Ahimsa and Mindful Killing

September 11th, 2013

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.


6 Responses to “Ahimsa and Mindful Killing”

  1. Refreshing!

    Very basic thought process when one truly considers what’s on our proverbial plate. Well? To not imagine that chicken/fish/cow/deer/cob of corn didn’t have a life, to me, is odd.

    Yet most of us are distant from our plates. We call things beef and venison and somehow that puts it our of our thoughts. Away from the truth. Weird to me, but common to most.

    I try to live with grace and waste little and use what’s at hand or at least locally found. Knowing where everything comes from, the farmer, the field, is a tie that doesn’t bind, but perhaps is more nourishing.

    We all gotta eat, why not, as is suggested in this wonderful work, why not be thoughtful.

    Thank you for this reminder.


  2. Hi Jay,

    I remember a woman who brought farm animals in to city schools, and she told a story of a fifth-grader who saw an egg under a chicken, and wanted to know what the egg was doing there. Upon pressing, she discovered that he didn’t know that eggs came out of chickens =)

    As you describe calling things “beef” or “venison”, it recalls that we usually tell Mirabelle that we’re eating “dead deer” or “dead bison”. Our intent isn’t to steer her away from meat — she enjoys it, and so do we — but to remind that this really is a dead animal we’re eating. I think this connection you’re speaking of, eating locally, using what’s at hand, and knowing where our food comes from, is indeed nourishing on so many levels.

    Thanks for your comment!

  3. Richard Keene says:

    The vegan’s dilemma.

    My solution to this problem of life living off of death, is that the whole system of the Earth is one huge biological organism. A person does not worry about their own cells killing others of their own cells, as happens constantly in the body.

    A productive and useful focus is on the ‘carrying capacity’ of the ecology. What can we do to maximize the total sum of life and sentience in the world. One philosophy and science that does this is permaculture, and there are others that are similar.

    The conditions under which meat is raised is so important because the animals involved have no though or anxiety about the future, but suffer in the present, and so should be treated well. (And well treated animals are more profitable too.)

  4. Hi Richard,

    I’m glad you’ve brought permaculture into this, which not only honors but makes practical use of the truth behind your statement of the Earth as one huge biological organism. Recognizing the ties between animals and plants, or even seeing them as cells in a larger living body can help us understand the intimate connection between flower, goat, apple, and bee. Where I’m living now, the farming is shifting more and more to a permaculture model, taking in the health of the soil, the importance of “weeds”, and so much more. Life is so interconnected, and I think it helps us break free of the model of thinking of ourselves as apart from the system.


  5. Hmm… isn’t “killing” just a mental concept? Death, however it happens,is simply an energy conversion. If a “killer” is involved then he/she/it is simply a conduit that is used to create that conversion. Kind of like an artist being a conduit to works of art. Life is eternal, never killed off, just converted.
    Argh! Too many words. I’ll shut up now.

  6. Hi Cedric,

    Well said! Like so many of the things that we take for “reality”, such as the “fact” that we’re all constantly killing that I point out above, require a conceptual model to exist. To kill really does require a killer, a doer, and once we invoke that, we start to get into a host of delicious tangles . . .

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