Over Christmas, I did my nerdly duty and saw the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens. I won’t spoil it for you who haven’t seen it yet; suffice it to say that it had more than enough high-speed escapes from TIE Fighters, dramatic twists, and splashes of humor to remind me why I’ve been looking forward to this film. But by the end of it I was feeling despondent, and not just because I have to wait a loooong time to see the next one.
Despite the fact that Star Wars happened “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”, 99% of space-based science fiction asks us to imagine forward, not back, so it’s easy to forget that it’s not a futuristic tale. And I found myself thinking when I walked out of the theater, “We don’t have a future”. Although I try to limit my media intake to what’s necessary, and balance it out with things like cute animal pictures and video game breaks, I’m still all too aware of the critical point we’re at with regards to climate change, ocean ecosystem collapse, loss of endangered species, and other environmental disasters. And so when the movie ended, so did my distraction from these overwhelming problems.
Beyond the distraction and the drop, The Force Awakens (and plenty of other movies) presents a massive enemy with potentially planet-destroying capabilities, something we know all too well. But everything works out in the end, the enemy is routed, and the whole story wraps up neatly in less than three hours. What should happen is that I should come out of the theater inspired to go fight the good fight anew. Instead, I found myself in deep despair.
It’s the same thing that happened to me after I went to see Tomorrowland earlier this year. In the same way the Star Wars franchise shows ways to defeat the Enemy (even as it regenerates in many disguises), Tomorrowland asks us to imagine a positive future, the possibility of better things than the current media-driven dystopia we seem to be hurtling toward. I hate that it was a box office flop; a lot of people could have used the messages it conveyed about how we don’t have to give in to the inevitability of an ever-worse world.
Yet even I can’t grab hold of that optimism. I’m not fooled by movies’ promises of simple answers to complex problems. As soon as the credits roll, I feel the weight of the world settle back onto my shoulders, and it hurts. I grieve. I get angry at the idea that all we need is the right heroes to come along and save the day. And I start to drown in perceived helplessness; I have no X-wing starfighter that miraculously avoids getting hit by enemy fire. I have no super powers, or advanced technology funded by Stark Industries or Wayne Enterprises. There no Q or Professor X to hand down much-needed information and wisdom to those who work to save the day.
So each time this happens I turn to my partner, my beloved, who knows my weaknesses and flaws and loves me anyway. He is an eternal optimist, but a realist. He knows the worst humanity can do, and yet believes in us anyway. I lay my sadness on him, and he carefully opens it up to see where it comes from. And then he gives me balance and perspective. Yes, there are horrible people with too much money and power, but there are also those who use their resources for the benefit of others. Yes, cynicism is often well-deserved, but that should not be the end of hope. Yes, our problems can’t be fixed with a well-aimed barrage of lasers and proton torpedoes, but there are people who are trying to enact very real solutions, just at a slower pace and smaller scale.
And then he tells me to go read the stack of publications that the various environmental groups I support send me each month. He says to focus especially on their victories and successes, and how even in the face of a battle lost they never give up the war. And so I immerse myself in the good news, often on conflicts and issues that they’ve been working on for years. I have to remember that sometimes I just have to sit back and enjoy the win, without letting the specter of “But the bad guys will attack again” loom over me. I go back over the positive messages of the movies I watch, and I absorb them, and I let their idealism inspire me.
I still often feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenges we face. It’s the price I pay for being aware of them, and refusing to spend my entire life in an ongoing search for more distractions. But I’m slowly trying to regain the optimism of my younger days, when I was less tired, and temper it with the experience I’ve had as I get older. There are still no simple solutions to complex problems; I don’t even believe that much in “good guys vs. bad guys” any more, only seven billion humans stumbling around trying to figure out what the hell is happening.
And so as I prepare to step into the new year, I resolve to keep taking care of myself, including in–especially in–my times of despair. I continue to heal the ongoing trauma of the destruction of my world, even as I fight to save it in my own way. I will still have the times when I have to ask for help. But that’s okay. In the movies every hero has support, and in the real world every person fighting to make things better has their allies. I need not carry all the weight of the world on my shoulders; we’re all carrying our own piece of it, and even if we can’t find a way to put it down for good in three hours or less, it doesn’t make us any less strong.
Last night I finished looking over the proofs for my next book, Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up, which will be coming out in January 2016. One of the things that struck me was how much of the book is spent simply showing readers how to connect with the land they live with. Most books on totemism and nature spirits give a bit of context, and then leap into the “how to find your guide” exercises. It’s not until the very last bit of the second chapter that we even start trying to contact totems. Even after that point, many of the exercises are intimately linked to the physical land, getting people outside and in direct contact where possible (though the material is still accessible to those who may be housebound).
Here in the U.S., most people are critically detached from the rest of nature, at least in their perception. This book is meant to help them reconnect, not just for self-help, but because we live in such an acutely anthropocentric world that we rarely consider the effects of our actions on the other beings in the world (to include other human beings). The problem seems immense: few of us give any thought to our environmental impact, either in part or in whole. When we are unwillingly confronted with it, it’s often in the most catastrophic manners–global climate change, mass deforestation, entire species disappearing overnight. We’ve learned to simply shut off the part that cares about nature any further than maybe sorting the recycling every week.
We’re afraid to care, because caring hurts. It’s hard to find hope in a world where the environmental news is largely bad. As far as I’m concerned, though, where there’s life, there’s hope. And I want to help people find that hope as a motivator to making the world–not just themselves–healthier and better. But because we’re used to seeing “THE ENVIRONMENT” as one big global problem, I reintroduce people to their local land–their bioregion–first in small steps, and then greater ones.
Some of that may be old hat to my nature pagan compatriots. After all, we’ve been hiking and wildcrafting and paying attention to the rest of nature for years. But this book isn’t only meant for the proverbial choir. There are plenty of people interested in non-indigenous totemism who wouldn’t describe themselves as “pagan”. Some of them are looking for self-improvement; others have some inkling that a being is trying to contact them, but they aren’t sure how to proceed. Still others want to feel connected to the greater world around them, but are too used to heavily structured spiritual paths that allow little room for personal experience.
