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Ethics, Food and Spirituality

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What's wrong with eating meat? Read this article and find out.

by Roar Bjonnes 

In my early 20s, I visited a slaughterhouse. Unlike most of my fellow agronomy students, I was not excited to learn about modern butcher practices. Rather, I thought: “If I can walk through these halls of disease and feel fine about what I see, I will continue to eat meat. If not, I shall stop eating beef, pork and chicken immediately.”


A few days later I read a poem by the great Spanish poet Fredrico Garcia Lorca, that captured my experience: “The hogs and the lambs lay their drop of blood down/ underneath all the statistics;/ the terrible bawls of the packed-in cattle/ fill the valley with suffering...”

Lorca is right. Mass slaughter, however modern and humane it claims to be, causes immense animal pain and suffering. Thus, my walk through these assembly lines of death, not the health statistics, was pivotal in my choosing a vegetarian diet. The distress animals have to endure—before they end up as anonymous, unrecognizable bricks in the supermarket freezer—made me realize that my food and my spiritual values were intimately linked.

Can our concern for the welfare of animals be part of a genuine environ­ment­al ethics based on spiritual­ity? Let us find out if animals and plants have rights, and if so, what these rights should be based on. And what does modern science have to say about this?

Mind in Nature

For science, viruses represent the smallest collection of molecules recog­nized as “life.” Maybe in the future science will recognize the sentience of smaller groups. For now, viruses personify the boundary between life and non-life. According to Tantra, however, there is Consciousness at every level of evolution. Even stones and crystals are expressions of Spirit or Cosmic Consciousness.

Modern science sees something of this ancient worldview. Thus, while science does not recognize Consciousness in matter, the so-called Santiago theory, developed by Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana, proposes that awareness is intimately linked to the process of life. Hence, the brain is not necessary for the mind to exist. A worm or a tree has no brain, yet they have a mind. The simplest forms of life, these researchers claim, are capable of perception, maybe even cognition. Native Americans and other indigenous peoples also experience “mind” in nature. But are these animistic beliefs the same as the cognition of Varela and Maturana? In their best seller The Secret Life of Plants, Peter Thompkins and Christopher Bird report that, when killing a tree, tribals would have a heart-to-heart conversation with it. They would let the tree know what would happen, and finally ask forgiveness for this unfortunate act of violence. The authors also documented scientific experiments on plants with a modified lie detector. The instrument would register when a plant’s leaves were cut or burnt. When a plant “perceived” it was going to be killed, it went into a state of “shock” or “numbness.” This possibly prevented it from undue suffering.

Such tests may sound outrageous to materialists, but to the ancient peoples, to Indian yogis and Western mystics, the notion of Consciousness or “mind” in nature is not farfetched. To them, there is Spirit and creative will everywhere—and, to the yogis, in particular, there is in all beings an inherent longing for greater expression. This longing drives evolution forward.

Unfortunately, all natural forms cannot express their “grief” when damaged or destroyed. Therefore, says Indian sage and Tantric philosopher, P. R. Sarkar, we must pay respect to, conserve and properly utilize all natural resources.

Seeing the Other in Me

Poets and sages also observe a deep grief in nature. Buddhists associate grief with the wheel of reproduction. If nature’s creations truly experience pain or grief, at least when killed, our conservation efforts and our ecological outlook must, in some way, acknowledge this innate suffering. Thus, nature becomes sacred to us. To paraphrase eco-psychologist James Hillman, as our mind is enlarged to include nature; the world becomes us. We feel empathy with the slaughtered cows; we know that if we destroy the rainforest out of ignorance or greed, we destroy a part of ourselves.

Are such feelings just mythology and the fantasy of poets? Are they simply the readings of human emotions into other, lower beings? Or is it possible to know the natural world—the rose, the lizard, the butterfly—because these life forms are already part of our inner self?

