THE SPIRITUAL DIET
WORDS: LILY MYERS
IMAGE: KATE WEINER
I am slightly tipsy on the train from Boston to New York, listening to the audio recording of A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (an entirely enjoyable experience overall). In this engaging book on the universe’s natural history, Bryson describes the plethora of life with which we share this planet. He illustrates a simple truth: we are but one species among a vast existence of many, many life forms. Some are fuzzy, some are deadly, some tiny, some aquatic, some gigantic; but all living species have two things in common: we are alive, and we share a home.
This revelation made me feel both complete wonder and complete oneness; utter awe at the interweaving life that populates this planet. Because we all share a place to live, cooperate in the same food chains, and often compete for the same resources, we are all connected. It’s undeniable. Bacteria need our skin to feed on; we need bacteria to keep us alive. We need trees’ production of oxygen; trees need soil, soil needs worms, and so on and so forth, infinitely. We are all quite literally connected in one gigantic, exceedingly complex web.
This is a scientific truth, but to me, it’s also a deeply spiritual truth. I personally believe in pantheism: the idea that the divine is in all things. I believe all life is sacred, and therefore deserves respect. And because of the mutual respect we owe our fellow Earth-mates, and the awe I feel for our shared web of life, I choose not to consume any food that was once a sentient life form. This is why veganism is, for me, fundamentally a spiritual issue.
In our modern culture we are fraught with worry about what we should eat, and why, and how much. We talk about making food choices for health reasons, economic reasons, and environmental reasons. But why do we never talk about making food choices for spiritual reasons? While there are many benefits of vegetarianism and veganism (better health, less environmental damage) I’d be lying if I claimed these were my primary motivations. My primary reason, the reason that I committedly and joyously choose a vegan diet, is spiritual. I see all life as sacred and connected. It’s as simple as that.
This is the right choice for me. But that doesn’t mean that your spiritual diet is necessarily vegan or even vegetarian. Just as we each have our own spiritual path to walk, we all have a different range of habits that feel right to us spiritually, that align with our morals and beliefs. I would never prescribe what your spiritual diet should be; how could I possibly know? There is so much judgment already in our culture regarding food choices; we don’t need any more of that.
But what I do recommend is an active, curious exploration of various types of diets. I’ve been vegetarian, vegan, and carnivorous at various points in my life, and all of these habits taught me something. They were right for different phases of my life.
Last spring, in fact, I went through a brief period of eating meat for the first time in six years. And while I would not make that same choice now, I’m glad I did it then; it was an experiment, which eventually showed me that eating meat is not something I want to do. In my experience, we as humans don’t respond well to rigidity and rules; they can often have the opposite desired effect. Instead, a curious and flexible experimentation can teach us what habits we truly wish to implement.
This is important, too, because our reasons and motivations for diets will undoubtedly change throughout our lives. When I first went vegetarian in high school, it was to boycott the cruel practices of factory farms. When I first went vegan in my freshman year of college, it unfortunately was a strategy to surreptitiously lose weight and monitor my body in unhealthy ways. That’s because body monitoring was a phase I was already going through at that time—veganism was something I could hide my body insecurities behind. As I recovered from these insecurities, I went back to vegetarianism so as to have fewer rules and restrictions.
It was a good choice for me at that time. The flexibility allowed me to move onto a more healing path when I needed to.
This past year, after graduating college and moving to a new city, faced with a radically new life phase, I’ve begun deeply exploring a new spiritual path. It’s been vital to me, and has put me in touch with myself and the world in fulfilling and meaningful ways. And the more I explored this new pantheist, pagan spirituality—which is largely about oneness with and reverence for the natural world—the more I naturally leaned toward veganism. It just made sense, and felt right. It wasn’t a rule I implemented for restriction or rigidity; on the contrary, it was effortless, because it was just what I truly wanted to do. I was increasingly aligning my choices with my spiritual beliefs.
Finding your own spiritual diet is a practice of consciously and actively asking: does this habit feel right to me, according to my personal beliefs and values? It requires an unflinching inquiry into why you choose the diet you do. If you’re a meat eater, explore that! Connect to what meat is. Where it came from, how it was killed, what it means to consume it. Perhaps, to you, eating meat could mean meaningfully participating in the cycle of life and death. Perhaps not. But either way, confront it; engage with it. That’s the spiritual diet.
It’s a deeply meaningful experience to connect yourself to the food you’re consuming. If you’re a meat eater, I recommend interacting with animals both living and dead. It may reaffirm your current habits; it may change them. Either way, it will be affecting and informative. Last fall, a box of live lobsters was delivered to the restaurant I work at. They were squirming around on top of each other, their pincers forced shut with rubber bands, waiting to be boiled alive. Faced with the physical presence of these lobsters, I made the decision not to eat seafood anymore.
And that was that. The choice was easy. I confronted the animal, saw that it was truly a sentient being, and knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I did not want to eat it.
When you make diet choices that align with your spiritual beliefs, it should feel easy. Because of this alignment, veganism is very easy for me this time around. True, it’s also easy for me because I have the privilege of access and resources to acquire good vegan foods. But making the choice to use my resources for vegan food is effortless.
Often we try to force ourselves into diets. But if our motivation isn’t truly aligned with our hearts and minds, the diet will be very hard to follow. That’s why most weight-loss diets fail. When we adopt a diet with the goal of forcing ourselves into a rigid body type, our inner self knows that this goal is not self-loving. Somewhere inside ourselves, we resist the self-bullying motivation behind the diet. So the diet is nearly impossible and we quit.
I struggled for a significant phase of my life with food obsession and restriction, as so many of us do; the attitudes we’re taught today about food and bodies are highly toxic. Spirituality has been by far the biggest factor in setting me free from this cycle of negativity. In connecting to myself and the world as spiritual entities, as inherently worthy, sacred, and connected, I have been able to heal. My spiritual beliefs help me to view my body with compassion rather than criticism. The spiritual diet is not only about making responsible choices for our planet; it’s about making choices from and for a sense of self-love. In this, it is powerfully healing.
As cooperators in this one planet, our choices inherently affect one another. We have a responsibility to actively confront these choices. But this doesn’t have to be a chore; on the contrary, it can be joyful and self-loving. It’s deeply fulfilling to explore your options and find the habits that feel truly good to you. It’s an exercise in curious exploration, which is, after all, the best kind of spiritual path.