Monday, March 29, 2010

All Life Is One Life

I've had fragments of this conversation with a number of different people over the years and have finally decided to put it together all in one place. The tag line: I may be the only person in the world who quit being a vegetarian after studying Buddhism.

OK, you're either laughing or cringing in horror now (or maybe both at the same time). Please take a deep breath and allow me to explain.

I grew up in a world of violence. I was beaten and abused daily; my parents proudly supported every military action the U.S. ever thought to propose and gleefully watched horrific, bloody images on the news every evening; my relatives fought with each other constantly, occasionally escalating the battle from scathing words to actual blows. And I helped on my grandparents' farm when we slaughtered animals.

Bear in mind, this was a small family farm, not a big industrial operation. The animals were treated well, respected while alive, and killed swiftly and without suffering. But by the time I reached high school, my personal 'violence meter' had reached epic proportions. I became a vegetarian because doing so affected the only source of violence in my life over which I had any control. Of course, my decision generated even more conflict within my family (surprise, surprise) but I stood my ground.

Over the years I came to believe I was doing the right thing, choosing not to eat meat in order to respect other life forms. Friends encouraged me to expand my mindset in this direction by studying Buddhism, which has nonviolence as one of its central tenets. So I did. I learned the history of the different sects, read Buddha's teachings, practiced mindfulness. Then one day, a little fragment stuck in my head: All life is one life. What a fascinating concept.

I was so fascinated, in fact, that I devoted a full year to meditating on that idea. To say I was changed at the end of that year is a serious understatement.

That year also happened to be the year I started studying herbalism with two very gifted teachers. One of them did something that astounded me, and opened doors in my worldview that I didn't even know were there. At a weekend herbalism retreat she pointed to a plant in the side garden and said, "Go sit with it. Meditate on it. Tell me what you find out."

I have to admit, at that moment I thought she had gone off the deep end. I was used to learning about plants from books or from presenters in workshops, not from the plants themselves. But I had deep respect for her so I undertook the assignment. I felt really silly at first, sitting there staring at a plant (it was a yellow dock, but I didn't know that at the time). Then I began to feel at home with the plant, feel a connection with it. I felt its life force, so similar to mine.

On a whim I thought at it, "How can you help people? What are you good for?" Immediately it responded, "Good for the blood. Good for healing burns, too." I reeled. I was communicating with a plant and I was completely sober.

I had a number of similar experiences over the course of that weekend, then over the ensuing weeks and months as I explored the green world around me. I began to understand why the Hindus say every plant has a deva, a living spirit. I watched as a neighbor had two pine trees cut down in her back yard, one healthy and one diseased. I felt a huge sigh of relief from the diseased tree as it fell to the ground. The healthy tree, though - I still get cold chills as I remember watching the final cut, feeling in my bones that it was screaming.

So I continued to meditate on All Life Is One Life. And I started doing a little research, looking for scientific articles that might shed light on this concept (or perhaps dispel it so I could shake the uneasy feeling that kept growing in me, the feeling that I needed to pay more attention in more directions). I learned that every living thing on earth has DNA, from the tiniest bacterium to the hugest whale and everything in between, including plants. I learned that the only difference between a chloroplast in a plant and a hemoglobin molecule in a human being is that the chloroplast cradles a nitrogen atom at its center while the hemoglobin holds iron. I learned that plants have something that looks like a nervous system (http://ds9.botanik.uni-bonn.de/zellbio/AG-Baluska-Volkmann/plantneuro/neuroview.php) and they respond to stimuli as if they could sense temperature, pressure and pain.

All life is, indeed, one life. I had to examine my choices, then, everything from what I ate to what clothing and household goods I preferred, my mode of transportation, everything. I came to a single conclusion: Any choice I might make is a value judgment. Choosing to eat plants but not animals says that animal life is more valuable than plant life. Choosing to eat grain-finished beef rather than grass-finished beef, or to eat any meat in large quantity, says that my tastes are more important than the natural cycles of the land I live in. Choosing to buy new, sweatshop-produced clothing rather than gently-used clothing from a consignment or thrift store says my fashion desires are more important than the health of the environment and the well-being of my fellow humans. Choosing to purchase a packaged CD, made from petroleum and trees, rather than downloading an MP3 says the same thing. And on and on it goes, with the embedded refrain of personal responsibility echoing throughout.

So I started eating meat again, but with a different attitude, a gratitude I'd never felt before. I began truly to understand what my Native American ancestors meant when they thanked the spirit of the deer before they ate it, and why they also thanked the spirit of the corn just as sincerely.

Some of us may decide to eat meat, others not. That's a private, personal value judgment and one I won't argue with either way. But the aftermath of that year of meditation has stuck with me, even gained momentum over time. I see connection everywhere; I feel communion all the time. All life is one life. And you are my other self.