Since we spent a week at the yoga farm, Ellen and I have been discussing our values. The people on the farm practiced Bhakti yoga, and Ellen read a couple of their religious books to get a feeling for what they were about. (I was reading an excellent book on examining religious claims using the scientific method – maybe not the best headspace to be in when visiting a religious commune.) The Cole’s Notes version of our host’s beliefs is that you are going to be reincarnated, and the objective is to get to nirvana, which you do by devoting your existence to the spiritual, rather than the material world. If you screw up this life by focusing too much on material pleasures, you will be demoted to a lower form of life, like an animal, which can’t think about God and therefore will have a much more difficult time getting to nirvana. Devoting your life to spiritual pursuits means not harming or causing the death of animals, not eating meat, not consuming intoxicants like alcohol or coffee, and not having sex, among other things. The food you eat is made as an offering to Krishna, not for your own satisfaction. I asked our host what had led to her setting up her Krishna community, and she said she had been lost and looking for the meaning of life, and had met a monk whose ideas made sense to her, and she became a devotee of Krishna.

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Ellen and I had a lot of trouble adjusting to her community, though, because it clashes a lot with our own values. Our vacation right now focuses on exploring the material world – food, alcohol, coffee, beaches, mountains… we are seeking out sensory pleasures in new places. I can’t really think any loving god would object. Why would the world be full of such beauty, if we weren’t meant to appreciate it? Surely cooking and eating delicious food is an act of reverence, a celebration of life. The material world is frigging awesome. I, for one, am extremely glad I’m here. I don’t want to give this up. If that means I get reincarnated as an animal, so much the better! How do we know that animals don’t have spiritual awareness? If there is a god, maybe cats are meditating on god when they nap so happily all day long. I’m not convinced that becoming an animal would be a demotion at all. Even if animals only experience the material world, I’d love to know what that experience is like. I’m sure I taste pretty delicious to a mosquito – I must, because they bite me all the time!

Our second main values disagreement was about vegetarianism. (This post was inspired in part by this comic on vegetarianism, although I don’t feel as strongly as that!) I like vegetarian food, but I don’t agree that it’s wrong to eat meat. Death is part of the cycle of life, and some animals and plants must die so that others may live. It’s not always pretty, but it’s reality, at least from my perspective. I don’t think it’s kinder or more ethical to try to remove humans from that cycle. Many of the animals that we raise for food wouldn’t exist as they are today if humans didn’t breed them for their meat. These animals have roles to play in agriculture, in the production of food. The system doesn’t work without them, or their death. The soil at the yoga farm was essentially sand – dry (mostly from the drought), and stripped of nutrients. For it to become healthy again, it needed to be fertilized. Unless you add chemical fertilizers, the most common things farmers add to the soil to enrich it are manure or blood and bone meal. That’s not because farmers are cruel, but because that’s what nature intends to be added to the soil. On an unspoilt plain, herbivores leave their droppings to feed the soil, as they eat the grass or trees. Carnivores kill their prey, and the blood spills into the earth, feeding the plants. After the meat is consumed, the bones donate their calcium to the land, providing nutrients for plants that feed future generations of herbivores. If you want to take food from the earth, you need to give back to it, otherwise you will deplete it of its resources and kill the soil. I don’t know if it’s possible to do that sustainably without allowing for animals to die.

In my opinion, there is nothing cruel or immoral about having a healthy, sustainable cycle of life and death providing your food. You plant a variety of crops on a relatively small scale, and rotate the crops so that different minerals are taken from and added to the soil with each cycle. You have a couple of cows or goats for milk, and a dozen or so hens for eggs. The hens keep the bugs down and leave their nitrogen-rich poop in the fields. The goats graze the fields that are fallow, letting the fields recuperate and regain fertility before being planted again. You might let one hen raise a few chicks, to replenish the flock and provide a bit of meat for the table. The goats don’t provide milk unless they have babies, so you have a couple of kids to raise for meat, and some milk for cheese and yogurt. A pig or two would be great to have around the property, as they churn up the soil and eat roots, clearing the field for the next crop. As long as you’re rotating the crops and animals on the land, each has its role to play in the cycle of food production. Animals are vital to the sustainable farm system.

A vital part of the food cycle

A crucial part of the food cycle

I’m glad we went to the yoga farm, but I wasn’t converted to the ideals of its host’s religion. I’m going to continue to eat meat, thoughtfully and with awareness of the sacrifice that comes from the animal’s role in the cycle of food production. I’m equally aware of the effort required to tear root vegetables such as yucca from the hard earth, or to pick oranges from branches full of razor-sharp spines. That’s one of the reasons I celebrate the material pleasure of eating food. Well-cooked food, ethically grown, is one of the finer things of life on Earth, and I’m happy to be here, on the material plane, to enjoy it.

An amazing meal, prepared and consumed with joy, from locally produced ingredients. (This one happens to be vegetarian)

An amazing meal, prepared and consumed with joy, from locally produced ingredients. (This one happens to be vegetarian)

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