We Are What We Practice

Printed in the Winter 2013 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Tuttle, Will. "We Are What We Practice" Quest  101. 1 (Winter 2013): pg. 22-27.

By Will Tuttle 

Will TuttleOne of the central things to understand on the spiritual path is the necessity of practice. In order to grow spiritually, psychologically, and ethically, we are called to practice meditation and other forms of cultivating mental stability and clarity, as well as behavior that is in alignment with the truth that we are all interconnected. Thus the practice of ahimsa, or nonviolence (or put in positive terms, compassion, mercy, and lovingkindness) has been a central tenet of spiritual teachings through the ages.

And yet we're all born into a culture that teaches us to practice the opposite of this when it comes to animals we use for food, products, entertainment, and other purposes. I remember being a six- or seven-year-old child back in the 1950s in a family eating the typically high amounts of meat, dairy products, and eggs. I asked my mother if what we ate was the same as what everyone else ate. She said, "Yes, it's the same as what everyone eats." She came back a few minutes later, though, and said, "Well, there are vegetarians," and she said it in a way that I knew these "vegetarians" must live on a distant planet. She said she didn't know any personally, and that I'd probably never meet one.

I also remember that, when I was about thirteen years old, for a couple of years I attended a summer camp in Vermont that was affiliated with an idyllic dairy farm nestled in the Green Mountains. Nothing bad could ever happen here! However, I remember learning how to catch a chicken, put her down on a board with two nails in it, and, holding her with one hand, cut off her head with an axe with the other hand. It didn't bother me at all to do this, because by then I'd gone through thirteen years of daily practice in reducing beings to things at virtually every meal. I knew that chickens and other "food animals" do not have a soul, that God has given them to us to eat, that they taste good, and that if we don't eat them, we'll die within twenty-four hours of a protein deficiency.

Later in the summer, I witnessed and participated in shooting a dairy cow in the head with a gun at point-blank range and cutting her up and eating her because she was worn out and her production had declined. Though she was just a five-year-old youngster who would naturally live to be about twenty-five, she had been forced, as all dairy cows are, to endure several years of impregnation by sperm gun on a "rape rack" while still lactating from the previous pregnancy, her babies repeatedly stolen at birth, which, as any woman can imagine, destroys the health and spirit of any female mammal. It was shocking to see the huge volume of blood expelled from her body by her still-beating heart after her head was sliced off by the dairy farmer, after which he matter-of-factly explained the necessity of that. Otherwise, he said, "the flesh would be blood-drenched, soggy, and useless." The following year, I saw a dairy cow we were leading to slaughter with a heavy metal chain attached to a pickup truck actually break the chain in her desperation not to be killed. Though I participated in all this, I never doubted that we were doing the right thing, and that these animals were given to us by God to provide us with milk, meat, and money.

In the early '70s, I went away to Colby College in Maine and heard that there were some vegetarians on campus, though I never met one of them. After graduating from Colby, I decided to embark on a spiritual pilgrimage and walk west with my brother, hopefully to California. After about a month, it was early October. We'd gotten as far as Buffalo, and we decided to head south to keep ahead of the cold weather. By the end of the year, we had walked all the way to Tennessee, meditating, studying, and attempting to practice the teachings of Ramana Maharshi, whose advice to spiritual seekers was continually to ask as deeply as possible "Who am I?"

I found that walking and asking this question thousands of times a day over the weeks and months began to break up a lot of my assumptions about the nature of reality. I began questioning the rightness of eating the flesh of animals for food, especially after an incident where I caught a couple of fish in a stream and had to violently smash them on the ground in order to kill them so I could eat them. It turned out to be the last time I ever fished.

We arrived at The Farm in Summertown, Tennessee, in December 1975. It was the largest hippie commune in the world at that point, with over 900 people. Everyone ate what we would today call a vegan diet, with no meat, dairy products, or eggs, but because no one had heard of the word "vegan" back them, they called themselves vegetarians. They were clearly thriving, and definitely not dying of a protein deficiency! There were about 200 kids also, many of them vegan from birth, and they were doing well, growing up healthy and strong, without the usual childhood ailments that plague most kids.

