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At the time of this writing, I’ve been vegan for more than 18 years (vegetarian for 22 years). I’ve already written about transitioning to veganism, which I did during the 1990s. This time I’ll share some thoughts and feelings about what it’s like to be vegan as opposed to becoming vegan, especially with respect to living in a non-vegan world.
Perspectives and Attitudes
I see animals as beautiful living beings. I don’t see them as products, consumables, or entertainment. I don’t want to relate to them with force, control, or violence. I could overpower them and take their flesh, eggs, and milk from them like many humans do, but I choose not to. That isn’t the relationship I desire to have with the animals of this world.
I prefer to cultivate a more peaceful and loving attitude towards animals. I see them as my extended family. They’re my brothers and sisters, fellow life forms sharing a journey together on this earth.
A hummingbird lives in a tree outside my home office. Almost every day, I hear the buzzing of her wings as she floats in the air near the nest she built. I can’t imagine stealing her eggs — or those of any other bird — and turning them into breakfast.
Yes, she’s a different species, but she’s still my sister. She is beautiful to me… precious… amazing. I am delighted to connect with her. I feel lucky that she chooses to make her home so close to me. Her presence brightens my day. Sometimes she chirps. Sometimes I talk to her. We may not understand each other’s language, but somehow we still understand each other.
Her entire body weighs less than an ounce. My three-pound brain is orders of magnitude more complex than her tiny one-gram brain. I could look upon her with superiority, but that would only stem from ignorance. How superior can I possibly feel while she so gracefully floats and glides through the air while I remain glued to the ground?
Even with her tiny body and brain, she has better hearing and eyesight than I do. She can see ultraviolet light. She’s one of the smallest birds on earth, but she still flies faster than the fastest human can run. Her wings beat 70 times per second. She can fly sideways and even upside down. She can remember every flower she’s ever visited, and she can accurately predict when each one will have more nectar for her. That’s especially impressive given that she’ll visit about 1,000 flowers per day. Many plants depend on her for pollination. If I’m more of a genius than she is, I have a long way to go to prove it.
Earlier this year I spent a week on a small farm in Southern Spain with a dog, chickens, and baby goats. I loved connecting with these animals. Spending time with them was delightful and restorative. I’m fascinated by the beauty, intelligence, and elegance of animals, including the ones that people turn into products.
It saddens me deeply that other humans can so easily dismiss the wondrous nature of these amazing beings, treating them as mere objects to be manipulated on the dinner plate — as weaker species to be overpowered and controlled.
In the USA alone, about 10 billion animals are killed for food — by humans — every year.
How can I close my heart to that much pain? I cannot. It genuinely hurts.
Relating to Other Humans
My relationships with animals greatly affects my relationship with other people.
I find it difficult to experience genuine closeness and intimacy with people who feel they have the right to treat animals as products to be eaten or worn. Even after so many years on this path, I still find such behaviors painful and stressful to observe. I feel sad and disappointed when I see people treating my extended family members as casual consumables. It’s like being in a family that’s at war with itself.
I don’t find it realistic to avoid such people completely, and I have no desire to go to war with them, but their violent attitude towards animals makes it much more difficult for me to see their beauty, elegance, and intelligence the way I can so easily do with animals.
I see myself as a social person, and I like connecting with friends, but I find it difficult to cultivate deep friendships with many people due to the way they relate to my extended family. So I generally keep such people at arm’s length. I limit my exposure to their attitudes and perspectives. Over-exposure is painful.
I crave honesty and intimacy in my relationships, but it’s risky to share my true feelings with others. Sharing how I feel about animals can be perceived as an affront by those who productize them. Some then feel a desire for revenge. Some have acted on it.
I’d rather not go that route with people, so I tend to opt out of situations, as well as friendships, that seem to be at risk of reaching that point. I do my best to allow such people to forget that I exist.
People know that I’m vegan of course, but they usually don’t see just how deeply I care about animals. I let them pretend that watching them eat animals or wearing their skins doesn’t affect me, even though it does. With a low enough frequency of contact and enough casualness in the connection, this degree of self-delusion can often be maintained for several years. But in the long run, if they don’t cut things off first, then I’ll eventually do so. It becomes too difficult to care about someone who maintains an abusive relationship with others I also care about. I find it easier to let go and start fresh with someone else.
Admittedly, these connections feel a bit hollow. They give me opportunities to socialize, but they aren’t very satisfying, so I usually don’t put much effort into maintaining them. One casual connection fades, but nothing of substance is lost. Another soon takes its place, but nothing of substance is gained.
Of course there’s another side to relating to other humans, one that’s much more positive and which more than balances the scales.
This is the ability to experience deep and abiding love with a fellow vegan who relates to animals in much the same way I do, such as my girlfriend of 5+ years. Being in a relationship with her is pure joy. Whenever I see her, my heart smiles. I feel tremendously grateful for her presence in my life.
It’s indescribably beautiful to connect with someone who sees what I see and feels what I feel, someone who wrestles with the same challenges and endures the same sorrows and disappointments. When I bear witness to her nonviolent spirit, my shields fall, my heart is exposed naked to her, and I cannot help but feel intense love for her. And she loves me deeply as well, but not just me. She loves my extended family too, and she treats them with reverence and respect. And so the love I feel from her is magnified tenfold.
I’ve come to see that it’s impossible for someone to truly love me if they do not love animals. It’s impossible for someone to be a true and genuine friend to me if they do not love animals.
Those who productize their relationships with animals also productize their relationship with me. I can only be a casual connection for such people at best. If they cannot see the beauty and majesty of a bird, a cow, or a pig, they won’t be able to see me either. I can only handle so much attention from people who don’t see me. I’d rather bask in the love of those who can see me… because they see my entire family, and I can only be truly seen within that context.
These are difficult admissions to make. My heart wants to reach out and connect with other people — with all people. It wants to be a part of humanity, to be treated as a valued member of the human family, to be an insider as opposed to an outsider. But I cannot sacrifice my relationship with my extended family by siding with other humans in their ongoing war against the rest of the family. My allegiance is to the greater family, not the smaller one.
In my heart I truly long for a global transformation in the way humans relate to animals. I long to live in a world that recognizes the beauty, elegance, and intelligence of other species. I long to see humans honorably refrain from using their superior strength against family members that have no hope of defending themselves. I long for an end to the war on animals. I long for the day that I can say, “I am human,” without feeling ashamed of it.
I can still feel peace in the world as it is, but I must shrink the world in order to do so. It’s just me and my girlfriend… just me and the hummingbird… just the beauty, elegance, and intelligence that I see in this moment. I can enjoy timeless moments in which there is no violence, no reductionism of life into product, no disconnection — only harmony and oneness. In these moments I can breathe.