Metta, diet, and lifestyle

One thing we can do to bring more metta (kindness) 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.

Metta, meat, and vegetarianism

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.

Going a step further

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.

Becoming a responsible consumer

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.

5 Comments. Leave new

  • David Humphrey
    March 31, 2008 7:45 am

    a very good article. My girlfriend has been a vegetarian for almost a year new and about a month ago i followed suit. I find that not only is avoiding meat healthier for but it is also a lot cheaper to not eat meat. At first i thought that being a vegetarian would be to restraining, but in many ways it is more liberating because it forces you to look beyond what you would normally eat, in order to find something that will sustain you and cause the least harm. It is also incredibly empowering to make a conscious effort to say “i will not eat that”, instead of eating whatever is in front of you.

  • I am still working my way to full vegetarianism and I am basically down to eating modest amounts of chicken typically in a restaurant since I can’t abide tofu. Ironically, this has come about because I started cooking for my dogs and decided I might as well make the effort to make something halfway decent that I could eat as well ( they do get some chicken which I forgo – I don’t want to impose my vegetarian values on them ).

    As you suggest, I do need to get a recipe book to broaden my repertoire from basic beans and lentils. The upside of the economic crisis may well be that Americans simply won’t have the money to keep gorging themselves on their corn-fed beef and might inadvertently discover that they feel better with less meat in their diets.

    I am hopeful that I will eventually move to zero meat consumption but I don’t feel quite as radical about as some. Like a lot of people I really need to up the intake of greens. I seem to have a block when it comes to taking the time to make and eat a salad. If only you could live on an “all fruit” diet!

  • Dear Bodhipaksa,

    I’ve been a vegetarian for little over a year, and I’ve also cut down dairy and eggs (though not completely, at least for now). I’ve found that all the things that I was always worried about (“what will I eat, where will I get proper nutrition, etc.”) are actually very easy to solve. I feel better physically and I am more at peace with myself now. This is perhaps one of the best decisions I’ve made.

    The only “problem” that has come up is people’s reactions. I don’t bring up that I’m a vegetarian unless it’s necessary (for example if I’m planning a meal with someone), and I don’t try to convert anyone to vegetarianism; however, most people react very strongly and negatively when they found out, and in some cases start attacking me verbally and even insulting me… including close friends. In trying to deal with this issue, I’ve tried looking for the reasons of why they react that way. I’ve heard vegans say that people feel guilty about eating meat and therefore react badly when they encounter someone who doesn’t, but I’m not convinced by that explanation. I try to avoid conflict, but it leaves me frustrated with myself, because this is something I really believe in and I feel like I should speak up more… which I fear will cause people to react worse. How do you deal with people’s reactions and why do you think they react that way? Is it just a matter of them being attached to the taste of meat? Thank you.

  • Hi, Andrea.

    I’m glad to say that’s not a problem I face, except sometimes online. These days most of the people I know are vegetarians, and those who aren’t are very accepting. But I sympathize!

    I do think that being a vegetarian poses an implicit challenge to people who aren’t. I suspect that many people who eat meat do feel uneasy about it for a variety of reasons, and don’t like being reminded about what they do. They’d rather just not think about it.

    But to some extent it can just be that you’re doing something “different.” People often don’t like it when someone steps out of line.

    I really don’t think speaking up and trying to convince people that what you do is right does much more than provoke defensive reactions. Your just being a vegetarian is a reminder that there’s another way. People know that their meat is a dead animal, and you’re reminding them of that even more every time they see you not eating meat. Now they may never respond by giving up meat, or maybe it’ll be years before they do, but you never know when the penny will drop.

    I’d suggest having compassion for the meat-eaters you know. I think there’s suffering there. But don’t tell them you have compassion for them! That would just sound condescending.

  • Hello,
    Guess I am responding to this website and subject a year late. Oh well, I just found your post today and it seems so helpful wanted to say a few words.

    I am a vegetarian (25 years) vegan (6 years). Many of the above feelings and thoughts on the subject already mentioned resonate with me as well. I originally started out this lifestyle out of an interest in nutrition attending seminars and reading books such as The China Study etc. Eventually, through a weekend vegetarian nutrition seminar in Santa Rosa, California, I decided to listen to a lecture on factory farming and much changed for me. A new dimension of awareness entered. There was regret initially in seeing and hearing firsthand the brutal way we get meat onto the plates in America and to have to deal with the knowledge of this now so clear animal suffering —- This knowlege has now become a part of my heart and its existence cannot be extinguished.

    This compassionate lifestyle is lonely, frustrating yet liberating all at the same time. It seems that there is a non-healing soft spot that is part of me — a hurting which I constantly strive to maintain to be a conscious part of my practice to keep alert and not ignorant of.

    I am a Buddhist and have been for the past 6 years. Initially Tibetan and now Theravadin. There are NOT so many vegetarians in this practice that I have met. No one really wants to talk about the great suffering going on and this has been really the only a discouraging aspect of my practice.

    I keep having these repetitive thoughts that in regards to the “what ifs” if Buddha were somehow to be reborn as the Buddha — into our lifetime with all the realities we face in this time — would his teachings change? I have pondered this and do not think so with the exception of what we put into our bodies which are sacred.

    Would he address the eating of animals, if he really saw what was going on and its effect the people, environment and planet.

    The horrific daily suffering of billions of animals —

    What would he contemplate by knowing that there IS a different diet that works? One that is a very doable way for all beings using the modern farming technology that we have at our fingertips, almost worldwide……..

    What would he say??? What would he teach???

    In closing, I do not have any easy way to wrap this up. It seems my own thoughts at this moment, on how to go about as a vegetarian in everyday life is to really stay educated…………Eat consciously a nutrient dense, plant-based diet.
    We can really only spread the word by our actions and kindness and healthy bodies. Just be a good example and only offer your thoughts or help to someone if asked. Our presence as vegetarians does make a difference. We cannot suggest or force any being on any area of how to live, especially our diets. People associate their diets with part of their beings and feel threatened with anything out of their comfort zone. Just be in their space with an open heart. This sounds corny I know but if we just keep the wholesome thoughts alive it somehow must make a difference.

    Meta meditation does help (meditating on loving friendliness to all people and beings).

    Guess that is all. May these words be of benefit to all contemplating or already living this compassionate way of being.
    in Peace,
    Judy from New Hampshire


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