The Plant-Eater’s Dilemma

“The world is a fabric of suffering and pleasure; in every action, good and evil dance together like a pair of lovers.”

Alejandro Jodorowsky

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Earlier this year I joined some colleagues for lunch, and they decided to try out a local poke restaurant (poke, if you happen to have missed the rise of this ultra trendy cuisine, is a raw fish salad made popular in Hawaii). I eat a plant-based diet, but hoped that—since this was southern California—there would be a tofu bowl or other veggie option.

When it was my turn to order, I asked my waiter if they had any vegan options. He seemed unsure what I meant so asked his manager, who responded that they could make me a seaweed bowl. Then, the waiter asked me tentatively, “You know seaweed is alive, right? Is that okay for you to eat?”

My first response was to laugh out loud at the fact that he didn’t realize seaweed was a plant, not an animal. But then I thought for a second. Although it wasn’t his intention, the waiter’s question hit a deep philosophical nerve inside me that all vegans and vegetarians must confront at some point—what truly is the difference between eating plants versus animals? As if he was channeling a Buddhist monk, this man’s question innocently drove to the very root of our human dilemma: by our nature, we must consume other living things and thus cause suffering in one form or another—so where do we draw the line of “allowable” suffering? Well played, sir!

Of course, each of us creates our own moral boundaries, and no two are exactly the same. Nearly all religions evolved to address this very question of how we conduct ourselves in a ‘savage’ world, and most include at least a few dietary taboos. For example, the Jain religion of India, which dates back to the 6th century and is still practiced today, asserts that humans should not eat the flesh or eggs of animals, and should avoid any injury to sentient beings—even by stepping on insects (the most ascetic Jains carry a broom to sweep an area before they walk or sit on it to clear away any bugs etc. that could be harmed). However, many Jains, while avoiding meat and eggs, still consume dairy products, wear leather or silk, or partake in other activities that directly or indirectly cause suffering to animals. As with all of us, even Jains have to draw a line somewhere as long as they exist in this world. That line seems often to be drawn at ‘intent’; doing your best to avoid intentional harm while accepting that by living and breathing we will inevitably cause unintentional harm.

In a similar vein, most vegans and vegetarians choose to avoid animal products for ethical reasons, whether out of a desire to reduce animal suffering, or to reduce their environmental footprint. I am not going to go into the topic of sustainability in relation to large-scale agribusiness and meat production in this post, but I’ve covered that topic in some of my past blogs including this one.

The most dedicated vegans not only avoid consuming animal-based foods, but also clothing and other products either made with or tested on animals. Side note: this is more difficult than it sounds—I only recently found out that most wine isn’t technically vegan, because the filtration process usually involves some sort of gelatin (sourced from fish, cows or pigs), egg whites, or casein (a milk protein). But even the most hardcore vegans can’t avoid causing suffering on some levels: eating plants still involves the killing of insects and microbes (not to mention the killing or ‘harming’ of the plants themselves) and has a carbon footprint. And if you choose only to live on air? Well, you would still inhale microbes that get destroyed by our own immune systems. You can’t win.

Thus the unavoidable conclusion: life is suffering.

How do we cope with such a conclusion, as beings that are blessed (or cursed) with the ability to feel such strong compassion? Alejandro Jodorowsky, whom I quote at the beginning of this blog, has spent the majority of his life and career as an artist exploring this uniquely human paradox. One of Jodorowsky’s childhood memories, which he recreates in surrealist style in his film ‘The Dance of Reality’, illustrates his inner turmoil. He recalls a time when, as a boy of 6, he wanders down to the beach and witnesses huge numbers of sardines washing ashore and dying. He tries to scoop them up and throw them back into the sea, but they keep washing up in greater numbers. Seagulls start to gather and snatch sardines out of his hands.

“The world was offering me two options,” Jodorowsky writes. “I could suffer with the anguish of the sardines, or I could rejoice at the good fortune of the seagulls. The balance tilted toward joy when I say a crowd of poor people—men, women, and children—chasing away the birds and gathering up every last fish with frenetic enthusiasm. The balance tilted toward sadness when I saw the gulls, deprived of their banquet, pecking dejectedly at the few morsels that remained on the beach.”

