From the Editor's Desk

Printed in the Winter 2013 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Smoley,
Richard. "From the Editor's Desk" Quest  101. 1 (Winter 2013): pg. 2.

Richard_SmoleyAbundant food is one of the great blessings of our era. Unfortunately, the very quantity and variety of the food that's available to us create problems for our inner lives.

A hundred years ago foreigners regularly commented about the puritanism that Americans displayed about sex. Much has changed since then. We have become remarkably frank about sex. You can stand in the supermarket checkout line and see the blurbs on covers for women's magazines about having incredible orgasms and discovering the hottest sex secrets men don't want you to know. On the other hand, over the last generation it seems that a great deal of the discomfort towards sex that Americans once felt has been displaced onto food. Today food in practically all its forms induces a tremendous amount of anxiety. Advertisers even play to this occasionally. A few years ago a brand of especially rich ice cream used the slogan "Enjoy the guilt."

 Granted, there are reasons for this anxiety. Obesity rates are high and continue to soar higher. And many of our biggest health problems—diabetes, heart disease, and some forms of cancer—are caused by bad dietary habits. But it seems that everywhere you turn, there seems to be some reason for not feeling right about the foods you eat. This is true even of things that are usually considered beneficial. Fruits and vegetables cause fear because of the pesticide residues they may have in them. Rice, I learn from a recent issue of Consumer Reports, has been found to contain high quantities of arsenic. Even wheat, the most universal of foodstuffs, has come under suspicion, as increasing numbers of health problems have been traced to gluten.

Much of this apprehension is well-grounded, but soon a subtle dynamic comes into play. We feel guilty about eating something; this guilt makes us feel bad; and the bad feeling is itself a kind of punishment. Thus having paid the price for our behavior by beating ourselves up internally, we feel free to repeat the behavior. I suspect that many types of eating disorder have their root in this cycle.

The point is that guilt is not a solution for our food-borne anxieties; it is in large part the cause of them. While there is certainly every reason to consider one's dietary choices soberly and consciously, it's also wise to be realistic with yourself about what you are and aren't going to eat and make peace with yourself accordingly.

 What, then, about those who have made conscious and spiritually informed choices about their diet? Such people include Theosophists who practice vegetarianism. I would imagine that people in this category (and I am not among them) feel considerably less guilt and anxiety about food than most people. And certainly the decision to avoid meat is often inspired by the highest and most praiseworthy ideals, as Will Tuttle's article in this issue shows. But problems intrude here as well.

From an inner point of view, if you're following a diet that you consider to be superior to those of ordinary people, it can pose a subtle but powerful spiritual temptation. That temptation is known as pride. A number of the vegetarian Theosophists that I know occasionally give off a certain "stink of holiness" about their dietary practice, no matter how elevated its goals may be in and of themselves. While this attitude is sometimes unpleasant for others to be around, its greatest difficulty may be for those who practice it. It's a very short step from saying "Vegetarianism makes me a better person" to saying "Vegetarianism makes me a better person than people who eat meat." This kind of self-superiority can pose severe obstacles on the spiritual path.

 From an external point of view, the problem is similar. Some may find it tempting to sermonize about their practice. Not long ago, a seasoned observer of the Chicago spiritual scene said to me, "Whenever I go to the Theosophical Society, somebody gives me a lecture on vegetarianism." (Admittedly, this is probably less true today than it was years back.) For the most part, this simply doesn't work. As a rule people don't like preaching and won't be convinced by it. Preaching to the converted is so popular because it is the only kind that works; otherwise the hearer either stops paying attention or becomes even more firmly rooted in his resistance. I suspect that many people have been turned off to the Theosophical Society over the years not because of vegetarianism, but because of smugness about vegetarianism.

 What's the solution? Personally, I don't care for salesmanship. I believe it is possible to live and embody one's values without turning them into a commodity to be marketed. It makes me think of the Sufi order known as the "way of blame"—a group whose members make every effort to appear irreligious and nonobservant even though they are in fact highly devout. Should you become a secret vegetarian? Probably not. But there are times when it's valuable to know when to remain silent.

Richard Smoley


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