Part of this post is about spirituality and the interconnectedness of all life, especially among animals including humans; the other part is about travel and how unexpected ‘setbacks’ are never really setbacks but opportunities for learning. Mostly, this post is about how spiritual insight, reverence and understanding often come through travel.
I was raised Christian, believe in God, Jesus and the Bible. But I also think there’s more to it, not that
Jesus and the Bible aren’t enough. I believe, though, that spiritual traditions in addition to Christianity possess important knowledge for growth. For me, I can’t deny the profound connection I have with animals—birds, horses, cows, cats, dogs, snakes, bumble bees—all of them. Yet the flavor of Christianity I grew up with embraces the idea of human dominion, emphasizing how animals are at humans’ disposal to do with them as we will. This notion has NEVER set with me. Ever. To me it condones poor treatment and brutality.
And really, all living things respond positively to patience, kindness and calmness. They just do. If you want something to come to you, never yell for it. Think about that. Why would a run-away dog or cat ever return home to an angry voice calling its name?. This knowing, empathy and feeling of connected-ness when I interact with animals comes straight from God. At least that’s how it feels, that animals are a gift requiring love, respect and kind treatment in the same way as any human.
In January 2011 I traveled in Laos and had two profound animal-focused experiences that I’m sure God, Jesus, Buddha and the Universe had everything to do with.
In a small rice paddy outside of Nong Kiew, I sat with thirteen or so water buffalo one afternoon. After negotiating with the dominant cow—horns and all, snorting and stamping the ground—she let me close enough for the herd to smell and lick my face, hands, head. A white calf rubbed against my back and lay down, dangling his hoof over my knee. As if they were over-sized, cloven-hoofed puppies, they let me sit in their midst, and I felt an undeniable connection to God, the earth and the animals so close. I felt as if they, like me, were very much emotionally connected to the moment, that they really liked me. And this realization moved me to tears: how similar life is on this planet, how our atoms and basic building blocks are all the same across species, how animals must have an emotional structure similar to humans’. How there is something holy and sacred connecting all life because when I look into the eye of a buffalo I see love and know that God is good.
Or perhaps I was just sweaty, and their enthusiasm for me was of a more practical design—maybe they so
liked me because I was at their disposal, a human salt lick.
The second animal-inspired moment happened a few days later in Luangphrabang, when I saw two men taking a hog off to slaughter. She was squealing high-pitched like a human. They were kicking her. In a flash it occurred that we should never treat poorly anything that will be taken into our bodies. An animal about to die for meat needs respect. Another flash—so long as I do not know how an animal is treated before and during its slaughter, I cannot take it into my body. Taking in mistreated and disrespectfully handled flesh dishonors the spirit of the animal.
These came so suddenly and with such force that they felt from God.
At the risk of sounding like a hokey-religio-spiritual-northern-California-fruit-nut-seed-eater (oh geeze), these experiences and the insight they brought made very clear part of my purpose in this life. I love animals. They are so close and similar to us, and I’m certain part of why I’m here is to honor all creatures and to help humans understand that, hello, we’re all animals, and we have way more in common with non-human life (yes, even plants) than not. Sitting with the buffalo, watching the pig taken to slaughter almost instantaneously altered my world view and how I consider the relationship between my body and the food I put into it. All drama aside, these experiences were pivotal in making me vegetarian.
And what does this have to do with travel and San Francisco? Two days “stranded” in the City, and I met folks from different spiritual persuasions who were also vegetarians.
Traveling back from my friends and family in Georgia, my connecting flight from Dallas to San Francisco was delayed making it impossible to catch Greyhound to Humboldt. But it gets better. The flight attendants announced that the now-delayed flight was overbooked and asked if anyone would be willing to give up a seat? Yes, I raised my hand! Fifteen minutes later the Universe winked, God smiled and Buddha laughed—I scored a $300 ticket voucher good for a year anywhere in the U.S. Better still, at the SF airport information kiosk, there was a
list of every hostel in the City. The seventh phone call yielded the last dorm bed at the Pacific Trade Winds Hostel in Chinatown.
And then two days in SF turned into a random adventure of spiritual connections and conversations.
The gentleman on the BART was catholic (and vegetarian), and talked about how he loved the ritual and formality involved in his faith, and then he said, “Surely, you’re an old soul.” To which I responded, “You’re Catholic. That doesn’t make any sense. Aren’t you declaring something outside of, contrary to, your faith?”
And we laughed at the apparent religious (cognitive?) dissonance—the ritual-loving, re-incarnation-believing Catholic . He responded with something like, “I don’t have the answers. A lot of it is beyond any human understanding, but I like Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is involved.” And then we launched into a discussion about the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, and we both agreed it best to bring forth what is within, to wear your soul on the outside. We laughed. Shove me in the shallow water, please, that 45 minute BART ride into the City. Wow.
Then, that evening the Jewish doctor at the Hotel Utah—after discussing zealous Christians, the debt debacle, China, whiteness as property,
and fishing rights on the Klamath River—he asked when I knew I was an artist. (Huh? But we weren’t talking about art. Wait, wha?) ”When did you know you were doing what you should be doing?” He asked more directly. “You came in here with a guitar. Your guitar.”
Ok, got me. That question. I think I’ve always known this and for too many years have refused to embrace it. I’ve banged my head against thick walls trying to be something I’m not. To Answer your question, Justin, it wasn’t until you backed me into the corner that I realized I’ve been an artist all my life, and yes, I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing—writing, thinking, singing, talking to animals and meeting people. You recognized it, and now I see it and am just now able to understand that it’s all art to me. Living my life is art. Got it. So, yeah, thanks.
On Tuesday the bus to Humboldt was sold out. I called every hostel in San Francisco—the last one had one dorm bed left for the night. On the #30 bus to Fisherman’s Wharf, I met a young man on his way to martial arts class. He knew where the hostel was, and since it was a few blocks from the bus stop he happily walked me there. He laughed at the stuff I had—a backpack, two shoulder bags and a guitar, really not much for 16 days of travel but a hefty load for a petit woman jockeying the bus and hiking San Francisco’s streets. I took some veggies from a bag and shared them. He was Buddhist and studying a form of martial arts that used swords. He knew all about the Shaolin Temple in China.
As we walked the discussion came around to food and what we put into our bodies. “The most sacred thing we do
each day is eat and drink,” Jon said, “being mindful of what I eat is an act of reverence.” And he continued. Buddhism for him is a lifestyle in which he strives to live in a way that minimizes suffering toward others. “There is no separation,” he said, “our culture and technology creates barriers that haven’t always been.” (Yes, I wrote this down, his quote. I wanted to get his words right.) According to Jon, the fear, anger, and pain of slaughter are unhealthy for life—choosing not to eat meat helps keep these negative energies away. That’s what he thinks, what his faith advocates.
The point of all of this is how travel, if you let it, brings amazing opportunities to connect with and learn from people, and I think it significant that each of these conversations revealed something profoundly spiritual about the speaker. That each of these folks I met was vegetarian surely must be more than
coincidence. God, Buddha, Jesus and the Universe work in mysterious ways—in all of this I choose to see the adventures and insight gained as nothing less than the miracle of God working in my life. But I will leave it to you to draw your own conclusions from this story, leave it to you to find your own truth, leave it to you to make your life your own spiritual masterpiece. Living is art.
Peace & carrots,
“Let’s just be honest and open instead of burying our heads in the sand while huge companies do crappy things to creatures that are just as smart and personable as our cats or dogs.” Sam McKee