That personal experience is absolutely crucial to my writing and the exercises I offer readers. If we’re going to reconnect with the rest of nature, we have to make it relevant to our own lives. Most of us in this country are used to being preached at, something the dominant religion is good at. But we quickly learn to tune it out, the same way we often tune out the messages about how horrible we are in our environmental practices.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about human psychology, it’s that most of us don’t do well when we’re being yelled at. There really is something to that whole “you’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar” adage. Environmental scare headlines try to terrify people into reconnecting enough to take responsibility, but that approach can be counterproductive. By making reconnection a positive, constructive and appealing concept, I hope to get people interested not just in their own personal spirituality, but how that spirituality is set in a greater world context.
From the beginning, Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up talks about the importance of totemism in relation to entire ecosystems, not just “me, me, me, what can I get out of having a totem?” Most of the books I’ve read on the topic are mostly about how the reader can connect with individual totems; there’s very little about the context all that happens in. And that goes right back into the anthropocentrism I’m trying to counteract,.
I’ve had the occasional reviewer complain that the material in my books isn’t “hardcore” enough because I rely primarily on guided meditations and accessible excursions into open areas, that I’m not telling people how to take hallucinogenic plants and soar off into the spirit world, or spend twenty days fasting in the wilderness. Well, of course not! That’s not the kind of thing that I think can be appropriately–or safely–conveyed through a book. Most people simply aren’t cut out for that much hardship and risk, and I don’t think they should be denied this sort of spirituality simply because their bodies or minds may not be able to handle ordeals, or because they lack the money to travel to remote locations in South America for entheogenic training.
As an author (and by extension a teacher) it’s my job to meet people where they’re at and help them explore someplace new. I am a product of my culture, and so is my writing. I am not part of a culture that lives close to the land and its harsh realities; mine is conveniently cushioned through technology and the idea that we are superior animals to the rest of the world. We don’t have a culture-wide system for intense rites of passage or life-changing altered states of consciousness. And I don’t have the qualifications to single-handedly create such a system, beyond what help with personal rites I can give as a Masters-level mental health counselor.
So are my practices gentler than traditional indigenous practices worldwide? Absolutely. That’s what most people in my culture can reasonably handle at this point. Trying to force them into something more intense would go over about as well as Captain Howdy’s rantings about “being awakened” in Strangeland. Sure, sudden and seemingly catastrophic experiences can cause a person to reach higher levels of inner strength and ability–but they can also cause severe physical and psychological trauma, or even kill. And, again, since we don’t have a culture in which everyone goes through an intense rite of passage at a certain age (such as adulthood), we can’t expect everyone to accept such a thing immediately.
Maybe that’s not what we need, anyway. Plenty of people engage in outdoor, nature-loving activities like backpacking, kayaking and rock climbing without the foremost notion being that they’re going into some intensely scary and dangerous place that could kill them in a moment. Most experienced outdoors people are fully aware of the risks and take necessary precautions, but their primary intent is connecting in a positive way with the rest of nature.
I think it’s okay for our nature spirituality to be the same way. I don’t think we always have to work things up as “BEWARE NATURE WILL KILL YOU AND YOU HAVE TO DO THINGS THAT COULD POSSIBLY KILL YOU IN ORDER TO FIND GUIDANCE”. I’ve spent almost twenty years gradually rediscovering my childhood love of the outdoors and its denizens, as well as developing a deeper appreciation for it. I’ve had plenty of transformative experiences without fasts or hallucinogens, and they’ve served to both improve myself as a person AND make me feel even more connected to and responsible for the rest of nature.
Does that mean there’s no place for ordeals? No; they have their place for the people who respond well to them. But they shouldn’t be held up as the one and only way to do nature spirit work. Again: meet people where they’re at, whether that’s on the couch or on the trail. You’ll reach more people, and create change on a broader scale as more people participate in the ways they’re able. And isn’t that change ultimately what we’re after, those of us who want to save the world?
Just a quick reminder that I still blog over at Paths Through the Forests, the Patheos blog that I share with Rua Lupa. My newest post there, “The Pagan Ape“, went live this morning. In it I discuss our detachment from nature, the effects that detachment has, and what I feel our responsibility as pagans and humans may be to the planet. Read the post here!
I am an animal lover, a sometimes pet owner, and an environmentalist dedicated to protecting wildlife and their habitats. I am also an omnivore, a hide and bone artist, and engaged in a fierce war with the ants that get into my apartment. A large portion of my spiritual path involves animal totems, and every day I consume some portion of their physical counterparts, whether in food or medicine or other products.
I’ve also spent years detangling the inherent contradictions in these relationships to my fellow animals. I’ve toured the free range ranch where I get a lot of my meat, and I’ve watched the (probably staged) videos put out by animal rights groups on fur farming. I periodically assess my personal ethics with regards to the animal remains I incorporate into my artwork, and I research environmental groups and their track records before donating a portion of the money made from that art to them. I’ve played with baby teacup pigs, and then gone home and eaten bacon, and considered how the life of one pig was different from another. In short, I’ve done a lot of thinking about the animals in my life.
So has Hal Herzog, anthrozoologist and the author of the 2010 title Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat. The cover features three common animals in the American landscape to go with the tripartite title: a puppy, a rat, and a pig. The opening question, then, even before you open the book, is why do we eat pigs and not dogs, why do only a few of us keep pigs and rats as pests, and why do we become incensed about some people in Asia eating dogs specifically bred for meat while ignoring the plight of pigs in factory farm conditions?
Some people already have their minds made up. “That’s just the way it is here”, they might say. Or “Well, it’s wrong, we shouldn’t eat or exploit any animals”. If you go into this book with an absolutist perspective, you’re likely to miss out on a lot of the important questions that the book raises about the sometimes conflicting, always highly personal, approaches we have to nonhuman animals. There are no easy answers, and that’s evident from the start.