I asked them why they were committed to this practice, and they said it was for two reasons. One was that feeding most of our grain and legumes to animals for meat, milk, and eggs is wasteful, and directly causes higher grain prices and shortages, leading to the relentless starvation of millions of our fellow human beings. The second reason was more visceral. They described the utter hells that we force upon millions of pigs, cows, chickens, and turkeys, where they are confined in huge, stinking, ammonia-drenched warehouses or barns where they never see the light of day; where they are routinely castrated, debeaked, and otherwise mutilated without anesthesia, and forced to bear young who are always stolen from them; where they are drugged relentlessly and then trucked to a painful, terrifying slaughter—completely enslaved and degraded commodities in an industrial killing machine. That was it. I have never eaten meat or fish since that day in 1975.

What made this transition so effortless was, I think, the fact that every day, for all three meals, we were eating meals of vegetables, fruits, grains, and legumes together with people in a community that had an overarching spiritual purpose and that practiced living the ancient teaching of ahimsa. I have come to realize the enormous power of community: it's obvious that the only reason any one of us in our culture today eats the flesh of animals, or their secretions such as milk and eggs, is the direct influence of the community we are born and raised in. We are products of our culture. We eat meat and dairy products simply because we are following orders—orders that have been injected into us from infancy through the potent practice of daily meals. Anthropologists understand that meals are the most significant rituals in any culture and are the primary way that the culture's norms and values are passed on from generation to generation. What I experienced at The Farm was an alternative community that lived by a different set of values and practices, and that allowed me to question the desensitizing program mandated by my culture and to begin to change it. For this I am eternally grateful.

In a few years, I ended up in the San Francisco Bay area, and in 1980 I learned more about the unavoidable cruelty on dairy and egg production operations. I made the somewhat less public and more introspective transition from vegetarian to vegan. I stopped buying and wearing leather, wool, silk, and other animal products, and began boycotting animal entertainment, research, and products as much as possible. A few years later, in 1984, I shaved my head and went to South Korea to live as a Zen monk in a monastery called Songgwang Sa, following the traditional meditation practice schedule that began at three every morning and went until nine at night. I realized when I got there that this Zen monastery practiced vegan living—no meat, fish, dairy, eggs, wool, silk, or leather, or even killing of insects—and that this had been the established practice for about 650 years, since its founding back in the 1300s. So I realized that veganism is not a new hippie idea, but is rather a modern iteration of the ancient spiritual teaching of ahimsa.

Through the months of seemingly endless silent meditation, I felt I was gradually extricating my consciousness from the brambles of three decades of conditioning by my culture, and was beginning to realize directly that what I am, and what we all are, is a manifestation of eternal consciousness, of the nature of wisdom, compassion, freedom, and awareness. When I returned to North America, I felt I had vegan roots that went deeply into my heart. I saw that veganism is not anything to be proud of, or even ultimately to practice. It is simply the natural result of seeing that is no longer confined to the prison of culturally imposed indoctrination, and is the result of being able to make a journey home, to our hearts, where we naturally look with eyes that see beings when we see beings rather than seeing mere commodities. It was obvious that meat is no more food than is the arm or leg of a neighbor, and dairy products no more our food than the mammary secretions of our pet dog nursing her puppies. I realized that there is no effort involved in being a vegan, and that it is not a choice we make, but is the result of a realization.

I could see clearly how culturally driven it all is. I have met people who would say that they could never give up eating beef or chicken or fish. However, if I asked them if it would be difficult for them to give up eating dog or cat, they looked at me as if I were irrational and said they would never want to eat the flesh of these animals. And yet in Korea, I had visited the meat markets in Seoul and seen the cages with dogs and cats for sale for slaughter, and had met men who had said they would not want to give up eating dog stew but had no desire for beef.

For the next fifteen years or so, I immersed myself in studying everything I could find about our culture, animals, food, and the spiritual teachings, myths, history, and anthropology of the relationship between spiritual intuition, morality, and our treatment of nonhuman animals. During this time I received a Ph.D. in the philosophy of education from the University of California, Berkeley, and subsequently taught college and university courses in mythology, humanities, literature, and comparative religion. Through meditation, study, and discussions in academia, I began to slowly realize that our culturally imposed food practices are far more powerful in negatively conditioning us and causing the terrible suffering we experience than anyone apparently realized. I had read the books and articles that established clearly that eating foods sourced from animals is deleterious to our health, that it's destroying our earth's ecosystems, and that it causes enormous cruelty toward the imprisoned animals whose flesh and secretions we are taught to eat. As important as these issues are, I began to realize that they are but the tip of an iceberg. I began to realize that there are many other ramifications of our routine mistreatment of animals for food, and I yearned to read a book that discussed and illuminated these other dimensions: the spiritual, cultural, sociological, anthropological, and historical aspects and effects of our culture's daily meals. After searching and waiting for several years for this book to appear, I realized that I'd have to write it myself. So I spent the next five years writing, and the result was The World Peace Diet. I'm glad to say that there were apparently others waiting for this book too, because it's been translated now into eight languages and became an Amazon number one best-seller in 2010.

