FOOD AND THE SACRED SOUL - by Kris Hughes
I have never doubted for a moment that animals have souls. However, what we should do about that, is such a complex question that it's easy to see why both religious and secular wings of the establishment have long preferred to either deny or cast doubt on the question. It's not the place of this piece to enter too deeply into the definition of what the soul might be. Mirriam Webster's first definition is a pretty good one to be going forward with: "the immaterial essence, animating principle, or actuating cause of an individual life" Further down the list were two more that I particularly liked: "the spiritual principle embodied in human beings, all rational and spiritual beings, or the universe" and "the quality that arouses emotion and sentiment"
Every once in awhile, a popular scientific periodical seems to run an article with a headline like "Scientists Find That Animals Actually Feel Love and Affection" or "Animals Have Emotions After All, Say Researchers". In the words of a no nonsense engineer I know "Geez! They'll be discovering steam power next!" and yet I'm always surprised to find animal loving friends sharing things like this on the internet, as if just one more half baked piece of pseudo-science will lend weight to what we all know in the first place! However, don't forget that it wasn't so long ago that there was a near consensus in the so-called scientific community that animals did not, in fact, even feel pain, and there are still those who try to hang on to this notion, either completely, or who say that "Okay, they feel physical pain, but they lack the same emotional associations (fear of death or incapacity, fear that the pain won't stop, etc.) and this is frequently tied in with the idea that animals don't really suffer in unpleasant or unnatural situations either. I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir on these points, but at the same time it's when we come to the realisation that animals probably experience unpleasantness in a similar way to humans, and that they probably do have souls (whatever a soul is) that things start to get really difficult.
The trouble is, that most people who believe that there is such a thing as a soul, would also say that the soul is in some way sacred - and if the soul is sacred, the question of the body which contains it also being sacred has to arise, for if we cause suffering to the body, we probably cause suffering to the soul, and if we kill the body, perhaps we make the soul homeless, or kill it, too. It depends on what you believe, and it's easy to see why it has been easier for people in cultures which keep animals in captivity for their own use, to just say "Animals are not like us, so this is okay." Now, this is where things get really tricky. Let's say that we're agreed that animals do have souls and emotions a lot like ours. We could easily be headed for an enormous guilt trip. Some people deal with this by becoming vegans or working for animal liberation, and I'm not going to descry that at all. Most of us are in a kind of partial guilt/partial denial place, though, and it's really this I want to talk about.
Is there a hierarchy of souls? Is the soul of an animal whose species is endangered more valuable than than of an alley cat? Is a human's soul of more importance than that of a bug? Should the cute, the pregnant or the seemingly noble be given extra points? Somehow, I doubt it, and this is why I personally give much greater importance to ending or averting suffering than I do to preserving life. That goes for humans and animals. Don't get me wrong, I don't view the ending of a life as nothing, but I do believe that life is a circle and death will be followed by rebirth in one form or another. I don't believe that death is the end, but I am absolutely sure that it is inevitable! Suffering, on the other hand, is a dirty business. Not only is the sufferer in some degree of misery, but that suffering besmirches all who contribute to it or who come into contact with it.
So now, let us step toward the dining table. Rather than starting with a big plate of guilt, or even denial, let's think about how we can nourish our body in mindfulness of other souls. When I eat meat, I try always to be mindful of the soul of the animal whose body I eat. That is a start. I also am mindful of the life that animal led, from birth to death, and I believe that it is my duty as a fellow traveler in this world, to know, if possible, whether that animal was kept in a life of misery. For that reason, I don't eat meat unless I feel pretty sure that the animal had a good quality of life. The result is I don't eat much meat, and at the same time I enjoy the meat I eat. Sadly, I love dairy, and knowing what I do about the commercial dairy industry in the US, I know I will have to change that next. (Time to learn to make my own cheese!) That said, though, I believe that we can easily get too hung up on images of cute calves, miserable pigs in restrictive crates, and other horrors, and forget the suffering that is caused to our fellow human and animal travelers by the way crops are grown and the way that food is manufactured and marketed to us. This is important, too. Was the Kenyan farm worker who picked those baby vegetables paid a living wage? How did the illegal field worker who hoed that melon field live while he sent most of his earnings back home to Mexico? What about the Walmart employee who is struggling on food stamps while they stack the shelves with your incredible bargains? Yeah, when you look at it like that, it's a tough call. Of course, you may say that those people have a choice, whereas the animals don't. Perhaps, but they don't always feel that they have a choice, so we might like to ask ourselves what we can do to change that a little.
So now we look at that dining table again, and it has become very fraught with worry for those of us who want to be ethical. Adding to your worry is not my intention, and neither is it my intention to trivialise the suffering of a single soul who contributed to your feast. If you are thinking about things like this, you are on a frontier of evolved thinking. It's a scary place at times, but when we are on a frontier, it never hurts to stop and look back, and look around, and try to gain a little perspective. Everything we do. Everything. Has implications. One of the first things we need to do is cut ourselves a little slack, for causing suffering in yourself probably isn't any better in the universal scheme of things than torturing chickens. As fellow travelers with animals in this world, we have ended up with a great deal of power. Remember that we all have power to cause, and to potentially relieve, suffering in our fellow humans, too. It is a big deal, but it needn't be a heavy weight. We can only do our best. We may see changing some of our habits as arduous or unfair, or we can look at it as a great adventure and a way to feel much lighter in our own souls. Being kinder to those we meet is a form of mindfulness, being kinder in our eating habits, or our buying habits, or in how we treat the planet we all have to share - maybe these all carry equal importance. If we are not attentive in our eating habits, I do believe that it is a symptom of a lack of attention in a wider sense. However, if we eat "ethically" and then are unkind to others for making different choices, I don't think we will be helping anyone very much.
Because we all eat, it is one good place to begin a little mindfulness. That can go both for what we eat and how we behave at the table. It can go for learning to be thankful and for learning to share. The dining table has traditionally been a place of love and hospitality. Perhaps we can reclaim is as a place to nourish our souls and our bodies, and to show love and generousity of spirit to our fellow travelers again, and it might be interesting to see how the ripples of these attentive acts can flow out and into other parts of our lives and all the lives that are touched, as a result.
Since I wrote this piece on water, last week, my partner, Mark (who is an agnostic), and I have begun blessing our food and water, and the food and water we give to our animals. It is interesting to feel a shift in things here as we do this. That act is about sending good energy forward into those around us and what we all consume, but perhaps it is also possible to send energy outward, and backward, toward those who provided us with our food. This is about much more that the "quality" of what we put in our bodies, about more that ethical eating. It is an active and energetic expression of what the Lakota call hunkapi: all things are connected. I personally do not wish to be "self sufficient" in what I eat. How can I be? I recognise the threads which connect me to all life, and have no wish to cut these connections artificially. I would rather use the act of eating and drinking to increase my awareness of the connections.
Bio:Kris Hughes is a horsewoman, musician and writer, concentrating on topics such as meditation, divination, prayer and Celtic mysticism. She designs guided meditation cards and prayer cards, and offers oracle-based spiritual counselling. A native of SE Colorado, Kris spent most of her adult life in Scotland before returning to Colorado in 2008.
Her work and thoughts can be found at Website: Go Deeper and at Facebook: Go Deeper Readings