I’m about to walk up the stairs in an old blue flat in central Arequipa that smells like dog piss – because, after all, with five rescued dogs from the streets that have nowhere to shit, it is dog piss – when Willy says, “But you know, then there’s the sexetarians.”
“The…what?” I choke at last, trying to look anywhere but his face.
Willy is a big, stocky guy with a bursting torso, piercing black eyes, a clean shave, hair brushed backwards, and a jaw that’s always set on self-defense mode. He’s a self-proclaimed vegan, activist wannabe-Hare-Krishna-devotee, works in the fancy Casa Andina, rescued me from the Terminal Terrestre bus station in a helluva yellow taxi one burning sierra summer morning and, as far as I can tell, scarfs down food that looks like it’s been boiled to death because of his two years in the military, never cooks and has the skinniest chopping board and worst knives I’ve seen in my life.
He grins. “It’s, like, next level. It’s vegans who only have sex with vegans.”
I roll my eyes. “That’s ridiculous,” I say.
He may be vegan, but he’s no lover boy. In fact, I’m not even convinced he loves food enough to make it – his bare kitchen is testament to that. Probably part of the reason I haven’t eaten for three days, either. I sling my bag around the balustrade, hard.
“This isn’t a superiority contest,” I fire. “This isn’t about us versus them, because if it were, then we are just perpetuating the same paradigm that led us to animal injustice and environmental degradation and poor human health in the first place: the paradigm of division and separation. Control and manipulation. Dehumanisation. If you say vegans are better than everyone else, that’s just you adding to the ego.”
He doesn’t miss a beat. “No, no, vegans aren’t putting themselves above anyone else. We say we are beneath all other forms of life – it’s giving nature the utmost honor, reverence. The utmost respect.” He grins and turns his palms up to the ceiling.
“And that adds to the ego,” I say, “Because that’s still another way of saying, ‘Look how great I am to put myself beneath nature,’ and it adds to the ego because it’s another way of saying we’re separate from nature, somehow, by being beneath it.”
He doesn’t understand. I push past him and half-sprint up the flight of stairs to find one of the dogs entered this morning and pissed all over my floor. I sit down on the bed, count to ten and breathe.
I don’t understand a lot of things. I don’t understand why you would rescue animals from the streets just to lock them up in four walls inside without the light of day, and let them crap all over your walls, your kitchen floor, tear the used toilet paper out of the waste bin in the bathroom with their teeth, poop right in the entrance-way. Willy calls vegans who just rescue cats and dogs perrogatistas, vegans who got into it for their health bienestaristas and those of us who give a damn about the planet don’t even make it to the list of degrading ‘isms’.
“It’s all separation and division,” Mandala says over cups of hot water up in Siglo XX at Akakau, an outdoor chocolate café beating with jazz – a refreshing change from the relentless reggaeton and Latino beats. “All the isms. I don’t really call myself vegan.”
I nod and gesture at Bianca, the big lady with the even bigger heart who runs the café. “Yeah,” I agree, “A friend of mine asked me what I eat ‘as a vegan’ and I listed things. But then I also mentioned I am not so keen on sugar, rice, pastas, breads, potatoes, cereals, grains, eat beans and legumes rarely, prefer more vegetables – raw – and seeds than fruits and nuts, don’t really eat things out of a packet, a box, a tin can, a bottle and I went on for a bit.
“Then she asked at last, ‘So, that’s what being vegan means?’
“And I said, at last, ‘No, I’m not vegan. I’m NALINI.'”
The day after, Mandala rings Willy and tells him she’s called the Sunday event a ‘City Summer Picnic’ with the word ‘vegan’ nowhere to be seen. She says, “You know, if someone wants to bring along a bit of meat, I’m okay with that.”
He all but slams down the phone.