In a nutshell, the message is that all of us have born into a culture with a taboo that is hidden in plain sight on our plates. In just the United States alone, we are killing, by conservative estimate, about 75 million animals every day for food. This enormous killing machine reaches its toxic tentacles into every nook and cranny of our ecological world, our shared cultural world, and our personal physical and psychological worlds. I have come to believe that at every level, it is the primary devastating force, bringing environmental catastrophe, hunger, war, disease, despair, inequality, exploitation, and spiritual disconnectedness.

For example, from an ecological perspective, animal agriculture is by far the most devastating force on our planet, requiring enormous monocropped fields of genetically engineered corn, soybeans, alfalfa, and other feedstock that consume and waste most of our fresh water reserves. This causes massive air and water pollution as well as oceanic dead zones from hypoxia, as cows, pigs, chickens, and factory-farmed fish inefficiently convert the lipids, carbohydrates, and amino acids in plants to toxic saturated fat, cholesterol, acidifying animal protein, and mountains of poisonous manure, as well as huge quantities of methane and nitrous oxide that are a major force behind global climate breakdown and global warming. Similarly, I discovered that the chief motivation for cutting and burning the Amazonian rainforest at the current rate of about one acre per second is to grow soybeans to feed livestock, and that the oceans are being overfished to the point that extinction and near-extinction of many fish populations are imminent. The demand for fish is nearly limitless because fishmeal is used to fatten cows, pigs, chickens, and factory-farmed fish, and to make cows and hens give more milk and eggs. It's estimated that 200,000 species are going extinct every year, causing the loss of genetic diversity in the largest mass die-off in 65 million years, and it is our acculturated desire to eat meat, fish, and dairy products that directly causes this tragic devastation.

Currently we're growing enough food to feed between twelve and fifteen billion people (and we only have seven billion of us), but because we're feeding most of the grain and legumes we grow to imprisoned animals for meat and dairy products, about one billion of our brothers and sisters suffer and die from chronic malnutrition. The gross inequity of this—a billion people living in industrialized countries have economies that bid up the price of grain to feed livestock, putting foodstuffs beyond the reach of starving people—is one of the underlying causes of war and conflict on our earth today. In addition, the armies of unfortunate workers paid to mutilate, confine, and kill these animals have the highest rates of worker-related injuries, as well as of drug addiction, alcoholism, suicide, and spousal and child abuse. They suffer from what psychologists now call "perpetrator-induced traumatic stress disorder." Their trauma causes them to inflict trauma on others, and this harms all of us because we're all interconnected. For Theosophists, dedicated to furthering the universal brotherhood of humanity, these are obviously important concerns.

Looking more deeply, I realized that from the psychological and spiritual perspective, our violence toward animals inevitably boomerangs as well. I believe one of the great adventures of our time in terms of spiritual, intellectual, and emotional growth is making the journey to understand the ramifications of our meals. What is the mentality required of a culture that routinely kills and eats 75 million animals daily? It is precisely the mentality that devastates the landscapes we inhabit, ecologically, culturally, psychologically, and spiritually. We are all forced from our earliest days to participate in daily rituals in which beings are reduced to things—pieces of meat. This mentality of reductionism, commodification, exclusion, privilege, elitism, and exploitation, routinely driven into us in the most relentless ways, creates an inner environment of disconnectedness, insecurity, and competitiveness that lead to complacency, gullibility, and the planetary disasters we are creating. This is our essential wound: not just witnessing adults eating the flesh of tortured animals, but being forced to participate in this behavior ourselves. This forcefully suppresses our inner feminine intuitive wisdom, which I refer to in The World Peace Diet as Sophia (from the Greek for "wisdom"). With Sophia repressed as we are forced to eat the flesh and secretions of enslaved, terrified animals, we become disconnected from our intuition and our inherent freedom. In fact, according to sociologists, there is more human slavery today, in both absolute and proportionate terms, than there was in the nineteenth century before human slavery was supposedly abolished.

