Like most people in the United States, I was not raised with a vegetarian diet. My good Catholic mother, who is so soft hearted that she refuses to kill insects that fly into her house and instead takes them outside and releases them, always served the family meals full of all sorts of meats. Both my siblings and myself often disliked much of the meat, but my mother insisted on serving it to us so that we could fulfill our supposed dietary needs for protein. Like most other people in American society, she believed this to be impossible without meat.
Even though I began to explore spiritual subjects in my mid-20’s and soon saw that all of the great philosophers had understood correctly that life was about a spiritual Path of growth and transformation, I gave little or no consideration to vegetarianism until I reached my early 30’s. I saw it as being part of an Eastern religious tradition that was not my own, and saw no connection between it and my spiritual practice. I did feel that it was important to practice dietary discipline and physical exercise. The great philosophers and spiritual teachers all seemed to say in one way or another that to live a life of excess and to overeat, overindulge one’s appetites, or abuse and neglect the body was something that was harmful to the mind, the spirit, and the self. Anima sana in corpore sano. A sound mind in a sound body. A sick body is always, in one way or another, a reflection of illness and imbalance within the mind. And to make the body sick through excess and abuse of food and drink makes it almost impossible to be at peace within the mind or at peace with the world and one’s individual place in it. Some illnesses seem almost inescapable, the result of a karma so great that they simply cannot be avoided in a particular lifetime. A person born blind or without legs can do little to change such conditions. Most illnesses, however, have clear origins in this lifetime, and are clearly the result of fear, wrong and imbalanced thought, wrong attitudes, negative thinking, and the kind of actions that result from these things such as eating unhealthy foods, eating them in excess, and not exercising. The more that I closely observed my own thoughts and actions, what motivated them, and how these things affected my body and my physical, mental, and spiritual health, the more clearly I saw how true this ancient teaching was.
Still, I continued to eat meat. I came across a few vegetarians in my travels, but I saw no connection or relation between what they were doing and my own spiritual practice. I didn’t understand why the Eastern religions should ask spiritual seekers to be vegetarians. Everyone around me seemed to be eating meat, even those people who had spiritual practices like mine. What difference did it make if I ate meat or not, provided I did not overeat? Besides, I was very active in sports and weight training. I wanted to maintain high levels of athleticism and physical strength. I didn’t see how I could do that if was eating “rabbit food”.
As time passed I continued to explore the best and most inspiring writings and teachings on the spiritual life that I could find. I saw it as a matter of mental diet. I tried to eat healthy food in order to maintain a healthy state of body, and I tried to read wise and inspiring writings in order to immerse my mind in wisdom and a positive state of thinking.
At a certain point, I came upon the writings of the great British novelist Aldous Huxley. I had read some of the great works of wisdom, but no writer had ever spoken to me in the way that his works seemed to speak to me. Huxley may not have been a spiritual Master in his own right, but he was one of the most gifted intellects and insightful and eloquent writers who ever lived. He was a writer who had a penetrating vision of the truth and a way of expressing it that hit me between the eyes like a thunderbolt. In his great novel, Eyeless In Gaza, Huxley created a character who undergoes a spiritual awakening much like the one that he himself had undergone in his own life. At the moment of a personal spiritual crisis, that character meets, by chance, a mentor and spiritual teacher who helps open his eyes to a Way of wisdom that he has been seeking but never quite finding his whole life.
The character of the spiritual mentor is also based on a real life friend and spiritual mentor of Huxley’s, the famous therapist and teacher F.M. Alexander, who invented the Alexander Technique, which is still popular among spiritual practitioners and actors today. After he wrote Brave New World, Huxley became depressed, and despite his great literary success, came to see his life as pointless and without meaning. Alexander was the first teacher he met who convinced Huxley of the ultimate wisdom of the classic spiritual Path. It had been an idea that Huxley had been toying with for years, but unable to convince himself of up to that time. The darkness of human nature and the world had kept him from being able to accept that idea that life has an ultimate spiritual purpose. He had found it easier to believe that the universe was a meaningless place of chaos and life was a purposeless accident. But Alexander helped him to see what on a deep level he already knew and had always known. The Way of growth and goodness is what gives meaning to human life. Nothing else provides any lasting meaning. The proof of this lies in the existential experience of life itself. All of the other “answers” in life that people seek fulfillment in are only dead ends, answers that do not last and cannot provide lasting meaning. All honest self-observation leads to this conclusion.
Amongst these truths, which I accepted and admired, was the seemingly strange assertion of the Alexander character that the Huxley character’s soul sickness, depression, and negativity was virtually inevitable in light of the fact that he ate a Western diet of meats. He further remarked that the violent, angry, and contentious history associated with the religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam was also closely related to the fact that their practitioners all ate meat as a matter of custom. Conversely, a diet of vegetables and water had historically led the practitioners of Buddhism to naturally practice tolerance, to value compassion, and to turn aside from ego and arrogance in all of its forms, whether strictly individual, or in the group form of nationalism or religious wars.