For some reason, I find this interaction amusing. Willy is like a child recently on his path to consciousness who thinks people just need to know the facts and see the images and then they will change. Mandala and I don’t feel like we are even trying to change anyone – we just live our lives how we want, in loving acceptance of others, and for us, the quality of the human connection we have with someone is far more important than their dietary habits.
“I don’t even want to sit down at the table and talk with them and eat with them,” Willy says as we walk to Selva Alegre that afternoon.
I’m suddenly reminded of the Merchant of Venice, where Shylock says something to this effect.
“Isn’t that…vegan fundamentalism?” I ask, at last.
He says, “Absolutely not, that’s how much I care about animal welfare.”
Willy is your typical animal rights activist, and it drives me nuts. He posts pictures of bloody animals in pens and cells on his Facebook. He evaluates ‘how vegan’ someone is not by their general consciousness but by the quantity of similar bloody posts. You ask him why are you vegan and he rattles off a screed of memorized facts. It’s all anger against anger, violence against violence, hatred for hatred. It’s ‘not good enough’ to say, simply, “I eat this way because I feel better,’ – that’s not veganism, that’s wellbeingism in his books. Vegetarians are ‘not good enough.’ Were I to tell him I eat honey, that would be ‘not vegan.’ Actually, if he knew, I’m not even sure I would be allowed to couchsurf at his place, let alone run a paid vegan cooking workshop with Arequipa Vegan for thirty budding curious souls of the city.
He’s very black and white.
I ask him, at last, “How do you think change happens? How do we bring about the most profound change?”
Then, tells me a story. A story of magic and wonder and confusion and acceptance. A story of a fellow military friend turned Hare Krishna devotee, of reading the sacred books under his bed late at night, of the magic of prashaad and chants. We are at the Mirador de Yanahuara – the beautiful stone archway of Yanahuara that looks out at the city blushing in the afternoon sun, but I keep my gaze firmly locked in his.
He has tears in his eyes as he talks, for over half an hour, without interruption.
I say, at last, “Willy. I asked you, some half an hour ago, how does the most profound change happens. And you told me a story.” I cut him off before he can interrupt. “You already know the answer, of course. Change happens through stories. Through feelings. Through love. You fell into this initially not because of the facts but because of the wonder, the story of that friend of yours.”
He lapses into silence, and nods slowly.
“Imagine if your friend had said: I am not going to talk with you, eat with you, be friends with you or even sit at the same table as you if you’re not vegetarian. Imagine he had just shut you off, point blank. What would have happened?”
“I would have felt…rejected.”
“So – would you even have started this path?”
“Yes,” I say, “Exactly.”
Activism is both something I’m drawn to and a word that gives me the heeby jeebies. There’s a sense of cognitive dissonance in activism for me, in that I believe the world would be so much more a beautiful place if we changed some things, but at the same time, I don’t really want to make people change.
I don’t live my life trying to convert everyone into riding bicycles, forcing animal rights facts down their throats or into using eco-friendly cleaning products. I just live my life the way I want and when they walk into my space, they may notice. I may – as a human being and artist – gush over my obsession or adoration of this ingredient or that recipe, or the latest epic bike crash I had in Amsterdam where I shoulder-rolled onto the concrete, sprung back up and brushed my shoulders as if nothing had happened. I may talk about how much cycle culture or Little Bird makes me happy. It’s just me being me, telling my stories the way anyone tells you theirs, without any deeper intent. I find intent in dialogue…hard.
I also don’t really talk about why I do what I do until people ask.
And when they do, the facts are really not important. I tell them a story, perhaps a story of how I only learned to ride a bike at age nine because I was forbidden beforehand, or of my most incredible summer where I followed the flow of my body and ‘accidentally’ ended up becoming predominantly paleo-raw-vegan (pegan?). These kinds of conversations just make me uncomfortable if they get into the ‘head’ space anyway, because I feel like it would be just far more fun to invite someone around for lunch and have the excuse to make something absurd and colourful for them rather than spend time justifying rationally. I’m not convinced it is that ‘rational’ for me anyway – so one might not even call me ‘vegan’ because I ‘lack the consciousness’ somehow, perhaps because they are thinking that I am not thinking of and present with animal abuse every second of the day. Because for me, it’s just about the artistry, the flavours, the beautiful platter I set down in front of someone with love, the deep conversation that may not even have anything to do with veganism that we have while we eat.
