One thing we can do to bring more metta into our lives is to look at the effects of our everyday actions. We all tend to see ourselves as consumers these days, but we often don’t consider that what and how we consume has truly global effects. If we want to develop the quality of metta, then it makes sense to look at what effects our actions have.
Of course we’d sometimes rather not know what consequences our actions have. Ignorance is bliss, right? (Well, if not exactly blissful, ignorance can be a way of avoiding taking responsibility). Once we are aware of the consequences of our actions, then we are faced with choices about how to respond. We have to deal with the discomfort that our conscience presents us with if those actions aren’t congruent with our ethical compass. So remember that you have choices here. You may choose to skip this section, for example, although I hope you don’t.
Much of our consumerism causes harm. We can’t possibly avoid causing harm at all, but we can become aware of the consequences of our consumerism and make choices that cause less harm. It’s not a black and white, either/or set of choices we’re working with here. It’s more a question of worse/better or more harmful/less harmful.
One of the main areas in which we can make a difference is that of food. We’re talking meat here (or not meat). It’s undeniable that eating meat causes harm to the animals that are killed for us. And in addition there’s a large amount of ecological damage that is done in order to feed those animals. A hugely disproportionate amount of grain, soybeans, and water goes to feed cattle in the West. This particular use of resources is highly wasteful. It takes a lot of grain and soybeans to make a pound of cow. It would be much more efficient if we cut out the animal and fed ourselves on plant proteins. It’s perfectly simple, feasible, and healthy to do this. We may have to buy a recipe book or two to get some ideas for what to cook. But once we’ve done it we’ll end up with a diet that is cheaper, probably more interesting and varied, and almost certainly healthier than a diet containing meat. (I go into these arguments in more detail in my book, “Vegetarianism”).
If you don’t think you can give up meat altogether, then try cutting down. You might find that’s a first step towards vegetarianism, or you might just stick there. If you do end up going no further then at least by cutting down on the amount of meat you eat you’ll have had some effect on reducing the amount of suffering in the world. Eating only organic meat would be another positive step.
We’re encouraged in many ways throughout our lives to dismiss the sufferings of animals as irrelevant or unimportant, or to think that animals have a pretty nice life on a farm (cartoon chickens on TV adverts, rather improbably, are always smiling). Actually, life on modern farms is stressful and painful. As a student, I worked on pig, dairy, and sheep farms, and saw at first hand how painful life can be for domestic animals. An animal’s pain is as real to it as yours is to you. And perhaps in some ways it is worse, since animals do not have the consolations of philosophy.
If you’re already a vegetarian then you could consider becoming vegan, or even just eating less dairy products and eggs. The production of milk and eggs also involves suffering. I’ve been a vegan for several years now and I’ve never felt healthier. I hardly ever get a cold (even when everyone else seems to be coming down with them) and when I do get ill it passes very quickly.
Another step most of us can take is to eat more organic food (food grown without artificial fertilizers, insecticides, and weed killers). This has beneficial effects not only on your body but for the environment as well, since artificial compounds can linger in the food chain for many years. Of course it’s more expensive to eat organic food, but at least we can buy some organic food from time to time. Remember that we’re not talking black and white here. We’re talking about degrees of suffering and harm that can be avoided.
You can look at other purchases you make. Where are the clothes you buy made? Are they produced in sweatshop conditions, or using child labor? If they do, then perhaps you could write to a company and tell them you disapprove of their employment practices.
And there is transportation, and the effect of carbon dioxide and other emissions. These are all things that we can think about. Perhaps we can carpool (some days at least), or take public transport, or cycle, or buy a more fuel-efficient vehicle.
These are just a few suggestions of course. Each of our lives is different, and each of us needs to look at his or her own life and see what implications the practice and cultivation of metta has.