“… extremes usually accomplish nothing, but the middle way brings the most efficient results.” J.J. Dewey
Painting by Ma Yuan, Song Dynasty, On a Mountain Path in Spring
The Middle Path
The middle path is a concept that comes to us from Buddhist philosophy. The Buddha was born into a very privileged lifestyle. He was a prince and thus afforded every indulgence. One day, having reached his fill of overindulgences, debauchery, and hedonistic behavior and still not having achieved happiness, the prince ran away. He became an ascetic beggar. The Buddha engaged in austerity and self-denial on every level. After some years of this lifestyle he still had not found happiness or more precisely achieved Nirvana.
After a time of meditation and then enlightenment, the Buddha concluded that the way to happiness, Nirvana, etc. is the middle way. Somewhere in between indulgence and denial, hedonism and asceticism, lies the middle path – happiness, contentment, Nirvana, heaven, etc. The Buddha concluded that desire causes suffering.
In his first teaching after enlightenment, he preached his concept:
The Four Noble Truths
- Life equals suffering.
- The origin of suffering is attachment and desire.
- One can stop suffering.
- The middle path, or the “way” to stop suffering is gradual self-improvement.
Let us examine each truth by today’s standards.
Life equals suffering. This could be called the human condition. We feel pain. We feel hunger. We feel tired. We have basic needs that must be met or we suffer. We want to be safe and included and we want to be loved or we suffer. Significant others die and we suffer. A certain amount of suffering is unavoidable and everyone acknowledges this inevitability. The circumstances that one is born into will weigh one toward more or less suffering.
The origin of suffering is attachment and desire. This is a big one in my book. As Americans, we have tried to purchase our way to happiness. We have tried to travel our way to happiness. We have tried to diet our way to happiness. Etc. I am not even going to talk about the medications (the happy pills.) It hasn’t worked. Even as we have tried to purchase, travel, work, diet, and pop our way to happiness, all we have achieved is exhaustion, stress, stress related diseases, debt, stuff, less time, and over stimulation of the mind, the senses, and emotion – in particular negative emotions.
We become attached to things and ideas (desire). Somewhere along the way, our attachment to things became ridiculous. Seriously. When did having a TV in every room become desirable? Why not just one room? At what point did it become better to have 30 pairs of shoes versus 4 or 5 pairs? And in our race to accumulate more stuff, the size of the American house doubled – with the same number or less occupants. We even became attached to the idea of more space per person. Or the idea that stuff is better than money in the bank. Our credit card debt went through the roof and our savings became a negative figure. And Americans are not any happier than they were in the 50’s, 60’s, or 70’s. I would submit that we are unhappier and way more stressed.
Our attachment to negative ideals and unrealistic desires has further denigrated our society. A sexy woman must be a tall, skinny toothpick? “Greed is good” was the famous line from the famous 80’s movie. Only people who can afford health insurance deserve health care? Only healthy people can attain health insurance? Media outlets tell young (all) people that in order to be desirable you must be …., you must wear …, you must have …, you must do …, etc. And the list goes on and on. When did Americans, so fiercely independent, give control of our minds to advertising giants and media outlets?
One can stop suffering. The Buddha described happiness or Nirvana as freedom from worry, trouble, complexes, hatred, delusion, ideas and ideals, desires, stress, ego, over indulgence, etc. Basically, if ones basic needs are met (food, shelter, safety, society) and slightly surpassed with a little bit of security (societies services included here i.e. social security, health care, etc.) and indulgent items – above and beyond that struggling-to-survive mark lies the greatest potential for happiness / contentment. The middle way is somewhere between indulgence and denial.
The convenience of fast food frees up valuable time for many families, yet over indulgence leads to suffering via obesity and other health issues. Ice cream is a wonderful treat for children, yet over indulgence leads to the child’s sense of entitlement, obesity, and health issues. Purchasing a desired unneeded item on credit can be a nice treat for adults, but over indulgence in this activity can lead to unwise debt, stress, inflated prices for the actual item (interest), bad credit, negative savings, and in many cases lately – financial ruin.
