Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Why I'm Not a Vegetarian

I feel compelled to begin this blog post with a disclaimer. It's unfortunate that the anonymity of the Internet encourages hostility, rudeness and the tendency to be judgmental, so I’m left feeling the need to explain myself before I even begin. Here’s the thing: How and what we eat is a very personal decision, often fraught with a great deal of concern and angst. All I’m doing in this blog post is describing my own journey. I’m not judging the way anyone else chooses to eat. Whatever you decide for yourself is fine with me; I expect you to extend me the same courtesy.

I’ll begin the actual post by explaining that I once was a vegetarian. I grew up in an abusive family, and in an effort to distance myself from the violence and cruelty of the people I was forced to live with, I attempted to remove as much violence and cruelty from my personal habits as possible. I could identify with animals – they were like me, with faces and personalities and interesting, sometimes odd habits. So I decided not to eat animals.

That practice worked for me for quite a while; it even made me feel more virtuous than people who ate meat. I submitted to my first husband’s constant desire for meat and became an unwilling omnivore with all the expected attendant guilt while I was married to him, then went back to vegetarianism after I divorced him. I felt sure I was enlightened and awake and all those good New Age terms; I thought I understood the meaning of life. Yikes. Then a friend suggested I study Buddhism; after all, that’s the next step after vegetarianism, right?

I began learning about Buddhism right around the same time I began my training in herbalism. Partly for Buddhist practice and partly because I like a challenge, I began the habit of choosing a phrase or concept each New Year’s as a meditation focus for the upcoming year. That’s right, meditating on a single subject for a whole year. Yeah, I know there’s professional help for that. One year I chose “All life is one life.” That’s the same year I began working with plant spirits, inspired by a couple of my herbalism teachers.

I had some profound experiences with the plant spirits; it’s not an exaggeration to say they changed my life. My whole worldview upended thanks to a few interesting herbalism workshops and classes, all during the time I was meditating on “All life is one life.” I began to realize I was missing a really basic concept in that I identified only with animals, and not the rest of the living world, the rest of the cosmos. That’s when it began to dawn on me that saying, “I won’t take a life for my food; that’s why I’m a vegetarian” was a value judgment of the most profound order. My ability to identify with a cow had led me to stop eating them; my inability to identify with a carrot was actually a shortcoming, and it led me to believe that one kind of life (animals) was more valuable than another kind of life (plants). Ultimately, that’s a kind of chauvinism. It says that life that is like us is more valuable, more worth preserving than life that isn’t like us.

People like to joke about being at the top of the food chain, but we really aren’t. The microbes are. But we don’t think of bacteria as living things except when we’re working to exterminate the ones that make us sick (‘antibiotic’ means ‘against life’). Sure, Ye Olde High School Biology Course taught us the basic definition of life – it’s alive if it reproduces, takes in nourishment, excretes waste, and so on – but when we think of living creatures, we confine our thoughts to the animal kingdom, because we’re animals and that’s what we identify with. Makes sense, in a myopic sort of way.

The thing is, when I began working with the plant spirits, I began identifying them as fellow living beings. I did a little reading and discovered that plants have DNA just like animals do. Most of them have circulatory systems. The only difference between a molecule of hemoglobin and a molecule of chlorophyll is that the hemoglobin has iron in the center while the chlorophyll has nitrogen. Living plants communicate with each other and demonstrate electromagnetic responses that look like pain. All life is one life.

Then I began doing shamanic work and realized there’s a whole universe out there that’s full of life, but very little of it looks like us. Quantum physics suggests that there are many layers we’re not even aware of, all of which have presence and energy. So when I said I wouldn’t take a life for my food, I was saying that the only lives worth valuing were those of animals. Every plant I eat is also a living thing. In fact, many of them are still fully alive as I tear them apart with my teeth (sprouts, anyone?). In fact, I think it may actually be more violent to eat plants than animals because of that still-being-alive thing, but because it’s harder for me, as a human being, to identify with a plant, it doesn’t bother me as much.

All this revelation left me floundering, wondering how the hell I was supposed to figure out what it was OK to eat and what I ought to leave alone. Obviously, I was going to have to choose some set of criteria other than ‘if it’s alive, don’t eat it.’ While I was trying to work out this issue, the phrase ‘everything lives by the death of something else’ kept popping up in conversation and the books I was reading. I didn’t like that; I didn’t want to listen to the message the universe was sending me. I didn’t want to be a part of that killing, that death. Along the way, I was also influenced by several teachers who all pointed out to me that indigenous people are invariably omnivorous, and also tend to view everything (and I do mean everything) as alive. Interestingly, one of those teachers was vegan.

Eventually, I gave in to my own experience and accepted the shamanic perspective that everything is alive in one way or another. I’m still hovering in that headspace, somewhere between the depths of quantum physics and the depths of the Otherworld. But that worldview did offer a solution to the question of what to eat, and it involves my three R’s. And no, they’re not reading, writing and arithmetic. (Did you ever notice that only one of those actually begins with R?)

Somewhere along the way, I decided that my three R’s are responsibility, respect and return. In other words, I have to take personal responsibility for everything I do, I need to make my decisions based on a profound respect for the universe I’m a part of, and I have to expect that my actions will have consequences. That makes the decision-making about food easy, though the subsequent information-gathering turns out to be a bit of a pain.

Simply put, my food decisions are based on respect for the living things involved: the plants, animals and fungi I choose to eat and the ecosystem of which they are a part. The industrial agriculture system is not respectful of any of those things. It harms the animals and plants it raises for food as well as the environment it raises them in. So I do my best to avoid that kind of food. I grow about 300 pounds of produce a year in our garden, not including the various nuts and fruit our trees produce (permaculture for the win!). I buy local or humanely-raised meat and don’t eat it terribly often. I’ve had laying hens before and will again, and for the record, I’m agreeable to occasionally eating the hens as well as the eggs. For the most part I avoid food that has been transported long distances, since the pollution that transportation causes is not respectful to the environment, and I’m not sure it’s good for us to eat out-of-season produce all the time. Part of my Pagan practice involves being in tune with the seasons of my local environment, and fresh strawberries in January run counter to that mindset.

Sure, I still shop at the local grocery store, which has thankfully increased its stock of food I’m willing to buy in recent years. And I’m not rabid about any of it – evangelism turns me off, as it does most people. But I do my best to raise, purchase and prepare my food mindfully. I have no idea where I am on that fabled Path To Enlightenment™, if there is such a thing, but I feel like I’m paying attention and being a respectful part of my environment.

So there you have it. That’s why I’m not a vegetarian any more. What kind of food choices have you made in your life, and where have they led you?