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This one scene encapsulates the whole of life’s joy and sorrow. What nourishes one, depletes another—at least in the physical world. To cope, many philosophers would argue, we must find a higher purpose or cause that gives meaning to the suffering. Some find this through religion, others through charity or vocation.

The biologist and philosophical thinker Ed Ricketts (author John Steinbeck’s close friend and inspiration for the character Doc in his classic Cannery Row) spent years developing his concept of ‘breaking through’ to address this same dilemma. Similar to the concept of enlightenment, breaking through referred to the ability to move from a state of suffering to a state of peace and joy. But Rickett’s version took a more intellectual slant; he described ‘breaking through’ as reaching a heightened state of understanding that could lead to solutions for a given problem—including societal problems such as poverty and racism. As Sagarin and Crowder (2007) write: “Ricketts acknowledged that breakthroughs were driven by passionate conviction and adherence to a cause or belief. He wrote, “Its most common vehicle is love, love of a cause, of people, of a person”.”

It all comes down to love. It’s the simplest truth we know and yet the hardest to adhere to. If we do our best to act out of love, than we can reduce suffering and perhaps even reach our own breakthroughs, spiritual or otherwise. For some people, acting out of love means avoiding all animal products. For others, it means making thoughtful choices about what they eat or what they buy or how they act in other ways.

If your main goal is to have a low carbon footprint, you may choose to avoid meat and dairy but still eat mussels and oysters, since bivalves can be sustainably cultured with little energy input or harm to other organisms; plus, there’s evidence (though not definitive) that sessile bivalves don’t feel any more ‘pain’ than plants when harvested. Others would argue, however, that plants do have some of the capabilities of sentient beings, such as the ability to communicate with each other and respond to danger. Without central nervous systems, however, its unlikely plants have any sense similar to ‘pain.’ In my opinion, it all comes back to making thoughtful choices, and showing gratitude and respect for the resources available to us—whether they are plants, animals, soil, rock, or water. If we could revitalize more widely the ancient practice of paying respect to the food we consume, perhaps this gratitude would spill over into other aspects of our lives.

I’ll admit that sometimes I find it difficult to reconcile the fact that many of my friends are passionate about conserving the ocean and saving wildlife, but still choose to eat unsustainable seafood, or beef and pork from factory farms. But then I remind myself that I often drive a regular car that runs on fossil fuel instead of riding a bike, and I buy foods wrapped in plastic when I could choose to avoid them. Rather than developing guilt complexes about all the things we do ‘wrong’ or finger pointing at others who do so, we could put that energy towards building empathy and compassion for each other as well as other living things.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”

So ultimately, was I okay with eating seaweed? By the time my order arrived, I wasn’t so sure. Ironically, I was mistakenly served a poke bowl filled with raw fish, and had to send it back for the seaweed bowl. I had to hope that although I didn’t eat the fish that had been prepared for me, it wouldn’t go to waste. I had inadvertently caused undo waste and suffering by ordering the vegan dish. Morality is a complicated game. When my seaweed bowl finally arrived, fish-free this time, I acknowledged the effort and life that went into the meal and ate it without complaint.

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Psyched out—the mental barriers that prevent us from solving global problems

Despite the many challenges we already face due to climate change and other environmental issues, as a society we struggle to face these problems head on and take action.
Despite the many challenges we already face due to climate change and other environmental issues, as a society we struggle to face these problems head on and take action.

In 1969, Psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published a book outlining five key steps in the grieving process. Decades later, these five steps have entrenched themselves almost ubiquitously into western society’s understanding of grief, with references to them occurring in everything from academic research to pop culture.

Flash-forward to 2015—another psychologist, Per Espen Stoknes, has published his own book that similarly proposes a five-step psychological process. But this one isn’t about grieving. In fact, it’s about not grieving—not grieving for the planet, that is. In his book, Stoknes describes five psychological barriers that prevent people from being concerned about, or taking action on, climate change.

The five barriers (distance from the problem, defeatism, internal dissonance, denial, and sense of identity) do indeed help explain why people in developed countries are largely ignoring not just climate change, but many other large-scale, high-risk challenges facing society and the environment. While each of these mental barriers relates to one another, I am particularly interested in the last—i.e., how our construct of personal identity (a.k.a. Ego) affects our perception of the world, and how that perception frames our values, connections, and resulting actions (or inaction, as the case may be).

