29. Abandon poisonous food.
The image of poisonous food suggests an experience that is seemingly nourishing, but in fact can kill you. In terms of slogan practice, this image refers in particular to the poison of ego-fixation and its power to transform the nutritious food of loving-kindness practice into poison.
In Buddhism there is a great respect for the power of self-centeredness to co-opt even the most magnanimous or sublime experience for its own self-aggrandizement. The idea of ego is not so much a thing as a habit of using whatever experience arises to solidify and prop up our feeling of a solid and separate identity. It is literally a form of ingesting experience to fatten our own self-absorption.
The realm of spirituality is an especially seductive form of poisonous food. In the great spiritual traditions, there are yummy practices, exotic rituals, beautiful liturgies, profound texts. We can attend workshops galore, hang out with brilliant teachers, even become teachers ourselves. We can gather students and get V.I. P. treatment and at the same time still feel totally virtuous and not caught, like others, in trivial concerns. With each helping of this meal, we build up our feeling of being special, important, popular, compassionate, and profound. We can even become wealthy.
As we build up our spiritual institutions, we can feed an even larger ego, a collective ego. We can turn the pure and nourishing food of genuine spirituality and practice into the poisonous food of power mongering, sectarianism, unthinking allegiance to dogma, and groupthink. We can create cozy cocoons and wallow in our smugness and superiority.
Eating poisonous food feeds the ego and poisons our spiritual freshness and innocence. Instead of dissolving our estrangement from ourselves, each other, and the environment in which we live, eating such poisonous food hardens our differences and heightens our confusion. By eating poisonous food, instead of lessening our self-deception, we are fattening it up.
Whether you follow a spiritual tradition, or you are affiliated with no tradition, reflect on the how you approach the spiritual path and the cultivation of loving kindness. Notice how easy it is to slip into approaching spirituality as just another commodity, bought and sold in the marketplace. Pay special attention to how nutritious food turns into poison.