The bulk of the book, eight chapters worth, is dedicated simply to exploring the many areas of relationship and contradiction we engage in with animals each day. Herzog looks at how we treat our pets, compares it to historical pet ownership, and questions the motives of those who put their toy poodles in designer sweaters. There’s a highly enlightening—and controversial–chapter that delves into cockfighting, and the comparison of the life of a gamecock to that of a commercially bred, raised and slaughtered broiler hen may have you questioning our priorities as a culture. Another section of the book goes into detail regarding research animals, especially mice, and we find that the research lab is full of more human responses to the test subjects than you might expect. It does get a little repetitive, with chapter after chapter of examples of “Yes, we have really mixed feelings about animals”. But read all the way through: it’s a really important setup for the last part of the book, and you don’t want to skip the middle of the story.
Herzog reserves the closest thing to a hard conclusion in the last two chapters. Chapter nine, “The Cats in Our Houses, the Cows on Our Plates”, directly addresses the hypocrisy on display in the previous chapters. The author points out that yes, we’re almost all hypocrites to one degree or another–and most of us don’t let it get to us. If pressed, we may explain at least in vague terms why we’ll step on a spider but not a caterpillar, but even the most intensive self-searching often comes to a dead end of “It’s just the way I do things”. The issue of animal rights is compared to religion, with a small handful of moral absolutists taking the part of “born-agains” and other fundamentalists, and the rest deciding what of the overarching theology to take and what to leave. This isn’t presented as a condemnation of anyone who isn’t an absolutist; in fact, Herzog brings up some of the destructive elements of absolutism, from the self-inflicted fatigue of activist burnout to the criminal acts of terrorism enacted by a tiny number of extremists. The conclusion of the chapter is that “moral consistency is elusive, if not impossible, in the real world” (262), which segues into the final chapter dealing with real people, rather than moral abstracts, as models of behavior toward animals.
In this last part, Herzog visits two different places where people are actively trying to save animals. On the one hand is Best Friends Animal Society, a decades-old animal sanctuary in Utah where all the animals are allowed to live out comfortable lives–even ants are gently moved outside. And then on the opposite side of the country is Judy Muzee, head of a group of volunteers who for years have been working to protect endangered loggerhead sea turtles, locating and preserving nests of eggs, and making sure the babies get to the water safely so they have a chance–however slight–of growing into adults. Muzee puts her animal-saving efforts into just one species and doesn’t necessarily treat all other animals with the same level of dedication (that would be a LOT of animals!) Best Friends considers any animal that comes through its doors to be on equal footing. Herzog does not choose one approach over another; rather, he presents them as two possible solutions a person may choose for the hypocrisy we have toward animals.
All in all, this is a valuable read, and I recommend it for everyone, though my fellow omnivores and hide and bone artists may find it especially helpful in articulating the whys of our choices. My only complaint was that I felt impatient for some sort of resolution or conclusion earlier in the book–but once I finished it, I understood why it took so long for Herzog to set the stage. It is not the be-all and end-all of answers on the debate over animal welfare and animal rights; if anything, it’s the antidote to the moral absolutism that often dominates that stage. And rather than bogging us down with guilt over “I’m not trying hard enough!” it invites us to be realistic with our own limitations, and to be honest about our hypocrisy–and then consciously act from there.
Recently I’ve run across a few online discussions and blog posts asserting that vegetarianism and veganism (abbreviated as “veg*nism” from here on out) are the proper dietary choices for pagans and other spiritual people. The arguments for this have ranged from “meat is icky and does icky things to your energy” to “such and such culture is/was primarily veg*n so we should be too” and, of course, “no TRUE pagan (Scottish or otherwise) would ever bring harm to another living being” (forgetting, of course, that animals are only one of several kingdoms of living being). I’m not going to link to any of these discussions because I don’t want people to go start arguments there; I think that sort of brigading is a form of harassment and an ineffective way of getting one’s point across.
On that note, before we go any further, I want to speak to the sometimes thoroughly aggressive and unnecessarily hateful speech and behavior that I’ve seen a small portion of people use in these debates over the years. If you are an omnivore, pagan or otherwise, it is not okay for someone to scream at you that you’re a murderer because you eat meat. It is not okay for someone to say “Ewwwwww, you eat meat/drink milk/eat eggs? That’s so gross it makes me want to vomit!” or “You’re an evil bitch/bastard who’s going to burn in hell for hurting poor little animals!” It is not okay for someone to tell you they wish someone would kill you and cut up your body and cook it, or that they hope you die of a heart attack from eating meat. It is not okay for someone to call together a bunch of their friends to leave hateful messages on your Facebook profile or fill up your inbox with the same in a harassment brigade. That shit’s just not okay.
At the same time, I also don’t think it’s okay to antagonize veg*ns for their dietary restrictions. If you are an omnivore, pagan or otherwise, it is not okay to deliberately annoy veg*ns with stupid jokes about meat. It is not okay to tell a veg*n that they just need to eat more bacon, or that they can’t possibly be in good health, or being all “Oh, yuck, tofu? How can you EAT that?” It is not okay for you to question a male veg*n’s manhood just because he doesn’t eat meat. And it is most certainly not okay to sneak meat into a veg*n’s food, whether or not you then tell them you did it. That shit’s also just not okay.
Now that we’ve established some ground rules, I want to address some reasons why it’s okay for you to be an omnivore if that’s your choice. These are talking points you can draw on if someone ever comes in swinging at you for your diet; they’re not meant as bludgeoning objects to try and convince someone that their veg*nism is wrong for them.
Your Body, Your Diet
Bodily autonomy is a basic human right. Regardless of how you may feel about the autonomy of other living beings, almost all of us can agree that each human being’s right to their own body should be inviolate, and the violation of bodily autonomy is at the root of some of the most serious crimes and human rights crises. That means that you get to choose what you eat (finances and availability allowing, of course), no matter what anyone else says.
It also means you have the right to look out for what’s best for your body. Some of us simply don’t thrive well on even a well-balanced veg*n diet, and if that’s the case for you you don’t have to run around sick and malnourished because someone else yelled at you for not eating the way they think you should. That being said, it’s also a good idea to be aware of what you’re eating and the effects it may be having on your body. My partner and I have both been eating less meat (especially not-fish meat) because we both have familial health risks that could be aggravated by too much meat consumption, and we both love good salads anyway. It’s still your prerogative if you want to live on Denny’s ham and cheese omelets and soda (even when other things are readily available to you and within your means), and part of respecting bodily autonomy means accepting that people are going to eat what they will no matter what anyone else thinks.