The middle path, or the way to stop suffering is gradual self-improvement. When one is better today than they were yesterday they feel good about themselves. This also is the human condition. If yesterday you were hungry but today you are satiated, you are content and happy. If you have the knowledge that those circumstances will continue, you are even more happy and content. Think of what a relief it was that one time when you paid your credit card off – completely. Were you happy, content, and proud of yourself? Did you feel “worry”-free?
What is your worry or stress button? Do you have an unreasonable mortgage payment? What would your life be like if it were smaller? Are you over weight? What would your life be like if you ate less / ate healthier / exercised? Are you over worked? What would your life be like if you had more free / fun time? Do you hate your job? Do you exercise obsessively and eat nothing to obtain an unrealistic body weight? Do you engage in retail therapy on credit?
A Case Study
I would like to present to you a case study regarding “the middle path” and financial responsibility that offers a different take on the way one could conduct their life and financial affairs. Instead of the buy, buy, buy attitude, and the “keeping-up-with-the-Joneses” mentality, one could instead take the middle path to security, contentment, happiness, and financial serenity. In order to attain the American Dream, one only needs to stop pursuing status symbols and to take a “step back” mentally and make more examined spending choices rather than choices that feed only the ego. It is just another argument for the less-is-more or the minimalist approach to life and all the rest. Give it a chance and see what you think.
The Millionaire Next Door
The Millionaire Next Door is a wonderful book by Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko. I highly recommend you read it if you haven’t. Check it out from the library. Stanley and Danko write about first generation millionaires in America whose level of wealth is between 1 – 10 million dollars and was achieved in one generation.
The overall prototypical “millionaire next door” is as follows: They don’t look, dress, eat, or act like millionaires. They live well beneath their means and invest 15 – 20% of their realized income. They have traded high status material possessions for wealth. I believe they have settled upon the middle path, perhaps without even realizing it. So lets look more closely at some statistics as stated in the book:
- They are in their 50’s or 60’s, married with 3 kids
- 2/3 of them are self employed in areas considered dull / normal
- About half of the wives don’t work, those that do – the number one job is teacher
- 97% are home owners and ½ have lived in the same home for more than 20 years
- Most never received any inheritance and came from non-wealthy classes
- If they wear suits, they tend to wear inexpensive suits
- They drive American made cars and rarely buy new or lease
- Wives are meticulous budgeters
- Most have a “go-to-hell” fund, which means they could live for 10 years without working if they had to
- They don’t buy high status material possessions, instead – they invest
- They believe education to be extremely important and 4/5 have college degrees or better
- 80% of them went to public schools, but they spend heavily on their offspring’s educations – so 55% are in private schools
- They work 45 – 55 hours per week
- Many live in a neighborhood beneath their means, i.e. they live in a lower-middle class neighborhood but earn a middle or upper-middle class income
The book goes on to explain the difference in maintaining an upper-middle-class lifestyle versus a middle-class or blue-collar lifestyle. The upper-middle-class lifestyler’s feel they must maintain the status quo and buy more expensive cars, houses, clothes, country club admittances, and other expensive status trappings and toys. While doing this leaves them with much less money to pay off houses or to invest in wealth building strategies. In the end, they end up much less wealthy than the middle-class or blue-collar lifestyler’s who did not make purchases based on perception or keeping up with the Joneses. But, who instead, saved, saved, saved – investing instead in security, simplicity, happiness, and long-term goals. And in the end were the real accumulators of wealth.
I believe the book gives case studies of families who gave up nothing, except perhaps status symbols, and achieved everything. The millionaire next door is a person who accumulates wealth instead of stuff. They have the basics and essentials and little bit more as far as material possessions and consumables are concerned. This, according to Stanley and Danko, is the point where the highest level of wealth, based on level of income, is achieved. And, on a side note, according to the happiness experts, this is where the highest level of happiness is also achieved. Basically, it is the middle path that leads to optimal experience and outcome.