I have been thinking a lot about ‘the third way’ recently. I was listening to a podcast a few months ago and the subject was about complex loss, such as when a loved one goes missing and there are no answers as to what happened to them. Dealing with these traumatic emotions and grief is somewhat different to more clearly defined loss, like a death from natural causes. During the conversation they discussed closure, whether it can be achieved after a complex loss, they said closure is not necessarily the aim or the end result, that there is a third way. The third way in this instance was rather than be swallowed by the grief and stay in the obsession of the loss, or shut it out in an attempt to reach ‘closure’, there is a messy, uncomfortable, but more authentic, third way. This third way is acknowledging the suffering and feeling the painful emotions, along with reaching for and moving towards the future without necessarily having a sense of closure. Can you feel in that description the third way feels vulnerable and messy, and yet honest and real?
In so many cases the third way is the way of healing and most true way to move through challenging times. In my case I have been trying to reconcile, in my mind and heart, a failed marriage; it was toxic and painful, but there was deep love and connection. The first way to process it could be; it was toxic therefore it was bad and unhealthy so chalk it up to a negative experience – put it in the ‘bad’ box. The second way could be; the love was so deep that I may never get over it, or feel that way again, the love of my life is lost, wallowing in the loss. And then there’s the much messier, but more authentic third way; there were parts that were unhealthy and toxic, they were bad. There were parts that were magical and loving, they were good. There is no box to put it in, it moves between the two extremes. This means there is no closure per se, it’s an ongoing organic process; there are happy memories which can hurt because it’s over, and there are painful, angry memories which can bring relief that the situation isn’t current anymore.
The third way runs between the first and second ways, which are both the more extreme options. The third way combines the two, it’s therefore a meandering path that traverses both sides without a pre-planned route or destination. This is what makes the third way so uncomfortable for us humans; we like to know exactly where we’re going and how to get there. I feel it’s so important to honour both the beauty and the pain, to feel the full spectrum of the feelings and flow with the third way.
This concept of the third way is applicable in so many facets of life; politics, health, the environment, day-to-day experience. For example when it comes to drinking alcohol, we have a growing binge drinking problem in the UK; large numbers of people don’t drink during the week then drink as much as they can at the weekend. Both of these are extremes; no alcohol and all the alcohol. The third way is the way of moderation, in this case it might be having a few drinks a couple of times a week. You often hear people say they find it possible to either not drink at all, or binge drink, that the discipline of moderation is the most difficult. You see the same when it comes to food; people yo-yoing between eating whatever they want, often to excess, then going on very restrictive diets in an attempt to counter balance the excess. When in actual fact the balanced approach of listening to your body and eating what you need, with some treats thrown in for fun, is the healthiest approach.
In Buddhism it is called the middle way; The Middle Way refers to the Buddha’s enlightened view of life and also the actions or attitudes that will create happiness for oneself and others. It is the rejection of extremes, which is depicted in the story of Shakyamuni; he first lathered himself in luxury, then deprived himself of everything, he realised neither extreme would take him any closer to spiritual enlightenment. ‘In his rejection of both self-mortification and self-indulgence, Shakyamuni awakened to the true nature of life—its eternity, its deep wellspring of unbounded vitality and wisdom.’
The Cambridge English Dictionary explains ‘the third way’ as a political movement in which the development of business is balanced with the needs of society. It is proposed to be the third way between capitalism and socialism. Taking the example of American politics at the moment, in some ways its easier for people dehumanise President Trump and his followers, and even hate them, than it is for them to have their own opinions and at the same time have compassion for, and see the humanness in, the opposition.
The tricky thing is choosing either extreme can often feel more exhilarating; there is usually adrenaline associated with the high of excess, and there may even be a sense of accomplishment in the extreme of denial. Taking the third way can feel unstimulating, boring and overly measured. There are of course circumstances which require an extreme response; a high level of adrenaline and life or death commitment to a cause. For example it took a World War to neutralise the threat and horrifying atrocities committed on behalf of Hitler.
I’m sure you can think of many circumstances, in your own life and globally, where navigating a third way between the extremes would bring more peace and healing. However as we have seen it’s not necessarily the easy option for us, in most cases it takes discipline, vulnerability and radical honesty. Cultivating this third way in our own lives, in our own struggles, and on a global scale, is a worthy practice. It will feel messy and uncomfortable, the path may not be clear, but it is where we find wisdom, acceptance and true healing.