Spirituality and Subjective Projection
From a more particularly pagan angle, I’ve seen numerous claims that a veg*n diet is better for spiritual practices. The reasons include everything from the claim meat is harder to digest, requiring more bloodflow to the stomach and therefore less to the brain, to the concept that meat clutters up your energy/aura/etc. The part about digestion is true–cooking meat, marinating it (particularly in an acidic marinade) and even pureeing it can make it easier to digest, but it still take more effort than, say, cherries or lettuce. If you’re an omnivore and want to amp up the bloodflow to your brain for the purposes of a particular meditation or retreat, then a temporary veg*n diet can help.
What about the other assertion, that meat makes your aura more icky because you ate dead animal flesh (just this side of cannibalism, according to some)? Well, quite honestly, there’s no way to prove this. A veg*n who claims they felt better and more spiritually active and clean once they kicked their meat habit may be telling the truth about their experience, but it doesn’t mean that meat was necessarily the direct cause. Instead, it may have been the relief they felt in their conscience, which is also a valid feeling. But there are plenty of us who feel just fine spiritually after eating meat. And for those of us who really are obligate omnivores, few things ruin a good spiritual experience like not having given our bodies what they need to function properly.
Given the choice between spirit and science, I’m choosing science every time; spirituality is not meant to be a replacement for professional medical care. That means that since my doctor, who has seen me for years and has been tracking my health with her years of experience and her knowledge of the most up to date research, suggests I stick to omnivorism, that’s going to trump someone without credentials telling me that they think my aura looks muddy because I had bacon this morning.
Just Because We Don’t Have Catchy Slogans Doesn’t Mean We’re Wrong
One of the most frustrating things for me is when slogans like “MEAT IS MURDER!” and “EAT BEANS, NOT BEINGS” are bandied about as though having a catch phrase is all it takes to make you right. Like a sports team’s traditional cheer, these sound bites serve to bind together activists in a common cause with a quick, easy to remember distillation of their message. Unfortunately, just like sports fanatics who stalwartly stick by their team no matter what, the people chanting these things sometimes don’t consider the possibility someone else could have a perfectly valid disagreement. Moreover, these slogans also provide activists with a way to shut down any possible conversation. An omnivore could say “Hey, I choose to eat free-range meat because…” and all the other person has to do is scream “IT’S STILL MURDER, YOU MURDERER! MURDER!”
Here on the omnivore end of the spectrum, we don’t really have slogans, beyond those created by marketing boards. I mean, “PORK! THE OTHER WHITE MEAT!” isn’t really an inspiring rallying cry. And sometimes we don’t really know what to say when someone comes at us, ready to beat us into the ground with a guilt trip. It takes a lot longer to explain why The Compassionate Hunter’s Guidebook spoke to you than it does for someone else to say “YOU KILLED BAMBI!” There’s very little room there for critical thinking.
Why is critical thinking important? Because there’s bad information on both sides of the debate, and critical thinking is a good opportunity to question and double-check this information. One of the discussions I mentioned in the very first paragraph stated that over half of greenhouse gas production is specifically from agriculture; however, the EPA reports that only 10% are from all combined agriculture, livestock and otherwise. Conversely, there are people who honestly think non-human mammals aren’t able to feel pain–yes, there are still those who subscribe to Descartes’ concept of mechanistic physiology in which animals only respond to stimuli because they’re meaty machines, never mind all the modern research to the contrary. And when someone questions either of these assertions, the people who hold to them are likely to just latch on more tightly.
Critical thinking is scary because it can show the flaws and cracks in one’s own beliefs and posits the idea that maybe the other person does have a point. Slogans, on the other hand, often present something as universally desirable for everyone, a much safer but more inaccurate proposition. Even I can see the severe limitations of “Milk: It Does a Body Good”, starting with the significant number of lactose-intolerant and dairy-allergic people out there. This brings me to my final talking point…
We Face Very Complex Problems With More Than One Potential Solution
I am an omnivore in part because I care about the environment. I study (from a layperson’s view, anyway) the entirety of our food system, which is a complicated thing. I am aware of the horrific conditions of factory farms and slaughterhouses and the overfishing of the ocean. I also know how the pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals that are sprayed on conventional crops kill countless animals through poisoning all the way through the food web. They also wash into the ocean to harm animals there and create anoxic dead zones. That goes for crops fed both to livestock and to humans, omnivores and veg*ns alike. And I’m aware that a lot of the food in the stores, regardless of what it is, got from its source to the shelf (often by way of lots of processing and packaging) with an immense amount of fossil fuels, water, and other resources. I’ve watched wild lands around my hometown and elsewhere being chewed up for agricultural fields all planted with one single crop, unable to support the diversity of life they once did, and I know that habitat loss is the number one cause of species endangerment and extinction.
For some people, the answer to this is veg*nism–fewer animals die, less grain is required for animal feed, and so forth. It’s a good answer for many. But it’s not the answer that works for me, not just because of my body’s need for animal proteins, but also because I choose to focus my efforts at a greener life a little differently. I buy most of my meat from a free-range ranch a few hours outside of Portland; they have a booth at nearby farmer’s market every weekend. I’ve toured their ranch, too; the animals are entirely pasture-fed, with no grain finish. Those pastures also support a diversity of wildlife and plants, and the soil is nourished by the manure of buffalo, heritage turkeys, and other livestock. I have my plot at the community garden and my collection of pots on my tiny balcony; it’s not enough to feed both me and my partner, but it’s a very good supplement, and we can make up the difference with organic produce (especially during the summer when the farmer’s markets are full to overflowing with choices). And there are fishmongers at the same markets who drove just a couple of hours from the coast–or, in the case of salmon, nearby rivers–with small-scale, sustainable seafood. All these things came locally, cutting down on carbon pollution compared to conventional alternatives that were flown in from out of the country. And the meat I buy is a damned sight better in my mind than a Morningstar Farms veggie burger, produced by Kellogg’s from non-organic soy and other ingredients.
