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  One Less Act of Violence

By Cheri Huber

In the hills between Mountain View, where our Zen Center is located, and the ocean is an open space area. It's an exquisitely beautiful place where people can walk, run, bike, and ride horses along miles of roads and trails through the hills. The city of Mountain View operates a farm there. It's a "working farm" housing pigs, sheep, goats, rabbits, chickens, ducks, and a large cat. The purpose of the farm seems to be to make available to the urban families and especially the children an experience of a rural lifestyle and to enable people to go up and talk to the animals and pet them. There seems to be a real emphasis on the care and comfort of the animals, since people are encouraged to be careful and gentle with them.

One morning I was running in the park, as I do most mornings, and when I came over the hill above the farm I heard a sound I'd never heard. I could tell it was a creature sound, but something about it was very wrong. The sound was hysterical. It sounded like creatures screaming. I sped up and quickly came to the entrance of the farm. A sign on the gate said not to enter, that the farm was closed. My heart was pounding. Of course, I'd been running a good distance, and I was going through a gate I'd been instructed not to go through. But the pounding of my heart was in response to that horrible sound. A woman came toward me holding out here arms as if to bar my way. I walked past her and around the edge of the barn. There, hanging upside down from the back of a butcher's truck, were two of the sheep I had spoken to nearly every morning of their lives as I'd run past them. Their legs were tied together, their throats slit. Two men leaned against the truck laughing and chatting. A few feet away behind the closed barn doors were the other sheep and goats...screaming in what I can only guess was terror and pain.

Because we are insensitive to animals, we assume that they are insensitive, too. Because they mean nothing to us, it doesn't even occur to us that they have a life experience. We simply don't care. We don't allow ourselves to care. People who do care are considered eccentric–out there on the fringe. After all, we're talking about animals, not human beings. But what they are is not the point; the point is what we must do to our hearts in order to pretend that they don't matter. The farm is closed because we don't want the children to know. No classes were touring that day. No wide-eyed little ones were there to experience this part of life. Have you ever had to explain to a child that the lamb in lamb chop is the same as the lamb in the field? Or tried to help the child grasp that a hamburger comes from a cow? Their usual reaction is revulsion and disbelief. They often push the hamburger away and refuse to eat it.

Slowly we convince them that you can both love animals and kill them. Yes, we teach them that it is wrong to kill some animals (if they're our pets), but it's okay to kill others. You can kill for pleasure, because this is hunting, not just killing, and you can kill for food. It's confusing information for a child to deal with, and yet it's excellent preparation for our approach to killing people: it is wrong to kill people unless they have killed someone or we're at war with them or...

Each one of us who has ever known and truly loved an animal knows that they are not different from us in any way that would justify their being tortured and murdered. And, of course, we so much want for them to be different because we want the leather shoes and the sheepskin seat covers and the fried chicken and the fish that we pretend is good for us. Some people even want to wear the skins and fur of dead animals. We want these things so desperately that we are willing to pretend we're not doing what we're doing, that creatures aren't being murdered, that they don't feel, don't cry, don't scream in terror. We pretend that that package on the "meat" counter was not a few days earlier a living, breathing being like ourselves.

And yet the proof that we know exactly what we're doing is right before us in how we hide what we're doing. We use words like "meat" and "pork" and "steak" and "veal" and "leather" instead of "animal flesh," "pig," "cow," "calf," and "cow skin." Slaughterhouses are hidden away. We don't want our children to know where meat comes from until they're old enough to "understand" and to "accept" it. Many children, once they know what it is, attempt to refuse to eat flesh. Most parents force them because it's "good for them," in spite of increasing evidence that it is not good for them at all. And the final proof is that most of us will freely admit that if we had to kill the animal and prepare the flesh or liver or heart or tongue, we would not be "meat" eaters.

We aren't writing this to make anyone feel guilty. We ask only that these topics be honestly considered. Our real point is not our cruelty toward creatures but what our cruelty and insensitivity to other beings does to our own hearts.

If we judge ourselves, if we reject ourselves for who we are and what we do, we are simply committing an act of violence against ourselves. If we would simply look, and consider the ways in which we are violent, then we could stop. Our own acts of violence are ones we have the power to control and end. There are no shoulds in this. I do what I do for me, not for them. The idea is not to change behavior because it is wrong. My work is simply to pay attention. To do something different because I "should" is to miss the point. To be present is the point. When I am present with my eyes and heart open, what do I want to do? Do I really want to eat the flesh of another creature? Of course I like to eat "meat." I have grown up in a society that eats "meat." I have been conditioned not to think about what it was, who it was, that it lived, breathed, slept, ate, had babies, was afraid, sought to live...I can't think about that, it's dinner. So of course I like it. Of course I want it. Of course I would miss eating it if I were to stop eating creatures. That's why it is not helpful to stop as a should.

