If you’re not the Pope, the Dalai Lama, the head Rabbi of Israel or Karen Armstrong, it is no doubt presumptuous to write about spiritual matters. If you knew me, you’d find it not just presumptuous, but hilarious. This, however, will not deter me. The powerful connection between the science of the vegetarian diet—hard, irrefutable, and piling up—and the universal spiritual and religious call to abstention from meat demands our attention.
There are two parts to existence—the spiritual realm and the material world. Each acts as a mirror to the other; what affects one, affects the other. Some deeply religious people do not perceive a difference between the spiritual and the material—my guides assure me the difference is illusory, but most of us still recognize a separation between them.
The first time I asked my guides about this, they presented me with the image of a tee shirt that said: Reality is Make Believe, which they saw as both humorous and true. They suggested thinking of the material plane—the Earth and all her inhabitants--as a glorious ever-unfolding creation. Through our choices, each one of us is both creator and creation. We are continually being created anew; our world is continually being created anew.
Yet, even if reality is as malleable as silly putty, we all know what happened when the British philosopher Bertrand Russell kicked the tree—it hurt. We must reconcile our spiritual selves with the material world, amplifying the spiritual energy that suffuses our lives to affect this, our material plane, and make it better—make us better. This magnification of spirit expands our awareness and we become more loving, compassionate and thoughtful—all we were meant to be. If our purpose here on earth is to walk each other home, we will then be better able to do so; we will then be better able to serve.
Religious and spiritual teachers throughout time understood that the conscious abstention from meat is inextricably linked to the quality, reach, and magnitude of our spiritual experiences. Just how a plant-based diet intensifies transcendent wealth is both mysterious and obvious. On our material plane, vegetarianism provides vibrant physical health, prevents the catastrophic environmental devastation caused by meat production, saves countless animals from a life of suffering and a cruel death and importantly, leads us to a deep understanding that our choices count—indeed our very life counts. These are the vast and immeasurable benefits of the vegetarian diet on our material plane.
Each one of these gifts ignites a mystical payoff.
The material and the spiritual blessings of a plant-based diet form a potent synergistic relationship.
Can you live a consequential spiritual life and not be a vegetarian? Can you be a yogi and a meat eater? Or, a good Christian and a meat eater? The same question might be asked of Buddhists, Jews, and Muslims, indeed all people with a meaningful religious or spiritual life. Is being a vegetarian important to walking a spiritual path?
I have discovered that almost anything is possible (Trump, for instance) but consuming meat inevitably inhibits our connection to spirit. There is no way around this. Meat consumption first requires the willful ignorance of the consequences, both its production and consumption; the catastrophic environmental destruction; the burden to your wellbeing and poignantly, the cruelty and suffering brought to other living beings. To eat meat, you must pretend these things don’t matter.
The psychic repercussions of meat consumption stack up. It acts as a hard brake on the energy that fuels a loving heart, and a loving heart’s close cousin, compassion. It restricts consciousness. Being a meat-eating ‘spiritual’ person is like supporting human rights while profiting from a human trafficking ring, claiming to be an environmentalist while owning fossil fuel stocks, or a “good Christian” who hoards millions.
Wait. Is that harsh? Am I being judgmental? Aren’t spiritual people supposed to be non-judgmental?
Who knows? Not me. What I do know is that vegetarianism puts our higher aims into daily practice. It is the foundation that widens the circle of our compassion to include all of life, and this understanding becomes the key that opens doors. Vegetarianism is absolutely essential for a consequential amplification of our spiritual energy.
Again, my guides present it this way: The emotional, physical, and spiritual aspects of our selves are continually created and renewed by our choices. There is always a higher choice. Vegetarianism is a higher choice.
Despite this, many great religious and spiritual teachers do not emphasize the adoption of a plant-based diet as essential to spiritual awakening. These teachers reason that people inevitably discover the necessity of this choice on their own. This is undoubtedly true. Our spirits naturally align to the light as we move toward it. In general spiritual teachers do not proscribe behavior; they lead us to a greater understanding that in turn directs us to higher choices.
