After six years of severe asceticism, the Buddha came to the realization that neither the path of sensual pleasure, nor the path of intense bodily deprivation will free one from bondage. It is only the middle path (of moderation) that will lead one to enlightenment.
A later exchange between the Buddha and one of his disciples beautifully illustrates this truth:
“’When you were at home, Sona, could you play the lute?’ asked the Buddha.
‘When the strings of the lute were over-taut, did your lute give proper sounds?’
‘When the strings of your lute were neither over-taut nor over-slack the lute gave the proper sounds. Was it not so?’
‘It was so, Master.’
‘Even so, Sona’, explained the Buddha, ‘…have an evenness of zeal, master your powers in harmony. Be this your aim.’” 
The principle of the middle path is not just a conceptual idea; it is a basic approach to life. The middle path recognizes the truth that a human being is composed of two parts – one animal and one Divine. These two parts of our nature tug us in opposite directions. Most of the time, we are trying to strengthen our Divine aspect and discipline our animal side, but there are times when it is important to make a place for the physical side of our character.
The Baal Shem teaches that all things long to go back to their source. Therefore, a part of us is always longing to unite with God. However, if we were to become fully immersed in the spiritual, we would be annihilated. Therefore, we need to take a break from our spiritual practices from time to time, and occupy ourselves with mundane matters. In this way, our body and mind can get a rest from the strain of our inner life; a period of quiet when we can “recharge.”
The Baal Shem explains that is the meaning of the phrase in the vision of the prophet Ezekiel “Hachayot ratzuah veshuv” – the Divine creatures rush forward and then retreat. Our spiritual life is not a one-way process of continual ascent. It is a dual motion of first striving towards the heavens, and then retreating back into the physical again, in order to integrate our spiritual advances into our daily life.
This is also the correct interpretation, according to the Baal Shem, of the obscure Talmudic teaching: “Lifamim bitul Torah zehu yesodah” – sometimes neglecting the pursuit of Torah is establishing its foundation. Paradoxically, it is the periods of relaxation from intense spiritual activity that build the inner balance and harmony that are the foundation of a healthy spiritual life.
Humanity’s dual nature, however, is more than just a burden that we must struggle with; it is also a Divine gift that offers us an extraordinary spiritual opportunity. Humankind holds a unique place at the meeting point of spirit and matter. We alone join these two aspects together in our person through the medium of consciousness. The power of consciousness enables us to live in this world, yet hold on to God. The power of consciousness enables us to be aware of both ourselves and others. The power of consciousness enables us to create relationships, to draw opposites together and unite them as one.
We do this on the physical, emotional and mental levels; and in the highest – we do it on the spiritual level as well. We create this union through science, art, music, philosophy, and religious ritual. Whenever we unite spirit and matter, it transforms the world around us; and it transforms our own consciousness as well.
Through music, we fuse sound and spirit with aspiration. Through art, we bring spirit and vision to form. Through science, we transform the actual physical elements. Through philosophy, we open up new vistas on the mental plane using the power of the original ideas that we generate.
Religious rituals draw man and God together in a moment of transcendent experience. They are tools to raise our consciousness. A ritual that is done correctly is a gateway from the world of matter into the world of the spirit. Ritual creates an inner space where we can pass from our ordinary everyday mindset into the higher awareness of the spiritual realm. This higher state of consciousness enables us to ascend into the heavens to become overshadowed by the Divine Presence and approach closer to God.
Joining the physical together with the spiritual is not an easy task to accomplish. There is an innate resistance on both ends. On one hand, the physical does not want to be transformed into a higher spiritual state. Its whole inclination is to concretize – to sink further and further into materiality. The spiritual, on the other hand, is resistant to being brought down into the physical. Its whole nature is to reach for the Infinite and Eternal, to break out of the confines of any form.
The work of bringing these two aspects together – matter and spirit, the physical and the spiritual, animal and Divine – is a struggle that takes incredible will, effort and energy, but the results of this labor can have far-reaching consequences.
When we grapple with the physical world and uplift it, we are raising not only ourselves but also the rest of creation. We are evoking the light of God that is inside every person and every object. We are cracking open the outer physical shell and liberating the inner spiritual spark.
The task of uniting spirit and matter also has a global dimension. The many aid organizations working worldwide are part of this larger process. The various efforts of both secular and religious figures to infuse a sense of unity and vision into human consciousness are yet another dimension of this middle path.
This labor of binding together heaven and earth moves in more than one direction. When we link the physical to the spiritual realm, we affect both the lower and the higher planes. Something new is created on earth and in heaven. For once higher has been joined together with lower, neither world can remain the same.
This work of bridge building is the essence of the evolutionary process; linking the higher with the lower lies at the heart of all spiritual growth. Following the “middle path” will eventually lead to a union between this world and the Kingdom of Heaven. This union in consciousness is taking place on all the worlds and all of the planes. This movement toward union will continue to advance onward until the whole universe is One.
- Quoted in the introduction to the Dhammapada, translated by Juan Mascaro↵