Discovering Cosmic Consciousness

Most nights I resort to my Transcendental Meditation mantra to help me sleep – not that meditating is supposed to be a sleep aid.  The purpose of TM, as I recall from the instruction and group meditating sessions of years ago in high school, is to bring tranquility and to further one along toward cosmic consciousness. Nonethless, I am making good use of  my mantra. Each night, I plump up my two dense tempurpedics and lie on my left side for starters. I hear my mantra in my mind; then I ease onto my back. As I exercise my mantra, I am continually amazed at how quickly and constantly it slips away and I have to start it up again. Finally I fall asleep because, even with the digressions from the mantra, by forcing myself to keep it going in my head, I do avoid thinking  about the sleep-depriving topic that plagues me.

Usually, when intrusive thoughts over which I have no control crop up, I can reason with myself to dispense with them. I tell myself like a Stoic coach that things could always be worse, that I cannot know what other bad thing might have occurred, that an outlook of acceptance and emotional detachment actually feels good, that I can give myself permission to not engage with such a topic or to forgive myself, that everything is pretty trivial, and that the brevity of life puts things in perspective, etc.  However, that rationalization approach falls short of mitigating my monolithic concern that creeps in with the night; I cannot reason away the thought of the constant and extreme suffering of farm animals. Why does this disturb me? The simple fact (understood by anyone who rejects “speciesism” or is otherwise an ethical vegan) is that we are all animals (there are three categories: animal, vegetable, and mineral). Humans are a species of animal. There are differences among species, but all species of animal have interests, innate behaviors, emotions, a love for life, and the ability to suffer.  If anyone doubts this, he should consider the family dog who gets upset when left alone, has joys and sorrows, feels pain and loss, and suffers when hurt; such a rich emotional life and ability to suffer applies to other animals as well. So, getting into bed is clicking on the video, and I must imagine all of the innocent peaceful animals subjected to cruelty on a daily basis and killed in a storm of terror.

The thought of all this suffering has another layer that adds to its centrality in my life: the nagging question about why other people, assuming they are aware, don’t find such a heinous reality too horrible to condone and participate in.  If nighttime is reserved for images of suffering baby pigs and other horrors, day time prompts that human aspect of the question, as I must face at every turn the results of human action: dead animal parts (aka food), the finished product of the assembly line of cruelty, ground out relentlessly by the money-meat machine. I feel a divide between me and all the dog-loving, animal eaters.  However alienating that divide might be or disturbing the images of suffering, I embrace the truth with devotion. It is a boon to know that, as Leonardo Da Vinci said, my body will not be a tomb for other creatures.

The gurus of TM might or might not have been right about meditating as a way to achieve cosmic consciousness. Regardless, they had some good ideas about repetitive words and enlightenment. I use my mantra for sleep, and I revel in achieving the certain first step to cosmic consciousness – the knowledge that we should be kind to all sentient creatures.

Along the Appian Way

I believe that I saw my first crucifixion when I was ten, getting a pretty close look at the arresting spectacle as I rolled past in the family ox-drawn cart that was taking us from our villa in Apulia down the Apian Way to visit Uncle Antonius at olive picking season.  My first experience gave me a lot of bang for my buck because there had been a little slave revolt in a neighboring town and a hundred of the rascals were all nailed up along both sides of the road at intervals of about an arm’s length. One could hardly miss taking in every detail with the crosses lining the road at no more than a man’s height from the ground, but my gaze stayed the longest on the ones that were most alive. We did whip up the ox a bit to get through quickly because the flies were really annoying.   I asked my father how come I had never seen a crucifixion before, given that they were common; I heard all about them and had thought about practicing one for myself on a cat, but he got away and then I lost the nails.

“Well, figlio mio,” Pater explained, “crucifixions are for the vilest kinds of criminals, like slaves and traitors. So you wouldn’t see one every day.”

“But it seems like a waste when they could have gone to the Colosseum as entertainment.  I’m sure we would rather see them trying to run from a hungry lion and then get ripped apart one limb at a time rather than hanging there groaning and making faces.”

“I guess there is no shortage of folks for the games, and the Tribune needed to make a lingering example. For some reason slaves keep trying to revolt; they don’t get it that there will always be slaves and that is their lot in life.”

“Maybe a revolt will succeed one of these days and there will be no more slaves?”