Part of the reason I don’t like the intellectual justification is because it often feels like explaining to someone what you don’t eat, which feels like rejection and rejection and rejection, and I’m much more interested in talking about what I do eat.
I confess, also, that I have never really been one for the animal rights argument anyway. That’s not to say it’s not gruesome, in-humane and appalling to me. That’s not to say I don’t care about it and that I wouldn’t march for it or join in a public stunt.
It’s just to say I can’t connect with it. I see that level of pain and death, and I just feel shut down. I can’t feel. Perhaps partly that’s because I’ve never really eaten a great deal of meat in my childhood and if I have, it’s been from fairly sustainable sources, so I just see those gory images and think that’s not me. I’m not doing that. I’m in no way responsible. Perhaps it’s because the revulsion of hanging carcasses dripping blood at the butcher’s just sparks an automatic shut down reaction.
I think of the animal rights arguments for veganism and my feelings-space is just a black hole. I think of the times I’ve cried in eight-hour bus rides between Auckland and Wanganui looking at vast tracts of green – monocultures for sheep and dairy – and my feelings-space is rife with pain and heartbreak and anger at the sheer loss of biodiversity these spaces have experienced, imagining the beautiful, complex, poly-cultures of forests there beforehand. I think of the radiant beings, the youthful energies I’ve met, the colourful recipes I’ve made and the explosion of flavours I’ve cobbled together from the last few ingredients, and I feel uplifted, scarily excited. I think of all the people who’ve sampled a lunch or dinner, all the reactions – from Marry me to simply dropping straight to the floor legs and arms up in the air in wordless waaaaaa at triple raw chocolate brownies – and I’m filled with love.
Veganism is a word that makes me think of hate, perhaps predominantly because of the ‘-ism’ and the die-hard animal rights all-or-nothing folk I’ve run into. In contrast, I think manifesting love is probably the best way I could describe how I eat, alongside accidentally raw, being in flow and listening to my body.
Many vegans say this is just not ‘conscious,’ and that this, rather, ‘selfish’ because I’m just eating this way because it makes me happy and fills me with love and joy and makes me feel good – as if every mouthful should be a mental and physical attack on the all-consuming dairy and meat industry and their atrocities – so I’m not vegan in the true sense of the word, and that I just care about myself, my wellbeing and my body. That’s not true, I don’t think – I feel like I act from a more transformed space, one where anger/hate has a long, long time ago given way to love and joy. So what was once ‘conscious’ has now become embedded into the ‘sub-conscious.’ And now there is just living not thinking about living to the point of not actually being there anymore. And I also find the paradox of veganism confusing – and here, I’m referring to those who eat a lot of soy, rice, wheat, sugar, pastas, legumes, cooked food, even ‘faux meats’ – is that really conscious in the fullest sense? I ask both from the health-perspective and the permaculture perspective.
I find nothing particularly appealing about opening up fellow vegans’ food cabinets to find plastic packages of soy milk, pasta so processed it looks like it’s probably plastic, and oodles of sugar, margarine, likely genetically modified white rice and other dubious looking (supposedly) food items in tin cans and plastic.
