In this article, Integral Yoga teacher April Gauri Hunziker (pictured here) explores the issue of how a yogi and vegetarian remains humble and avoids self-righteousness while remaining faithful to his or her principles. She poses some hard questions we may want to ask ourselves as we ponder how to win friends and influence people toward a nonviolent method of fueling the body. When does acceptance or tolerance become complicity and when does sharing one’s values cross into proselytizing? What do the Yoga teachings have to say about this conundrum?
Just prior to my conversion to vegetarianism, I was attending a performing-arts high school, where a little over fifty percent of the student body was vegetarian or vegan. My interaction with those students was often a heated discourse over the assumptions forming the foundation of their vegetarian philosophy. In spite of the fact that I had never enjoyed eating meat (though it hadn’t yet occurred to me to become vegetarian), these discussions left me feeling angry and defensive. Far from encouraging me to consider a vegetarian life-style, I actually felt a sort of satisfaction in my defiance—a digging in of my heels.
When I left the school, I gave up meat almost immediately. Once the pressure was off and I didn’t feel that I was being attacked for my consumption of meat, which also represented to me my youth on a farm and the beliefs I was raised with, I felt no need or desire to continue eating flesh. Of course, I have been on the other side, as well—the lacto-vegetarian who looks disapprovingly at my friend who doesn’t consider fish (or sometimes even foul) meat. I have been smug in my self-righteousness, especially in the fervent early days of my conversion. I am sure that, in my zeal, I tormented my family more than was kind or necessary, and that I offended and repulsed people who may have been open to a less aggressive brand of persuasion. Even after eighteen years, the topic of vegetarianism never fails to invite controversy into my life. Whether struggling to make family and friends understand my food choices or being subjected to the icy stare of a vegan or raw-foodist while enjoying a scoop of ice cream, I feel I am invaded and surrounded by judgment and condemnation.
Recently, I began to ask myself how I could have done it better—how I could do it better now. How should I interact with people who are not vegetarian or “vegetarian enough” for the ethical standards presented in Yogic teachings? What is the best way to encourage a nonviolent method of fueling the body? How can we love and serve our non-vegetarian brothers and sisters, yet remain faithful to our own principles? When does acceptance or tolerance become complicity?
I asked several Integral Yoga teachers for their advice on this subject. Here are the points common to all of the responses:
Begin with Humility
None of us are yet perfected, and most of us were not always vegetarians ourselves. Brian Dharman Hanley asserts, “First, it is important for all people following any level of a cruelty-reduced or cruelty-free lifestyle to remember that if they made the choice solely on their own, then there was a time that they themselves engaged in the very behavior they now reject. If, on the other hand, they were born into a vegetarian or vegan family, that was a bit of good fortune. Either way, they should be focused on gratitude to God, the Universe, their family or their own reasoning skills for delivering them from their own ignorance that allowed them to perpetuate cruelty in this aspect of their life.” Swami Sharadananda reminds us that the appropriate attitude begins with remembering that “we are all one,” “we all learn to crawl before we can walk,” and “that it is best to perfect ourselves before perfecting others.”
The Path is Different for Everyone
Avoid assuming that the path you chose is the right path for everyone or that everyone should be at the same point in his or her journey. As Swami Murugananda says, “Everyone is in a different place on the path, so we need to respect that. The problem comes when we have found something that really works for us and then we want to convert everyone to our way. That does not work.””
Teach By Example
Keep in mind that the best way to invite people into a nonviolent lifestyle is not to be violent—whether in our words to others or in our treatment of ourselves. Our opportunities to serve as an example do not end with keeping our body and environs free of the carnage invoked by eating our companions on this earth. We must also keep our minds free of the inherent violence of condescension and condemnation. Swami Satchidananda taught that our thoughts are part of our diet, and that we should avoid allowing our attitudes and explanations of our dietary beliefs to offend others. “If you want to show your culture, even if you see somebody pouring a little poison into the cup of milk and offering it to you, don’t make faces. Accept it smilingly. That is culture.” Often, our efforts to influence others through discourse fail to reflect anything of joy or peace, but rather the opposite. Words easily become weapons, and even with one disapproving look or gesture, we can easily become what Dharman calls the “Vegan Police” and what Swami Murugananda refers to as the “Vegan Inquisition.” Perhaps we need to ask ourselves if the Spanish Inquisition resulted in one genuine conversion to Catholicism, or whether the feeling of being under surveillance changes a mind or only drives harmful attitudes and actions underground.
Remember the Four Locks and the Four Keys
Sutra 33 in Book I of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, as translated by Swami Satchidananda says: “By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness.” As pertains to the topic at hand, the happy and virtuous are rarely a problem; the unhappy are those who may be ready to receive encouragement to change their lives or may not. These people—often less happy, healthy, and sane as a result of their food choices—are really the only group of the four we can hope to influence for now. Lakshmi Sutter, director of the Integral Yoga Academy, says, “I used to actively press my vegan beliefs. Later, I began to be less of an in-your-face activist. I respond when folks ask, but I don’t push it. I try to be clear that these are choices that I make and this is what works for me. I share facts when someone seems interested and have printed material to share if they want further information.”
The safest course of action is to give advice and information only when asked, rather than to begin a defense of our choices at the first raised eyebrow or smirk in our direction. Employing discernment when assessing whether to engage in a dialogue and watching diligently will help ensure that our words come from a sense of service and love. Swami Sharadananda reminds us that we are not “teachers or experts, but loving brothers and sisters on the path…. Our job is to walk toward the Light, and to help others who are walking alongside. If they stumble, we can help them up. If they are tired, we can lend an arm. But if they are walking in another direction, it is not our job to strong-arm them and force them and force them to walk our path. They will eventually arrive at the same destination, and they have the entire universe to help them get there.”
And, let’s not forget the last lock and key. There are people who will never be benefited by our encouragements toward a vegetarian diet and, the struggle to convince them, will only disturb our own peace. Swami Satchidananda said, “You can’t teach vegetarianism in Alaska or in Tibet. If you go and even talk vegetarianism, very soon you will be in their stomach.” Sometimes, it is best to avoid confrontation and to ignore differences, where no hope of gain can be expected, and only discord can result.
The Integral Yoga teachings inform us that our primary spiritual practice is to do everything possible to maintain our own peace and to cultivate equanimity. We can resist the temptation to engage others from a platform of arrogance and a need to be right, if we practice pratipaksa bhavana as described in sutra 33 of Book II: “When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite [positive] ones should be thought of. This is pratipaksha bhavana.” In this manner we retain our peace when confronted by those to whom we may wish to give advice, but who are not ready to receive it.
Swami Satchidananda gave this teaching many, many times: “There is a beautiful quote in the Bible, ‘Ask, it shall be given. Knock, it shall be opened.’ When they ask, you give, right? Don’t go knock at the door and force them to learn.” By following this guidance, it will also enable us to represent to others the tranquility and contentedness we all wish to claim as a result of our nonviolent diet and lifestyle. May all of our relationships be harmonious, all of our interactions be loving, and all of our intentions be pure.
About the Author:
April Gauri Hunziker has a Master’s degree in English creative writing and poetry. She studied at University of North Texas under the direction of poet, Dr. Bruce Bond. She has studied world religions and Integral Yoga for the last several decades. She is a freelance writer, a certified Integral Yoga teacher and a musician.