“No, no, figlio, there have always been slaves; that is the way of the world.  It is human nature to take captives from a conquest. Look at the example of history.  Everyone has done it. I think it is in our genes as humans to subjugate other weaker individuals. Some day we might evolve to be able to take another creature’s perspective, but as of now our credo is, “If it’s good for me, then it’s good.”

“But slaves are sort of like us.”

“No they are of an entirely different sort—not Roman at all; so we can do whatever we please.”

Pater’s way of looking at things has stuck with me for a long time and has worked out all right as my approach to living.  However, there have been moments of doubt . . . when I think of our conversation I also remember the distorted bodies and anguished cries and at times I wonder at my feeling a vague sense of unease and dislike for crucifixions.  However, I just cannot get over the immutable truth that both slavery and severe punishment are part of our culture, that Rome’s culture is the best, and that such practices have gone on for thousands of years.  Who am I to question something that Pater and his pater and so on have done?  We couldn’t live without slaves and my needs are perfectly served by the suffering of other creatures. Well!  Glad I settled that.  I’m off to the games to for some rollicking good entertainment. Wild beasts are on the schedule today; then off to a pig roast.

The Meaty Family Reunion

I had planned the Memorial Day weekend trip to Oklahoma for the big family reunion for several months, working out the logistics of taking my parents, who at 86 and 91, make travel challenging. Little did I know that the trip would coincide with my fervent conversion to animal activism. Various ideas that had floated around my mind for years about animals and meat- eating coalesced just a few weeks before the trip when I read Animal Liberation by Peter Singer; that book explained that “speciesism,” i.e., favoring the human species to the cruel detriment of other species, is immoral, just as other self-serving and oppressive views, also ending in “ism,” are immoral.

One material way I expressed my epiphany was in donating to organizations and acquiring pamphlets and tee shirts.  One had the message “Compassion Over Killing,” with a paw print.  I began to consider the trip as an opportunity for activism. I was headed for a gathering of people who did not even consider questioning the culture of animal production for meat or of hunting. Some of my cousins had grown up on a farm and had raised “prize” animals for the FFA without any qualms about the animal’s destiny at auction.  Maybe I should wear my tee shirt. I debated with myself at some length about wearing it on the plane and to the first night’s potluck dinner. When I dressed for the flight, I wore a silk shirt and tossed the tee shirt in the suitcase.

We gathered Saturday evening for dinner, which, according to tradition, included milling and chatting before dinner and a time for each family representative to update the group on the latest news.  Amidst a lot of hugs and nice-to-see-yous I nailed my cousin Andy, who works for the Department of Agriculture, wanting to ask him if he had any experience with factory farms.  He did. To him, some were okay and some were “pretty bad.”  Then, changing the subject, he wanted to show me photos on his phone of two pigs that his son Luke had bought as part of an entrepreneurial project. He thought that it would show initiative and look good for college applications. I told him that pigs are smarter than dogs.  He agreed, adding that they have lots of personality and loved to have their bellies scratched.  I suggested that he keep them as pets and not sell them.

After dinner where every dish was laced with meat, we took turns standing to update the group. Hungry, I talked briefly about my husband and kids and, for myself, I stated that I had become very interested in animal rights, particularly opposing the cruelty of factory farming. Next to speak, sitting right beside me, was my cousin by marriage who focused, as mothers will, on her son, who plays soccer, football and… he hunts.  She proceeded to graphically describe his prowess at shooting the squirrels and harmless trundling armadillos in his backyard, “right between the eyes.” At that point she did realize rather suddenly that I might have found her anecdotes offensive; I chuckled and said that the slaughterhouse anecdote was no doubt next.

The next day I wore my tee shirt. We reconvened for breakfast and for a repeat pot-luck at the cemetery where we met to put flowers on the graves. I appreciate my cousins.  I have fond memories of things we did as kids; I remember their kindness at my brother’s funeral at that same cemetery, and I believe I will count on them to help me out when I show up there for my parents. But I think they can stand the challenge of a new idea without taking offense — or they might take offense.  It’s an offensive world, especially for people with ideas outside of the mainstream like not treating animals like commodities. It turns out that a couple of cousins that last day did ask my about my vegetarianism because they were truly interested.  Maybe my expression of concern for animals, either spoken or worn on my tee shirt, will be one little notion that, added with others, will someday make them question the practices of our culture towards other species

Most Influential Books

What books have had the greatest influence on your life?  That sounds like a prompt for a college admission essay. Many long years away from college applications, I can now easily answer that there are two books.  The first is The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, by William Irvine, which then led to another, The Essays and Letters of Seneca. (I might more correctly say I have three influential works, except those two I take together as responsible for revealing Stoicism to me).  The second is also in the philosophical genre: Animal Liberation, by Peter Singer.