I’ve had a challenging week, from conversations with Willy and Diego, a philosophical guru who intellectualizes the hell out of everything, to Gerald, a 38-year old man sports trainer vegan who looks like he’s twenty, similarly all-or-nothing, and female friends who showed up to the picnic – finally renamed ‘Comida Consciente’ or Conscious Food for Willy’s sake – just because they were ‘curious.’ In such incensed and conflicting circles, I find myself centred by, drawn to and guided by the following of the 12 Principles of Spiritual Leadership written by Will Keepin that are particularly relevant here:
The first principle is that the motivation underlying our activism for social change must be transformed from anger and despair to compassion and love. This is a major challenge for the environmental movement, for example. It is not to deny the legitimacy of noble anger or outrage at injustice of any kind. Rather, we seek to work for love, rather than against evil. We need to adopt compassion and love as our foundational intention, and do whatever inner work is required to implement this intention. Even if our outward actions remain the same, there is a major difference in results if our underlying intention supports love rather than defeating evil. The Dalai Lama says, “A positive future can never emerge from the mind of anger and despair.”
The fifth principle is don’t demonize your adversaries. People respond to arrogance with their own arrogance, which leads to polarization. The ideal is to constantly entertain alternative points of view so that you move from arrogance to inquiry, and you then have no need to demonize your opponents. This is hard to do, as we often feel very certain about what we think we know, and the injustices we see. As John Stuart Mill said, “In all forms of human debate, both parties tend to be correct in what they affirm, and wrong in what they deny.” Going into an adversarial situation, we can be aware of the correctness of what we are affirming, but there is usually a kernel of truth-however small-in what is being affirmed by our opponent. We need to be especially mindful about what we deny, because this is often where our blind spots will be.
The sixth principle is to love thy enemy. Or if you can’t do that, at least have compassion for them. This means moving from an “us-them” consciousness to a “we” consciousness. It means recognizing that I am the logger: when I write these principles of spiritual activism and publish them in this newsletter, I give the command to the logger to fell the trees, to produce the pulp, to produce this paper so that I can publish these spiritual principles about how best to save the trees. It is seeing the full circle of our interconnected complicity, and discovering all the problems of humanity in our own hearts and our own lives. We are not exempt and we are not different. The “them” that we speak of is also us. The practice of loving our adversaries is obviously challenging in situations with people whose views and methodologies are radically opposed to ours, but that is where the real growth occurs.
The tenth principle is what you attend to, you become. If you constantly attend to battles, you become embattled. On the other hand, if you constantly give love, you become loving. We must choose wisely what we attend to, because it shapes and defines us deeply.
Finally, the twelfth principle is that love creates the form. As Stephen Levine says, “The heart crosses the abyss that the mind creates.” It is the mind that gives rise to the apparent fragmentation of the world, while the heart can operate at depths unknown to the mind. So, if we begin imagining with our hearts, and work from a place of yearning as well as thinking, then we develop an unprecedented effectiveness that is beyond our normal ways of understanding because it doesn’t have to do with thinking. When we bring the fullness of our humanity to our leadership, we can be far more effective in creating the future we want.
With all that said, I must also confess that as I’ve been travelling, I have more and more stayed with vegetarians and vegans precisely because they were vegan or vegetarian. This is less for ideological reasons and more for practical reasons – I tend to find they can quite easily point me in the direction of the cheaper vegetable shops, the organic markets, and often have blenders, great chopping boards and a bonanza of herbal teas on hand. Plus, we get to get a bit geeky (crazy) in the kitchen together and share recipes – sharing food is really central to human connection. And what I love is just the easiness, of not having to explain, to justify, of just being able to enjoy each other’s company and the fullness of each other’s humanity without awkwardly dancing around each other’s ingredients and implements in the kitchen.
But if vegans just always hang out with vegans, how will change happen? I guess I kind of answered that above – I’m not really going about my life trying to force change down anyone’s throat. When I first meet someone, for all I care, they can eat what they like. I’m more interested in knowing them as human beings than vegans vs non-vegans – I want to know what makes them come alive, the last heartbreak they had, what they would do if money were no object. I want to know the moments that split their heart open up to the universe, how they would live their life differently if they knew they were to die in a few years, what gifts they bring and what challenges they have been facing. I want stories. I want to just sit back, eyes-in-eyes, and listen. I want to give the gift of my full presence.
