Alignments in Practice

The golden mean

The golden mean

‘Rectitude is a matter of making the innate tendencies of things conform to their natures.’

– From The Classic of Changes, A New Translation of the I Ching as Interpreted by Wang Bi, by Richard John Lynn

Buddhism outlines a path through which we may loosen the grip of suffering on us, called the eightfold path. The first of these eight practices entails a shift in perspective and is called ‘right view’. It is also the foundation for the other seven. Without right view there can be no right intention, right speech, right action, right effort, right livelihood, right mindfulness and right absorption. It entails the kind of ‘view’ that receives everyone and everything one encounters with complete openness. That is, without bias or the kind of judgement that classifies the person or thing one encounters in any way. For example, as ‘for me’ or ‘against me’.

In other words, one encounters everything or everyone ‘without mind,’ or as it is often termed, with ‘no mind’. Rule-based thinking, scientific-mindedness and what James Hillman refers to as ‘literalisation’ prevent one from having this kind of openness. Openness to one's world cannot come if one has not ‘opened’ one's mind. The teaching of the discipline of the spiritual path is really based on the eightfold path.

The golden mean

‘Just as the Chinese word for limitation is an image of the joints that divide a bamboo stalk, correctness is a necessary and natural limitation that strengthens us.’


It is important, however, to understand that the word ‘right’ here stands not in contrast to ‘wrong’. And that it is probably more appropriately translated as ‘correctness’ in the sense that the I Ching uses that term. Whether or not one acts with correctness cannot simply be judged by evaluating one's actions by means of behavioural rules. That is, the rules of morality do not help us here. Correctness is rather a reflection of ‘where one is coming from.’ It emanates from a kind of ‘naturalness of being’ combined with maturity. Just as the Chinese word for limitation is an image of the joints that divide a bamboo stalk, correctness is a necessary and natural limitation that strengthens us. Similarly to how those joints strengthen the bamboo stalk that stands many meters tall in the wind despite its slimness.

The ‘natural’ of this last statement is not necessarily innate, but rather embodied. And embodied nature can be very different from original nature, in those who have gone through significant alchemical transformations. Even while certain essences of original nature will remain. If one is open and present in the sense of ‘right view’, the path of right intention, speech, action and so forth starts to open up to one naturally and organically. One cannot ‘become correct’ simply by behaving morally correct. Alchemy is needed to bring about a transformation of one's ‘view’. Only then does one find oneself starting to ‘hold to the mean’, naturally. The mean really is ‘the correctness that sets one free’. And alchemy is a process that takes time and usually entails things getting worse before they get better.

Holding to the mean

This idea of ‘holding to the mean’ is interesting. Its first recorded philosophical use in the west was by Aristotle (who lived approximately between 380 and 320 BCE). He described it as ‘the middle path between excess and deficiency’. However, Confucius in China had used it in this same sense nearly two centuries before that. But perhaps more fascinating and mysterious, is how it appeared in the form of the mathematical ratio called ‘the golden mean’. This golden mean consisted of a ratio of (approximately) 1:1.6180. Which is said to be the natural ratio at the heart of ‘what makes things beautiful’.

For example, this ratio is said to be inherent to a human face we experience as 'beautiful'. Multiply the distance between hairline and eyebrows with this ratio. This is our first value. Now multiply the distance between eyebrows and chin with this 'golden mean'. This is our second value. A beautiful face is said to be one where our first value equals the distance between the eyebrows and chin. While at the same time, the total distance between hairline and chin equals our second value.

We see this same ratio in the arrangement of leaves along the stems of plants. And in the veins of leaves. Also in the limbs of humans and other animals. And the geometry of crystals. Even in human DNA. It has also been discovered in the proportions involved in famous works of art like paintings and music.

Similarly, correctness or rightness, in the sense of right view, is a way of being that is perceived as beautiful. It is a kind of ‘being right on the spot’. Which starts to flow forth naturally at some point, as a consequence of the soul work we have been doing for some time.

To see a little more on how we apply the idea of 'correctness' to soul work, see the article Consensus culture.

Many articles on this website attend to the kind of transformations required to truly open into 'right view'. In particular, please see the article Seeing the world.

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