For philosophers and mystics such as Aristotle, Spinoza, Aurobindo and Sarkar, the Self and the Other are essentially made of the same stuff. And since, as Sarkar notes, Consciousness is everywhere, even in so-called inanimate objects as rocks, sand or mud, we can perceive Oneness in all creation. In principle, all expressions of nature have an equal right to exist and to express itself, namely because everything created is ultimately Cosmic Consciousness.

The Holonic Universe

This sentiment is echoed by Norwegian eco-philosopher Arne Naess, whose “biospherical egalitarianism” is advocated by the deep-ecology movement, which he founded. But evolution is irreversible; amoebas eventually evolve into apes, but apes never transform into amoebas. He also acknowledges “higher” and “lower” expressions of Consciousness in nature. In other words, there is an inherent hierarchy in nature. Thus, it would not be anthropocentric to say that a dog has feelings, nor that a human and a dog are spiritually One. It would, however, be anthropocentric to say that a dog has the same psychological depth of feeling as a human, and thus the same rights. Ironically, many followers of Naess’ deep-ecology believe that since all animate and inanimate creations are part of the One Web of Life, this biospherical egalitarianism is a perfect concept. However, for Naess all reality consists of “subordinated wholes or subordinated gestalts.” All reality, as Arthur Koestler proposed, is composed of “holons.”

Contemporary mystic and philosopher Ken Wilber first popularized the concept of holons in his pathbreaking book Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. He explains that atoms and cells, even symbols and ideas, can be understood as “neither things nor processes, neither as wholes nor parts, but only as simultaneously whole/parts.” That is, everything is a holon or a whole that is part of another whole. Reality then, is neither just parts, as materialistic scientists want us to believe, nor “one egalitarian, mystic whole,” as many New Agers believe. These notions are extreme and only partly true.

The Hierarchical Wholeness of Being

In Sarkar’s reconstruction of the traditional Tantra cosmology, one can distinguish both egalitarian and hierarchical contexts. Evolution, he says, proceeds from Cosmic Consciousness by first creating matter and then increasingly complex life that can express higher and higher levels of consciousness.

On this evolutionary ladder animals follow their instinctual dharma, or inner nature, while humans can rise above their basic instincts and choose to follow a higher, spiritual dharma.

Within this evolutionary system, there are levels of cooperation, but the system as a whole is hierarchical. These notions are supported by systems sciences, which say that wholeness needs hierarchy. Each hierarchy is composed of increasing orders of wholeness (thus Wilber calls it “holarchy”). In an evolutionary context, the new stage of development has extra value relative to the previous stage. An oak sprout is more complex and therefore endowed with a fuller expression of consciousness, than an acorn. A monkey has a more evolved nervous system and mind than an insect, and a human has a more evolved brain and intellect than an ape.
With potential dire consequences, many earth-centered ecologists equate hierarchy with the higher exploiting the lower. But the ecological universe could not exist without hierarchy, and humans, for better or worse, are stewards of the natural world. Hence, we need to acknowledge both unity and oneness as well as high and low expressions of consciousness in our ecological worldview.

Consciousness and Complexity

Humans, unlike animals, can regress to a state of evil and harm both the human and animal family. How does the holonic theory explain this? Wilber explains that the more complex a holon is, the more potential for problems. An atom does not get cancer, a liver or a lung does. An ape cannot construct an atomic bomb, but a human can.

Because humans are more conscious, we can also express more complex and more problematic traits. But the cure for our environmental problems is not to think how humans can become more like animals. The cure lies in a progressive expansion of our inner potentials.

The cure for any disease—be it physical or mental, human, animal or plant—is not to negate the system but to cure or root out the sick holons. Thus, we kill cancer cells, not the person. We attempt to prevent the body from becoming cancerous in the first place. It is better to reduce pollution rather than clean up the environment afterwards.

