Most who read these words have already found a sense of ahimsa naturally arising in their lives. Yet even as we find ourselves releasing a spider outside instead of squashing it, we also become aware of how much we do kill. Can we eat without killing? Even eating a fruit and planting the seeds removes food that would otherwise be available to insects, bats, or birds, potentially allowing another to starve. More realistically, we eat seeds and plants and animals, depriving these beings of life or potential life (in the case of nuts or seeds like wheat or oats or almonds).
When we drive a car, especially in months when insects are abundant, we kill thousands with even a short drive. In walking or running, our feet fall upon and crush small beings. In using glass or cloth or wood, we tap into a system of mining or farming or lumbering that kills innumerable creatures, as well as depriving many others of a home.
None of us want to think of ourselves as killers, yet we’re all doing it. Even if we eat only air, never walk, and make our most noble effort to avoid all violence, our bodies are places of slaughter as our immune systems constantly deal with wandering microbes, bacteria, and viruses.
For me, this was always one of the most difficult things to accept. I always considered life to be sacred, and felt wrong mowing the lawn, driving, or eating. But at some point I had to choose between feeling a constant sense of guilt, or of recognizing how this cycle of killing and living is a natural manifestation of our world.
To me, it is about being mindful in our killing. Knowing that I take lives every time I eat, I find myself naturally choosing foods that perhaps cause less harm. I find myself thankful for the foods I eat, and perhaps do them a sort of honor by tasting and enjoying my food more consciously. When I drive, I find myself keeping an open awareness instead of playing the radio at full blast. This way I can drive to avoid animals and insects when the road is clear of other vehicles (and I can ask myself if driving is really necessary in any given instance).
I know that I kill. And now, living on a farm, I get to be closer to my food, killing animals or growing and harvesting garden plants. In the forest, I gather wild foods and recognize the impact I’m having.
But wait. Is it somehow strange to think of it as “impact”? As if I’m outside the system, constantly messing it up in order to continue living? Isn’t this how we often view nature, as an “other” who we intrude upon?
What if we realize that we’re just as much a part of nature as the squirrel, the pine, the clouds? Suddenly, killing takes on a completely different slant. Intertwined with the natural world, we include ourselves in the cycles around us. Do we imagine that the oak bemoans the sunlight she drinks each day, or the water and nutrients she pulls up through her roots? Do we imagine that the bat winces each time he eats a mosquito? We can never know the mind of tree or bat, but it is probably more likely that they take without thought of death or life. Perhaps they are perfectly present, their actions playing into an organic wholeness that needs no intellectual boxes to make it real.
For me, I know that I could dwell on the killing I do. Or I could allow my natural compassion to work, knowing that if I act without thought (using instead the intelligence of the heart), I will do as little killing as possible. These days, I’ve turned my thoughts instead to giving. As a caretaker of these lands that I now live with, I can give compassion to the humans, the animals, and the ecologies around me. Discovering a rare ginseng plant in the woods, I take a few seeds and plant them on an adjacent hillside. Discovering an injured animal, I can nurse it to health. Making myself available to friends, I can help them navigate the confusing roads of their own emotions and thoughts.
Where our thoughts dwell is a matter of habit. And we develop that habit moment-to-moment. In this next moment, where will our minds settle? That, perhaps, is a playground where we can truly begin to foster an understanding of what Living is all about.