Prarthana Jayaram is a freelance writer and editor, currently based in the Philadelphia area. She received a BA in English from Haverford College. Prarthana contracts with local nonprofits in development and communications in addition to freelancing for a variety of publications. She is the editor of The Independent Restaurateur.
Heart and Soul:
Finding the Place Where Spirituality, Compassion, and Veganism Connect
By Prarthana Jayaram
What lies at the intersection of spiritual health and ethical choices? How can diet speak to our beliefs and our holistic health? What are the connections between spirituality and a sense of community? These are questions the growing vegan spirituality movement seeks to answer.
Promoting compassionate living, spiritual vegans align themselves with the broad themes of universal peace and love. As the name suggests, vegan spirituality focuses on the spiritual implications of a vegan lifestyle--the connections between heart, body, and mind that manifest in vegan living and a respect and compassion for all life.
Activists approach this movement in a number of different ways. From yoga and meditative practice to public speaking to avid discussions, spiritual vegans are seeking new ways to form and cultivate community.
Herman says it has been a blessing to find so much understanding and sense of community. A longtime vegan, Herman has been a part of groups that share her compassion for animals (such as animal rescues) and groups that value spirituality (such as Reiki practitioners and yogis) as she does, but it wasn't until she found other spiritual vegans that she felt like she truly belonged. "Finding people who share my beliefs, I think, is really important. It's wonderful to be able to get together with people and create rituals, in the same way that all cultures have rituals, and connect with other beings," she says.
Rituals, as Herman mentions, are central to developing the community. Indeed, for Will Tuttle, author of World Peace Diet, the opportunity to gather with others who share his beliefs is a chance to grow. He explores veganism and spirituality on a metaphysical level, delving both into the practicalities of diet and the philosophy. Tuttle believes his spiritual journey has led him to a place of compassion--a compassion he sees manifesting in veganism.
Focusing on the interconnectedness of all life, Tuttle engages in many forms of community building and outreach with his work. Along with practicing meditation and being a part of meditation retreats, he is a renowned speaker on the topic of compassion for animals, as well as an accomplished musician. Tuttle says his original piano concerts are spirituality-based and designed to help people see music as a spiritual consciousness.
Will Tuttle"I realized, along the way, that most people did not have an understanding of the connection between veganism and spirituality," Tuttle says of his engagement efforts.
With his work, he seeks to demonstrate that connection, helping people view their decisions more holistically. When he participates in community-focused events, especially those that bring together other spiritual vegans, he says he feels at peace.
"I see it as an opportunity to inspire people. We come to this planet and we are each other's teachers," Tuttle says, "[Events are] an opportunity to explore together with the other participants the deeper reasons (why we practice veganism), to go as far as we can with understanding the interconnectedness of all life."
Similarly, activist and founder of Plant Peace Daily, Rae Sikora tries to seize any opportunity to foster community.
"Sometimes, I just want to be with a bunch of other people who are on the same page. It feeds me to get together with chosen family for the best family reunion you can imagine!" she says.
Sikora, a vegetarian since she was a teen and a vegan for nearly as long, found her compassion for animals early in life and allowed it slowly to grow and affect her. She recalls never having met another non-meat-eater when she decided to eschew meat in her diet. When she finally met others who called themselves vegans, it was the first time she had a name, a word, to describe herself and her beliefs.
In fact, many spiritual vegans have trouble finding an environment of understanding and empathy--a supportive atmosphere, surrounded by other people who share in the cause of compassion. Herman points out the common misconception that vegans only care about animals and not other humans. In fact, she says, it's quite the opposite. Her compassion extends to all living things, human, plant, and animal. Building a community with other humans who feel that connection, too, is just the thing that makes her feel whole.
"All of us probably like to feel part of something," Herman sums up. The sense of community comes from being in the presence of others who feel the spiritual connection between a vegan lifestyle and a love for animals.
"Vegan Spirituality is very inclusive," says Levinson, "For some of us, vegan spirituality is our main spiritual practice, while for others it augments our religious practices."
For Judy Carman, a Kansas-based activist and author, religion has not been a good fit.
"My spiritual path has kind of led me away from churches because I couldn't find one where it was considered logical to be vegan," she says.
Judy CarmanCarman, however, feels the connection between her lifestyle and her spirituality is self-evident.
"What I've noticed is that there are many people who are on a spiritual path now are not vegetarian or vegan, and that's been such a puzzle to me because it just seems like the most normal thing in the world--if you're going to be on a spiritual path, of course you would be vegan," she says.
Indeed, as Levinson and Carman note, traditional organized religion can sometimes seem alienating to spiritual vegans. Derek Goodwin, a yoga teacher from Massachusetts, reconciles some of this for himself through the underlying principles and philosophies of yoga. In yoga, he says, the goal is to come closer to God by constantly rethinking our beliefs. Yogic practice allows the mind and body to work towards this goal. Goodwin cites the idea of ahimsa, or nonviolence, as one of the primary methods of attaining this sort of inner peace.
"Yoga without ahimsa is like a bicycle without wheels," he explains, "Eventually, one needs to examine how we see others, because that determines who we are, and how others will treat us."
Derek GoodwinGoodwin's approach sheds light also on the complicated relationship between veganism and organized religion.
"There is a lot of cultural baggage around God, because our Western Religions have instilled a vision of God as an authority figure who created animals for us to exploit, which alienates those of us who have had a vegan awakening," he says.
Given this background, it makes sense that many of us are blocked from seeing the connections between a spiritual life and a vegan one. As a community, however, vegans can (and are) coming together to change popular perception. And the best part of that community is that it remains open to varying beliefs.
"The value of a spiritual community is to find a common ground, and to be open to others' beliefs . If we can maintain the openness to others' beliefs, as long as compassion and non-violence are at the core, then there is great value. If we try to become an organized religion that becomes dogmatic, then the value is lost," Goodwin adds.
Carman also sums this idea up well: "We need the community to keep us centered and at peace so that when we are confronted with the cruelty to animals, we don't look away. To me, that's the most important part of the spirituality movement--to give people encouragement and faith that we are on the right track."
Vegan Spirituality is an organization that merges ethics and spirituality by offering public forums to discuss themes, create rituals, and build community centered on compassion for all living beings. Vegan Spirituality offers monthly gatherings, annual retreats, and online discussion through social media.
The annual Vegan Spirituality Retreat offers a place for ethical vegans to gather and enjoy a day of focused activities together, including spiritual speakers, yoga classes, guided meditations, catered vegan food, a nature hike, and an animal blessing ceremony. In 2013 there were two separate retreats--one in California, and one in Pennsylvania.
Vegan Spirituality founder Lisa Levinson is thrilled to bring the retreat to the West Coast this year, expanding the community of vegans and engaging new avenues for spiritual practice. For more information, please visit http://www.veganspirituality.com.