But this is my solution, as someone who is an obligate omnivore, who happens to live in a very food-friendly city, and who has the financial means to pay a little more for organic at the store and the time to tend to a small garden. I would never dream of presenting it as the One True Solution to carbon pollution, factory farming, and dead zones in the ocean. When I write about my adventures in gardening, or share recipes on Tumblr, I’m not doing it to tell people that they should do things my way. Instead, I’m leaving my experiences out there as examples for others to consider along with other information, and to encourage those who have been thinking about trying out the things I’m doing. That’s as far as it goes.
And you know what? I’m fine with being an omnivore. I don’t run around wearing an “OMNIVORE PRIDE!” shirt, because I don’t think diet is something to particularly be proud of or ashamed of either way. But I have carefully considered my options with research and critical thinking and found a solution that both works for my needs, and sits well within my eco-conscious conscience. I’ll always question it, too, as new information comes out and as new options arise, because fundamentalism of any sort sucks. (You can insert your own end comment here about omnivory and sacred cows.)
I’ve always had a pretty psychology-heavy approach to spirituality, even before I went to grad school. I confess that I am one of those people who studied psychology in part to figure myself out; while in some ways I am a very capable, functional and adaptable human being, I do have my challenges. I’ve used therapy for years to help treat my anxiety and other idiosyncracies, but even when going on a weekly basis, I still have to attend to myself the other 167 hours. For a good long while I used meditation, with a strong focus on emotional processing, as a big part of my personal psychological toolkit.
It worked pretty well for several years. It gave me an outlet for exploring the weird twists and turns of my mind, particularly regarding my past. I grew up in a pretty safe and loving household, and even if I seemed to be a peculiar child, I was never, ever unwanted. But I also grew up with a constant onslaught of bullying at school, starting in second grade and going all the way to the end of high school. I had very few friends, and most of the ones I did have would often turn on me with no notice. For years I found refuge outdoors, alone and mostly unsupervised, able to immerse myself in the fauna and flora and fungi around me. But there was an additional trauma when the woods I took refuge in were suddenly and brutally bulldozed, and I found myself with nowhere to turn with my grief.
My twenties were tough, and I spent a lot of time trying to detangle myself from all these early influences. And for a while, it served its purpose. I gained more awareness of why I behaved in certain ways, and felt a little less like a badly programmed automaton. I even did some rite of passage work to banish certain behavior patterns or the effects of particular memories as a way of trying to reprogram myself.
But knowing how my brain worked and doing one-off symbolic actions wasn’t enough. In fact, beyond a certain point, it became counterproductive. I started spending too much time in my head, and would retreat into it as a defense against the anxiety, stress and other nasties that had plagued me for so long. I thought that if I could just tell my life story a little more clearly, I’d somehow be free of it, once that final piece was laid into place.
That’s not how it happened, of course. I just obsessed over my past more and more. More destructively, I was judging and measuring and nitpicking my every move and thought and trying to determine “Well, why am I doing this?” I was my own special little lab rat. I’d do a thing, and then I’d analyze it to death, and then I’d write up the “results”, usually on Livejournal. I don’t even want to think about how many pages-long posts of agonized processing I word-spewed onto the update page (thankfully hidden under LJ-cuts to spare my followers who didn’t give a crap what was going on in the deepest convolutions of my gray matter). It can basically all be summed up as “I THOUGHT ABOUT THIS THING FROM MY PAST BECAUSE I DID A THING NOW THAT REMINDED ME OF IT AND NOW I’M GOING TO TAKE AN EXACTO BLADE AND SLICE IT UP INTO TINY BITS AND SCRUTINIZE IT UNDER THIS MICROSCOPE AND LOOK AT HOW DEEP AND INTROSPECTIVE I AM EXCUSE ME WHILE I GO MEDITATE AND REFLECT AND PROCESS IT SOME MORE IT’S NOT MUSHY ENOUGH”.
This was all amplified when I ended up in a relationship for a few years with someone who also did a good deal of internal processing and past-picking. Now I had someone else encouraging me to dig deeper, spend more time “sitting with myself” and my problems and my pain and otherwise focusing on the stuff in my head. Some of their suggested techniques were different than what I was doing, but the result was the same–I stayed stuck in my head, a broken record skipping over the same crack again and again and thinking that the sound I made was the music I was supposed to hear. Eventually it became something of a horrible feedback loop between us, especially when we’d fight–instead of dealing with the problem itself, we’d take turns explaining exactly why we were each behaving the way we were, sometimes spending hours in this war-storying* circlejerk. Unsurprisingly, the actual thing we were fighting about rarely got addressed, and it would just come up again later. In the interim, we’d both meditate and otherwise “reflect” on ourselves and our quirks and flaws in an attempt to gain control of them, which invariably did little good. I was supposed to be visiting my past in these meditations as a way of giving myself control in my everyday life, but instead all I was doing was reinforcing the neurological pathways in my brain that led to the anxiety and other problems.
This approach to “fixing things” continued until I became involved with my current partner a few years ago and began trying the same processing patterns with him. Not too long into our relationship, I had a bit of an anxiety attack, and my immediate response was to open up the mental Rolodex of “Why is this happening? What patterns in my childhood led to this response behavior?” and so forth, going over the same tired examples in the hopes of finding some new little twist I’d missed before. He’d seen this happen a few times, and he’s a pretty observant person; I’ve actually learned quite a bit about empathy and active listening from him.
So he stopped me in mid-sentence. I forget exactly what he said, but it was something along the lines of “Lupa, what are you trying to do? You’re not ten years old any more; you’re not fifteen, and you’re not twenty. You are who you are now, and you need to stop hanging on so tightly to who you were back then. Be here now.” And then instead of letting me continue to obsess over the reasons for my anxiety attack and what created my anxiety disorder in the first place and who bullied me, etc. etc., which kept my anxiety heightened until I exhausted myself, he carefully walked me through the anxiety, calmed me down, and grounded me in the present.