This is our culture's essential dilemma. We eat animal foods only because every institution in our culture has indoctrinated us from birth to do so, and our complacency, gullibility, and distractedness are increased by corporate messages and governmental policies that constantly infantilize us. One primary characteristic of emotional maturity is the ability to delay gratification, but we are bombarded with messages to buy now, have now, and pay later. The media serve us a continuous stream of images treating us all like children who want only to be entertained and distracted with sports, celebrity scuttlebutt, sex scandals, and fragmented news bites, and the government increasingly controls us "for our security" as if we're frightened, helpless children, while increasingly attacking our sovereignty. Underlying all this is a massive dairy industry that keeps us still sucking at the breast we never got, drinking milk like infants who can't bear to grow up, eating cheese, cream, and butter from abused mothers whose babies are stolen from them and whose milk and lives and purposes are stolen from them. As we drink the milk of these sexually abused mothers, we remain gullible infants, believing the false and disempowering official stories concocted by the parental authorities.

I've come to believe that until we question the false official stories we've internalized, especially those normalizing eating animal foods, our quests for ethical maturity, social justice, and spiritual evolution will remain merely ironic. There is no scientific validation for the theory that eating products made from cows' milk is good for our bones or gives us usable calcium, for example. In fact studies uniformly show the opposite: without exception, countries with high rates of dairy consumption have the highest rates of osteoporosis. We are bombarded with fallacious official stores telling us that we need to eat dairy products for calcium, fish flesh and oil for omega-3 fats, and animal foods for protein. These nutrients, like all the nutrients we need (amino acids, fats, carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients), originate with plants, and we can skip the animal in the middle and get them directly from the plants. The only two possible exceptions are vitamin D, which is supplied by sunlight, and vitamin B-12, which is manufactured by bacteria and is in soil and water and easily supplemented. As Theosophical teachings imply, when we eat foods sourced from animals, besides the physical toxins (pesticide, hormone, drug, heavy metal, hydrocarbon, radioactive, and other residues) that concentrate in animal flesh, eggs, and dairy products, there are metaphysical toxins as well: we are eating terror, despair, anxiety, boredom, depression, and rage. Spiritual teachings have long emphasized the importance of prana (vital force) and the reality of the vibrations of food. For inner peace and deep meditation, as well as living our lives according to our values, our food choices are vitally important.

As we sow, we reap. As long as we robotically participate in enslaving and terrorizing nonhuman animals, stealing their purposes for our own ends, we will find ourselves enslaved and terrorized and our purposes stolen from us by others for their own ends. As we awaken from the imposed trance of violence and say yes to kindness, respect, compassion, freedom, health, sustainability, mindfulness, justice, and peace in our behavior toward others, then will we be worthy of living in a world that mirrors this.

As Jiddu Krishnamurti always emphasized, our world is a mirror. Our relentless violence toward animals (and other humans) boomerangs ineluctably, and each and every one of us can be part of the solution. We can help each other remove the toxic program that has been injected into us by our dysfunctional culture. We can learn to switch to a healthy, organic, whole-foods, plant-based diet that uses a much smaller quantity of our resources and opens our hearts to the interconnectedness of all living beings and the amazing beauty of life on our precious earth. And we can dedicate ourselves to spreading this message of radical inclusion and compassion, and assist others in removing the food program from their body-mind as well. There is no more noble and vital activity than this, it seems to me. Ultimately, it is the path to freedom, joy, abundance, and peace. What we want for ourselves we are called to give to others. Animals are not mere props in the human drama; their suffering is as significant to them as ours is to us, as we know intuitively.

As Theosophists, I feel we are called to study and live the ancient wisdom teachings, and we have today an unprecedented opportunity to transform both our culture and ourselves. Recognizing, living, and sharing the truth that we can all thrive on plant-based diets, we can launch a new human awareness rooted in compassion, health, inclusiveness, and freedom. We are all inherently wise, compassionate, powerful, and creative, but we've had the faculties of our hearts and minds slammed so hard by the violent culture of our upbringing that we have become tools in the hands of violence. Let's wake up, question the official stories, practice the unyielding truth of our interconnectedness, and usher in a world of greater freedom and peace for all.

Dr. Will Tuttle, pianist, composer, and educator, is author of the acclaimed best-seller The World Peace Diet. A recipient of the prestigious Courage of Conscience Award, and vegan since 1980, he is a Dharma Master in the Zen tradition, and has created eight CD albums of uplifting original piano music. A self-paced online study of food issues is now available from his Web site, as is training to facilitate World Peace Diet study groups: www.worldpeacemastery.com.