A Teaching on the Four Nutrients by Thich Nhat Hanh
“The four sources of spiritual food we consume every day.”
This exercise is to help manas, which is always seeking pleasure and ignoring the dangers of pleasure-seeking. The contemplation on impermanence can help manas to transform. We look deeply into the object of our craving to see its true nature. The object of our craving may destroy our body and our mind. Being aware of what we desire and of what we consume is a crucial practice.
The Buddha offered us a teaching on the four nutrients, the four sources of food we consume every day.
The first source is volition, our deepest desire. It brings us the vitality we need to live our life. We have to look into the nature of our desire to see whether it’s wholesome or not. Our desire may be pleasure-seeking, which can be very dangerous. It may be the desire for revenge, the desire to punish. These kinds of unwholesome de-sire have at their foundation a lot of wrong perceptions. We need to look deeply to recognize that such desire has come from fear, doubt, anger, and so on.
Siddhartha was also inspired by a kind of desire, an aspiration. He saw the suffering in his kingdom and saw that political power wasn’t enough to help. So he sought another path, that of transforming himself, helping other people to transform, and opening up a new way. We call that desire the mind of enlightenment, the beginner’s mind. We should have a strong aspiration to maintain our beginner’s mind alive. It’s the beginner’s mind that gives us the strength and energy to continue the practice.
The second source of nutriment is consciousness. This is our collective consciousness, collective energy. Individuals in a group tend to generate the same kind of energy. When we come together to practice mindfulness, concentration, compassion, we generate these wholesome energies collectively, and it’s very nourishing and healing. Building a Sangha is very healing for the world.
If we’re with a group of angry people, their negative energy comes into us. In the beginning we may not be not like them. But if we stay long enough, slowly that collective energy will penetrate us and, to some degree, we’ll become like them, without even realizing it. It’s very important to see whether or not we’re in a good environment. For ourselves and for our children, we need a safe environment in which the collective energy is wholesome.
The third kind of food is sensory impression, what we consume in terms of music, magazines, films, conversations, advertisements. When we read an article or watch a film or program containing violence and anger, it penetrates into us. We have to decide what to consume and what not to consume.
Psychotherapists need to be very careful. As a psychotherapist, you listen to so many kinds of suffering and anger. You need a strong practice to stay healthy and solid, otherwise you’ll get sick. You’re trying to help, but you may be invaded by the negative energy of the clients you meet with every day. Every psychotherapist has to build a Sangha. With a Sangha you’re protected, and you get nourishment every week when you come together. Otherwise you’ll burn out, and you can’t continue to help.
The Buddha spent a lot of time building a Sangha, and we should do the same. We can look for elements of our Sangha around us and build a Sangha for our protection and nourishment, and to keep our practice alive. Otherwise we’ll lose our practice after a few months, and the sensory impressions, what we consume by the way of the eyes, the nose, the ears, the body and the mind will penetrate us. Mindful consumption is the practice that protects us, our family, our society. It’s the path to healing ourselves and preventing the destruction of our planet.
The fourth source of nutriment is edible food. We should eat only the things that can bring peace and well-being into our body and mind. We eat in a way that helps retain compassion in our heart. If we can do that, we can save our planet and assure a future for our children.