Perhaps a more helpful approach would be to go right on eating as I always have and pay very close attention. Perhaps if I didn't stop the thoughts about this meat, if I were really present to the texture of it, the smell of it, the feel of it under my knife and fork and in my mouth, I would simply choose not to eat it. Because the real point is not what I am doing to it, the point is what I am doing to me. A few years ago, on a layover in the middle of a cross-country train trip, I visited the Friends' Meeting House in Philadelphia. There I learned this story: William Penn converted to Quakerism as a grown man. In those days, the fashion was for gentlemen to wear a sword, and after a while Penn began to feel uncomfortable about being a Quaker, a member of a completely non-violent religion, and at the same time wearing a sword, an instrument of violence. He went to a friend who had assisted in his conversion. What should he do about his sword? he asked. The answer was this: "WEAR IT AS LONG AS YOU CAN."

Yes. With eyes and heart wide open to what we are doing. Not to continue what we are doing so that we have one more reason to beat ourselves–that just breeds more violence. We watch so that we can know, so that we can see clearly and then choose. And if we choose from our heart, the choice will always be compassion–for ourselves and for everyone. It is really very simple. If the decision, if the conclusion, if the action is not compassionate, it is not from the heart. The place we seek is that place that is most compassionate for all–if oneself is not included, it is not the place we are seeking. So continue to eat meat, buy leather, go hunting, wear fur, until you no longer want to because to do so hurts your heart. When it hurts your heart more to have whatever the "product" is than it hurts you to do without it, you'll choose not to have it. And it will be a clean choice, a truly harmless, non-violent choice.

We can approach this subject of violence not as something to feel bad about, not as something to make us feel more deprived and inadequate, not as something to cause us to turn away from our hearts once again and to abandon ourselves further, but rather as a process that will return us to ourselves, open our hearts, bring joy and peace and comfort and compassion to our daily lives, and make us feel good about ourselves and one another.

Because what we are seeking here is the compassion that is who we truly are. We have been turning away from our own hearts for so long that we don't know that the compassion we seek is in ourselves. Not only does that notion not occur to us, it is almost impossible for us to imagine when it is presented to us. "Oh, but you must mean that I have to become a person who can experience compassion. I have to work on myself, improve, be different, and then I'll be able to have compassion for myself." Yes and no. It's not true that we need to do anything, and yet it's true that we will not let ourselves feel that compassion until we feel that we deserve it.

This means that the best argument for "being good" is that we will then allow ourselves to feel good. If we feel that we are doing the best we can do then we feel that we deserve kindness. (Now it is also true that for many of us self-hatred is such a deeply entrenched pattern of identity that there is almost no chance that we will see ourselves with compassion no matter what we do. And yet even the most ardent self-hater has to be shaken by irrefutable evidence of goodness.) The compassion for self of which we are speaking has nothing to do with self-indulgence. Please don't waste your time with the "but if I'm not hard on myself I'll just become self-indulgent" routine. That routine is self-indulgent. Paying attention, catching onto your own "stuff," taking responsibility for it, and cleaning it up is the most unselfish thing we can possibly do for everyone–human and beast.

It is essential that we not approach letting go of our violence as one more should. To do so would make letting go of violence a process of attempting to get rid of violence, and that would be another act of violence against ourselves. Our highest authority always is our own heart. We can trust the wisdom of the heart...and we must be willing to hear its guidance. The guidance of our heart will always be toward compassion–compassion for all.

We cannot be compassionate toward others if we cannot be compassionate toward ourselves.

So often we look out at the condition of the world with a sense of hopelessness. There is so much to be done, so much that is "wrong" –what can one person do? A lot. One person can do a great deal. First we can be kind to ourselves. One person can be kind to another. At every opportunity, one person can make a decision toward loving kindness and compassion and away from violence. Two pairs of running shoes, one has leather, one doesn't. Can you choose the non-leather? This meal could you not have meat? Not every meal–this meal. Could you use the product without mink oil? Could you brake for a squirrel? Could you let that person in to the traffic ahead of you? Could you help an old person with something heavy? Could you...? Hundreds of opportunities every day. Could you just let yourself open your heart to a few? Not all. Just a few. And could you let yourself feel good about your effort? If so, you've already improved the entire universe. All that's necessary is one small step at a time. In each moment we can. Choosing one less act of violence.

