What would the practice of metta look like if we applied it to eating? The cultivation of an attitude of unconditional friendliness, or metta practice, is foundational to Buddhist teaching. It is often practiced on the cushion, using particular phrases and other techniques to generate a sense of open-hearted caring for oneself and others. It is sometimes taught as an action-oriented practice, used to underpin the busy-ness of our day, such as by wishing well-being to all those we may pass on our commute. This intention toward caring is also uniquely appropriate to enhance continuity of practice as we select, prepare, and consume the meals that fuel our lives. These activities can be a support for our metta practice toward ourselves, the environment, and all living beings.
Linking metta practice with mindful eating is suggested by the reason that the Buddha first taught the practice, which was as an antidote to fear. In the Metta Sutta, the Buddha recommended to a group of monastics who had been frightened by the ferocious goings-on of a group of forest spirits that they should return to that same scene, this time intent upon “radiating kindness” toward the tree deities. When the monks followed the Buddha’s instruction, the spirits were pacified and became great supporters of the monastics’ practice.
At a time when many of us relate to food with fear—fear of contamination (ranging from genetically modified organisms to pesticides), weight gain, not being able to trust ourselves to make healthy choices—we may benefit from resurrecting the Buddha’s antidote and applying it to feeding ourselves. We may discover that, like the monastics practicing in the forest, an experience that had previously been fraught with anxiety and concern can open up into a deep bed of support for our practice and aspiration toward liberation.
We may begin our investigation of the metta of meals by reflecting on whatwe eat, considering the first precept and expanding beyond simply “not killing.” Our intention toward harmlessness invites us to consider more nuanced ways in which 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 movement 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, and meat production is one of the most environmentally harmful industries (per information provided by groups such as the Food and Agriculture Organization and the Environmental Working Group).
We also apply our aspiration of unconditional friendliness toward all beings 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 not karmically implicated in causing suffering when we choose plants rather than animals for food. We can be inspired here by the contemplations Thich Nhat Hanh'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 possible to include some 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 needs for protein, fats, and carbohydrates, 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, particularly well-planned vegetarian and vegan diets, show benefits that include easier maintenance of healthy weights, protection against diseases like some cancers and diabetes, and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. So we see that 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, our practice guides us to select foods that have been grown with mindful attention and the least environmental harm possible. With such wholesome ingredients, 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 chanting verses of loving kindness, either in our thoughts or aloud. Whether it is the Metta Sutta, formal phrases, or arousing the feeling of metta in the heart, these wishes of health and happiness 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 healthful food satisfying our physical hunger.