“Each of us has a sense of self that is based in certain values — a professional self, a political self, a national identity. We just naturally look for information that confirms our existing values and notions, and filter away whatever challenges them,” Stoknes explains. “Psychologists know that if you criticize people to try to make them change, it may only reinforce their resistance.”

Personal identity, just like religion, has evolved to serve an important purpose in human society. It helps us cultivate a moral compass and allows us to interpret and filter the constant external information our minds are internalizing. However, as with religion, our sense of self can become a source of harm when it interferes with our ability to commiserate and connect with people or ideas different from our ‘own’. The ego grows by defining boundaries between ‘self’ and ‘other’, and by ignoring or outright denying any information that does not align with its self-cultivated identity.

We only have to look at neo-Nazi groups or extreme religious cults to see where the creation and defense of self-identity can go terribly, violently wrong. At the other extreme, philosophies such as yoga as well as many eastern religions emphasize the release from self-identity as the highest goal—i.e., moving beyond the ego to a place of enlightenment, or higher consciousness. For those of us in between those extremes, our sense of self is unavoidable, and crucial at least to some extent in our interactions with the day-to-day world. The goal then is how to maintain an identity without feeling threatened by other ways of seeing or explaining the world; an identity that is porous like sand on a beach, allowing ideas and knowledge to flow through it freely.

I believe that regardless of religious, philosophical, or cultural ties, our responsibility (and ideally, our ambition) as humans is to cultivate a sense of self that is pliable instead of rigid, that expands and evolves to accept new ideas and facts as they are made aware to us. Nothing on the planet, indeed in the universe, is unchanging, and neither is our Self, no matter how much we try to cling to whatever identity we’ve constructed over the years.

I Imagine, therefore I Am

One thing that we all are capable of to varying degrees is imagining. Imagining future scenarios, imagining alternative lives, or even imagining people or creatures that don’t ‘exist’ in our world. Whereas science-minded folks often exhibit high amounts of curiosity and openness to new ideas, its often religious people whose minds are more open to imagination.

As Stanford Anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann explains in a TEDx talk, evangelical conceptions of God often involve people talking directly to God, hearing his voice direct them, or even seeing him. Her research has found that some people have an inherently vivid imagination, and these individuals are more likely to have these personal one-on-one interactions with God. Using brain scans, scientists can see that the same parts of the brain are active when someone is having a Godly experience as when they are asked to imagine various scenes.

Visions of God or other religious beings have been recorded for centuries--new research shows that a strong imagination correlates with a higher likelihood of having these kinds of religious visions.
Visions of God or other religious beings have been recorded for centuries–new research shows that a strong imagination correlates with a higher likelihood of having these kinds of religious visions.

Luhrmanns’ and others’ research also shows that we train our minds to be more imaginative—or more in tune with God, depending on how you interpret the results. The longer a person has been praying in the evangelical style, the more likely they are to experience God’s voice or image in their everyday routines.

These internal imaginative experiences highlight how adaptive and flexible our minds are. We can literally re-wire our brains by consciously changing and practicing new thought patterns. People are trained to do this to treat depression and anxiety, and we can even reduce chances of developing Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s by keeping our minds healthy and active.

Perhaps if we were to teach similar techniques on a wider level, our society would be better prepared for change, and more willing to make positive lifestyle choices to protect our health, environment, and wellbeing. Just as people are starting to advocate re-introducing children to gardening and real food at school, and some corporations are adopting socially and environmentally conscious guidelines that go beyond their financial bottom line, we do have it in us to expand our view about what values are important to cultivate.

It’s never easy to modify your identity or accept large-scale change, but we’ve done it as a species countless times before. Our identities will always be partially shaped by where we live, how we were raised, and to what cultures we were exposed. However, as a highly adaptive species, I have hope that we (at least some of us!) can yet evolve toward a higher collective consciousness in which differences are both respected and recognized as superficial compared to the larger sameness that we all share.

