Micah Redding — humanity, technology & the future

A decade of being vegetarian - and why I chose to stop

This is an excerpt from my email list. Click the link to get more memos like this one.


I've been a vegetarian for just about a decade. The other day, I decided to stop.

Around ten years ago, a constellation of experiences and feelings and philosophical ideas led me to becoming vegetarian. It had almost nothing to do with ideas about animal cruelty, and almost everything to do with the concepts of purity, of lightness of being, and of the historical precedent of revolutionaries throughout history. It was fundamentally a way to pursue being a different kind of human.

I learned a lot from vegetarianism. It practically forced me to try new fruits and vegetables, and to expand my palate far beyond what it had been before. I learned I could eat almost anywhere; I learned that having a lot of options wasn't really important. It probably led me to trying new restaurants, where an omnivore could have simply tried new menu items.

But I had another philosophical commitment as well: I never wanted to limit my ability to choose. Giving up choice has always seemed to me to be the beginning of everything wrong and bitter in the world. And irrational commitments were the top offender.

It's always struck me just how many people make broad declarations, and then feel compelled to follow those declarations far beyond the point they should have given them up. When my parents swore they would never use AOL again, I chastised them for exactly that reason; do you really want to swear off something for all eternity?

The AOL thing may not have had any negative repercussions, but to me, the principle remained.

So when I decided to be vegetarian, I simply decided to stop eating meat. I didn't decide to make a commitment to not eating meat. My test statement was this:

If I ever wake up wanting to eat meat, I will do so.

I knew that if that statement ever became a lie, I would have gone too far. But that statement never became a lie for me. I never actually wanted to eat meat. Maybe a little bacon every now and then, but if I felt like it, I felt free to eat it.

In over a decade, I think the only meat I ate consisted of some strips of bacon, and a pinch or two of various things my relatives asked me to try.

I never wanted it, and so my decision never became a constraint. But the other day, two things became apparent to me.

I had been listening to "Back To Work", with Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin. And Dan, who is a Buddhist, had been talking about how many, but not all, Buddhists choose to be vegetarian. It made sense, he argued, that Buddhists would typically be the kinds of people interested in reducing suffering, and so would gravitate towards vegetarianism.

Now, it so happens that Dan is really into paleo. So, while he's talking about this, it strikes me how deeply he's aware of the suffering that killing animals causes. And it strikes me even more, that he believes that humans need to eat animals to survive.

So while he's talking about animal suffering, the subtext is his belief that humanity is not a species capable of pure choices. Every decision we make implies some suffering, somewhere. Our very existence requires death.

He, being a Buddhist, regrets this, but is able to deal with it as simply a fact about reality. This is a very different idea than the pursuit of purity I had embarked on. And although I'm not sure how I feel about it yet, the existence of this entirely different concept was my first realization. And it led to my second realization:

I had learned all I could learn from being vegetarian.

It would be easy for me to go for another decade without eating meat. I wouldn't feel like I was lacking in any way. But nothing significantly would change, and I would gain no new insight. In contrast, an excursion into an entirely new way of eating holds all kinds of realizations.

It's tough, too. Most meat seems very gross, and even bacon isn't as appealing as it first seems. I'm very wary of what's inside things. I have no idea how there's any sort of quality control. In addition, all kinds of people who've been inexplicably offended by my dietary habits are probably waiting to crow in triumph over what undoubtably seems like a victory.

But those things are just things, and point to the fact that there may be a lot for me to learn here. And it would do far more damage to my sense of purity, if I ever let pride or fear significantly constrain my decision-making.

So the other night, I ate salmon for the first time as an adult.

I'm aware that this is running in the opposite direction of many people I know. Many of them are just becoming aware of vegetarianism, and are considering it as a lifestyle change. It might be cooler for me to point out that I was an early adopter, and try to use that to increase my leadership points.

In addition, some people who admired my vegetarianism might be disappointed.

But I make decisions for myself, and I hope that those decisions always lean towards the bold, the risky, the experimental, and the uncharacteristic. To not do that, would be to become less of a human being.

So here I am, eating chicken, exploring new worlds.

