No longer being a vegetarian – for I was, once, when I practiced Vipassana meditation (and lost 17kg off an already slender frame in the process), I often experience pangs of guilt at the thought of the plights suffered by the animals I wind up eating. I know the meat industry is excessively cruel, and I hate it; when I see the way the animals are treated, it makes me sick to the extent I sometimes have to fight back memories of what I know about it just to be able to swallow meat and not gag!
However, I reject the assertion that there is something spiritually superior about not eating meat. For starters, food is, by definition, living matter. We’re not plants – we can’t eat carbon dioxide, water and sunlight and hope to survive – but they can. Does that implicate plants as the most spiritually advanced lifeforms on earth? Well, no; because, if we think a little harder about it, plants do rely on nutrients that can only be produced by worms and other microorganisms as they consume and digest organic matter in the soil such that it can be taken up by the tree’s roots.
We’re actually similar, in a way. We, too, rely heavily upon the operations of a wide array of microorganisms in our gut. It’s almost like we’ve got a compost bin (stomach) and a garden bed (intestines) within which lives and operates a huge variety of microorganisms that process and convert that which we eat into that which we can absorb.
Plant or animal; the distinction is arbitrary
There’s also the problem of drawing a line between that which it’s ok to eat and that which isn’t. You might have heard about ‘pesco-vegetarians’; i.e., people who don’t eat meat unless it’s identifiably from the ocean. Presumably, this is because people generally believe that fish possess a consciousness so limited that the suffering we subject them to in order to kill and eat them is not strongly perceived. “A goldfish has a 3-second memory,” we’ve been told. This is a lie patent to anybody who’s kept or seriously interacted with fish, but ought to be universally accepted now that studies have come out demonstrating that – hey, what do you know? – fish are actually just as clever as similarly-sized terrestrial animals, they have memories that persist, and they have emotions.
It’s a good example of our human bias toward only seeing what we know and are familiar with. I actually think it comes down to the fact that fish have faces that are expressionless. We’re definitely happier to kill and eat a cow, a pig or a chicken – who can’t grimace convincingly enough for us to give a shit about them – but a dog or a dolphin or a chimpanzee, they know how to invoke within us that terrible guilt! The similarity of their heartfelt wailing to how a human might respond under similar conditions destroys our resolve and so we spare them.
But, as we see these days, cows, pigs and chickens are actually rather clever. We’re told pigs outsmart dogs in many arenas; cows show distinct sadness, empathy and problem-solving skills; chickens manifest a society, language and culture to such an extent that important knowledge can even be passed down through generations.
So, clearly, trying to escape the guilt of killing to eat by categorizing animals according to how much sentience we decide they possess (but really according to how much their behavior resembles ours) is just delusional. Drawing a line in the sand and then shoring up the validity of that decision thenceforth by seeking evidence to support it is a very precarious philosophical decision.
In fact, the whole debate as to “what is okay to eat from a ethical perspective” leads nowhere. A different paradigm is required.
Are vegans spiritually superior?
First of all, let’s advance now the central hypotheses: To eat meat retards one’s spiritual progress.
If this were true, then no carnivorous person could ever attain spiritual harmony/enlightenment/what-have-you. What comes to mind immediately is the professed vegetarianism of renowned spiritual leaders – the Buddha, Indian/Hindu spiritualists, etc., so we’re given to thinking that their dietary choices were somehow central to their spiritual development. But, what of those cultures where vegetarianism was impossible or unheard of? Would we really consider ourselves spiritually superior to the tribal shaman, for example, who has spent a lifetime confronting reality head on, simply because we don’t eat meat?
That’s absurd; and to me, this absurdity invalidates the hypothesis.
Knowing this – that spirituality and meat-eating are not considered antithetical to each other by many cultures – it invites us to consider how such tribes confront the issue of killing to eat. I’m not much of an anthropologist, but in my understanding, hunter-gatherer tribes have generally ascribed the resources provided by nature, such as edible plants, animals, and favorable weather, with a deep spiritual significance. The slaughter and preparation of animals for food usually requires adherence to rituals that venerate the animal sacrificed, give gratitude to its guiding deity, and generally bring to bear an understanding of the true privilege (survival and vitality) that the act of eating them grants.
This, in my opinion, is the only way that we can reconcile the truth of eating. To try to block out this perception (for it is a profound and potentially uncomfortable one) by imposing dietary restrictions on oneself simply blinds us to the inescapable fact that we’re still killing to survive. To me, fully accepting the nature of reality requires us to make peace with this particular aspect of it. Therefore, to run away from it actually retards our spiritual progress.
Vegetarians are ingrates
But, vegetarians and vegans don’t want to express this gratitude, or they can’t, or they feel their expressions to be inadequate. That’s their true motivation – the wish to absolve themselves of this burden – i.e., reconciling how a being as worthless as a modern-day human can be justified in supporting the suffering, denying the freedom and ultimately depriving of life beings whom we realize at some level are no less divine than we are, to consume (often wastefully) their bodies simply to support our worthless existences.
For, were we secure in the knowledge that the life we were leading was a noble one and whose purposes were of the highest nature; if we actually believed that our own personal existence was worthwhile and of the greatest possible importance, then why would we feel ashamed to do that very thing that underlies the totality of our evolution?
To live is to consume and transform
Since, even before our primordial single-celled shared ancestor fought bravely and won, we have ascended to this point by consuming other living organisms, regardless of their evolutionary destiny. It would be a billion more years before the distinction into plants and animals could even be made. So, why draw the distinction now? Is it not obvious that it is arbitrary?
Wanting to spare other beings from feeling pain is reasonable; after all, to witness suffering in another creature is to feel pain and sadness oneself. Therefore, it seems like a bad thing. But, to claim that some creatures are fine to eat while others are not on account of how much suffering they express is to tacitly admit that it is not the suffering of the creature that concerns us, but our own upon having to witness it!
Therefore, to strive for harmlessness is to be forever running from reality. But, true spiritual growth requires one to confront and make peace with the truth of existence, which includes eating living creatures. It is arrogant to attempt to rank life in terms of its importance or to ascribe a lesser moral consequence to eating one life form as opposed to another. Therefore, there can be nothing intrinsically ‘wrong’ with eating animals. What is ‘wrong’ is to kill wantonly and without purpose, to inflict suffering needlessly, to dissolve oneself in the empathy one feels for others to the exclusion of one’s personal purpose, to live a weak and pathetic life; ultimately, to refuse to properly confront the challenge of properly manifesting one’s true self and coming to love and accept this reality for what it really is.