When discernment turns to the larger questions of understanding the framework of the practice—in other words, when it focuses on the processes of discernment itself—its middleness is no longer a shifting point on a continuum. It becomes a range of points off the continuum entirely. In cases like this, the middleness of the path is less a matter of moderation and more one of appropriate attention: knowing which questions to focus attention on at any particular time, and which to cut through the middle and put aside.
The questions to focus attention on are those dealing with the duties appropriate for the four noble truths: how to comprehend suffering, how to abandon its cause, how to realize the cessation of suffering, and how to develop the path to that cessation. The focus on suffering shows again that avoiding commitment to pain and sensual pleasure doesn’t mean avoiding pain and pleasure entirely. You learn to sit with the pain of suffering so that you can really comprehend it; you develop the factors of the path—which include the non-sensual pleasures of strong concentration—that allow you to sit with pain without feeling the need to run away from it in the direction of sensual pleasure. This is what allows you to fulfill the duties appropriate to all the noble truths, and so to reach the end of suffering.
To stay focused on the questions related to the noble truths, however, you have to learn to how put aside any questions that cling to issues that would get in the way of performing the duties appropriate to those truths. This is where the middleness of appropriate attention shows its radical side, for it cuts through the middle many of the questions that people normally ask themselves about themselves and the world around them.
These inappropriate questions increase in subtlety as you progress along the path, but they all come down to two sorts of clinging that can develop directly around the practice of the path: clinging to the practices of the path as if they were the goal of the path, and clinging to a sense of identity fashioned around those practices. The need to avoid these two types of clinging—and the need, at the same time, to develop a path of practice that risks giving rise to them— is related to a concept central to the Buddha’s analysis of the stress and suffering that the path is designed to end. That concept is becoming.
This reflection by Ajaan Geoff is from the book, Beyond All Directions, p. 80.