Middle Way

The Middle Way (happy medium, moderate approach, etc) is a non-compromising alternative path towards a goal, lying approximately between two undesirable, goal-compromising extremes.


The origin of the official Buddhist interpretation of the “Middle Way” can be traced to Siddhartha Gautama’s first teaching.

The story behind this is that Siddhartha Gautama (the wealthy prince who would later achieve enlightenment) decided to become an Acetic after seeing death, sickness and frailty for the first time. He supposedly practised self-mortification, effectively starving himself in order to try to reach higher states of conscious thought, but almost killed himself in doing so. Spiritually satisfied by neither his rich life as a prince or the polar extreme, he took a moderate, middle way and achieved enlightenment.

Personal Background

I talk and write occasionally about the “Middle Way” — the optimal path between two extremes.

Two things about this bother me, though. Firstly, it can appear to be a compromise between two extremes. Secondly, in some cases I prefer to side with an extreme (one way or the other) instead of taking the compromise in the middle.

I had a sudden realisation whilst thinking about this: a Middle Way and a compromise are different things. A true Middle Way exists only when the extremes themselves are compromises. And exactly what the extremes are depends on the scale with which you measure them, which in turn depends on the goal.

Here I will try to demonstrate and illustrate this through some examples.

Siddhartha Gautama Example

See Origin, above.

In this example, the goal is heightened spiritual awareness. The scale used is the amount of physical comfort (positive and negative) you live in. In this case, the two extremes are in themselves a compromise:

  • One extreme removed him from truths about life
  • The other compromised his physical health

Both of which compromise the goal, whereas the middle way between the two does not compromise the goal. Had Siddhartha’s goal been to lose weight (for example), and the same scale used, the extremes become desirable:

  • Had he stayed really rich, he could have hired a professional trainer/dietician
  • Living on six grains of rice a day is a great effective way to lose weight

Lutherie Example

Musical instrument building and design is a balance between stability and sound quality.

The goals: Create an instrument which…

  • sounds great; and
  • doesn’t fall apart after a couple of notes

The scale is made up of various factors, including thickness of wood, amount of finish applied, type of glue used, but the extremes are:

  • Extremely delicate, lightly built, lightly finished instrument
  • Bulky, over-finished instruments glued together with that expanding foam glue (these are known in the trade as “tanks”)

Both of the extremes compromise one of the goals, taking a Middle Way is not a compromise, as to not compromise would be a compromise!

Web Example

When publishing on the web, I tend to publish to my own site and then syndicate out to other services (for example Twitter or Facebook), a technique is called POSSE. I wrote about this being a middle way between to compromising extremes here, which you should read if you haven’t already.

In this case, the goals are threefold:

  1. To publish content under your own, persistent identity;
  2. For the maximum number of people to be notified of and able to react to that content;
  3. For the maximum number of copies to be made of the content (as per LOCKSS)

The scale here could roughly be described as hipsterness degrees of markup obsession “indieness”, where the extremes are:

  • You publish everything on Facebook (or [insert other service here]), and do not really know that there is any higher degree of engagement than “liking” something
  • You are an RDF wonk who eschews HTML and publishes turtle documents

Here, the two extremes are undesirable as they compromise the goals:

  • Existing entirely on Facebook compromises goal 1 and 3
  • Being an RDF wonk compromises 2 (and possibly 3)

Here, a clear, non-compromising middle way exists: publishing content under your own domain and push it out to third party services.