How Practicing Empathy Is Saving Our Planet

Photo by Michael Competielle

“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” — Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird

Of all the lessons I’ve learned in life, nothing has been more rewarding and life-changing then practicing empathy. Seeing the world through another person’s eyes and understanding their perspective. Recognizing their feelings and emotions while we share in the experience. The development of likemindedness and mindful closeness.

Empathy can be practiced on anything or anyone. From people to animals and from objects to our planet. If we place ourselves into the minds and emotions of others and learn from their perspective. 

Photo by Michael Competielle

Looking at our planet and the impact we have on her future has been the largest and most impactful way I’ve been able to practice empathy. That is not to say I don’t listen to other’s feelings and experience their emotions. What it means is though I can make an impact in that specific situation or relationship the larger contributions are from my daily decisions made on foods I eat, items I purchase, trash I produce and environment I hurt. 

As consumers, we have the power to become informed about the products we purchase and consume. Concepts such as Meatless Mondays or skipping the bag at the checkout have helped pave the way to us making environmentally conscience decisions. Imagine the impact of using one less bag or one less cheeseburger or one less gallon of gas.

Photo by Michael Competielle

My practicing of empathy starts with my morning latte made with plant-based oat milk. It’s been many years since I’ve had animal milk in my diet. Partially for my health, partially for the environment and most importantly for the empathy of the milk-producing animals that live treacherous lives in often horrifying conditions forced to lactate for human consumption. 

Living Life As A Pig

No longer do I eat breakfast meats like sausages or bacon after looking into the eyes of a pig and seeing his soul. Content with his life, happily living. His intelligence and personality were his pride. 

As I visited farms where the animals I consumed almost daily were being raised I began to have a connection to them. Looking at them as a living, breathing being that had feelings and emotions just like I did. Their hearts were beating pushing blood through their veins and each breath made their chests heave. No longer were the animal’s burgers on a plate or slabs of flesh in shrink wrap, they were life. A body, mind, and soul. Who was I to take that life or eat its meat?

Photo by Michael Competielle

Practicing Empathy

As I’ve extended my practice of empathy on animals and our planet there doesn’t seem to be anywhere that we can’t be mindful of others. From the waste in packaging, purchasing of single-use plastic products and misunderstandings of the environmental impacts of our actions, empathy can be used in every scenario. 

Yesterday as I helped destroy the environment all in the name of curb appeal, I thought of the fuel I was wasting in my leaf blower, collecting the leaves to be removed by our town for compositing, only to bring the compost back them in spring in the form of mulch. What a moron I am for caving into this infinite loop of destruction. The leaves are a part of a natural cycle providing warmth to plants and trees in the winter and nourishment in the spring and summer.

Making Decisions

As I would love to tell you that I know the secrets to save the planet I do not. Avoidance of single-use plastics and paper goods is currently almost impossible. I’m still driving a car, mowing a lawn and drinking water from gallon jugs. I’ve recognized my shortcomings and work daily to have empathy for our environment and how to minimize the damage.

Having empathy for living beings has changed my philosophy on my priorities and modified my lifestyle. I research companies in which I buy from as I try to support companies that prioritize their employees as well as the environment. Companies that care for the people who work for them and take an aggressive stance on the impact their products have on our planet are exercising empathy.

Each time I touch a new product I think of the people that created it. Not only the packaging but the message that they are trying to convey. If they are thinking through the supply chain with a mindful consideration of what message they are putting out to the world. It makes sense to listen.

Words are only words until we take action. Action is only valid if we truly can understand the impact those actions have. I’ve vowed to no longer eat animal-based products or their byproducts. My diet is solely plant-based and shall remain as such.

Plants Have Feelings Too

A friend of mine recently reminded me that plants have feelings too. This has absolutely been proven and something I believe. So how do I eat plant-based products while still practicing mindfulness?

The answer is simple. Plants give themselves away without dying in the process. Remove the fruits from any tree. Does it die? Nope. Removed the leaves from any plant. Will it die? Nope. Will these plants drop their leaves and fruits to give to other living things as they continue in the balance of the circle of life. Absolutely. Does the plant feel sadness or anxieties in the exchange? Doubtful.

I’m asking everyone to stop eating meat? No, I asked everyone to practice mindfulness and empathy. You will make your own decisions from there. The planet will only be saved by people understanding the impacts of our decisions and being mindful of our actions.

Why I Became Vegan

My empathy for animals and issues with modern farmings environmental impact and sustainability.

Photo by Michael Competielle

One summer Saturday my wife and I found ourselves in Upstate New York and decided to stop at Chuang Yen Monastery in Carmel known for the largest Buddha statue in the Western Hemisphere. With serene peaceful rolling hilly landscape with a large Temple and various outbuildings the monasteries property is perfect for meditation and escaping life’s complexities.

Weekends the Monastery serves a vegetarian lunch for a nominal donation. At the time of our visit we were still on a pescatarian diet so we knew that days vegetarian offerings would work within our existing diet. With denoted vegetarian foods cooked and served by volunteers the lunch was sure to be tasty and it did hit the spot. Our plates were lovingly filled with rice and fresh steamed vegetables and the rooms general silence was humbling.