While younger generations face more dire problems than those of the past, many millenials appear to be up to the challenge, spreading a message of acceptance and action.
While younger generations face more dire problems than those of the past, many millenials appear to be up to the challenge, spreading a message of acceptance and action.

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral …. Consciousness?

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Historically there has been little congruence between scientific and spiritual theories of consciousness—what it is, how it operates, or whether it even truly exists. In fact, most scientific fields have tended to keep quiet about consciousness, relegating its contemplation to philosophers and religious scholars.

This is quickly changing, however. Modern scientific disciplines, such as molecular biology and particle physics, are starting to unravel mysteries of how our universe works at the micro-scale (from chemical signals in the body or atoms in a dying star), and how these micro processes together create the large-scale world we perceive as ‘reality’. Equipped with advanced technologies coupled with nuanced theories that explain processes such as quantum mechanics and neural networks, scientists are directing their focus back to that once untouchable question—what is consciousness?

What I find particularly fascinating is that the latest proposed scientific theories about the nature of consciousness closely parallel some of the most ancient spiritual philosophies, such as the Vedic yoga sutras, that discuss consciousness. Might this be one more front where science and spirituality finally coalesce—or at least complement each other—to create a more holistic understanding of the universe?

sciencecafescienceofconsciousness618x350Mind as Matter

Max Tegmark, a theoretical physicist from MIT, is at the forefront of this scientific quest to define consciousness. His hypothesis? Consciousness may be another state of matter, like liquids, solids, and gases. He even suggests that there may be multiple kinds, or layers, of consciousness. “Just as there are many types of liquids, there are many types of consciousness,” he states.

From a scientific standpoint, his suggestion may initially sound far-fetched, or even outlandish. How can you ‘prove’ that consciousness is a form of matter? Apparently, with some help from neuroscience. Tegmark developed his hypothesis based on the work of neurologist Giulio Tononi, who proposed that consciousness is a phenomenon of information that is integrated into a unified, indivisible, whole.

In other words, consciousness is an all-encompassing information storage and retrieval system (i.e., memories), like a super-computer more powerful than any computer we can currently fathom—38 orders of magnitude beyond current computing power, according to Tegmark. He names this consciousness matter computronium.

He also discusses a related type of consciousness that he calls perceptronium, the most general material substance with subjective self-awareness. This matter processes information from an internal control center rather than based on external stimuli, making it a more fundamental ‘layer’ of conscious matter.

Although neurobiology and quantum physics provide a tangible foundation from which to define and explore these concepts, this new scientific framework of consciousness has many holes and is plagued by many as of yet unanswerable questions. For one, according to Tegmark (assuming he and his colleagues estimates are accurate) the size of the neural network in our brain that supposedly creates our conscious experience is only large enough to store about 37 bits of information, when in reality it stores vastly more. How it does so is still a mystery. Tegmark therefore believes that there is some missing aspect to his mathematical formulations, “at least one additional principle” essential to creating consciousness as we know it.

Another mystery to science is why we perceive the universe in terms of classic Newtonian physics; e.g., why we experience just three dimensions, and perceive objects as discrete and separate even though at a quantum level all matter is energy, which is all connected and all-pervasive. We’ve come a long way in understanding our world, but we are still at the frontier in terms of explaining our own perceptive ability and limitations.

That is, if you are a scientist. If you are a spiritual scholar or devotee of Vedic scripture, on the other hand, you may have a much deeper comprehension of consciousness and its relation to our perceptive capabilities. Indeed, while modern science has yet to account for all of the factors, or ‘principles’, upon which consciousness is built, some scholars believe that the nature of consciousness was discovered ages ago, and is understood fully today by a small number of fully realized monks and spiritual gurus.

Re-defining Reality

The Samkya and Yoga philosophies, which derive from the ancient Vedic traditions of the Himalayan Mountains (and from which most Eastern religions originated, such as Hinduism and Buddhism), contain whole treaties pertaining to matter and consciousness*. As explained in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, which date back thousands of years, ‘reality’ consists of two over-arching dimensions: Purusha, defined as ‘pure consciousness’, and Prakriti, or ‘creative energy’, from which all matter derives.

