Alchemists of old were spirit seekers, mad scientists experimenting ways to purify prima materia — to distill divinity from within the crude matter of the physical world. The Philosopher’s Stone, they called it. The search for God within nature. Though seemingly material in its complexion, the foundation of this practice was essentially spiritual, reflecting within it the plight to purify the human soul. The encrypted, and rather mystical, nature of alchemy’s linguistics allow for this translation. Perhaps the entire enterprise itself was a materially symbolic ritual: the raw matter of Earth as tools emblematic of the transmutation and ultimate evolution of body, mind, and spirit…
Today the practice is largely lost, though its influence continues to shape the psycho-spiritual field of modern society. It is within the containment of this alchemical metaphor that I am compelled to explore the ethical, ecological, and psycho-spiritual implications of the human diet. That’s right, food. Of the many things in this world that need purifying, food and our relationship to it is certainly high on the list.
In the same way that C. G. Jung resurrected alchemy’s concepts and linguistics through his mytho-psychological inquiry, I also want to play with the narrative, exchanging some of the components for those representing how we eat and consequently relate to the planet. My interest is not entirely different from the original alchemists, but imagine we substitute our foods in place of alchemy’s heavy metals; instead of glass tubes, boilers, and laboratory tools, we wield knives, forks, pots, pans, and our bodily vessels. Imagine the transformative potential of recognizing the spiritual nature within food and what sorts of implications this might have on our bodies, minds, and the planet. Maybe tuning ourselves through conscious eating is a lost key to deeper spiritual awareness and divine communion.
In a time of planetary crisis, may we ask ourselves these questions: What are the ecological implications of the foods we eat? In what way is food the interface through which the human body meets and is inextricably connected to the planet body? How is our relationship with food holographic, reflecting within it our relationship with the entire cosmos? Can we all be plan(e)t alchemists, transforming and purifying our bodies with food for the betterment of not just humanity but for all of life, the Earth, and beyond?
So, why the emphasis on plants? Well, here it is: this is a vegan blog.
While a case may be made for the evolutionary importance of meat in early human survival and subsequent brain development — an argument suggesting that a shift to an omnivorous diet may have catalyzed the emergence of reflective consciousness — our primate ancestors were incontrovertibly herbivorous (cannibalistic on occasion, yes, but only out of necessity) and therefore the modern human is more than capable of not only surviving but thriving on a plant-based diet.
“Of the many things in this world that need purifying, food and our relationship to it is certainly high on the list.”
But why, you ask? We love our meat, dairy, and eggs. Why give them up? Consider this: Big-Ag and Animal Factory Farming, the corporate juggernauts currently dominating the global population’s access to food — the nourishment that fuels our life force — are ruthless industries culpable for the negligent and truly horrendous treatment of domesticated animals and our precious ecosystems. Animal Agriculture on its own is now the primary cause of ocean dead zones, habitat destruction, desertification, deforestation, and global warming, accounting for more than half of all carbon and methane emissions (see a comprehensive list here). The resulting ecological devastation is not up for debate, it is fact. And perhaps modern civilization’s most tragic blindspot regarding food production: the absolutely inexcusable cruelty to animals, without which there would be no culture of heavy meat eating. Prison-like cages, chemical/antibiotic injections, intentional physical and emotional abuse, brutal slaughtering practices; the list goes on…
Aside from animal rights campaigns, why aren’t we talking about this?!
Well I suppose some are, advocating for more “ethical” and “humane” practices of animal food production, e.g., pasture raised, grass-fed beef, free-range chickens, etc. But now we’re back to the question of planetary sustainability, because if even a modest percentage of meat eaters in the world switched to “humane” animal products, there wouldn’t be enough land on the Earth to accommodate the transition, creating an entirely new ethical dilemma. More importantly, is there any moral justification in raising an animal for the sole purpose of killing her for food? Sure carnivorousness is an essential reality for some animals, but a cheetah doesn’t imprison an antelope for her entire life prior to making her a meal.
A final and noteworthy consideration regarding the adoption of a plant-based diet are the health related associations. More and more research evidence is pouring out in favor of ditching meat, dairy, and eggs for better cholesterol levels, diminished risk of heart disease and diabetes, stronger bones, healthier skin, fluid digestion, etc. (see T. Colin Campbell’s The China Study, as well as the research of Dr. Dean Ornish, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, and Dr. Neal Barnard). But even beyond the body, what might the effects of true physical health have on our spiritual awareness (see Gabriel Cousen’s Spiritual NutritionConscious Eating
So, what is holding us back from a healthier diet and overall lifestyle? A combination of outdated/limited research on nutrition, pleasure-seeking, convenience-at-all-costs attitudes, and an overall apathy for life stand in the way. Generally speaking, the reigning reductionist, anthropocentric paradigm. We must opt for a more holistic, compassionate, and inclusive worldview; one that recognizes the spiritual essence within the sacrament of food as life, inviting a revivified consciousness that respects the processes (including the people, animals, and ecosystems within) through which the raw materials and lifeforms of Earth become our bodies and beyond. In short: honoring the divine transaction that occurs when a life is necessarily lost and assimilated in service of more life — an awareness critical to many indigenous spiritualities across the world. By elucidating spirit in this way, our behaviors and attitudes toward not only food but all of life can and will change…
While it is true that that animal foods (meat, dairy, and eggs) embody this same divine consciousness, the means through which they are produced are appalling and clearly acts of violence, negligence, and aggrandized hedonism, indicating a profound forgetfulness of life’s inherent sacredness. And with a proper recognition and honoring of death largely absent in Western society, a ritual-minded attitude toward the production of food is virtually non-existent, leaving the death of billions and billions of animal lives a year unacknowledged. If in a very real way “you are what we eat,” then I am deflated when imagining the implications of consuming food produced through this spiritually vacuous process…
“Can we all be plan(e)t alchemists, transforming and purifying our bodies with food for the betterment of not just ourselves but for all of life, the planet, and beyond?”
Perhaps our language is partly to blame. “Manufacture,” “produce,” “consume.” These are strong and active words that elicit and perpetuate a mentality of manipulation and power-over. What if we were to prepare, share, and receive food as nourishment into our bodies? How might this affect our dietary choices or our relationship to the lives necessarily lost, the beings (whether plant or animal) sacrificed in service of nourishing our bodies? I am urged to share my thoughts and feelings concerning such provocative and seemingly threatening topics from a yin perspective of receptivity and awareness, opting for a transition to more appropriate language. Because the truth of the matter is this: humanity has placed a blind-eye upon food, from the initial process of production/preparation to its subsequent assimilation into the body; and even deeper, to the comprehensive reality of receiving food as Earth’s holy sacrament. The consequences have been ecologically devastating, terminally dangerous to our health, and ethically and spiritually negligent.
Yet, I still believe without question that humanity’s innate disposition is to eventually organize in such a way as to invite the health and transformation of body, mind, and spirit. The foods we choose to prepare and receive are instrumental in re-enchanting the sacredness of sustenance while reflecting back to the Earth that which she has so graciously provided for us. With an awareness of the consciousness within all things, we can have an engaged relationship with the foods we take into our bodies — one of physical vitality, spiritual clarity, and ethical reciprocity. Throughout this inquiry, I want always to remember criticism as a tool, and that hopeful optimism is my primary drive.
With plan(e)t alchemy as metaphorical container for this transformative process of acknowledging, receiving, evolving, and becoming the divine within life and ourselves, we will explore together the interconnected realms of food, planet, psyche, and spirit. Some of the unanswered questions and unpacked comments posed above will find further elaboration in future posts, so I invite you to return weekly, post comments, and please join the conversation!
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