I read this, but was skeptical. I naturally agreed with the part that pointed out the faults of Western religion and culture. Those were obvious to me. I had once been a Catholic and a member of the U.S. military. I had clear firsthand understanding of how those organizations, among many others in the West, could perpetrate a good deal of evil out of an unwillingness to see the value of humility and tolerance in all of their forms. I had been guilty of that kind of thinking and action myself. Not that everything that Western religions or Western military forces did was evil. On the contrary, there was a lot of good and evil mixed together in what these organizations did. But that was a substantial part of the problem, because the good was often used as a matter of policy by Western religions and governments to justify the evil, or to pretend it did not exist. And I had learned that only an honest commitment to true humility could lead any individual or any group to continually admit errors and mistakes and make changes for the better wherever they need to be made. Self-satisfaction and complacency lead people, organizations, and whole nations to do wrong habitually without even thinking about it, and to justify wrongdoing by cloaking it in the supposedly honorable and holy robes of “tradition”, or “our” way of doing things. But what did eating meat have to do with that? It seemed to me that humility, tolerance, compassion, and the perception of oneness were a matter of thought, attitude, and perspective, and not diet.
Around that same time, I attended a lecture on the Alice Bailey writings where the presenter asserted that, if one wishes to enter into the Path of spiritual evolution, the energy that is obtained from a vegetarian diet is necessary. Only plant sources can transfer the correct levels of energy, or prana, to the body and the mind. Meat sources are too dense in their energy. The idea of prana seemed somewhat obscure and mysterious, but I decided to test it out and see if it held any truth. To a certain extent, I could actually perceive the reality behind it. Heavy, dense meals of meats tended to make my body feel heavy and dense, and my mind and thinking to a degree the same. Lighter meals coming from plant sources do lead to an all-around better feeling and a lighter energy. I decided to give the idea of becoming a vegetarian some consideration.
As time went by, I continued to examine my life and what I was doing, and trying to understand everything clearly. In another novel, Huxley remarked that “It is not enough to practice unsleeping goodness, we must also practice unsleeping intelligence.” In other words, if we really want to do good, we have to examine clearly the consequences of what we are doing, and how what we do affects the greater good of all of creation. Most people do not examine the consequences of the things that they do, but they imagine and pretend to themselves that what they do is quite good. All the while, they continually feed into the evil and destruction in the world.
All of the great masters and teachers of spiritual wisdom have observed that there is a Divine essence in all of creation, particularly all that lives. When one observes that there is a Divine essence in all things, one naturally wishes to treat all things with respect and compassion. This has always applied particularly to nature. That human beings and human life deserve the highest and greatest consideration is at the foundation of all of the laws and moral standards of the world. Somehow, Western culture has self-servingly managed to pretend that animals and nature do not deserve consideration, and are there merely to be exploited in the name of gain.
When callous, exploitive, and cruel practices perpetrated on animals by big agribusiness come to light, people with an elemental sense of decency see the evil and negativity in them. Not many people can watch a film of what goes on in a slaughterhouse and not see something profoundly negative. And yet, people who are offended by animal suffering and who would never think of harming an animal themselves have no moral difficulty allowing big agribusinesses to do it for them, in particularly nasty ways, as long as they do not have to see it.
There are laws against cruelty to animals in all developed countries. It is understood that animals feel pain and emotional distress, and it is also understood that the intentional infliction of pain, suffering and emotional distress upon animals is cruel and morally objectionable. There is a certain lobby in most developed nations, however, particularly the United States, that has managed to persuade the people who make the laws that it is all right to inflict extreme levels sustained pain, suffering, and emotional distress on animals simply because those animals happen to be “livestock” instead of family pets and simply (and especially) because they want to put money in their pockets.
Businesses that torment, exploit, pollute, and destroy nature out of a desire for profit attempt to justify what they do by the fact that they give people jobs. But this is a self-serving argument. What they do shows no true balance in its consideration for the greater good, and, as a consequence, it destroys the balance of nature, inflicting all sorts of negative consequences on the greater good. The world is reaping the consequences of what they have done for many years this very moment. Of course, it is always easier for big corporations with big profits at stake to ignore all of the negative and evil consequences of what they do, pretend that they are not responsible, and go on raking in the money. That was easy for me to see. But what about the consequences and implications of what I myself was doing? What about the consequences of eating meat, for example? Maybe I had fallen into that same error, unthinkingly resting in that sense of complacency connected to tradition and habit that helps make the world the way it is, a place where everyone has good intentions but suffering and evil are everywhere and have always been everywhere. Maybe I had been sleepwalking in a similar way to the corporations that destroyed nature for profit. Maybe my justifications for what I did were as thin as theirs.
