(This essay appears in my book Confessions and Memoirs, and was written in 2000.)
Since I decided to stop eating meat about seven years ago, friends and acquaintances have occasionally asked me why. It’s been difficult to explain sometimes, especially when I want to be true to my feelings. To say, “ethical reasons” is often enough for those who distinguish between, say, health reasons or ecological reasons or “moral” reasons. But for those who ask in order to understand me better, it feels both complicated and vague. It’s hard to put into words.
A recent discussion over dinner in a vegetarian restaurant with some members of a meditation sitting group helped me clarify what not eating meat means to me. One member of the group said that she had refrained from eating meat for a number of years, but then became aware that many creatures on Earth live by killing other creatures; it is a fact of life, a natural phenomenon, and by no means “wrong.” Because humans have been mostly omnivorous for millions of years, eating meat cannot be considered unnatural. All creatures die. The important thing, she said, is to have compassion—to not cause unnecessary suffering. The way animals are treated is of much greater importance than whether their flesh is eaten. Another member of the group concurred, saying that our bodies have developed to digest meat, and we obtain greater nourishment from a mixed diet.
I could not dispute the point that much of life is sustained by killing other life. Even plants are often killed in order to feed non-carnivorous creatures. From the broadest viewpoint, Life feeds upon itself, and we all end up providing nutrients for succeeding generations of life forms. To choose to eat only certain foods is to draw an arbitrary line somewhere—on this side is acceptable; on that side is not. Different people draw the line in different places.
I’m not comfortable with “arbitrary.” Perhaps it’s only my fastidiousness, but I need a reason for choosing, even if it makes sense only to me. These days, I’ve tried to find deeper reasons than rational logic or gut responses. So I let the question go for a while and waited for that deeper answer.
“Eating is an intimate act” simply presented itself to me one day. It’s true for me that eating is more than stuffing nourishment into my mouth. I’ve always valued mealtime as a social event. I dislike eating alone—something important is missing. Still, sharing the experience with someone else seems only part of it.
Since I’ve been meditating, I’ve had occasion to be with others during mealtime when our instructions were to “eat mindfully,” to be conscious of what we are doing, rather than talking or reading or listening to music or watching television while we eat. In that frame of mind, it’s clear to me that my relationship to the food I eat is one of the most intimate experiences I ever have. Mundane as it might seem (since we do this every few waking hours, day after day), we take food into our bodies in an incredibly close and intimate way—by chewing it up into a semi-liquid mass. Our food is transformed from a life-form to an unrecognizable, nearly homogenous, mush. To be mindful of that fact is to acknowledge something profound. It not only recognizes the part that other people play in the growing and processing of our food (which means in the maintenance of our very lives), it also recognizes the intimate sharing of life-forms in the process we call Life Itself.
If I am to be in that degree of intimacy with another bit of life, I want the relationship to be one of compassion and love. It is not “beef” I eat, but an individual, once conscious creature not greatly different from me. I cannot bring myself to think of that creature as having suffered for my benefit. True, others have come to a place of comfort by being mindful at that moment of the sacrifice made by the creature whose flesh is being consumed. Thanking the animal could be a sacred thing.
Someone at the dinner asked me if I could imagine circumstances in which I might eat meat. I had to admit that I couldn’t categorically rule it out. If my own survival depended upon it, I might. Just as I must admit that if I were caught in a war, I might kill another human being. Under either circumstance, perhaps, I could acknowledge both the necessity and my gratitude to the creature who enabled my continuation.
But while I have a choice, it is to protect all creatures as much as I can. I cannot justify killing a sentient creature when I could so easily spare it. I do not want to turn away from awareness of what I do. I used to do just that: when I began to think about eating or not eating meat, long before I made my decision, I remember thinking, “I don’t want to think about it, for if I do I will feel guilty.”
Some people claim that plants have feelings, too. My response is perhaps weak: I haven’t seen convincing evidence of that. If it should turn out to be true, I’ll have to re-examine my stand, I suppose. Our technology is advanced enough to produce food from inanimate chemicals, if need be.
The important thing for me is to assume responsibility for my actions. More and more I am identifying myself as part of something greater, and no more deserving than any other being. That animal I would eat deserves to live, but almost never has the choice. I’m not smart enough to make such a decision for other people, but I’m the only one who can make it for me.
With what I know about life, and with what I’m beginning to know about the deepest part of me, I choose compassion.
November 28, 2000
From Confessions and Memoirs