(What follows was offered to lay some groundwork for Integral Salon discussions that I led in Asheville, NC and New York City on the ethics of eating)
As an ‘integralist’ do you feel the need to limit your consumption of animal products?
One of the decisions that we all make many times a day is whether or not to eat animal products. Clearly an integral approach to this topic becomes very complicated very quickly. For each of us this means considering everything from personal well being to tribal connectivity to the planetary ecology to economic feasibility. I am truly interested in hearing a myriad of perspectives on this topic. The many ways that others choose to answer this question is something that I want to learn from and allow to inform my own ongoing decisions regarding what I am and am not going to choose to foster in myself and the world with my food choices.
One perspective from which to view this decision which I have invested a lot of my own time and energy into understanding is personal health. I am a certified holistic health counselor, an integral life practice coach and a self proclaimed growth and transformation enthusiast. Because of this I am at a point where the scientific arguments for why vegan, vegetarian or omnivorous diets are more or less healthy are no longer compelling to me. To be honest, for me, these are some of the least interesting lines of reasoning I think we could discuss. Let me explain why.
In my view, there may be no worse science than nutritional science. If we define science as ‘a systematically organized body of knowledge on a particular subject’ then it becomes readily apparent to me that, when it comes to nutrition, we are perhaps as far from a consensual scientific understanding of what to eat and why as we have ever been in history. I could get into disasters such as the USDA food pyramid, fad diets or any other numbers of food trends. I won’t. What I want to illuminate is the underlying flaw in any and all attempts to create a prescriptive dietary system divorced from ones subjective experience of food.
When attempting to make definitive statements about what should or should not be part of a human beings healthy diet there are not very many things that can be said with any real authority. For nearly every piece of ‘science’ that is published there seems to exist a clearly contradictory argument of equal scientific rigor. A vegan diet prevents disease. An animal based diet prevents disease. A raw diet cures diabetes. I have heard world renowned experts speak on all three of these views with reams of objective evidence to back their claims.
Depending on the day of the week, the trend at the moment and the scientific studies that are currently getting funded we have gone from knowing that butter is a staple food, to demonizing it, to being split on it’s place in a ‘good’ diet. Margarine anyone? Corn-fed vs. pasture raised cow butter? We have gone from loving fat, to demonizing all fat, to demonizing saturated fat, to now focusing on trans-fat. We have been told that dietary calcium can help prevent osteoporosis, arthritis and hip fractures to evidence that it is a leading cause of all of these things. Cane sugar has gone from being good to evil and back a number of times while artificial sugar substitutes have gone from being neutral on the glycemic index to being equal to the sugar they replace. We have been told that whole foods supply all that we need to being told that supplemental vitamins are part of a healthy diet to being told that vitamins make my pee worth more than fine wine to being told that it depends on hundreds of factors about the vitamin, when you take it, what you have eaten, whether or not you chew before you swallow it to what your blood levels were at the time you took it. Fat free on a label is a good or bad thing? How about sugar-free? These are shifting tides in the popular debate, but the clinical research being done is no less contradictory. Look up the evils and glories of fiber. You can do the same for whole grains, milk, cooked food and yes, animal protein. While I do believe that from a broad enough perspective we are inching ever closer to a science of food, following the leading edge is clearly no way to make decisions.
It is incredibly hard to find a scientific study for which a contradictory study has not been published. If you think you just read one, wait 10 minutes and check again. Why is this?
The bulk of nutritional science, like most western medical science, is based on the assumption that there is something static that exists which can reasonably and functionally be called a human being. As far as relative classifications go this term has all kinds of day to day use in both theoretical and intellectual debate. When it comes to our attempts thus far to create a conclusive body of information that can inform individual dietary decisions we are in a quagmire. While the term ‘human being’ has a degree of relative truth and therefore function no one thing called a ‘human being’ exists. Never has. Not only are we all different, we all change constantly. Yes we know that Vitamin C is connected to scurvy and a number of other basic dietary principles. Beyond these little is conclusive, certainly not enough to inform my moment to moment food choices. Mostly a concept such as this simply helps me to understand why, in a world of abundance, sometimes I crave citrus.