Still, other religious and spiritual leaders dismiss this dietary choice as inconsequential—they imagine that consciously abstaining from meat is a little like choosing new shoes or the color of your car. Nothing could be further from the truth. The conscious abstention from meat is one of the most consequential choices humans make, both on the material plane and for our spiritual wellbeing.
It serves as the spark to consciousness.
Vegetarianism was always connected to the spiritual in my life. Was I a child prodigy of wisdom? (Please stop laughing.) I refused to eat meat as a child simply because my mother was (and still is) a terrible cook. My mom, imbued with a great many talents and attributes, including, meaningfully, a deep empathy for both winged and four-legged creatures, never developed a talent for cooking, especially meat. Meat, no matter its origin, appeared on the plate as dull gray, the color of dirty dishwater. Spices? An unfamiliar concept.
Then, I was about five years old when I found myself staring at my Dad’s burger and asked where beef comes from?
My dad explained beef came from a cow.
Confused by this, I needed clarification. My meat and potatoes Dad, knocked straight out of the fifties (except that he was a professional gambler and somewhat of an iconoclastic thinker) explained that beef was, in fact, a cow; a cow killed to provide the meat in his hamburger. Coincidentally (if you believe in such things), this shocking revelation arrived the day after a school field trip to a nearby farm. Nestled in the fog-drenched cliffs that overlooked the ocean on the old Skyline Boulevard in San Francisco, I had my first close encounter with the bovine species. The cow’s enormity came as a surprise.
Curious, the cow studied me with its soft brown eyes. Perhaps I only imagined this as a meeting of souls, but there it is.
Beef, that most American stable at our tables, seemed iniquitous from the start.
Not long afterwards, while standing in line at a deli, my Dad and I watched as the butcher packaged a dozen hot dogs for a customer. My father took this opportunity to explicate the uncertain ingredients in hot dogs: “Basically, they take all the parts of an animal that disgust people: tongues, ears, intestines, even genitals....”
“Genitals?” I was unfamiliar with the word.
“Private parts, like the penis,” he explained in a matter-of-fact tone, nodding as my confusion gave way to a mounting revulsion. “They mixed this sorry concoction with salt and preservatives and there it is—the great American hot dog.”
This arresting information shaped my consciousness.
Meat did not seem like anything a person would want to eat.
Then, also coincidentally (again, if you believe such things), about two years later, my mom gave me yoga books to help with my gymnastics. I studied those books with the same reverence a painter puts to a blank canvas, and yoga soon replaced gymnastics as the main point. It was here that I first encountered the philosophy of vegetarianism, the beauty and meaning of the Hindu Yama, Ahimsa.
Do no harm. It is so simple. It is all we need.
It fit neatly alongside my love for all things animals.
And how I love animals! Animals, all kinds, rouse my interest, curiosity, study, and no small sense of wonder. From an early age, I felt the biblical commandment: Thou shall not kill. Only this injunction included all living beings: elephants in Africa and whales in Norway; dogs at a local shelter and mice in laboratories; spiders lurking in dark corners and ants marching across the counter. (I am the type of nutty animal rights person who leaves food out for the ants.) Thou shalt not kill includes all living things.
Vegetarianism was already an essential part of my life when as a young person, I read Dr. Peter Singer’s seminal Animal Liberation and encountered descriptions of the unrelenting horrors faced by animals heading to dinner plates across the world. Importantly, Dr. Singer also introduced me to the philosophy of vegetarianism. These ideals are simplified in Dr. Singer’s famous quote: “All the arguments to prove man’s superiority cannot shatter this hard fact: in suffering the animals are our equals.” Like millions of other people who took this journey, vegetarianism became a guiding ethical principle for me from that point on.
