Welcome to another installment of Solidarity Thursdays. With the wise words of Jaysen Waller at The Metta Garden blog, Esther Emery at Church in the Canyon, and t r i s k a i d e k a p o d as my companions we set out this week to discuss Eating With Compassion. Thanks for reading and please join the conversation by leaving a comment, submitting a topic, or linking to your own blog.
Eating with compassion. I’m really happy that we decided to discuss this topic this week. The phrase describes very well what’s been a very long path for me that started while I was in college. That’s when I first tried on the label of “vegetarian.” Of course, I really had no idea what I was talking about at the time, and I certainly wouldn’t call what I was doing then compassionate. For instance, when I found out I could order a “Veggie Whopper” at Burger King, I felt like I had the whole thing in the bag. Of course, what passed for that “Veggie Whopper” was just a whopper without the meat… That’s right… Bread, cheese, veggies, and whatever that sauce is… That was it. And come to think of it, I think they charged the same price with or without the meat. At that time, it was merely a “label” for me. I went to an art school. There were lots of vegetarians around me at the time. Especially among my dancer friends, so I was in good company. Hangin with the “In Crowd.” It didn’t hold much meaning for me beyond something to declare myself. At the time, I regularly skipped out on the label for a late night trip through the drive through for some processed chicken. Which, as many of my “vegetarian” friends and I at the time mused, couldn’t be actual chicken anyways, so we were in the clear.
So… That isn’t compassionate eating. In fact, as I will explore here, it’s simply impossible to eat anything from a fast food restaurant, regardless of whether it contains meat or dairy or fruit or lettuce or whatever, and call it compassionate. But let’s continue with how I brought myself to the compassionate path with regards to my eating habits. To be clear, I wouldn’t call where I am now anything close to enlightened. Like everything else in my life, it’s a path. I can describe where I became aware of it, when I decided to try to stay on it, and where it’s led me thus far. That’s what you get with a path… more path. And that’s exactly as it should be if we are to consider ourselves life-long-learners.
So for me it began with the label. It was trivial. It got me invited to a couple of parties perhaps, or talked about more than I would have been without the label. That was all very important to me as a young artist with a shaky confidence. Things began to change for me though after college. I read Eric Schlosser’s book “Fast Food Nation” in the summer of 2001. It changed how I looked at food production in this country forever, and brought to light many of the reasons I still give for having become vegan. I was no longer in the dark after reading this book, a fact I sometimes lament. My life was a lot easier before I knew what this book illuminated for me. I was a lot less healthy too, but mostly I was just blissfully ignorant of what brought food to my mouth. Reading that book made me think twice every time I got hungry about where I got my food. It’s the first time in my memory that I can remember thinking – “I have got to change my habits.” And I did. Need to change them that is. We all do in my opinion, but you can’t force this type of change on people, they have to come to it on their own. Militant vegetarians or localvores or vegans only turn your friends and loved ones in to angry a belligerent foes convinced you are trying to take something from them or beat them at a game. They will, for years and years thereafter, make a point of pointing out all of your bad habits in as public a forum as they are able in order to put you in your right place for having suggested that they may want to take a look at the food they are putting in to their bodies and the bodies of the ones they love. As you may be able to tell here, I have some experience… The fact is, that railing against others to change their habits, even if it is in their best interest, the community’s best interest, and indeed the world’s best interest is not compassionate either. It is PASSIONATE, but passion has never stood in for compassion, nor never will. So after reading Mr. Schlosser’s book, I was determined to change, but I still didn’t understand it as needing to come from that place of deep and true change, a place of compassion.