When we turn back to our hearts, when we open to the compassion and begin to be willing to be present to what is, we see the pain very clearly. And the suffering begins to fall away. Suffering is the result of resisting pain, of resisting what is. When we allow the pain simply to be, we find that we can embrace it in a compassion that embraces us all.

Life is very painful. We share that pain. We have pain in common with all beings–not just human beings. It is a bond we share in living. Our opportunity is to ease the suffering that so often accompanies the pain. I hurt, I know you hurt. I don't want to hurt. What a simple, small step to I don't want you to hurt. The Golden Rule. We can take care of one another...

All species.

All that walks on two

eight or more legs,
all that crawls,
and swims.

All us living creatures.

Growing up, having young, getting old, getting sick, dying. How much we share! How much we have in common! How much we are alike!

The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated. –Gandhi

As long as man continues to be the ruthless destroyer of lower living beings, he will never know health or peace. For as long as men massacre animals, they will kill each other. Indeed, he who sows the seed or murder and pain cannot reap joy and love. –Pythagoras

Until we stop harming all living beings, we are still savages. –Thomas A. Edison

You will find no meat being served at our concerts, either by vendors or backstage. –Paul McCartney

My life is full of meaning to me. The life around me must be full of significance to itself. If I am to expect others to respect my life, then I must respect the other life I see. Ethics in our Western world has hitherto been largely limited to the relations of man to man. But that is a limited ethics. We need a boundless ethics which will include the animals also. –Dr. Albert Schweitzer

There can be no double standard. We cannot have peace among men whose hearts find delight in killing any living creature. –Rachel Carson

No one wants to be hungry. No one wants to be cold. No one wants their baby killed. No one wants to be in pain. No one wants to die and certainly no one wants to be murdered. I don't. And no other creature does.

If we could only ask ourselves each time we do something that affects the life of another, "How would I feel if this were happening to me?"

As long as we see "them" as the problem and "them" as the power, we are helpless, we are victims. When I see that I am the problem, it's not them, it's me, then there's something I can do. I am immediately empowered. It is critical that we not add the unnecessary and harmful step of self blame. "If I'm the problem, that makes me an awful person, it's all my fault," etc. We are simply finding another way of victimizing ourselves. We're not finding fault here, we're finding a solution. Because if we take the awareness of our own responsibility and turn that into nonviolent action, we begin to move in a direction that ends suffering. I begin to end my own suffering when I start to pay attention to what's going on inside me–when I look closely at my thoughts and actions instead of ignoring them. Then I can begin to see how I am unwittingly harmful, how I beat myself, and how I hate myself for being harmful. And once I've seen these things, it's possible to stop doing them. Being less harmful to myself causes me to be more gentle, kind, and compassionate with others as well, and I begin to relate to them in less violent ways.

To open our eyes and our hearts is painful. There is a great deal of pain in seeing life as it truly is. And there is a great deal less suffering. The suffering happens when we try to turn away, when we attempt to remain ignorant, to pretend that we're not doing what we're doing and not allowing what we are in fact encouraging and supporting. And the reason that there is so much suffering in this turning away is that what we're actually turning away from is our own heart, our own True Nature. We have to turn away from the Wisdom, Love, and Compassion that is our true nature in order not to feel, not to care what happens to others or even, on the deepest level, to ourselves.

  • One lifelong vegetarian saves the lives of more than 1,000 animals.

  • Livestock production consumes more than half of all water used for all purposes in the U.S.

  • It takes 55 square feet of Latin American land to produce enough grazing area for a single meat patty.

  • Hundreds of millions of tons of the world's grain harvest are fed to animals. Less than 5 million tons of grain could feel the 15 million children who starve to death each year.

  • Over half a million newborn male chicks are thrown away every day because they are not useful for food.

  • The same amount of land can feed either one meat-eater or twenty vegetarians.

(This piece is available as part of the book, That Which You Are Seeking Is Causing You to Seek. It is also available as a booklet. For ordering information, please contact Keep It Simple at (209) 728-0859 or


Copyright 2003-2011 Cheri Huber