Photo by Michael Competielle

Thinking of food entirely as natures resource and less like a commodity was a contemplated rule. Therefore by prioritizing the foods quality and less about quantity and recognizing the foods offerings would be for nutritional and medicinal purpose as part of your personal requirements was the philosophy. Your positive attitude and respect for nature and it’s resources prepared you for your food. As we ate we noticed most of the visitors were intently immersed in the meal they were eating and there was limited talking as I believe the visitors were expressing respect for the food and the volunteers for creating it.

As we finished our meal and walked around the grounds we felt a bit more mindful and at peace as we respectfully moved throughout the Temple and prayer gardens. A connection with the Buddhist philosophy and being one with nature was apparent that day.

Photo by Michael Competielle

Buddha’s teaching allowed monks to consume some meats and fish being vegetarian was not a requirement however the practice is implied. The point of reference is my experience of serene Monastery and vegetarian meal felt natural and harmonious to me.

An egg farmer friend of mine spent many hours of many days explaining to me natural farming. Having some cows, pigs and a lot of chickens his farm specializes in meats and predominantly eggs. With hundreds of Happy Chickens he makes Happy Chicken Eggs. His dedication to the craft of natural farming and sustainable process is absolutely extended directly to the products he produces that are of superior quality.

I predominately learned the complexities and risks associated with being a natural farmer, from the costs of feed and work involved to maintain a free range farm, the practice is challenging. By mostly selling direct to consumers and fending off the market ruining wholesalers my farmer friend is motived by passion and integrity. He works incredible amounts of hours nurturing his animals and respectfully selling his products.

One afternoon I went on a field trip with my farmer friend to visit a Halal Meat Market. The owner was interested in purchasing chicken feed from my friends farm as well as advice on the proper slaughter technique. My farmer friend explained the watering, feeding and slaughtering process to my market owner as I listened intently.

My farmer friend asked the market owner for a chicken to use as the example and the owner handed my friend a chicken. I watched as he respectfully petted the live chicken to calm her and then he slide her head first down into a stainless steel funnel. A sharp knife was used to cut the chickens throat while ensuring you didn’t cut the windpipe so the chicken can continue breathing as see bleeds out filling a trough below with blood.

Ironically the chicken remained reasonably calm as she took her final breaths. The chicken was removed from the killing cone and placed into a vat of hot water called a scalder which scalds the chickens flesh to simplified the feather removal. The chicken is then placed into a chicken plucker which is essentially a cylindrical vat with rubber prints and a beater that whips the chicken around removing the feathers.

As I looked at the then bald and motionless chicken I began to feel sadness. This chickens life was ended before me soon to become someone’s meal. The entire slaughterhouse sequence was understandable however I began to ask myself why?

I began to research the source of our food and gain an understanding of modern farming practices. I’d ask my farmer friend hundreds of questions after I watched documentaries such as Food, Inc., Cowspiracy and Forks Over Knives. Learning more about the techniques used to produce uniform products while maximizing yields and profits became apparent. My research was showing a different farming practice than I had witnessed at my friends egg farm or the dairy farm I helped work on during one summer.

When I was a child I’d spend summer weeks with my grandparents. They both had immigrated from Austria and had lived during the tumultuous times of World War II in Europe. With good hardworking values and an appreciation for quality we would spend the entire Saturday grocery shopping.

My grandfather and I would head out together grabbing fresh produce from a local farm stand as we headed into downtown Clifton and start with the live poultry market. My grandfather would let me choose the chicken I liked and then we would head across the street to the pork store where we would pick up cold cuts and pork chops. We would stop into the cheese store for fresh butter, milk and cheeses and fill the cooler he kept in the truck of the car.

Finally we would stop back into the chicken store and take our eggs and freshly slaughtered chicken still warm and wrapped in brown waxed paper.

Our final destination would be the bakery to purchase fresh bread, baked goods and cookies. My grandfather would lift me up to the counter to grab a paper number while we awaited our turn. I would often get to pick a cookie or a cream puff as a treat for being patient. The chomping noise of the bread-slicer cutting up my grandmothers rye bread usually was the signifier we were almost done.

We would head home and my grandmother would make up fresh cold cut sandwiches from the freshly baked kaiser rolls. Our treat for eating all of our lunch was some freshly baked cookies and pastry.

Years later I think back at this early style of shopping as we headed from specialty store to specialty store. Everything we purchased coming directly from a farmer, butcher or baker was fresh and perishable. My grandmother planned her weeks meals around the freshness of the food and had a system I’m sure she picked up in Austria.

The food store we used to purchase paper towels, dish detergent and tin foil as she would express to me “Michael that’s junk” as I’d question why we didn’t purchase our food there. In the defense of modern food stores, the food stores of the 70’s and 80’s were exactly that….Junk.

When I’d ask my mother why my grandparents shopped in such an odd way, she would tell me that’s how it was in the old country. My grandparents grew up on farms where you raised your cows, chickens and pigs for your own food. You grew fresh vegetables and only purchased the few items you couldn’t produce. This manner of shopping was the closest my grandparents could do replicate that life.

She also told me she struggled to forgive her grandfather who had her pick a pet pig only months later slaughter it for food. My mother refused to eat it.

Only years later did I make the connection to the chicken I had chosen in the live poultry market was the dinner I was eating. I’m uncertain why I didn’t make the connection but I can only believe it was to avoid the unthinkable. Armed with years of experiences and knowledge while finding much of the modern farming practices while feeling empathetic to slaughtering animals for food has led me to living a Vegan life.

This article is an outline to future articles on Buddhism, Veganism, sustainability and environmental concerns.