananas at a low level when you’ve reigned in your urges.

I would like to share this extremely useful concept, shenpa. It’s a Tibetan word I learned from Pema Chodron and in the context of her school of Buddhism it means a mental phenomenon that “hooks” you or gets you “stuck.” (I didn’t say “thought” or “feeling” there because they hold that shenpa is definitely pre-verbal and probably pre-emotional.) I’m almost sure I know exactly what they mean by shenpa, and I would describe it as an urge– or the energy behind an urge. This may sound murky or abstract, but, in my experience, when you begin to attend to them, shenpa quickly become very distinct and recognizable. The physical sensation is often in the heart or belly, and it can literally feel like being hooked and pulled by the gut. When we say urge, we usually mean an urge to do something, but the “something” isn’t necessarily part of the shenpa. Shenpa is simply the sticky quality or energy of craving and aversion. If you have the mindfulness and equanimity, you can just observe shenpa arising and watch them pass without letting them spawn the feelings, thoughts, and actions that keep them going. When there is little or no shenpa, your desires tend to moderate themselves. For example, you eat until your body is satiated instead of being pulled past the negative feedback of nausea and self-loathing by a shenpa hook. 

Noticing my shenpa has helped me to figure out what moderation means for me in a given situation. Instead of thinking “I’m eating too much” based on how much is on my plate or what the people around me think, I’m listening for the difference between genuine apetite and a craving that has me totally hooked. Learning to identify and monitor shenpa gives me realtime feedback so that I’m able to walk the line between averse and addicted. That is, to moderate. No set of objective and unvarying rules or external criteria could give me that. Before, I thought the alternative to following rules was just some platitude like “everyone has to figure it out for themselves”– maybe true, but completely unhelpful (and to someone like me who believed there was a right way to do everything, it didn’t even feel true). Paying attention to shenpa is completely personal, however it’s specific and clear enough of a direction to give meaningful guidance.

I still feel the Golden Mean is used to justify a very uncritical, middle-of-the-road, split-the-difference kind of attitude toward life that makes one’s life choices dependent on those of others and not the relevant facts. Seeking what’s moderate in the world may lead you to choices that are extreme for you. But I am convinced now that it’s possible to moderate by your own lights, and that moderating around your own temperament, needs, dislikes, and desires is generally the wise thing to do. I’ve found an introspective window, shenpa, that has made the Golden Mean more applicable to me, and with those skills, I don’t need rigid rules as much. To be fair to this venerable piece of wisdom, I wanted to share my change of heart.


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