The concept of “moderation” has a bad wrap in our culture. Being moderate is equated with being boring-- not taking risks. This perception starts from a false premise of what moderation means. In the yogic tradition, moderation, or Brahmacharya, translates as “Walking with the Brahman” or “Walking with God.” It embraces the “middle way.” Imagine a bell curve, with the highest point being a sweet spot of maximum enjoyment-- maximum returns. If you have too little or too much of a thing, you are missing out on some of the joy it can bring.
Buddha, before he became the Buddha, was a prince known as Siddhartha. He became disillusioned with the excesses of palace life, so he went out in search of meaning. He joined a group of ascetics who sought enlightenment through self-deprivation and renunciation. After nearly dying of starvation, he became aware that these extreme practices were not taking him closer to the truth he sought. He realized that one could become as attached to austerity as to material wealth or the pleasures of the senses. From that point on he espoused the “middle way” - living simply, without living toward material, emotional, or mental extremes.
It is true that historically, the yogic practice of Brahmacharya included sexual abstinence, but if we look at the intent behind the practice, it is all about mindfully directing and channeling our energy in order to create the life we want. We can ask ourselves, what is important to us and do our actions support that goal?
I’m sure you can think of many areas of life in which we are seeking balance. One of the most fundamental is with eating. Everyone has to eat! But how much, what and when seem to be something we all struggle with. Depriving ourselves for too long always seems to backfire, and overindulging often leads to ill health or depression. Food, for many, has become not about nourishment but about numbing feelings or alleviating boredom or discontent. All of this is exacerbated by society’s unrealistic and damaging standards of beauty and weight, causing many of us to feel shame around food and body image. There may not be an easy fix for this complex subject, but the more we become mindful when we eat, in order to recognize the moment of “just enough”, and mindful after we eat, to observe how different foods make us feel, the more we can develop habits that nourish us and make us stronger. Pair this “intuitive eating” with kindness and understanding along the journey, and we can find the “middle way” as it relates to what we eat.
Much of the same could be said on the subject of alcohol, shopping, the use of electronic devices, busyness and the rush to get things done. Humans have many ways to avoid feelings and distract ourselves from all the moment contains. The journey into balance, moving away from excess or deprivation, is similar no matter what the substance. There are also areas of excess and deprivation relating to healthy habits in our daily routine. It is important to find the right type and amount of sleep and exercise for your particular body and your particular life -- the amounts and types that leave you feeling energized, centered and ready for the day.
Given that moderation is the point of maximum benefit, why do we overindulge or deprive ourselves in the first place? When we go to extremes, it is no longer about the activity. Rather it is about the emotional state attached to it. When you associate a certain thing (a coffee, a cigarette, ice cream, a drink, chocolate, shopping) as a reward, your break, your stress relief… sooner or later you find that you are no longer having your ice cream, but your ice cream is having you. Then, it is easy to swing in the opposite direction. In an effort to take back control, in a world that is fundamentally beyond our control, we may begin to deprive ourselves completely. Self-deprivation can be just as joyless and damaging as over-indulgence. The satisfaction of being in control is an illusion, and eventually gives way to the same feelings of shame and unworthiness that brought us there in the first place.
This seems like a good time to mention that, for some, who have the disease of addiction, moderation will mean abstinence. Without the ability to self-regulate, abstinence is the sweet spot for some. I am a huge proponent of 12-step programs. In these groups you can find: support of a community of people with the same experiences and challenges; a program that helps you uncover and deal with underlying emotional issues that drive us to excess; and a framework and tools for dealing with addiction while being in the world-- all the while emphasizing a spiritual connection. Abstinence can also be a useful tool if your desire is to hit reset. You often hear about people having a “dry” January, or going on a juice cleanse, as a way to wipe the slate clean and start fresh with a clear body and mind.
If we desire to move away from extremes, we can begin to simply become the observer, and begin to distinguish the body’s needs from the mind’s desires. There is often an unfelt feeling underneath our stories, our compulsion or craving. In 12 step programs, when you feel a craving kick in, you H.A.L.T. This pause is a time to check in to see if you are actually hungry, angry, lonely or tired. Additionally, when your activity is a compulsion, rather than a conscious choice, your mind is often agitated-- this is a good sign to pause.
It is in this pause that we can look for the sacred. Remember, Brahmacharya means “walking with god.” When we overindulge or deprive ourselves, we have forgotten the sacredness of life. If we walk in the world full of wonder and awe, and attend to each moment as holy, then we can sense our sweet spot of moderation. We often lose this if moving fast, so slow down and be mindful. Imagine you are on the way to overindulgence… maybe about to get wasted or compulsively eat, or spend your whole day in a flurry of work and stress… but you pause in the middle of it and really feel the holiness of the moment. Would you then want to continue down that path or would a different priority emerge?
There is one point I can’t stress enough. Non-excess is not about non-enjoyment. Think of a time in your life when you felt balanced. When you took the time to prepare a beautiful, healthy meal, or when you went for a long walk. When you took time out of your day to smell the roses. When you performed an act of self-care, devoting time or resources to nurture yourself. How did moderation feel? Were you more peaceful? Was it like a breath of fresh air? Things done mindfully are in brighter colors, and a life connected to the sacred is a life well-lived. So remember to “pause” when making a choice, and ask yourself “Where is the Divine in that?” Then, rather than going to bed with a sense of accomplishment because we checked so many things off our to-do list, maybe we will go to bed with “a sense of wonder because all day we were an attentive audience to the divine play.”*
* (For further reading, check out Deborah Adele, Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga's Ethical Practice, How Al-Anon Works, by Al-Anon Family Group, and Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book. Much of the content of this essay was taken from or inspired by these insightful works.)