In this article, author and activist Carol Adams explores the balance between the inner life of spiritual growth and the outer life of practical compassion. She shows reasons why becoming a complete vegetarian (i.e., no eggs or dairy), or vegan is deeply wedded to one’s spiritual life and to Yoga practice. This is the inner art and heart of spiritual vegetarianism.
There has been an unfortunate divide between vegetarians and spiritual practitioners. Vegetarians may be reluctant to cultivate a spiritual practice because they see many religious and spiritual traditions that seem to condone the eating of meat. Those on a spiritual path may see vegetarians as too rigid, doctrinaire, or concerned about the everyday rather than the transcendental world.
I believe that we human beings often fail to recognize that we, too, are animals, that we are part of nature—and that we are all interconnected and interrelated. For me, living a spiritual life means honoring these interrelationships. Most of us in the United States eat factory-farmed animals. Even if people eat organic meat, they know that the animal was still killed. I believe that each of us experiences some anxiety and guilt about eating a fellow creature.
We can look at the anxiety and guilt and say to them, “You are here to teach me and I want to know what you have to teach me.” Or we can say, “I banish you, anxiety and guilt, because you get in the way of my pleasure. One way I banish you is to begin to spiritualize meat eating. I thank the animal for ‘its’ sacrifice so I can have my lunch and not give up my dead chicken salad.” But here’s the problem: Were the animals asked? They don’t go peacefully to their death. Why do we assume they are willingly participating in this sacrifice to us? Why should they, and not we, make a sacrifice? The spiritualization of meat eating is often the most egregiously self-interested. I believe our Yoga practice equips us to relate to the world from a better place than that.
Some people think they’re going to harm themselves in some way if they give up meat. Defensiveness keeps them from connecting the dots between their health and the health of our environment. Our culture has educated everyone to think we need meat, and most of us like the taste of dead animals before we even know what—actually who—we are eating. Most parents lie to their kids, telling them the animals wanted to give up their lives for us and that they didn’t suffer. We then see people spiritualize the excuses their parents gave them as children to justify why they continue eating meat as adults.
Other people think that by becoming vegetarians, or vegans, they are going to experience scarcity. Really, to be a vegetarian, to be a vegan, is to celebrate the bounty of good food that grows out of the earth. The fundamental question meat eaters have is really a deeply spiritual question, they just don’t know how to ask it. Our culture hasn’t equipped us to talk at that level, so they ask about all the historical, theoretical and nutritional issues—but they are just a cover for the spiritual issue: Are you at peace with being a vegan? The most important thing we vegans can do is to demonstrate this peace in our lives: to live lives of abundance, to experience grace and to know that it is this grace that truly nourishes us.
Meat eaters want to be reassured they will be happy and not miss their hamburger by becoming vegan. Rather than evangelizing nonstop, I think vegans should show that we are at peace. Vegetarianism arises from a desire for wholeness; it acknowledges the interconnectedness of all beings and expresses compassion toward them; it is about living ahimsa, the absence of violence. To be vegan is to do the least harm possible and, for me, this is a very spiritual path, a path with integrity. I cannot talk about “hamburger” without acknowledging the cows whose bodies became that hamburger.
It may seem as though vegetarianism and spirituality are speaking different languages. Within most western spiritual traditions it may appear that we don’t have many concepts that help us with this—but what can take us beyond the impasse is spiritual vegetarianism. Spiritual vegetarianism is a practice that links us to the natural world in which we live and our inner nature. It is a tangible spiritual practice with compassion at its center. Because we eat, our day helps to shape it; if we have made the commitment to it, our day pulls us forward into it. Spiritual vegetarianism is meditation in action; it involves focusing our attention so we are actively engaged with being here now. Spiritual vegetarianism is being grounded within oneself. A vegetarian lifestyle extends and enables spiritual connections. Spiritual practices deepen the rhythms and rituals of a vegetarian life.
Veganism can deepen our spiritual practice in so many ways. It awakens us to our attachments and asks that we confront our beliefs about why that attachment is appropriate and acceptable, in this case why meat eating is appropriate and acceptable. It exposes us to uncomfortable feelings around guilt, suffering, relationships, human and non-human hierarchies and it asks us to create some movement within ourselves. It enables us to become more compassionate. We discover compassion for ourselves as we struggle with our attachments; we discover compassion for other animals rather than failing to encounter the horror of their lives due to our own shame or guilt.
Spiritual vegetarianism provides the practice of meditative eating so that we can express connection to the universe as we assemble, serve, eat, and clean up after our meals. It gives us an opportunity to overcome the fragmentation of spirit and self that the world perpetuates. The world wants us to be disconnected. The world wants us to see ourselves as in competition with other animals and to believe that it’s either their lives or our freedom to eat. The world wants us to be confused.
If you are a Yoga practitioner who eats meat—because you are confused or too frightened or too attached to meat eating to give it up—start your spiritual work by understanding your confusion, fear or attachment. I was told, in Yoga class, when we are in a pose and we want to get out of it, we should continue to hold it so the feeling can pass and we can find the fullness in the pose. The same could be said for the question: When I find myself, a budding vegetarian, with hackneyed claims and unsophisticated excuses for being non-vegetarian, why not hold the pose and find out what I am really feeling here? Why am I doing this?