It boggles my mind that until that point no one had ever effectively done that for me before. I’d gotten a lot of dismissive remarks like “Just get over it” and “What are you making such a big deal for?” I’d gotten yelled at and bullied and retraumatized into shutting up by those who couldn’t handle what was happening to me any more than I could, even by people who were supposed to be helping me. And I’d both inflicted on myself and had reinforced by others this idea that if I just “sat with my past” it would fix everything and empower me to change; in the end, people who thought they were helping me by leading me deeper into myself were just perpetuating the problem and hurting me even more with their “expertise”. And yet someone who had only known me for a handful of weeks was able to see where I was stuck in my head and gave me a lifeline out of it.
It took me a while after that incident to break myself of the instant response of “INTERNALIZE! PROCESS! REFLECT!” whenever I got hit with stress. There were plenty of times where I realized, or my partner observed, that “Lupa, you’re doing that thing again. Quit it. Come back here.” And being that I was deep in grad school at the time, I was embroiled in upper-level psych and counseling classes that kept unearthing things in my head (this is why my program required every student to receive at least ten hours of therapy before starting their practicum). So it was a hard fight out of my internal cage.
But eventually I got there. I don’t remember the precise time when things shifted; like so much growth, it was gradual–as opposed to the sudden growth spurts I think I must have been expecting with every new revelation I discovered about my past during meditations and processing sessions. It’s been a couple of years at least, though, since I can remember it happening.
Of course, some things are still the same old Lupa–I still have anxiety attacks now and then, usually from fairly predictable stimuli. But at least now my panicking brain focuses on the here and now, along with some catastrophizing about the future. The catastrophizing I can get around by reminding myself that I’m looking at the worst case scenario and the future hasn’t arrived yet so it does no good to worry about it now, and so then I can get down to the business of the present. And because I’m shifting my focus to the present, I become aware, most of the times when an attack happens, that my mind is going haywire because my brain and body are flooded with fight, flight or freeze chemicals, and I hang onto that awareness til the chemicals flush out of my system and I can think rationally again.
More importantly, I’m not constantly reinforcing that connection with my past. While I have an understanding of how my past shaped who I am today, it’s no longer the central focus of my identity like it used to be. Instead, “influences from my past” is just one of many and varied threads of self that all weave together to create who I am in this moment. Nor do I have to nitpick every single thing I do under the magnifying glass of my past. If I happen to notice a connection between past and present, I note it briefly, usually with a bit of curiosity and “Huh, okay, that makes sense”. And then I move the fuck on with my day.
This is a big part of why my path has shifted so drastically to the physical in recent years. Pagans talk about “grounding” in the sense of visualizing one’s self being energetically rooted into the earth. Sometimes it involves symbols of nature, like pretending to be a tree and putting down roots, but it’s still a technique based on being in my head. The best thing for me has been being grounded right here in the moment, not pretending to be a tree or a beam of light or a cloud, but being me, Lupa, in the flesh. I’m tired of willful dissociation, and I’ve wasted too much time on it. Now, when I feel overwhelmed, I go back to what worked first in my life–I go outside, preferably alone and where it’s quiet. It allows me respite from my thoughts, and it does things that reduce the physiological causes of anxiety and stress, like lowering my blood pressure and letting my senses drift instead of focus hard. My answer to problems is not to think more, but to think less for a while, and rest from thinking. When I come back, my thoughts and plans are more calm and steady, not frazzled from reaching inside for THE ANSWERS.
Does this mean I’ve written off meditation entirely? Absolutely not. But these days I use it as an antidote to overthinking; my meditation is based in mindfulness, not magic. Even when I do guided visualizations I’m not trying to power my way through chakra blockages or go on quests to seek the grails within. Instead, what I visualize are things that reconnect me with the physical world. With my eyes closed, I try to pinpoint exactly where a particular sound is coming from, or to remember where I am in location to a specific tree. And then when I open my eyes again, I am fully here and now again, not rabbiting off down some path to the mean old past yet again.
And that’s made all the difference. A few years ago, if I were talking about my relationship with meditation down the years, I’d be hyper-analyzing every detail of the story, and finishing it with “…and that’s why I am the way I am today! Look how smart I am for recognizing that!” And that’s it. This post is a curious note in my thoughts today, where I realized “Oh, hey, remember that thing you used to do, Lupa? You haven’t done it in years!” And my response was “Oh, hey, that’s cool.” I thought maybe my cautionary tale would be of interest to some readers, maybe if others are stuck in the same headspace; I got out, and maybe you can, too.
As to my ongoing work to calm my anxiety? I acknowledge that my brain doesn’t quite work right; maybe that’ll change someday, maybe not, but I don’t need to try to figure out every single thing that led up to it being the way it is. It’s okay that I’m able to largely ignore injuries of the past and let them work on healing while I do other stuff. I’m like this little puppy with a busted leg all wrapped up, run-stumbling around Tumblr lately:
Like Tumblr user iraffiruse said about the pup:
Some people might feel sorry for themselves in this situation
Puppy don’t care
Puppy’s got stuff to do
Puppy’s got places to be
Puppy’s got people to bark at and things to sniff.
And I think I can relate to that little ouch-legged pup in that.
* War-storying is a term I picked up from when I was interning at an addictions treatment facility in my final year of grad school. It refers to a phenomenon in addictions treatment where the client spends their time telling and re-telling stories from their past to get an emotional rise out of themselves and, as they hope, their audience. It isn’t particularly effective, as it’s just reliving the experience rather than attending to its effects in the now. It’s also very similar to some of the “internal work” I was attempting to do.
Recently on Facebook someone passed along a little “quiz” about one’s birth number and what it means in your life. You take your birthdate (for example, 1-1-1901) and you add up the numbers (1 + 1 + 1 + 9 + 0 + 1 = 13, and then 1 + 3 = 4). Supposedly your personality is somewhat influenced by this number; a four, for example, may mean you’re a practical, down to earth person, while an eight means a flashy show-off (or something like that; I didn’t save the post that had the information). If you Google “birth number” you’ll get a bunch of other metrics by which you can be categorized–some only look at the day of the month you were born, others consider the day to be a “primary” birth number while your day plus month plus year is only secondary, or the big add-up is your life path number, and so on.
