Ahimsa Today

Kindness and Compassion as a Way of Life

Month: May, 2014

Introduction to Ahimsa

There can be no life without death. While death is unequivocal, suffering varies in kind, amount, and degree, but likewise seems to be inescapable. People like to think of themselves as being kind and compassionate, or least as not being cruel and hardhearted. But how do we respond the all the suffering and death in the world and in our lives, especially considering that suffering and death are intrinsic to the natural world? Life springs from death, but unless our suffering is extreme and death offers the only way out, we want to live, and it’s reasonable to assume that others, man or beast, also want to live. As far as nonhuman animals are concerned, the question of suffering is particularly relevant today, because the vast, vast majority of us in America are far removed from live animals in agriculture, our first contact with them coming in the form of animal products. (As I’ll discuss in future posts, the response of some people to the horrors of factory farming is to buy locally produced animal products, or to buy those labeled as humane (free range, cage free, etc.), but generally, the practices used by these sources fall short.) (This post and this blog will center on practices in the U.S., as that’s where I live, and where I’m best able to make a difference.)

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When my daughter was about seven years old, I called her attention to a bee I noticed in front of our home. He wasn’t able to fly. I cautioned her that if she picked him up, as she wanted to, he might sting her—but she let him crawl onto her finger. She quickly became emotionally attached to him. The next day, we went to an outdoor children’s festival. For the better part of that day, she walked around with her little friend, whom she had named Houdini, on her index finger. Then he fell off her finger into the grass. We searched and searched, but we couldn’t find him.

How heartwarming it is to see a child with an animal—even one so seemingly inconsequential as crippled bee. This affection for our fellow travelers on this sphere diminishes over time. As we age and are socialized, we become desensitized bit by bit or, in the case of “food animals,” bite by bite.

My concern for creatures great and small derives more from a sense of justice and fairness than it does from sentimentality or attachment, but these qualities are not mutually exclusive. Intellect and emotion work in concert to shape how we regard others, whether like us or unlike us. When childhood’s innocent love of animals is left behind, we lose some of our humanity. Ironically, in our unconsidered exploitation of non-humans, we diminish a part of ourselves that we believe makes us special, and superior to them.

I dedicate this blog to the memory of that bee. My daughter was so sad when she lost him. We will never forget Houdini. He represents to me an open-heartedness I would like us to regain, together with a philosophical disposition toward selfless consideration of the will to live, and to avoid suffering, of all creatures.

About Me

I don’t want this blog to be about me, but I’ll tell you a bit about myself here because the evolution of my thinking will provide context when you read my entries. The account below is accurate to the best of my recollection, but the time frames and event sequences may be inexact.

Back in the mid-seventies, without any external influence that I’m aware of, I began to feel that I would prefer to live without killing animals. At the time, I did no further research and didn’t discuss the idea with anybody in order to get feedback. It was just a vague notion, but it was enough. I gradually transitioned to a vegetarian diet over a period of two and a half years. I had, prior to the decision, eaten a diet heavy in animal products, and light in whole plant foods. I didn’t like vegetables. In those days, we didn’t have the vegan analogs for animal foods one finds today. I didn’t know any vegetarians, and it didn’t occur to me to try to seek any out. After I completed my transition to lacto-ovo vegetarianism, it took me another two and a half years to go vegan—which brings us to 1980. (I believe I would have made my transitions a lot faster if I had had some information and social support. The socio-cultural influences that shape our food choices are of great interest to me, and will be topics for my blog posts.) Cheese was the last thing to go, as it seems to be for almost all who make the transition to a vegan diet. (I was about to say that cheese is addictive, so just now I went looking for a web page explaining this, but to my surprise, I found instead compelling evidence to the contrary. Nonetheless, there is something about cheese that makes it very hard to give up.) During my transition from vegetarian to vegan, I was influenced by the American Vegan Society, particularly the writings of Jay Dinshah. After going vegan, I subscribed to the health philosophy of the American Natural Hygiene Society, now the National Health Association. I went vegan because all of the arguments in favor of vegetarianism (ethical, animal welfare, environmental impact, health) seemed to find their fruition in veganism.

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