Vegetarian:

I was a Buddhist who turned to be atheist, but I am still a vegetarian. Vegetarian not for religion only, but for the animals life, for the world.

buraianto:

Very interesting post. Thanks!

Jennifer:

To be honest, I'm not surprised. Knowing you were a "taste vegetarian", taste is subject to change and therefore, your desire to eat this way would likely change. Your focus in life being choice, i.e. preference, life will be full of many exciting roads to travel; however, most of those roads lead only back to life, again and again. As long as life is good to you, this sounds great, but eventually, the return for killing will mature and being trapped in the suffering of life may not sound as good as it does now. We cannot ignore the fact that eating "meat" is eating flesh of a once living being which shares with us having a mother and father, being born and dying, having eyes (generally) and blood. These indicate which beings are sentient, or have spirit. If we kill a being of spirit, is that not stealing from heaven? Every being has its lifetime set by heaven, if we end it through killing, it is unnatural as well as an act of hatred (separating oneself from the other, putting oneself above the other). Stunting the growth of another sentient being to further one's own is a dead end road--and one which often returns death to us in the form of disease and dis-ease (read The China Study). One can write beautiful words to make it sound like an exciting road, but in the end, one is choosing hatred over love, all for the sake of choice. If one can see a cat as a pet, but a chicken only as food, this is blinded by preference--at the heart level, it just doesn't make sense. It is said taste lasts only 3 inches, but the impact could be many lifetimes. Doesn't matter what you believe, if what you believe is not in alignment with the eternal truth of existence. Those who realized this eternal truth to the last were vegetarian, because it is very difficult to have completion as a human being if one does not recognize spirit in other sentient beings and show the same respect for it as one wishes other beings to show respect for one's own. If someone came to you, and asked for a piece of your flesh because their taste and desire for new experiences and belief in choice led them to think you would be good to eat, you would of course deny them. If they took it by force, you would be greatly offended as well as suffering, that they did not recognize your innate value as a living being. If they took your life in order to get it, you would die angry and fearful. And each time you eat meat, you are eating the anxiety, fear and anger of another being that also had a purpose in life beyond being your next meal. You interfered with its fate, and now you have created a debt which must be paid in the future. It seems so simple just to grab a burger, but in fact, it is full of entanglements. Reference whatever books you like, at the heart level, we all know that killing is wrong, and if we had to do it 3 times daily to get our taste satisfied, we would not likely eat animals as often or at all. This is why the enlightened saints rarely wrote anything--the person whose writings inspired you to return to killing to live is now also entangled--they will have to bear some impact eventually for the choice you have made. As may I, if anything I have said in our discussions is part of your decision to return to eating sentient flesh. If you can eat meat honestly, reminding yourself each time it is flesh, not meat, "meat" is easier for the mind to take; if you can remind yourself each time that you are agreeing to increase killing in the world, and you are willing to accept the result of killing, and causing others to kill for you, if you can sincerely do this, I think you would realize the choice you are making does not arise from freedom as much as you would like to believe. In fact, each meal could be another bar of the invisible cell most of us are living in. Of course, you have to go according to your realization, but it is very difficult to realize the meaning of spirit if our goal in life is preference. As always, brother, the choice is yours, how to live. Just remember that we all share the same heart, and each one of us is responsible for its purity and refinement, or the layers of dust which cover it. Essentially we all know heaven on earth will never be found through killing.

micahtredding:

Jennifer, thanks for your heartfelt comments. I feel a lot of the things you are saying here, and I'm not going to make a counter-argument, except to add this: It's become apparent to me that we do not live in a simple world. Walking kills bugs, wearing clothes destroys habitats. This even extends to human beings: No doubt something I have bought has caused human suffering. No amount of fair trade or organic certification is going to change that fact about the world. I don't know how to deal with that. Maybe I deal with it by attempting to create something better with what I have. Maybe by trying to bring something better out of the suffering. But that's why I'm experimenting, and trying to learn. I don't have answers, so I have to try.