Just as Tegmark proposes that consciousness may exist in many states of matter, the Sutras delineate several layers of consciousness, beginning with its purest unmanifest or undifferentiated state all the way to its manifested physical state, or what we perceive as external objects. The goal of yoga is to eventually reach pure consciousness by slowly working backwards through these layers of consciousness, from gross external perception to the most subtle internal perception of the self, and finally to pure consciousness beyond ego.

Another way of understanding this concept is to consider the Figure below. The Yoga Sutras outline the various layers, or ‘evolutes’ as they are often referred to, of consciousness and perception. At the most subtle level at the top of the figure, Purusha, or pure consciousness, is reflected in the primordial unmanifested energy, Prakriti. This energy is considered even subtler than the realm of quantum physics. From this creative energy, the first evolute or layer of consciousness (called Buddhi) arises. Buddhi is the subtlest aspect of the mind, where cognition and intelligence originate. The orientation of Buddhi is inward, towards ultimate consciousness, rather than outward toward external perception.

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The next evolute of consciousness is ‘Ahamkara’, the ego identity. This is the level of consciousness where the sense of self originates, where consciousness begins to turn outward and define reality based on the relationship between itself and the external world. In this way, Ahamkara closely mirrors Tegmark’s definition of perceptronium.

Following Ahamkara is ‘Manas’, what we would think of as the mind, or the brain—the instrument of thought and perception. Manas is the level of consciousness that receives and processes sensory input, or information, similar to Tegmark’s computronium. Manas receives its information from the five senses (sight, sound touch, sound, taste), which relate to organs and actions of the body.

From the perspective of yogic philosophy, then, the reason why we perceive the world in a particular (and rather limited) way is due to our reliance on these five organs of perception, which piece together this particular version of reality. If, however, through the practice of yoga and meditation, you work backwards through the subtler and subtler layers of consciousness, you no longer need rely on those sensory organs. Instead, you slowly gain a more and more holistic understanding of reality, until ultimately you merge with pure consciousness and realize that everything is ‘one’ (This is my simplified interpretation, anyway).

Where two roads meet…

I am always wary of discussing non-scientific concepts in scientific terms, or pretending that something is scientific when it is not (e.g. creationism). However, I do think that it is a legitimate thought exercise to consider not only where scientific and religious theories/philosophies differ, but also where they overlap or complement each other.

In the pursuit of defining consciousness, I believe there is much to be learned on both sides. Just as science has shown us that all life is multi-leveled, with repeated patterns from the micro to macro scale, so too does Yogic philosophy consider life, including consciousness, as layered. Objects are made out of compounds, which are made out of elements, which are made out of atoms, which are made out of particles, which are made out of even subtler entities that science cannot readily perceive, but that the Sutras describe as Prakriti—the origin of all matter. In a similar way, our actions are triggered by thoughts, which are triggered by emotions, which are triggered by memories, and so on.

Thus, there is near agreement between these two vastly different world views (science and yogic philosophy) regarding the structure of the universe. Indeed, for thousands of years yoga had been described largely as a science, a way of observing the world and drawing conclusions about reality. Our ‘western’ conception of science more narrowly defines it as a particular method of testing hypotheses, and therefore does not necessarily encompass older definitions of ‘science’.

The key differences between modern science and Yoga seem to be a) the method of discerning the structure of the universe, and b) the terms used to describe the structure and its origins. Semantics tends to become an issue in cross-communication not only between science and non-science, but even among different scientific fields. We often lose sight of how narrow each of our views are, because to us they make up our entire individual reality. But we are only perceiving a miniscule piece of an infinite pie, which is why considering additional world views may help us create at least a slightly more holistic picture of the world.

I’ve only discussed two particular such world views today, but I hope to discuss many more in future blog entries, including Buddhism and other eastern religious philosophies, Judeo-Christian beliefs, and other philosophical and scientific systems. Just like our rudimentary understanding of the universe, my blog is only just starting the scrape the surface of this complex topic.

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*I am only just beginning to learn the intricacies of these teachings, and therefore cannot claim to be an expert on Vedic philosophy any more than I can claim to be an expert in quantum physics. But from what I have read and learned so far, there are many striking parallels between ancient spiritual philosophy and modern science, both in regards to what questions each system seeks to answer, and how these answers are derived.