Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh wrote the Five Mindfulness Trainings as a nonsectarian way to practice compassion and understanding. He says their nature is universal, with all spiritual traditions providing similar guidance. In this post, I look at how eating a plant-based or vegan diet supports the Five Mindfulness Trainings:
- Reverence for life
- Nourishment and healing
- True love
- True happiness
- Loving speech and deep listening
Isn’t it wonderful that we have such a chance to make a difference through our food choices!
How Eating Plants Can Help Us Practice the Five Mindfulness Trainings
If we look closely, we can see that any one of the Five Mindfulness Trainings is enough to move us toward a plant-based diet.
Reverence for Life
Most directly, the training on reverence for life leads us to stop killing animals ourselves and stop paying people to kill them for us. Love of animals inspired me to become a vegetarian when I was 16 years old. I was shocked to find out how animals are raised for meat and disgusted by every attempt to teach me to fish.
Only later did I understand what Thich Nhat Hahn pointed out in his Blue Cliff letter: that eggs and dairy are part of the meat industry. The male chicks of laying hens can’t lay eggs, so they are usually killed the day they are born. The male calves of dairy cows may live a few weeks confined in small veal pens before they are slaughtered. The other animals mostly have short and miserable lives, ending in slaughter at the most profitable moment. Many of them never see the sun, feel a fresh breeze, or frolic in a pasture. Compare this to the happy existence sheep, goats, chickens, and more can have at a sanctuary like the Piedmont Farm Animal Refuge.
The training on nourishment and healing encourages us to cultivate good health, which is the most popular reason for moving to a plant-based diet. Nearly all health professionals and dietitians agree that eating more fruit and vegetables is good for you. A recent major metastudy recommends 10 servings a day. Most people eat too much protein, especially animal protein. Getting your protein from vegetables, grains, seeds, and nuts reduces your risk of cancer, diabetes, and early death. If this seems hard to believe, try a plant-powered diet for three weeks. You may be amazed at how good it makes you feel. When I quit eating dairy and eggs even after already being vegetarian, I felt ten years younger within a week. I never had another migraine and my arthritis vanished. Clearly my body was happy with this new way of eating.
Nourishment and Healing
The training on nourishment and healing also asks us to consume in a way that preserves peace, joy, and well-being in the Earth. Raising animals for food is the largest source of greenhouse gases, more than transportation. It also degrades the land, pollutes water, and destroys habitats. The resulting climate change and other environmental effects lead to mass migration, extinction, and war.
The mindfulness training on true love might seem to have nothing to do with eating plants, but vibrant health can affect your intimate relationships. A plant-powered diet is good for blood flow, which helps men and women give and receive sexual pleasure. Yes, vegetables are the old Viagra! Eating plants can help strengthen deep, long-term commitments among loving couples.
Even celibates can rejoice in knowing that a plant-based diet provides a way to protect the safety and integrity of others and of society. It withdraws our support for commercial fishing, which is one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States. It withdraws our support of slaughterhouses, which cause such psychological harm to workers that they have unusually high rates of domestic abuse and suicide.
Eating plants can also help us follow the mindfulness training on true happiness. It’s a way to demonstrate our compassion for those suffering from unjust and exploitative farming practices. This includes the neighbors of factory farms and as well as the beings who live and work in them. For example, the legislature in my home state of North Carolina recently passed a bill that limits the rights of people living near hog farms to sue after their homes and property are contaminated by waste sprayed from ponds of hog excrement. During our frequent floods, these ponds are washed across the countryside and into rivers, where the excrement makes swimming dangerous and kills fish.
Loving Speech and Deep Listening
It can be hard to practice loving speech and deep listening with beings who can’t use our language, yet we know from being with our pets that we can communicate without words. Just google for “animals factory farms” to find videos and pictures that will awaken your compassion. Those who feed us animals often portray them as willing or unfeeling. Barbecue joints entice us with happy “eat me” pigs and chickens on their signs. Even vegetarian writers gloss over the misery inherent in milk and egg production. When I became vegetarian at the age of sixteen, I bought The Vegetarian Epicure and read over and over. In it, author Anna Thomas writes:
All the proteins, vitamins, and minerals that we require in order to live and to be healthy are easily available in the endless variety of plant life, and in those gifts the animals give us painlessly, such as milk and eggs.
She’s right about the nutrition, but wrong about the pain. One of my friends told me about visiting her grandparents’ dairy farm when she was a little girl. She heard mother cows bellow for three days after their calves were taken from them shortly after birth.
Hardest of all to overcome may be our own internal conflicts: I love animals but I eat them. Only after I’d stopped eating all animal products for several months could I bear to look at suffering caused by animal agriculture. That’s when I fully felt that milk and eggs were not “gifts” given to us by animals anymore than chicks, piglets, or calves are gifts.
The true gift is how we can practice all five mindfulness trainings by eating a delectable and healthy diet full of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. No matter what your current motivation, eating a plant-powered diet shows compassion for yourself, the animals, the workers, their families and neighbors, and the planet.