My husband, Dr. John Flowers, was a scientist, professor, scholar, and philosopher (among other subjects, he taught the philosophy of science at the graduate level). He was not a vegetarian when I first met him. Like so many people, he never really thought about this very human choice. This, despite two advanced degrees—and being not just the smartest person in the room, but the smartest person in any room—his remarkable intelligence was inherently broad and deep, and well-informed by libraries of books. Despite all that, he never really considered the powerful philosophical basis for vegetarianism. I placed Animal Liberation into his hands and from that time forward, he grasped the moral imperative brought by the knowledge in those pages, embraced vegetarianism and went on to read the works many other great philosophers on the subject.
We raised our two children as vegetarians. We had a surprisingly short list of what we wanted for our children: we wanted them to be serious readers, proficient at math, and kind. The last was most important. Like all parents, we modeled kindness as best we could. What we didn’t realize at first was that raising our two kids’ vegetarian put kindness and compassion into daily practice.
This is an important part of the power of both Ahimsa, the Buddhists’ second and forth rule of the eightfold path and an important aspect of all the other great religious traditions. It hints at the transformational and spiritual aspect of vegetarianism.
Throughout time, animals have served as conduits for developing compassion in humans. Anyone with a companion animal knows this. Animals ignite our heart energy—it is a powerful kind of love (and for many people, the only kind they know). Our compassion gets exercised with animals. Like anything in life, the more we exercise compassion, the better we get at it.
This is especially true in children. “We don’t eat meat because we don’t want animals to suffer or be killed.” This most powerful of all ethics instills a deep reverence for life from the get-go. It informs the rest of their lives.
There isn’t a child alive who isn’t receptive to this message. Predictably, kids often get it without their parents’ approval. One time my son, Jonpaul, was talking to another little boy Damian, whom we met in the park. Both boys were around six years old. They were talking in animated tones about their dogs.
Damian announced, “I love all animals.”
“Me too,” Jonpaul said, hugging our large Newfoundland, Panda. “I love them so much, we don’t eat them. We’re vegetarians.”
Damian’s face lit up. “Me too! I only eat the meat that doesn’t come from animals.”
Jonpaul turned to me with a confused expression on his face.
Stricken, Damian’s mother shook her head, silently pleading for our silence. I suggested the boys throw the ball for our dogs. Once they were out of earshot and distracted, Damian’s mother explained that they had to lie to Damian to get him to eat meat.
“Damian’s kindness will win this one eventually,” I predicted. “I suspect you’re facing a losing battle.” Indeed, Damian announced his vegetarianism (the real kind) by his tenth birthday.
It seemed most of our children’s friends became vegetarians, often bringing along whole families. Good ideas tend to spread like that. The Dalai Lama maintains that the solution to every problem is education and that once children are informed, they happily make good choices.
Vegetarianism, the spark that ignites consciousness, goes deeper, too. It teaches children that their actions matter in the wider world, that what they do affects others. This is mindfulness at its best—kindness is born here.
“What an animal is thinking” became a game in our family. Inviting children to imagine an animal’s perspective instills understanding, awareness, and empathy and this is why a good portion of children’s stories are told from the perspective of animals. Considering things from an animal’s point of view literally wires the brain for compassion.
“Mom, what’s the cat thinking?”
I’d look over and see the cat on the cabinet, stalking the dog. “He’s thinking, I could take it, I know I could take it….’”
A child’s growing knowledge of animals provides continuous lessons of the wider world. Once, long before the seminal movie, Blackfish, Jonpaul was invited to a friend’s birthday party at Sea World. “You can’t go there, Jonpaul.”
I painted the picture for him. “It’s just not right. They kidnap animals from the wild or raise animals in captivity that should be free. Whales of all creatures! All the animals probably suffer there, but especially the Orcas. Just imagine what it’s like being an Orca at Sea World. Imagine, you are the earth’s most powerful predator, a giant being who lives free in the boundless blue ocean. Think how big the ocean is! You swim over a hundred miles a day with your family. Now, suddenly, someone steals you, lifts you right out of the sea and after a terrifying journey, they plop you into a swimming pool. You just lost your family and you will never see them again. Now, for food, you have to perform stupid dog tricks. How do you think the Orca feels?” We spent the next hour finding out more about wild Orcas, comparing their story to Orcas in captivity.