Here’s a quick list of things often taken into account when giving an individual dietary advice:
Weight (current and desired)
Sensitivities (gluten tolerance, lactose tolerance etc.)
Geographic location (tropics? Arctic?)
Time of year (seasonal food needs)
Time of day
Activities (at a desk all day or rock climbing)
Previous meals (today, yesterday ad infinitum)
Bacterial levels (good and bad)
Current mood (desired mood?)
Emotional connection to food you are about to eat
PH levels (tendency towards an acid system?)
What those near you are currently eating (surprisingly important)
–The list could go on. The point is that ALL current scientific studies ignore most or all of these. They assume they are simply studying ‘human beings’.
The simple truth is that there are just far too many factors that science can not possibly take into account for me to take seriously any of the current attempts at being scientific about food choices. Everything from who you are to where you are to what you are trying to cultivate must be included. Our scientific approaches at this point are just too simplistic to be of very much use. They inform my decisions, but they still leave a lot on the table so to speak. So, have I just dragged you into a crippling deconstruction of terms and practices that leaves you mired in fear, confusion and doubt? Not at all. There is actually a very simple solution.
More than doctors, scientists, nutritionists, health counselors, gurus, your mother and certainly me, there is one person on this planet who knows exactly what you should eat. You. You are the only one, whether you currently trust it or not. You always have been and, for the foreseeable future, always will be. The body knows. This is what animals seems to grok. This is what I teach my clients. This is what we can all learn to recapture over time. This is why I want to talk to you about eating animals. There is no greater authority on your dietary needs than you. So I am intensely curious how you go about making this decision.
Yes, I have studied over 100 dietary theories. Yes I continue to read about studies on food ‘science’. Yes there are experts and approaches that seem to contain more truth than others. Yes at times I play with diets. But above all else I experiment on my self every single day with every single meal and whether you are conscious of it or not so do you. What worked for me when I was twelve may not work for me today. What I needed this morning I likely don’t need this afternoon. Tomorrow is an unknown. My digestive system is in constant flux. My mind, my body, my emotions, my subtle energy systems, no matter what I conceptualize, the only constant is change. Sometimes I want to cultivate 6th chakra insights. Sometimes I want to stoke my 3rd chakras digestive fire. Sometimes I want to ramp up my 2nd chakra and have raw animal sex. Sometimes I want to feel grounded in my 1st chakra. Sometimes I want to open my 4th chakra and feel connected to those around me. Sometimes it is a 7th chakra transpersonal awareness I want to cultivate. Sometimes I want my 5th chakra to open up so I can better express my voice. Sometimes I am sick and need to cleanse. Sometimes I am in a tropical climate and need to cool off. I can have an impact on any one or an infinite combination of these factors with my food choices. Can you tell me which diet I should choose to be healthy? I can. The fun part is that our awareness of how food affects us grows ever subtler by the moment when we place our consciousness there. But first we must stop assuming that someone else is going to figure it out for us. As long as we are paying attention we are learning. What may seem scary at first becomes truly joyous with time.
So, where did all this start? Eating animals. Eating animals of certain qualities and quantities at certain times can make me feel strong, grounded, connected to the earth, in tune with my family, inline with my cultural heritage, in touch with the cycle of life and death, masculine, sated, grateful, engaged, alive as well as tired, destructive, angry, confused, greedy, selfish, wasteful, disconnected from the cycle of life and death and just plain sad.
Whether or not I eat animal flesh is a decision I will be faced with in every meal I eat going forward. While all of the complexity above is part of my rational understanding of what to eat, the truth is that my dietary decisions are generally much more instinctive and intuitive than anything else. I trust my body. It knows what I need. But I also trust my friends. How do you make these decisions?