Carl Youngblood:

Jennifer, I think Micah makes some really good points. While your approach is admirable, have you considered the many other ways that your lifestyle may or may not be contributing to suffering in one way or another? It may even be that other choices you are making have a more significant impact than the food you choose to eat, although I have no idea so I'm not willing to bet on that. It's also important to realize that our bodies themselves have evolved to require complex proteins and the simplest way of acquiring these is through meat eating. So we are, by our very nature, designed for more of a paleo diet. This can, of course, be overcome, but it's important to have this awareness of our natures, and to recognize that we will inevitably cause suffering and death to some extent or another. My own crude calculus is that the amount of suffering is proportional to the level sentience of the beings who are suffering as the result of my choices and the extent to which their death is painful, but this is only a crude beginning.

Jennifer:

Micah--I do understand. I had to have two more glasses of alcohol and two more cigarettes before I realized I was truly done with them, that it wasn't just a direction I had chosen and therefore felt I had to follow. But I did accept that there were some negative seeds sown, even in the test, that would result in some kind of fruit in the future; it is so easy to accept negative consequences when we do not have to face them immediately. I guess my point was, it is easy for us, not just you, me too, in other ways, to experiment with different choices because our conscience is being blocked. But when the conscience is revealed and we allow it to be our guide, it is clearer what will benefit not only oneself but all, and why the reason animals and humans are existing together is so meaningful. Carl, you are right to question whether I uphold myself to the same principles in being as in eating. In fact, being vegetarian is more than about just eating vegetarian. Most people eat vegetarian for their health, Micah is (was doesn't seem right yet) a rare "taste" vegetarian; but a person who realizes the essence of why to be vegetarian knows that what comes out of the mouth is as important as what goes in it. And, no, I do not always succeed at being a true vegetarian. But that is my direction, to have that same cautious heart going outward as going within. Yes, it is true, I probably step on ants from time to time, but when I am able, I do not purposely end another life in order to retain my own. And if I do, I ask forgiveness, and also, I expect there will be some consequence for it, though I may not see it immediately or make the connection when it comes. But I am learning to be more cautious with water usage, and other things we may take for granted as unlimited resources, because waste is the origin of poverty, it has been said by a great cultivator. In regards to simplicity, there is a reason it was said the path to heaven is not the wide and easy road. Though we prefer convenience and ease, generally speaking, that road often leads us toward suffering. The original push for humans to eat more protein was based on a study of rat's milk, someone shared with me recently. But mother's milk only contains 5% protein, and babies grow up just fine on that, don't they? The way the body processes all the excess animal protein we are eating leads to osteoporosis, kidney and gall stones, and other disease. You can go to any vegetarian site and find that based on the acid content of our stomachs, the length of our digestive tract and the structure of our teeth one might just as easily say we are herbivores by nature. But being vegetarian goes beyond science, it goes to the very heart and essence of being human. If being human for you requires killing, then that is the world you create for all of us. I choose a different world for us. Though life is full of pain and hardship, the only person who causes suffering is each one of us, in our lack of acceptance and appreciation for the gift in its hands. But just because we experience pain and hardship in life, shouldn't that make us more cautious not to cause suffering we are aware we are causing? Just because we cannot help from stepping on an ant is not an excuse to put an animal through a modern slaughterhouse, for the taste of it or because we can't see the negative impact from it. It's always easier to speak of suffering as unavoidable, until we are the ones at the mercy of someone with a knife in their hands. Then we will do anything we can to encourage them towards their better nature. If you can stomach eating animals thinking their death is not all that painful, you may want to educate yourself on factory farming. It's definitely an eye-opener. But I thank both of you for sharing your perspectives. It has helped me to clarify my own, as well as my direction, and to see where I need to do some more work to refine myself.

Amy:

This morning I had a conversation with my Dad about the butcher of animals why God made our world such a place of hunters and prey. Dad is 86 and grew up on a farm where they grew their own vegetables, milked their own cows, butchered animals and collected eggs to eat from under the chickens. Killing and eating is necessary for survival. Even the plants we eat have to die in the process. Modern society is a step removed from our food. I remember reading a letter to the editor from a child who railed against those who would slaughter animals. She said, "why kill an animal when you can buy meat at the grocery?!" I was fortunate enough to learn at an early age where meat came from. It was my chore to care for the meat rabbits. I was warned thoroughly not to get emotionally attached to them. I was not even allowed to name the rabbits. It was a hard lesson, but I'm glad I had the experience.