I remember a certain vegan potluck in Maastricht where every single individual introduced themselves saying ‘how long they had been vegan for’ and what got them into it. Kasia, a Polish wild women with black hair a heart of fire, stood up and said, point blank, “I’m not going to tell you about how vegan I am. What is this – Alcoholics Anonymous? I don’t care about how long you’ve been doing this for – what matters is that you’re here, you want to share the love of this food, and I want to know you as human beings. Tell me what you like, what you don’t like. Tell me what you do in your free time, what your dreams are.”
Kasia’s asking to connect, of course, on a deeper level. To just be present and for that to be enough.
When I’ve been blessed to have been given that level of connection – love – and sheer acceptance, I’ve felt more able to open up. And I’ve also felt more open. To new ideas, new feelings, new kinds of consciousness. To change in general.
I guess that’s why I find it easier to call myself facilitator than activist now – because it’s not about making change (and the rejection, passive kind of violence, control and domination that comes with that) but about simply facilitating spaces, opening doors, lovingly helping people find their path, whatever that might be. We facilitate spaces for self-transformation to be more possible, easier. Each person’s transformation occurs in a different way – perhaps some people do need a lot of statistics and information to convince them, perhaps for others it’s simply meeting a seventy-year old grandmother who looks like they are twenty that gets them hooked – and whatever the initial reason (‘justification’) is, whatever the initial hook to fall in love, I have faith that once the journey of self-transformation begins, it’s holistic. It can’t not be. All the hooks to vegetarianism or being more conscious or present or whatever will lead down all the same paths, eventually – one of our Thrive Hub principles is: ‘Start anywhere, follow it everywhere.’ So in the beginning, someone might start off doing this for the environmental reasons but it will be so different, such a radical act, that they will look for more and more reasons to justify (intellectually) what already feels ‘right’ (emotionally).
That’s why I’m not vegan. I am Nalini. And I just happen to eat a shit ton of vegetables – pardon the pun – because I can’t help it. Because that’s what manifesting love for me looks like – love for myself, love for the planet, love for its food, love for its art, love for its people.
- Joanna Macy’s ‘Great Turning’:
Joanna Macy, founder of Deep Ecology and The Work that Reconnects, presents the following as an integrative model for change, also entitled, ‘The Great Turning’. In Generation Waking Up, we call these STOP (holding actions), START (structural change) and SHIFT (shift in consciousness):
A brief explanation, paraphrased from Macy’s facilitator guide, ‘Coming Back to Life’ is as follows:
- holding actions (STOP)
Most visible, including all political, legislative, legal work required to slow down destruction, as well as direct actions – blockades, boycotts, civil disobedience, protests, other forms of refusal. Also include:
- documenting ecological, social health effects of Industrial Growth Society e.g. fossil fuels, nuclear power, weapons production, heavy metal mining, clear-cutting, incinerators, toxic landfills, pesticides, food additives, factory farms; documenting injustices in women’s rights, indigenous populations…
- campaigning for laws to mitigate effects of poverty, loss of habitat etc e.g. Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, abolishing nuclear weapons, limiting GHGs.
- promoting appropriate regulations to implement environmental and social legislation and their just enforcement through citizen monitoring of government and business, participation in public hearings and litigation.
- lobbying against international trade agreements which endanger ecosystems and undermine social and economic justice (TPPA etc).
- whistle-blowing on illegal and unethical corporate practices.
- boycotting corporations that endanger living systems.
- blockading and conducting vigils at places of ecological destruction or social inequity.
- protesting against global arms trade etc.
- providing shelter and food to poor and homeless.
This first dimension of the Great Turning is wearing. It is heroic work – it brings respect, adulation but also stress – constant search for funding, battles lost and violence against activists…and there’s a neverending extent of crises.