What the two have in common and what makes them truly influential is that they caused me to question an entire way of living and to make me change for the better. They both also put together in a cogent and rational scheme disparate ideas that I had formed on my own, but which I did not fully understand or trust.  In particular, with regard to Stoicism, I discovered, as I had partly surmised, that no one was responsible for anyone else’s tranquility.  We are each responsible for our own state of mind and we can influence our outlook by resorting to reason over emotion.  Hence, I had, even pre-Stoicism, suspected that taking your troubles to a therapist or counselor, that complaining generally to others, that extolling and indulging your emotions, including the vaunted ones of joy and romantic love, were detrimental to my state of mind. I had wondered about the point of worrying and hoping—and indeed, discovered the Stoic view that nothing is more pointless or aggravating than ruminating over things beyond one’s control and that hoping causes us to live a life in suspense.  I had often thought that if any given day was my last, I should not want to live it differently than any other day –and right I was; Stoicism would counsel to live each day as your last because it could be your last.  Also, I had learned on my own the hard way how foolish and empty it is to seek notoriety or the good opinion of others, which Stoicism affirmed.  Last, in this cursory summary, I found in Stoicism a context for two axioms I had developed on my own: regret nothing because, if what you did was reasonable, you would do it again; and everything is an end in itself.  Culture, perpetuated mass ignorance, and the media had rendered such ideas the objects of a meandering, scavenger hunt in the dark.

Reading Irvine and Seneca transformed my outlook. I rethought a status quo that was not doing me any favors. Ditto for the second influential work, Animal Liberation. Another part of the indoctrination I received from culture, the media, and big business interests was eating animals and the attendant notion that the human species is somehow not an animal species like the others, but rather something special and above the rest. First, as for the eating of animals, I think children would have a natural revulsion to eating the flesh of an animal, but we trick them out of it by disguising what they eat in sight and name. Therefore, I ate cheeseburgers and bacon and poultry. Nonetheless, hints of what I was really doing crept up from time to time.  I decided, one type of animal at a time, not to be part of an animal’s slaughterhouse experience and began to see the animal not just the dish.  I was confused, however. Was there any justification to eating some animals based on their lower intelligence, on how they live and die, or on my own sense of necessity? How did we get to the point that practices that most people would recoil from in horror were commonplace and accepted?  I read Singer’s book, and all of those questions were answered.  The revelations had an impact on my daily life and outlook because the concept of speciesism made perfect, rational sense. An anti-speciesist attitude gave a daily voice to the basic moral axiom that disregarding the interests of others to serve your own interests at their great expense is not the moral or good way to exist.

The Stoic and the non-speciesist attitudes that I have acquired from reading do intersect. For one, Stoics denigrate affairs of the palate.  I had (even pre-enlightenment) felt that the momentary taste of bacon could not be worth an animal’s suffering or life; a momentary taste should not be accorded much importance. Stoics are not slaves to appetites. Epictetus, by the way, considered meat as appropriate for wild animals and not for humans. A Stoic outlook also encourages thinking and not accepting or following the mentality of the herd.  Seneca abhorred the slaughter of men and beasts in the Circus, although the “games” were considered a necessity for the Roman mob.  He thought that watching the shows constituted punishment. I would say the same for visiting a factory farm or slaughterhouse. Come to think of it, we might consider it as an alternative to jail for all but the brutally-minded (murderers and such who might find it right up their alley).

