The cultivation of an attitude of unconditional friendliness, metta in the Pali language in which the Buddha’s words were first recorded, is foundational to the Dharma. It is often practiced on the meditation cushion, using traditional phrases to generate a sense of open-hearted caring for oneself and others. It is can be a pragmatic way to infuse the busy-ness of our day with friendly warmth, such as by silently wishing well to all those we may pass on our commutes. This intention toward caring is also uniquely appropriate to enhance the process of selecting, preparing, and consuming the meals that fuel our lives. These activities can be a support for our metta practice toward ourselves, the environment, and all living beings.
The Buddha first taught metta as an antidote to fear, encouraging his students to “radiate kindness” toward all beings, in all directions. At a time when many of us relate to food with fear, this same practice may be useful as we learn to nourish ourselves in a gentle and wholesome way. We may fear weight gain, or harbor uncertainty about marketing claims or risks of contamination (ranging from genetically modified organisms to pesticides), or doubt our own knowledge about which foods are the best for our needs at any given time. We may feel fearful that we cannot trust ourselves to make healthy choices, yet as we bring an intention of kindness and attention to our food choices, we may find that an experience that had previously been fraught with anxiety and concern can open up to support our efforts toward holistic health.
We may begin by reflecting on what we eat, expanding the Buddha’s injunction to “do no harm to sentient beings” into nuanced consideration of how we can express caring via what we choose to consume. For many of us, this may entail choosing a plant-based diet, which represents a commitment toward well-being for the Earth, other living beings, and ourselves. The scientific evidence is clear that plant foods are much more sustainable from an environmental standpoint than animal foods (per information provided by groups such as the Food and Agriculture Organization and the Environmental Working Group).
We apply our aspiration of unconditional friendliness to include those animals who are raised for food production and slaughter, as well as those insects and small beings who may be inadvertently harmed in growing food. This may move us further toward a plant-based diet, knowing that through our good intention we are less karmically implicated in causing suffering when we choose plants rather than animals for food. We can be inspired here by the contemplations Thich Nhat Hahn’s Plum Village community offers before eating:
May we keep our compassion alive by eating in such a way that reduces the suffering of living beings, stops contributing to climate change, and heals and preserves our precious planet.
Finally, we act with loving-kindness toward ourselves when we choose more plant foods. While it is certainly possible to include carefully selected animal products in a healthful diet, it is also clear from the consensus of scientific evidence that consuming an abundance of produce is not only delicious and satisfying, but also an excellent way to care for ourselves. Plants can meet all of our macronutrient needs, and they come bundled with a wide range of micronutrients, fiber, and antioxidants that are protective of our health and well-being. Diets that are high in plant foods show benefits including easier maintenance of healthy weight ranges, protection against diseases like some cancers and type 2 diabetes, and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. Choosing a plant-based diet is a way we can care for ourselves, and those in our lives whom we love and for whom we want to stay healthy.
Whether produced and harvested by ourselves or others, selecting foods that have been grown with mindful attention and the least environmental harm possible reflects our metta practice. With such gorgeous ingredients at hand, we are ready to prepare our meal, and here again we can cultivate the intention of kindness toward ourselves and those we feed. It is a beautiful meditation to prepare a meal while reflecting on loving kindness, wishes of health and happiness that create a joyous practice period while we are cooking and add immeasurable good to the meal. We slow down, allowing ourselves to notice the blessings of preparing nourishing food. We appreciate the aroma, smell, and sensation of this wholesome food satisfying our physical hunger.
With the meal firmly grounded in metta, from the production and selection of ingredients through to its mindful consumption, we can be free of the fear and anxiety that sometimes besiege eating. We enjoy the food with confidence, knowing that it serves to strengthen us in order to continue our journey of holistic health. This is the kind of meal that expresses metta toward all beings and moves us toward true well-being.
*This article first appeared in buddhistdoor.com.