The thing is, it’s based entirely on one of hundreds of calendars that have been developed by humans over the millenia, the Gregorian calendar, which was finalized in 1582 AD, itself an update to the Julian calendar of 46 BC, itself a modification of the older Roman calendar. And the Roman calendar was simply an attempt to try and rectify the 365 day year with the twelve lunar cycles (and a few extra days) in that time. But the choice to go by the moon is just a choice, not a mandate; the Mayan Tzolk’in and Haab’ calendars are based on twenty day cycles, for example. Plus the number we assign to the year is based entirely on when people think Jesus of Nazareth might have been born, and therefore associated with one religion in particular; it’s hardly the only system for counting and numbering years that’s existed in the history of humanity.
Then there are the traits that people supposedly have simply by virtue of being born on a particular day of the month, or because the day, month and year numbers associated with their birth according to the Gregorian calendar happen to add up to a particular sum. I looked up the “meanings” of these numbers from a bunch of different sources online, and not only did I find some disagreement on meanings, but I could see traits in almost every definition that described me to one degree or another. Of course, these descriptions were so vague that they probably could have been made to apply to almost anyone–and that’s really how this whole thing works, isn’t it? You’re seeking your importance anywhere you can, to include mostly arbitrary human-created patterns, and giant cosmic cycles that really have very little to do with us at all. It’s quite self-centered.
Anthropocentrism is the philosophical view that human beings are separate from and superior to the rest of the natural world, possessing intrinsic value that other beings and entities (such as plants and non-human animals) lack. (Source.)
Now, it’s perfectly natural to favor our own species. The ability to differentiate between one’s own species and another is a very, very ancient ability indeed, and humans have turned that into a particularly complex ability to define “us vs. them”, both interspecies and intraspecies (and sometimes both at the same time!) Trouble is, we might have gotten a little too good at it.
We are products of a combination of nature and nurture. Every living being is born with a set of DNA passed down from its ancestors; how the genes are expressed, and which ones are expressed at all, are significantly affected by the environment the being grows up in. This is backed up by a mountain of scientific evidence. While we’re still figuring out some of the details, like the proportions of nature to nurture in individual situations for example, we have numerous examples where there’s a clear causation between Factor A (in the genes or the environment) and Result B (in the living being). And this is a phenomenon that affects every single living being on Earth, humans being just one species among the rest.
The birth number thing is just the opposite–it’s based entirely on one particular way in which humans divide up time, and assigning values to numbers that have absolutely no basis in anything objectively provable, and then saying “this number unlocks the secrets of who you are! Aren’t you special!” And somehow this is supposed to have as much of an effect on who you are as a person as billions of years of cumulative evolution of life on this planet. Let’s say I gathered 10,000 people who believed in birth numbers and considered the fact they’re fives to be an important thing, and then another 10,000 people at random from the population of the world whose birth number is five regardless of whether they believe in birth numbers or not, and then a sample made of 10,000 people pulled from the population at random regardless of birth number. And then say that I was somehow able to interview them all over a long enough period of time to see how well they matched the supposed profile of someone whose birth number is five. I would be willing to bet everything that I own that the first group (“Yay, we’re fives!”) would have a higher rate of self-reporting that they matched the “five profile” than the other two groups. Moreover, I predict that the self-reported results of the second group (the fives who may or may not realize they’re fives) would NOT show a degree of statistically significant difference from the results of the third group (drawn from the general population regardless of birth number). (On the other hand, if I was able to somehow objectively observe every person in all three groups in their everyday lives to see how many exhibited the traits of a birth number five, I’m willing to bet that all three groups would have about the same results, and the people whose birth number was five would have about the same range of personality traits as the rest.)
However, let’s say I ran another experiment, this time focusing on long-term negative effects of the stress responses that are ultimately rooted in hundreds of millions of years of animal evolution. I’d have 10,000 people who spent 50% or more of their childhood until age 18 in a war-torn location, 10,000 people who never spent any time in a war-torn area, and 10,000 people chosen at random regardless of background. Judging from my own research and psychological training regarding anxiety disorders and other long-term negative stress responses, I would predict that the sample from war-torn areas would show a much higher rate of these responses and their corresponding effects on the the brain and body as well as psyche. The 10,000 people who had never been exposed to war may have a lower than average rate of stress responses, though other factors like domestic abuse and other non-war-related causes of long-term stress responses could complicate the findings.
Still, the difference between the two experiments stands: you can clearly measure the effects of genetics and physical environment on living beings, human and otherwise, in a way you cannot measure with something like birth numbers. This means that I am much more likely to take to heart a profile that is based on my place as an animal, with all the evolutionary history I have behind me and how I respond to my environment, than a profile based on the numbers that happened to be assigned to the day I was born (itself an event that had more to do with my development and my mother’s body than the numbers on the calendar). And what I say about birth numbers can also be applied to any of a number of other esoteric systems that supposedly predict or declare who you are.
Now, with all that said, I do not take the reductionist view that all we are is a bunch of neurotransmitters swimming around in meat suits; I’m more of a romantic than that! If you personally find value in things like birth numbers and other numerological concepts, or astrology, or divination by birds, or whatever other structure for meaning you choose, by all means go for it! One of the things that–as far as we know right now, anyway–is particular to our species is an intrinsic need for meaning of some sort. It may just be a side-effect of the big brains we evolved, but the numerous religions, philosophies and other structures we’ve created point to our desire for meaning, to include meaning that we feel is personally relevant to us as individuals. And that’s okay; better to embrace it if it leads a person to a more mentally healthy, happy life.
Where I feel the waters get muddied is when people look at something like a birth number (or similar thing) and assign it the same level of importance in the formation of who they are as a person as, say, the environment they grew up in. While a lot of people see their birth number or their daily horoscope as a mild curiosity or something to wrap into a more multi-faceted understanding of self, there are also those who swear up and down that these things hold great sway over who they are as people and even base important decisions on them. By giving things like birth numbers so much weight we may be ignoring the much vaster effects that nature as a whole, not just the human-specific portions of it, has on us. If you’ve had a traumatic history to the point where the effects are having an ongoing significant negative effect on your life today, you’re probably going to look for solutions so you can get better. But if you’re focusing mainly on the calendrical circumstances surrounding the moment of your birth and not paying attention to research on PTSD and how trauma can permanently affect your brain and body, you may have a much tougher time getting the necessary tools to heal yourself.