As Yoga practitioners, what is the basis of our Yoga practice? If I practice Yoga and then I walk out of the room, am I leaving my Yoga practice there? If I am, there’s a larger problem than just eating dead animals. On the door of my Yoga room I have the saying: “Yoga is the remedy.” I love that. What’s the problem? It doesn’t matter. Yoga is the remedy. You may have the thought, “I don’t want to give up meat.” Hold the thought. Or, “I’ll miss meat.” Well, Yoga is the remedy.
Many people are afraid to acknowledge how threatening veganism is. Why? Because it asks us to become conscious about eating. We like to live our lives a bit unconscious, particularly when it comes to eating. Food carries rewards. If we were good, we got a milkshake. Food rewards are greater when encountered without a lot of conscious commitment and acknowledgement of how it’s functioning. It looks like veganism complicates that.
What is the whole point of Yoga practice? It calms us down. It quiets the front brain, the part that is always working and anxious: Should I get out of trikonasana now because I really do have to make that phone call? Veganism works the same way. It calms us down. Once we’ve made the decision to be vegan, we are liberated to explore something new; we don’t have to revisit the decision.
Yoga takes us from the known to the unknown, and we do it step by step. A spiritual practice is something we develop by taking a first step, like going to Yoga class for the first time. We can’t take the second step until we take the first. Veganism gives us a way to learn how to take steps. It allows us to experience the kind of integration we know through Yoga. My body, mind and spirit are integrated with a common goal. I don’t have to fragment myself off from the guilt, the desire or whatever. Instead, I can question it and I can find out I am living peacefully by being integrated. I’m not at war with myself.
In becoming a vegetarian, I learned first from what I could not change about myself. And then, from not changing, I learned how to change—how to align consciousness and action. By deciding to change to become a vegetarian and then by changing, I began to experience the world in a more positive way. I learned how to make a commitment and then I learned how to keep a commitment. Anyone who wants to change the world or themselves can learn this too. Vegetarianism offers this to everyone.
Because of vegetarianism, I became a meditator. I had something within to nurture. When we integrate something desired, like veganism, Yoga practice, meditation or ritual into our lives, we communicate with that part of the self that desires wholeness. In integrating, we create an internal shift. We open an inner door and reveal that there is more to the self than we had thought.
The qualities inherent to the kinds of spirituality we see arising in maintaining a practice also apply to veganism. I’m uncomfortable sitting, but I keep sitting. I’m afraid, so I try the pose a different way. Yoga has a learning curve. We want to get to the place where we are limber, but wherever we are is where we are supposed to be. If our hamstrings are tight, there’s something to learn there. We can find that edge. Why is it we can’t translate that ability to learn from a difficult asana to the rest of our lives and especially to making the commitment to do the least harm?
We spend so much time fighting it, that we don’t allow ourselves to be taught by it. To an outsider, being vegan may be viewed as rigid, controlling or whatever label is put on it to keep it on the outside. But, to a Yoga practitioner, veganism is something we bring within and interact with. We ask ourselves, “What’s attracting me about that meal? What’s going on with my ability to discount the cow? What is desire? What is comfort? What’s my responsibility to others?” All those things that we understand about our spiritual practice could be experienced by adopting a vegan diet.
I think it’s important to say that, as Yoga practitioners, we have chosen a physical as well as spiritual practice. We’ve acknowledged that how we exist on the physical plane is a spiritual issue. Yoga works with the body. If my body matters as a Yoga practitioner, don’t other bodies matter? Where do we stop then? Look at all the poses named after animals—crow, cobra, peacock, dog, eagle, crane, cow, fish. Why, when we hold the poses, aren’t we thinking of our relationships?
Yogis see the universe in the body. We talk about chakras. I feel that meat eaters are stuck at a chakra—I think of the blood redness of the first chakra. I even wonder if meat eating is a question presenting itself to spiritual practitioners to allow them to move energy forward. We can either stay fixed at that level or move through the chakras. Why do we let the ego continue its attachment to meat? When we say we can’t become vegans, we show what we are attached to and that’s the place a spiritual practice asks that we begin and interact with.
No matter what form of Yoga we do, it’s a gentle practice. Our goal isn’t to twist an ankle or pull a hamstring. Our goal may be to go to an edge but not beyond it. It’s gentle change. If there’s a spirit of gentleness that we’re following, does it end? Doesn’t gentleness ripple out into the world? The Bhagavad Gita says that the yogi sees herself “in the heart of all beings, and all beings in her heart.” I think that is a good definition of spiritual vegetarianism. Let’s enable the gentle spirit of Yoga to extend out to the other animals and to the health of the planet.
About the Author:
Carol J. Adams has been a vegetarian since 1974 and has raised two vegetarian children, who continue as happy vegetarians in their adulthood. She is the author of The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, Living among Meat-Eaters, The Inner Art of Vegetarianism, Prayers for Animals and How to Eat Like a Vegetarian Even If You Never Want to Be One. She has also edited several anthologies on the connection between feminism and animal issues and is a nationally known lecturer. For more information, please visit: www.caroljadams.com.