The first notes of compassion in my path came from a sudden awareness of my cat’s dependence on me as a provider. If he were left to his own devices in the world, he would likely make very different choices than I made for him. This was first apparent to me in a realization of the chemicals I used around the house. I’ve written about this before, but it was big eye-opener for me. I was spraying windex and bleach and tile scrubber and all kinds of nasty things around the house to sterilize my environment, to rid it of any potential dirt or grime, a practice I have since abandoned almost completely, opting instead to allow my body to build immunity naturally through coming in contact with all of those bacteria. But the compassion I speak of came for me in the fact that, I often sprayed down the kitchen right before leaving the house and left those chemicals fuming while my cat had to use that room to access his food and water. I was poisoning my cat. So in an attempt to NOT poison my cat, I switched the products I used and got rid of all the chemicals in my home. The next logical step then, was to stop feeding him meow mix and give him some real food. I should mention that during that time of my cat’s life he had two very serious surgeries that saved his life. Since changing his food and the chemicals he came in contact with he has not had a single serious health problem. That was almost 10 years ago. This is not really supposed to be about my cat, but without him, I’m not sure I would have set myself on the path of compassionate eating. He was a gateway for me. One I am truly grateful for. It was shortly after this period that I realized… My cat is eating better than I am… So I should probably think more seriously about that whole “What I Eat” thing…
My choice at this point in my life was to become a Lacto-Ovo Pescatarian. Not familiar with the term? It means I ate fish, dairy, and eggs, but was otherwise a vegetarian. I also started eating organic foods as much as possible. Next I started eating locally. Then I cut out the fish. Then I cut out the dairy and eggs. Now, I’m vegan. I consider myself to be on the compassionate path with regards to my diet. But we haven’t really discussed what that means. I should be clear here that I don’t necessarily feel that the only way to eat compassionately is to be vegetarian or vegan, but there are a number of things that I think need to be taken in to consideration if one is to start along that path. Being vegan is how I have chosen to address each of those concerns. Others have other solutions and if they are done with those concerns addressed and acknowledged, I’m totally on board. I haven’t ruled out the possibility that I will one day eat meat or dairy again, but for me, it was important to take all of those foods which I perceived to have un-compassionate components to them out of my diet until I understood my relationship to them well enough to make a more informed decision.
So what are these concerns? What comprises compassion when making choices around our food? Let’s take them one at a time…
Our current food production system does not consider meat in terms of life. They are units of profit. Everything in the industrial food system is treated in this way. Put as little effort and value in as you can without lowering the amount of profit you get out. That’s economics. Efficiency here means less effort with maximum profit. Therefore a cow is not a cow, it is a certain amount of steak, ground beef, scrap for processed products, etc. If you can put less money in, and still get the same amount of money out, you’re going to do that. The same is true of farmed fish, pigs, poultry, etc. Less money going in manifests itself in the form of byproducts and growth horomones instead of natural grazing. It manifest in massive feed lots, instead of open pastures with a healthy ecology. It manifests in Anti-biotics fed to animals to keep them from getting sick under those conditions, which in turn reduces the anti-biotic affect, leaving viruses to mutate and adapt creating a vicious cycle that we still don’t really understand. Animals under these conditions live a life of fear and instability. They are assumed to have no souls. It is impossible to act with compassion without acknowledging the millions of souls that live under these conditions. Some may say animals don’t have a soul. My cat has a soul. My dog has a soul. I once saw a Cow standing in the middle of Highway 1 in northern California looking out at the ocean. That cow had a soul, and it was feeding it at that moment.
What I’ve described above is not the only way to raise meat animals. We did it, relatively compassionately for centuries, and it is done in many places around the country now, but the vast majority of the meat one has the chance to eat on a daily basis comes from this system in some way or another. Keep in mind that even cows that are marketed as grass-fed or free-range, spend the last month or two of their lives in those massive feed lots waiting for slaughter. There are virtually no small local slaughter houses left in the country and nearly all of the meat that one has contact with has to go through these processing plants to make it to the dinner table. I for one, cannot justify eating an animal that must live in that way, if only for a small amount of its life. If the animal has a soul, and I believe it does, then it doesn’t matter how joyful that animal’s life has been, if its last moment are spent in unfamiliar surroundings with the haunting sounds and smells of the slaughter ever-present, that animal dies in fear. A terrifying fear that we can’t begin to imagine. When we eat those animals. We ingest that fear. It is our burden to hold.
Like I said, this is not the only way. I have friends who have chickens. They kill those chickens when they are no longer producing eggs and they process
them at their home. They take great pains to make their death as quick and painless and free of fear as they can. They have grown attached to those chickens. They have souls. They honor and accept the worth of their lives. I can’t kill anything. Literally. I cannot kill. It’s not in me. So… I don’t eat meat. For another view, I suggest Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal Vegetable Miracle.
Amy has a friend from Naropa that has been a vegetarian for years for much the same reason. She recently found out that she was severally deficient in iron and needed some red meat in her diet. She wrestled with how to go about it compassionately. Ultimately, she studied long and hard and what it would take to hunt an Elk in the mountains of Colorado. Dress it on site, and haul in out of the woods by herself. She searched her soul. She made peace. She had an agreement with the Elk. She went hunting. She saw no Elk, only Deer. She came home empty-handed. That is compassionate eating.