We take a point position and when we step back to stop, we often feel guilty. But we are not abandoning our work in the Great Turning but choosing to work in it in a different form – the way the head goose, when she is tired, repositions herself to fly in the windstream of others and another flyer takes her place.
Work of this kind buys time – it saves some lives but is insufficient in bringing forth the ‘thriving, just and sustainable world’ on its own.
- analysis of structural causes and creation of alternative institutions (START)
This involves asking some hard questions: what are tacit agreements that create obscene wealth for a few while leaving the rest of humanity in poverty? What are the forces and structures that lead to continual use of our larger body, Earth, as our supply house and sewer? When we see how the system operates we are less likely to demonise the politicians and CEOs who are in bondage to it. In this second dimension we are not only studying the structural causes of the global crises but also creating structural alternatives.
How this appears:
- study/working groups on the nature of the Industrial Growth Society and how it works
- educational services on ecological and human costs of such a society.
- new measures of wealth creation
- community-based services for conflict resolution, mediation to replace litigation
- strategies and programs for non violent, citizen-based defense
- reduction in fossil fuels and nuclear fuels
- conversion to renewables
- non-individualised land ownership models, collaborative living arrangements (co-housing, ecovillages)
- local community initiatives – gardens, coops, tool sharing, skill banks, community-supported agriculture, restoration projects, community and municipal composting and recycling procrams
- holistic health and wellness methods
- local currencies
- new education ventures
- electronic communication systems allowing activists worldwide to communicate, share information, organize, coordinate, evolve
In short, this is the ‘creation of new structures’ – new technologies, new ways of government, new enterprises.
- shift in perceptions of reality both cognitively and spiritually (SHIFT)
These nascent institutions cannot take root and survive without deeply ingrained values to sustain them. They must mirror what we want and how we related to Earth and each other. They require a profound shift in our perception of reality and that shift is happening now, it is the third most basic dimension of the Great Turning.
There are many insights and experiences which enable the great turning and hence the shift – they come in many forms. They arise as grief for he world, giving lie to the notion that we are separate. They arise in the form of joy to breakthroughs. Or they are there, in the way we are moved by the wisdom of ancient traditions, natives and mystics, which remind us the earth is a sacred whole and we have a sacred mission.
From the convergence of these 3 rivers – anguish for the world, joy at breakthroughs and ancestral teachings – we drink. These insights free us from the grip of this society, help redefine our wealth and worth, and reconnect us with our place in the natural order of things.
Ingredients in this type of change include:
- general living systems theory, Gaia theory (planet is living system and our larger body), deep ecology
- ideas of interbeing from engaged ancient teachings at the foundation of all major (and not major) religions and spiritual practices
- ecofeminism, ecopsychology, psychotherapy
- simple living, voluntary simplicity, movement
- music, art
…all of which leads to a shift in our identity.
A more complex version of the Great Turning, summarising the above, is as follows:
2. Niki Harre’s Psychology for a Better World
One of the best all-round reads for how to inspire change for the ‘more beautiful world our hearts know is possible’: http://www.cid.org.nz/assets/2015-Psychology-for-a-Better-World.pdf
3. Two poems I find particularly relevant:
There is no power greater than a community discovering what it cares about.
Ask “What’s possible?” not “What’s wrong?” Keep asking.
Notice what you care about.
Assume that many others share your dreams.
Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.
Talk to people you know.
Talk to people you don’t know.
Talk to people you never talk to.
Be intrigued by the differences you hear.
Expect to be surprised.
Treasure curiosity more than certainty.
Invite in everybody who cares to work on what’s possible.
Acknowledge that everyone is an expert about something.
Know that creative solutions come from new connections.
Remember, you don’t fear people whose story you know.
Real listening always brings people closer together.
Trust that meaningful conversations can change your world.
Rely on human goodness. Stay together.
― Margaret Wheatley
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
― Mary Oliver