The Stoic attitude comes in very handy in facing the shortcomings of existence, and the knowledge of speciesism does underscore a vast human shortcoming.  To deal with that reality, I remind myself to do what I can within my control and to not torment myself with matters beyond my control. I can no more stop the suffering today than Seneca could in his time and my ruminating on it into the wee hours of night is pointless thinking. Ruminating can best be offset by some action in the daylight however small—a letter written, a petition signed, an animal not eaten. Another Stoic approach to achieving tranquility is to realize how good your life is by reckoning how much worse it could easily be; just by the subtraction of one hundred years, current daily life is an entirely pleasant prospect. I enjoy unimaginable comforts and privileges that make my life seem like an Eden compared to the typical or even upper class life of past centuries.  By the same token, if I include the existence of other species, my troubles are indeed trivial. How could I not feel tranquil in comparison? I am not crammed into a cage, at the mercy of strange other beings, cut off from my own kind, my young taken away prematurely, deprived of doing anything that comes naturally, and doomed to a frightful death. The insipid triviality of human affairs as compared to the suffering of other species strikes me forcibly all the time. The government can take my phone records; the price of something is going up – all the fodder of mundane human life is as nothing in comparison. Last, in the realization department, if I needed yet another proof of the non-existence of anything approaching a compassionate supreme being . . . but I don’t and no one really does.

I would not have written about these books on my college application essay. I would have had dinner with a friend to complain and eat some animal parts in a sauce. Better late than never and maybe even more to come.

My Frustration with Animal Rights’ Organizations

Dear Animal Rights Organizations,

After becoming aware of and deeply disturbed by the suffering of animals in factory farms, I sought out organizations that would help me agitate against agri-business. I donated to the Humane Society of the United States, Farm Sanctuary, and Compassion over Cruelty.  People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals was next on my list, but I think that organization would have the same shortcomings as I am about to express with regard to the others.

The tried and true approaches to change, which all rights movements have used, are lacking in improving the lot of millions of suffering farm animals.  When I contributed to the above-named organizations and got on mailing lists, I was ready to join the legislative lobbying campaign for a federal bill to prevent cruelty to farmed animals, to show up at the pig factory in Iowa to protest, to travel to the gathering on a lawn hosted by Ellen Degeneris and Peter Dinklage and Beyonce to raise awareness about the suffering of farm animals. None of that, nothing similar, nothing at all pro-active politically or far-reaching in the media to raise awareness is in the works.  Instead what I found as the strategy for farmed animals is promoting vegetarianism, one person at a time. I am a vegetarian and am glad to promote it, but that is not going to be at all effective to change the practices of factory farms and slaughterhouses.

Where are the full page adds in major newspapers? Why didn’t the recent story about factory farmed chickens present a great opportunity to attack the practices of raising them in metal warehouses? Talking about the disease in the chickens and avoiding the issue of how they live and die is like investigating boll weevils in the cotton while ignoring the conditions of the slaves who picked it.

Please give people like me a change to act and to act in ways that get attention—without that chance, however much we hand out vegan recipes and remain positive we will have to live our lives knowing that every minute that passes marks a universe of unaddressed suffering.


Laura Inman

Letter to a Friend

Seneca wrote letters as a way to convey Stoic ideas.  Here is a letter to a friend of mine.  I did not send it to her, although maybe I should.

Dear Sherry,

When we last spoke and I asked if you had started raising chickens yet you told me about a friend who has them whose advice to you was to remember that “they are just chickens.”  I recall having asked if one of your chickens were to die, would you mourn it or eat it and thought it might depend on whether you had given her a name. I think that when someone says that an animal is just a chicken of just a pig or just a cow they are putting the animal in a category that is not human and therefore inferior and, further, not worthy of compassion. I have found in reading on the topic of ethics that such a mindset can be termed “speciesism.”  Just as there with racism and sexism, one group (Homo Sapiens) accords greater rights and preferential treatment to themselves to the disadvantage of others.   Speciesism is justified on the grounds that other species are not as intelligent as humans. However, the question for an ethical person is not whether animals are as intelligent, but whether they can suffer.

How have I made it this far in life without ever having had a name for the self-serving preferential treatment of one’s own species? I am becoming more and more aware of how much I am a product of culture, habit, expediency, and thoughtlessness.  We think that we go to college to learn to think critically and that we are informed and intelligent, making decisions about our lives. Most of the time I believe we are not thinking at all, but with heads down carry out the orders of others, even the cruelest and most mercenary in our society.  If we are the intelligent species, the ones capable of ethical actions, we might act on our abilities more and question if we want to participate in the process of untold suffering wrought by factory farms. On the more immediate level, if you get your chickens it might be a start to seeing farm animals as animals, which we all are, and not as insensate products.