A hundred years ago, farm animals were slaughtered for meat, but, at least up until the time of slaughter they mostly led lives that were somewhat close to what nature seems to have intended. They ate natural foods like grass, roamed free amongst their kind, and were mostly treated with some degree of respect by the farmers whose livelihoods depended on them. No more. Today, farming is done by huge corporate agribusinesses that care only for profit and consider virtually nothing else, except paying off politicians to make sure the laws are not changed in such a way that their profits are restricted. Not only do these businesses cause suffering to the animals in extreme ways that were not practiced in years gone by, they also pollute the environment to an extreme with both fertilizers for grazing and animal waste, destroy forest ecosystems to create ever-increasing areas for grazing, and pollute the meat of the animals itself by feeding them massive and unnatural doses of steroids and antibiotics. These practices minimize cost and maximize profit, driving small farms that might think of using more ethical practices out of business.
By eating meat, I was contributing to these huge, greedy agribusinesses, and rewarding and encouraging what they do. Their wrongdoing was also my wrongdoing. I was helping to pay for what they did. I could talk any way I wanted to, but, if I gave my money to those businesses, I was very much a part of the problem, rather than the solution. I could avoid facing these facts or pretend otherwise, but pretending does not change reality.
Seeing things in this light, I felt that there was only one decision to be made. I made that decision to become a vegetarian about ten years ago. It was and is a sacrifice. There are many enjoyable vegetarian food sources these days, but I did enjoy eating meat in the past, and I do miss it from time to time. Most of the time, however, I approach this issue in the same way I try to approach all aspects of my life. I make an effort to stay centered in the moment and grateful for all that I do have, and not give into the temptation to think about what I do not have. I try not to live in a state of fear or craving. I make healthy vegetarian eating a habit, and making it a habit helps me to avoid having to think about being tempted to do otherwise.
On special holiday occasions in social settings I have had to deal with being “different”. Most times, I have simply and quietly passed over the meat dishes without making a comment and eaten the non-meat ones. On some occasions, I have made an exception and eaten some meat when I thought that not to do so might be perceived as emotionally painful or insulting to my host. Later on, I thought that to politely refuse the meat would have been just as correct a decision, or perhaps even more correct. But I know that I am not perfect. I try not to be sanctimonious or angrily judgmental toward others who do not do as I do. I know that, just because I am a vegetarian, I am not innocent of all wrongdoing in this society. I still drive my car, for example, which pays off the oil companies and pollutes the air. I have not yet been able to figure out a suitable alternative yet, but I know some people who have. I admire their level of resolve and commitment. I would be foolish, however, if I beat myself up for not being perfect. I am trying to do things the best way I know how, but I know that I will always be learning, and hopefully, improving. Goodness and evil exist in shades of gray. None of us is absolutely innocent of wrongdoing, as long as we draw breath in this life. Still, I don’t believe that it is acceptable to use that as an excuse for not making changes for the better, one change at a time, step by step, as much as possible in whatever circumstances the present moment allows for.
For the first five years, I frequently ate cheese. Presently, I have limited my cheese and egg consumption to weekends, and tried to eat them only sparingly. Somewhat surprisingly, my strength and speed levels have not been affected negatively by the change, despite what I had read and heard about the importance of eating large quantities of protein. But I also realize, having done a little further research and reading, that, despite popular myths put forth by people and supposed authorities of nutritional knowledge who have never tried vegetarianism, adequate protein consumption does not depend on meat, and the supposedly “incomplete” protein sources found in many vegetable sources can be balanced out when a varied vegetarian or vegan diet is eaten. I have maintained good levels of speed, strength and athleticism up to my present age of 43, though the natural aging process has caused some slight decline in these things, as it undoubtedly would have with any diet. I have come to believe, in accordance with the ideas described in the popular book Sick and Tired? by Dr. Robert and Shelley Young, in the health benefits of an alkalizing vegetarian diet. A growing number of famous elite athletes have come to swear by the same philosophy, publicly claiming that an alkalizing vegan diet had been the key for increased athletic success for them.
My health is and has been consistently excellent. It is much better, I am certain, than it would be if I ate a typical American diet of processed foods and meat. I have been tested frequently over the years by a natural health practitioner and have had no serious issues come up. The one concern that has been indicated is that I have shown some issues with vitamin B12 deficiency in the past. Vitamin B12 is difficult to obtain on a vegetarian diet. I have taken a supplement in the past to correct this, but my Aussie friend has informed me that this is unnecessary, since B12 can be obtained through eating nutritional yeast and vegemite.
Otherwise, I have not had to take any supplements or do anything unusual. I have tried to get my food from organic and all natural sources wherever possible.
As nations such as China and India become developed, it has been publicized that they and others are developing a taste for meat similar to that of the people in industrialized countries. It has also been publicized that this trend is unsustainable, because producing meat requires much more land, water, and resources than producing vegetable food sources. Unless a shift takes place, the negative effects of increasing meat production will cause far more dire and negative consequences for the world and the environment than they do already. A better, kinder, more aware world that limits suffering and environmental degradation depends on individuals making the decision, one by one, to live in better, more sustainable ways. Big businesses like the farming industry will not change their destructive practices as long as the profits keep coming in. It is up to individuals to facilitate change. Converting to a vegetarian diet may not be easy, but it is one of the most important choices that can be made to make a better future, both for the individual and the world, possible.
–– Joe Turiano