Veganism is a spiritualism
When I lived in Louisiana, I became aware of the fact that in the end the vegetation would win out. Raking leaves in the autumn, trimming our suburban lawns, it occurred to me that we were just rolling back the jungle. In time it would cover everything and consume us all; humanity, the reptiles, the giant palmetto bugs, all would one day fall, but the plants would live on.
Somewhere in the hazy heat I got the idea that maybe we could learn something about life from them, and maybe our lives could be totally plant based. What if my food, health, ethic, and religion could come from plants? Around about then we decided to become vegetarian, but mostly to avoid the buzz-word of the time, “toxic environment” and its epidemic. People on both sides of my family had been getting very sick from what they ate. Eating themselves to death, they had to make radical life changes to survive their middle age; I thought it made more sense to do something radical in my twenties instead.
I was working in the college bookstore coffee shop in the mornings and in the public library in the evenings, so there was no shortage of free and discounted reading material to feed my philosophical cravings. I started reading a lot of Indian philosophy, which advocated vegetarianism, and a lot of new-age literature that advocated eating plants of a different sort. There was an excess of plant-based highs then, and in the coffee shop, we were pushing it on an industrial scale. We were sanctioned drug dealers, moving like Nijinski to keep the buzz going. The winning combination of caffeine, sugar, and frothy cows’ milk was irresistible: we watched freshmen add layers of milkfat, and by their second year switch from the half-litre frappucinos to skinny vanilla lattes of equally grotesque proportions. They were all regulars, students and staff alike. One time I counted us serving three eager customers per minute; this usually ran unbroken from 8 AM to 2 PM, Monday to Friday. Most came two or three times a day (at $4.50 a pop!), and many came with a pushy sense of entitlement. Imagining this scene repeated in every Starbucks in every city across the world, it became glaringly obvious that modern life is an undignified, drug-fuelled feeding frenzy. Not long after becoming vegetarian, I gave up caffeine as well.
Ten years later we’re still finding things to give up. In the meantime we’ve learned a lot about renunciation. A clear pattern has emerged: a period of experimentation followed by longer and longer periods of abstention, then a bit of vacillating followed by a crucial moment leading to full commitment. For vegetarianism, that moment was a pig-picking in North Carolina—my family reunion. Lord lay your blessings upon those that prepared this meal before us. In Jesus’ name. (A men.) It wasn’t that visceral with veganism, but the moment was still there. The time scales are different too, two months for vegetarianism, two years for veganism, but the patterns were the same.
The Indian philosopher Patanjali had plenty to say about the mechanisms of renunciation. It is one of the two key tenets of Yoga philosophy, abhyasa and vairagya: spiritual practices and renunciation. “Abhyasa gives us the necessary impetus for the ascent; by vairagya we draw up the ladder behind us,”says B. K. S. Iyengar. Iyengar also says that there are distinct stages to renunciation: cutting back and abstaining, renouncing the residual desire for the thing renounced, renouncing your attachment to the idea of the renunciation itself; eventually the object of desire no longer exists at all to you. It’s not a simple process, your relationship to it is constantly in flux, and it takes quite a lot of time.
I can honestly say that meat-as-food no longer exists to me, and I more or less take the fact that I’m vegetarian for granted. But after a year of being vegan, I’ve realised that I hadn’t been entirely honest with myself as a vegetarian. I believed that as long as I wasn’t putting dead animals in my mouth, I wasn’t harming in order to keep living. But whether you want to believe it or not, even the happiest free-range animals must be harmed so that we can take and eat their bodily fluids, gametes and other secretions—farm their bodies—whether they have to die in the process or not. There’s only one way to make a cow lactate for example, and once her womb is exhausted, she gets turned into beef or worse. If I was willing to believe one half-truth, what other ways might I be willing to compromise on the truth?
Truthfulness and not harming are two parts of the abhyasa. Veganism neatly ticks a number of those boxes, including not stealing, maintaining cleanliness, deliberate contentment, and self-discipline. You really begin to understand those last two when you’re in a social group and say “no thanks” to the sweets being passed around, or you’re at a business lunch and open up your humble vegan lunchbox instead of ordering from the menu like everybody else. The social self-discipline is often far more challenging (and ultimately empowering) than the tapah of not eating animal by-products.
A colleague asked me a few months ago, “Did you become vegan for health reasons or ethical reasons?” I can finally answer with some degree of confidence that I’m doing it for spiritual reasons. While they are an important part of my decision to be vegan, health and ethics have become secondary to the more internal spiritual path for me. From the outside, it may look like an acute lack of choice, self-deprivation, or some kind of weird political statement, but from my point of view, veganism has been a great gift to me spiritually. I think one of the most encouraging and poignant things I’ve ever read about the path is in the Bhagavad Gita, when Krshna says to Prince Arjuna:
“On this path effort never goes to waste and there is no failure. Even a little effort towards spiritual awareness will protect you from the greatest fear.”
So almost unintentionally, we have moved one step closer to a plant-led life, and they have indeed taught us more about living than we ever imagined.