I think one must also consider themselves deeply in the decision to eat compassionately. What I’ve described above is a deep connection to the self. Knowing what you need. What you must do to get it. What it means to take a life. What it means to need nourishment. Thus, we must consider not just meat and dairy and what they mean to us as substance, but what else is in our food. For me this means knowing as much as I can about those foods that I eat. Where did it come from? What’s in it? What did it take to get it to me. All of those things affect our soul. As I said above, I believe that we ingest the soul along with the sustenance. An animal that dies in fear passes that fear on to us, just as a plant that is poisoned throughout it’s life to keep bugs away or diseases away passes on that poison. We must be aware of the unnatural additives added to processed foods, the excess sugar or corn syrup added to our beverages, the quality of the ingredients. It’s not enough to just have some calories. How those calories make it to us carries Karma. I would much rather eat a vegetable that was grown in my garden with a healthy ecological presence among other plants that are all helping each other to grow than one grown in a massive field of other plants just like it sprayed repeatedly with pesticides and herbicides and then shipped and refrigerated over thousands of miles. Each mile, each unit of energy it takes to produce the food, transport it, store it, keep it safe from bugs, from disease. Each of those units carries with it a karmic footprint, and they all must be taken into consideration if we hope to eat with real compassion.
This brings me to the consideration of others. We’re talking Fair-Trade here. Those tomatoes in the Taco-Bell burrito, they were harvested, most likely, by undocumented migrant workers living in terrible work camps or in canyons in the hills of southern california in a makeshift lean-to. Those people are paid well below what they’re worth, and they’re exposed to insane amounts of chemicals while on the job with no course of action for the health problems they may encounter.
The people working in those processing plants for the industrial meat system, they too are likely undocumented and unorganized by labor unions. They work very long shifts, in unsafe environments with no health care and very little pay.
The coffee in that cup of Folgers was grown on clear-cut land that was stolen from indigenous people in the name of profit. The workers that harvest it are living in camps much worse than anything we can imagine here. They have no right to organize, no right to health care, no child care, etc.
People interact with our food at nearly every level of its production. Thus, that food carries the karmic footprint of its travels and each person it’s touched along the way.
Lastly, the industrial food system historically has paid little heed to environmental costs, which further stresses our ability to eat compassionately. If every person in the United States cut meat out of their diet for just one day a week it would be the equivalent of saving the CO2 emissions put into the atmosphere by 90 million passengers on transcontinental flights from New York to Los Angeles. This is just taking meat out of our diet for one day a week for a full year. Americans eat more meat than any other culture in the world. Not a single meat production cow dies in a given year from starvation. The amount of grain fed to those meat animals in a year would solve the world hunger problems we face several times over. One Hectare of Potatoes will feed 22 people. One Hectare of land designated for Meat production will feed one person. 90% of the clear-cut rain forests in the world since the 1970s has been used for meat production. Meat animals produce 40% of the Co2 emissions the world produces each year, and that’s without considering the fuel required to transport, slaughter, store and refrigerate, transport again to your local market, store and refrigerate there, then finally make it to your home where you will store it some more perhaps. We must admit that an awful lot of emissions could be cut by reducing this trend.
Herbicides and Pesticides are poisoning our ground water and our rivers such that there are massive dead zones where the Mississippi spills in to the Gulf Of Mexico. Transporting fruits and vegetables all over the country and indeed the world adds significantly to emissions of Co2 all so we can have Strawberries in January. The list of environmental effects connected to what we eat goes on and on and on.
I find that by adopting the idea that I will eat compassionately, and thus take all of this in to consideration before I sit down to a meal, is better for my conscience, my environment and my fellow beings on this earth. For me, that means eating a vegan diet, eating as few processed products as possible (we make our own bread, tortillas, seitan, cashew cheese, etc) and trying to source as much as possible from as close to home as I can. I’m constantly looking for ways to improve upon that. It’s a path. The best part is… It feels good. It’s not as much work as it sounds. It brings soul in to our kitchen. It brings laughter. It brings smiles. It even brings enormous California Style burritos and French Fries.
It all began with that damn cat…
If you would like to read more, please check out Jaysen Waller at The Metta Garden Here
Or Esther Emery at Church in the Canyon Here
Or t r i s k a d e k a p o d Here
Thanks for reading…