I spent part of my down time this summer changing my eating habits. I cut dairy out of my diet – when you get older sometimes the stomach doesn’t like lactose anymore – and now I am mostly a vegetarian. As a result I feel better and have a lot more energy – not to mention I’ve dropped a few pounds.
I’ve found that eating meat or not eating meat can certainly be loaded with moral ambiguity. The die-hard vegans and vegetarians usually take a moral high ground over the killing of animals saying it is unspiritual while the meat-eaters huff and puff in a sort of self-righteous patriotism. This can tip over into religious positions where Indian gurus and saints are quoted while the meat-eaters mock anyone still wearing leather shoes.
It’s all very primordial and reminds me of a conversation Bill Moyers had with Joseph Campbell in which Campbell said that the man’s primary moral dilemma was that physical survival depended the killing and/or consumption of other life forms which in turn gave rise to a terrible guilt that could only be assuaged by religious intervention and ritual. (This is my memory of the conversation and may not be completely accurate.)
And I think this is still the moral dilemma of life on this earth. Even the vegans who will not eat meat or use any animal by-products, and that sect in India whose name I can’t remember (is it the Jains?) who will not kill insects or eat any fruit that hasn’t naturally fallen from the tree, cannot live with consuming other life forms. Perhaps they seek to evade that responsibility by claiming that they did not intervene or contribute to the demise of said life but that I think is splitting hairs.
To my mind what is at the bottom of the conundrum is the guilt one may feel – that my survival is at the expense of another’s life. That belief is only true if we see the ‘other,’ the cow, pig, egg, the apple, bread made of wheat, as something ‘other than’ and ‘separate from’ ourselves. We cast ourselves in the role of predator and others in the role of prey – typical human hubris.
Do lions consider the antelope in this light? Do they feel guilty when they bring down a buffalo? The predator and prey participate in a mortal dance together, each playing their part to the best of their ability. If a lion captures the deer, the deer does not hate the lion for its part of the dance. In a few seconds the deer is transported back into the group soul of all Deer and waits for another incarnation (my belief – I can’t prove it).
I think why our modern culture is so caught up in the meat/no meat controversy is because we have lost our gratitude for the animals and for the food that we eat. Not only do we no longer say prayers before our meals, we do not honor the animals that are our food. We believe that we are the supreme species on earth and the only one possessing consciousness of any kind- after all, aren’t we the thinkers?
We have turned our animals into food machines that are mass produced in animal factories and then raised and killed in the most inhumane ways. That is the real source of our guilt. We no longer honor them and in so doing have become dishonorable ourselves.
I do not believe it is wrong to eat meat, but it is wrong not to respect the animal that is sacrificed. When we eat, whatever we eat in transformed within our bodies and becomes part of us. We exchange energies and atoms; the cow becomes part of us and so does the experience of the life that cow led prior to being killed. It is a communion in the most sacred sense.
How does the flesh of an animal that died in terror affect our energy body, interact with our cells? By treating animals, and all food, as soulless and without any kind of consciousness, as part of that cosmic partnership we become soulless ourselves.
But when we approach what we eat with respect and gratitude a grace enters into the relationship in which the eater and the eaten become one. At some level the cow participates in my life and I in his; the apple touches human consciousness and I absorb the sun through its gifts. We are all one, indivisible and dependent. In truth, nothing that has life ever dies but goes on and on and on …