Meaning-making comes into play, too. There’s a definite difference in depth of understanding both of ourselves and of our place in this world and the universe at large. Birth numbers say “You are who you are because some human decided at some point that this number that happens to coincide with your birthday means this special thing about you”. Nature says “You are who you are in part because of the experiences of countless living beings over three and a half billion years and the tools they left you as a result”. Birth numbers say “You share traits X, Y, and Z with a bunch of other people whose birthdays happen to add up to the same number/who were born on the same day of any month”. Nature says “You share a portion of DNA with every single living being that has ever existed on this planet and will ever be here. Look to your development before you were born, and you see the history of life unfolding in the space of nine months. You, humanity, are just one of countless species that have walked this earth, moved through these waters, glided through these skies.” (Granted, these interpretations are influenced by my personal biases, but there is a lot more time and knowledge associated with evolution than birth numbers.)
You can have both your birth number and your evolutionary history as important things in your life, of course. Bringing things in from the huge-picture view to the more personal, we each get to choose our own meaning-making structures, and that’s part of what gives humanity its glorious diversity even among all the things we share in common. Personally as well as in the big picture, I find a lot more meaning in my species being one of many jewels in the crown of the Earth, an ever-changing display, than in trying to figure out whether my life path is following the proper profile of a “nine” or not.
(I’ll still happily sing you “Happy Birthday” on the anniversary of your entrance into this world if you like, though. I still think that’s important.)
I have wild love affairs with much of nature these days. I deeply adore the way that water careens down from clouds in the sky, finds the easiest route to the nearest rivulet or storm sewer, and appreciate its brief layover in the pipes and spouts and drains of my home. I caress stones and soil with the reverence of a penitent clutching a holy relic promising salvation. I share intimate breaths with stomata, and I pull leaves and flesh and fruiting bodies into the literal core of my physical form.
These daily sacraments are a source and focus of my wonder and awe at this world I love. But my first love will always be the animals. They were the ones to first escort me into the broader world beyond humans cares and parameters, making me a fan of what we generally call “nature”. And while I marvel at the ways and processes of plants and fungi, stones and water and weather, inside I’m still that seven year old who ran around rattling off the latest facts about animals I’d discovered amid blades of grass and pages of books.
But should I? After all, these defenses of animals are still working toward a human bias–to see other animals as wondrous, worthy beings who deserve a place on this planet. In reviewing my responses in these posts, I see an effort to convince other people that animals are incredible beings (or, as my seven year old self would say, “really, really COOL!”). Ultimately, my efforts are an exercise in applying perceived value to creatures that, for the most part, don’t particularly care whether humans exist or not. (Domestic dogs would, for the most part, be a vocal exception to this, ferals notwithstanding.) Sure, it’s better than only valuing the animals that most benefit us, but even a positive bias is still a bias. Perhaps this wonder at animals is a selfish evaluation that only benefits me through making me feel better. In this moment I find myself considering whether it wouldn’t be better to try and simply accept that animals are here, without judgement in either direction, the deepest expression of “live and let live”. Not “wolves are vicious predators” or “crocodilians are amazing for having survived so many millions of years unchanged”, but instead “Frogs are. Deer are. Sponges are.” and so forth.
It’s an interesting thought experiment, to be sure, and worth trying if for no other reason than an increase in mindfulness. But, as in all things, the best response to a question is rarely the most extreme answer. One of the things I love about humanity is our ability to consider and evaluate and, yes, even judge ourselves and the world we live in. It’s part of how we make sense of it all. And like any tool, it can be used for harm or for benefit. We’ve spent centuries deciding that certain species aren’t useful enough to us to be preserved, and have even systematically eradicated some just because we don’t want them around. My effort, conversely, is to find what makes each species unique, to determine what solutions it evolved to answer the same basic life-challenges we all must overcome to survive, and, most importantly, to experience wonder and awe at these things.
It turns out that those wondrous experiences aren’t just for my own benefit, either. To be sure, the positive psychological effects that I get from them are considerable, and mean a great deal to me personally. But they also perpetually renew my sense of responsibility toward the world and its inhabitants, a responsibility that I then act on to the best of my ability. So what starts internally, with my thoughts and feelings, moves outside of me through my actions. Such is the way of things.
And as social creatures, we’re able to influence the thoughts, feelings and behaviors of others. Certainly there’s the crucial element of free will and the fact that people respond uniquely to different methods of persuasion (which brings up adages about flies and vinegar and honey). But both through empirical evidence and personal experience I think that modeling (human see, human do!) is one of the best ways to propagate positive and constructive thoughts and actions. Which means that my habit of extolling the virtues of my fellow inhabitants of Earth, human and otherwise, can be beneficial to everyone involved!
See, whenever I talk about how awesome it is that clownfish can live in the tentacles of a sea anemone and not get stung, or that plants turn sunlight into food through photosynthesis, I almost always get good comments as a result. Often it’s people who already knew those things agreeing that yes, these are really, really neat things and aren’t we glad we know them? But there are also occasions where someone gets to learn something new, not only making them happier, but also fueling that same feeling of connection with and responsibility toward the world around them. Because if you realize there are amazing things in the world, and then you find out that these amazing things are threatened with extinction, you just may be more motivated to protect them.
In a perfect world, perhaps, we wouldn’t need that personal touch to get people to be more environmentally aware; it would just be a given. But the reality is that too few people have that awareness and act upon it, and any constructive tool we can use to change things for the better, even if it has some self-centered components, is okay by me. If the proverbial donkey isn’t moving already, a carrot might be just the right solution.
Plus when it comes to my love affair with the world, I’m more than happy to share–the more, the merrier! So I’ll just keep right on “defending” the bunnies and grubs, the molds and bryophytes, erosion and uplift. If they can use it, so much the better, and even if not, I’ve made my own little world a little brighter.