We need to emulate nature in advancing what Riane Eisler calls “actualisation hierarchies”. Thus, a self-actualized humanity can integrate itself with nature, learn to realize our oneness with the “other,” learn to recognize that being on top of the evolutionary ladder does not give us the right to rob and exploit those lower than ourselves. Because of the pathological expressions of hierarchy—such as fascism, Nazism, communism, or corporate multinationalism—new thinkers are suggesting a new and supposedly healthier model, heterarchy, where rule is established by an egalitarian interplay of all parties.

There is a movement toward greater complexity and higher consciousness in evolution, while at the same time there is, on a deeper level, ecological cooperation and spiritual unity amongst all beings. In other words, there is both heterarchy and hierarchy.

To simply say that all of us—leaf, tree, monkey, and human—are equal partners in the great web of life reduces the wondrous complexity of creation to a lowest common denominator, serving neither nature nor humans well. There is unity of consciousness amongst all beings, because we all come from, and are created by, the same Spirit. But nature is also infinitely diverse, and we need to embrace this variety. One way this variety is expressed is in terms of depth of consciousness.

A dog has more capacity for mental expression and self-consciousness than a fir tree. Both are manifestations of Cosmic Consciousness, both have mind, and both have equal existential value, but because of the difference of depth and quality of consciousness, the dog is higher on the natural hierarchy of being than the fir tree. So when we develop our ecological ethics, we must value and account for both the “low” and the “high” expressions of nature. In other words, the answer to all dilemmas and problems, ethical, medical, or environmental, lies in how we, as humans, can actualize our divine potentials and use spirituality as a guiding light for all our worldly actions and interactions.

Cuisine and Consciousness

For Sarkar, nonhuman creatures have the same value to themselves as human beings have to themselves. Perhaps human beings can understand the value of their existence, while an earthworm cannot. Even so, no one has given authority to human beings to kill other creatures.

However, to survive, we cannot avoid killing other beings. Thus, food should, if possible, be selected from amongst those beings with a comparatively low development of consciousness. If vegetables, corn, beans and rice are available, cows or pigs should not be slaughtered. Secondly, notes Sarkar, before killing animals we must consider deeply if it is possible to stay healthy without taking their lives.

Eating plants is therefore preferable to eating animals. As George Bernard Shaw once said: “Animals are my friends ... and I don’t eat my friends.” It is also ecologically more sustainable to eat lower on the food chain. Vast land areas used to raise livestock for food could be far more productive if planted with grains, beans, and other legumes for human consumption. Only about 10 percent of the protein and calories we feed to our livestock is recovered in the meat we eat. The other 90 percent goes literally “down the drain.”

All beings are the children of Mother Earth, but ultimately all of creation (including Gaia or Mother Earth) is the offspring of Spirit (Wilber) or Cosmic Consciousness (Sarkar). Sometimes it is difficult to know what the use of an animal or a plant is; therefore, we may needlessly destroy ecological balance by killing one species without considering its complex relationship to other species.

A forest’s value, for example, is more than just X number of board feet of lumber. It serves as nesting and feeding ground for birds and animals; its roots and branches protect the soil from erosion; its leaves or needles produce oxygen; and its pathways provide nourishment for the human soul. As a whole, the forest ecosystem has an abundance of ecological, aesthetic, and spiritual values, which extends far beyond its benefits in the form of toothpicks or plywood.

If we embrace the Divinity in all of creation, the expression of our ecological ethics—the way we select our food, the way we treat animals and plants—may become an inspired and personal act of spirituality.
Unfortunately, this ethics was not widespread when in 1974 I walked through the slaughterhouse and, at the end, refused to eat the “free hot dogs”.

While the shadows of McDonald’s golden arches continue to cover the world, I believe it is important to broadcast the needless slaughter of cows and the chopping of trees. Indeed, it has become more evident than ever before how important it is “to live lightly” on the earth. That means, says Wilber: “it is better to kill a carrot than a cow.” By adhering to this simple, ethical principle, we can better live in harmony with ourselves and with other humans and other beings in the natural world.

Roar Bjonnes is a freelance writer and poet. He is currently working on a book about the relationship between spirituality, culture and economics.

 
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