Compassion is an essential ingredient in the practice of ahimsa (non-harming), the first of the five yamas (ethical restraints) in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Through compassion, you begin to see yourself in other beings. This helps you refrain from causing harm to them. But developing compassion does something else that is of special interest to the yogi: It trains the mind to see past outer differences of form. The yogi begins to catch glimpses of the inner essence of other beings, which is happiness, and begins to see that every single creature desires happiness.
To develop compassion, examine the motives for your actions. Are they selfish or unselfish? Proclaiming that it is acceptable to eat meat because it makes you healthier, for example, is a himsic, or “harmful,” attitude because the action of eating meat stems from a selfish motive – your concern for your own personal health or enjoyment. When you realize that cows and chickens want happiness just as you do, you see them as kindred souls: the distinction between you and other beings wears thin as awareness begins to dawn.
In truth, we all share consciousness, and harm inflicted upon one being, be it animal or human, is felt by all sooner or later. Some meat eaters like to argue that vegetables have feelings too, so what difference does it make if we eat chickens or carrots? The answer is simple. Patanjali gives ahimsa as a practice, meaning that you do your best to cause the least amount of harm. And it is clear that a vegetarian diet causes the least amount of harm to the planet and to all creatures.
Generally speaking, the “disease of disconnection” plagues the human condition. As a species, we are not at ease with ourselves – with our bodies, with our minds or with our feelings. We are not at ease with others – with other human beings as well as other animals. We can be nervous, competitive, fearful and worried; we crave respect and approval while simultaneously seeking dominance and power. We certainly aren’t at ease with our environment, and are constantly altering it to suit our needs or wants with little regard for how our actions impact others or the earth. This dis-ease causes all sorts of problems. We are destroying ourselves, as well as other animal species and the planet, in a misguided quest to find happiness, or ease of being.
By enslaving and abusing other animals in order to feed and clothe ourselves, we deprive them of freedom and happiness. How can we hope to be free or happy when our own lives are rooted in depriving others of the very thing we say we value most in life – the freedom to pursue happiness? If you want to bring more peace and happiness into your own life, stop subjecting others to violence and unhappiness.
We tell our children that “might does not make right,” and yet we throw this high-minded idea out the window when it comes to the everyday reality of using might to humiliate, torture and kill the animals we raise for food.
Maitri-adishu balani (YS III.24)
Through compassion, strength comes.
This sutra expresses a radical concept because it challenges the message of our enculturation, which is that strength comes from weakening another. The fork can be a powerful weapon of mass destruction or a tool to lead a movement of peaceful co-existence. Eating a compassionate, vegetarian diet will stop war and create peace in one’s body, peace with animal nations and peace on earth.
Besides, it is very radical to be a vegetarian during these times! As Ingrid Newkirk, founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), reminds us: “Never be afraid of seeming radical. All the best people in history have always been radical.” The word radical, like the word radish, derives from rad, meaning “root.” A radical is someone who attempts to dig to the root of a situation. Yogis have always been radical. Yogis search for root causes because they understand that effective change can occur only if you change a course of action from the causal point. Failure to understand this is why so many “liberating” revolutions of the past never elicited long-lasting, positive change. They dealt only with surface symptoms, not the root causes of social and cultural problems.
Yoga means “liberation.’ Slavery is contrary to liberation. We can never become free by taking away the freedom of others. Through the practice of yoga, we begin to recognize ourselves as not separate from the whole, and we realize that what we do to others, we ultimately do to ourselves.
Yoga is said to be the perfection of action by the removal of selfish motivation. The yogi uses the world we live in, and the way we interact with the world, as a vehicle for transformation. A vegan diet offers an informed, intelligent, conscious and yogic way to act perfectly each time we make a choice about how we consume the world, rather than focusing on how to consume the world.
As we become more Self-confident, we become less fearful. We become less self-absorbed, and our ability to feel life all around allows us to hear what life is trying to communicate to us through nature. Through the animals and trees, water and air, the message is simple yet profound: All of life is interconnected. What we do to others affects us all. When we begin to feel this, we can free ourselves from the false idea that the earth belongs to us, and instead use our lives to benefit others. In turn, we will become happy as we discover that the best way to uplift our own lives is to do all we can to uplift the lives of others.
-Adapted from Yoga and Vegetarianism , by Sharon Gannon