Jonpaul shared these concerns with his friend and his parents. They had a change of heart. The party was moved to the beach and included their first surf lesson. The boys had a blast. Invite children to imagine life from the animal’s perspective. Compassion follows as children imagine the world through an animal’s eyes.
So much so, my kids often became my teacher. One time, my daughter Jaime and I were walking the dogs at night and our Basset hound caught a rabbit. Just how this happened is still a great mystery; Rosy Basset was old, slow, and blind. The rabbit appeared dead, but we couldn’t tell for sure. My plan was simple (read convenient): “Let’s leave the rabbit in the greenbelt for the crows to eat.”
Jaime looked at me, horrified, before insisting that we drive a half hour to the emergency vet. She gave me no choice; I believe she would have disowned me on the spot.
Once there, I suddenly thought of the vet bill—no doubt hundreds of dollars for our comatose friend’s uncertain recovery. “Let’s just leave the little guy in the box outside, so we don’t get stuck with the bill.”
“Mom!” She was appalled at my suggestion.
“Someone’s bound to discover him.”
“We can’t do that, Mom. Rosy did this. It is our responsibility.”
We marched inside, box in hand.
We laughed at the happy ending: Not only did the vet treat wild animals for free, but the rabbit made a full recovery and our city’s animal control came the next day to pick up the rabbit and bring him back to his home.
It was like this for us. As a family, we celebrated our vegetarianism. Both Jaime and Jonpaul thanked us many times for raising them as vegetarians. Vegetarianism, like all spiritual practices, becomes a gift that keeps on giving.
I always grasped on the deepest level the spiritual power of vegetarianism, but my understanding of it as the necessary foundation for any spiritual and religious practice crystalized the year I lost my husband, John, after thirty-five happy years of marriage and then eleven months later, our son Jonpaul died at the age of twenty-three. He died of an antibiotic-resistant infection—MRSA—a plague brought by the indiscriminate and irresponsible use of antibiotics on factory farms and an important subject that is addressed in the science and environmental segment of this book.
John and Jonpaul were two of the brightest lights in my life.
Necessitated by the sheer weight of my grief, the doors to the spiritual realm opened and I walked through. A collection of intense mystical experiences followed one after another. (Perceptive readers will understand that words are poor conveyors of spiritual experiences.) My guides showed up to help direct my show.
Who are these guides? During deep meditation, I experience spiritual beings on a vibrational level. These beings offer love (intense and powerfully felt), guidance and wisdom. Now, an atheist or skeptic might raise an eyebrow: It doesn’t take Freud’s genius to see that this poor lady’s mental facilities broke under the burden of her grief and she now imagines she is speaking to ‘spiritual beings.’
This might very well be true and believe me when I say I have entertained this very possibility, until experience piled on to physical ‘proof’, which apparently I need far more of than most. None of this actually matters. George Bernard Shaw famously said: “Imagination is how God talks to us.” This is deep on many levels, a spiritual truth with which most materialists would heartily agree. The word ‘God’ itself becomes a giant Rorschach inkblot test, much bigger than any other word: ‘freedom’ or ‘love’—or indeed, ‘spiritual’—every individual creates their own meaning. For some people, God is the most important word informing their life; for others, God represents the collective delusion of billions of people throughout time.
My guides’ wisdom has altered the very light by which I view the world. They have taught me to see past individuals’ physical manifestation to the spiritual being inside, a best self-version, the only self that really matters. This is always a moving experience. The guides direct us to other things that lift our fundamental well being: the energetic power of love, the magic of laughter, the powerful balm of kindness and compassion in service to others and importantly, the spiritual foundation of vegetarianism. They encouraged me to write this book, promising that everyone who reads it will lift vibrationally—that you, my dear reader, will experience this as an intense emotional peace and well being.
Vegetarianism has continued to inform my spiritual consciousness; my spiritual consciousness has fueled my vegetarian advocacy. The two are inextricably linked. This meaningful interplay between our spiritual reality and the conscious abstention from meat will rock your world and change you.
It reaches the heart of what it means to be human.
Indeed, it shapes our souls.