Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Ignorance may not be bliss, but at least it's a handy excuse

To see what is right, and not to do it, is want of courage or of principle


One of the greatest abilities of the human mind seems to be the ability to completely ignore that which we know to be true, especially if we believe that accepting that truth and acting appropriately will cause any pain, anxiety or stress (and sometimes just minor inconvenience). To wit: over the weekend I finally got around to watching the documentary Food, Inc. For those not familiar, it's a documentary about the business of food in America, and isn't very pretty. Basically if you eat anything from a grocery store, fast food outlet, or most restaurants, you're participating in a system that not only causes tremendous amounts of suffering for animals, but is responsible for destroying small farms, harming the environment, contributing to the oil crisis, putting all kinds of chemicals (including poisons) in what we eat and drink, and creating food that is not just unhealthy but can be downright dangerous. It's also a system that perpetuates government corruption, gives billions of dollars to a very small handful of corporations who are only gaining more and more control over what we eat and drink, and it's all only getting worse. It's one of those documentaries where you can't help but be outraged, and more than a little sick. It makes you want to change everything - which is exactly why I've been purposefully avoiding it since it came out in 2008.

To really change my behavior the way the facts of the matter tell me I should basically means completely changing how and what I eat. First of all, forget about all fast-food/casual dining restaurants, and pretty much all sit-down restaurants as well. Secondly, any beef I eat is going to have to be grass-fed, and any chicken has to be free-range. That's not cheap. I can eat fish, but there are so many toxins in our fish now that you're only supposed to have it a couple of times a week. Also, all my produce (and the meat too, for that matter) should only be sourced locally or come from farmers' markets (did I mention I live in Chicago?) because of the amount of gas needed to drive our food everywhere (the average meal takes about 1500 miles to get from the farm to your plate). Taken all together, that's an immense shift in my day-to-day life, and I honestly don't know if I'm up for it.

The same thing happened a couple of years ago, when I spent a week at a Buddhist monastery in upstate New York. Buddhist views on diet vary, but for the most part practicing Buddhists tend to be vegetarians or vegans. This is not because the Buddha said "Thou Shalt Not Eat Meat," because he didn't (Buddhism really isn’t about "Thou Shalt's" so much as it is "it might be helpful if…" or "you might want to consider…"). It's because almost everything in Buddhism revolves around and comes out of the continued practice of mindfulness, of being completely present and aware at all times. When you work, you work mindfully; when you walk, you walk mindfully; and when you eat, you eat mindfully. And when you truly eat mindfully, you can't help but think about the suffering that the animal went through and the fear they must have felt (let alone all the chemicals and toxins and the environmental stuff), and it immediately makes it impossible to continue. I really can't describe the sensation accurately, it's like actually tasting pain and fear (it tastes a little like a McRib (Zing!)).

Near the end of my stay there, I began to wonder if I was actually going to be able to go back to consuming meat and animal products, of being an active participant in the torture of my animal brothers and sisters and the continued destruction of our shared environment. I strongly considered turning vegan for all of about 48 hours, but the minute I got to the airport to fly home, where do you think was the first place I hit after I got through security? Wendy's. For a double hamburger. There was a brief outcry from my conscience of "This is wrong! You know you can't be doing this!" which I promptly, and consciously, ignored. I simply turned it off. Which I do a lot of. I really try to be mindful, as long as it's not too inconvenient. I did it for years as a smoker (I finally quit a little over two years ago, which I attribute greatly to practicing mindfulness), and I'm doing it with the food thing now and, to a certain extent, I do it with my employment.

Right Livelihood is one of the eight elements of Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path, and it is loosely defined as not engaging in a trade or occupation that, directly or indirectly, results in harm for other living beings. Well, not only does working in the restaurant industry mean I'm an active participant in the whole U.S. corporate-food monstrosity, I'm also contributing to obesity, diabetes and heart disease (especially the chain-restaurant where I work, which is basically little more than a fat and sugar meth lab), let alone the obscene amount of food we waste. But what am I supposed to do? Drop out of the system? Completely change everything about how I live? If everyone who had a job that indirectly caused harm to any other living being stopped working, it would destroy the world economy. All of mankind would have to completely rethink how we relate to each other and the way we structure society. It would do nothing short of change the world. And I don't know about you, but I'm not ready for that. I want my McRib.

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