Spirituality, engagement and commitment to animals

Earthly animal reality is "ambiguously" pleasant

Animals are magnificent to look at, but they eat each other without compassion. Farm cattle, despite "being well taken care of", are not even given a chance to live according to their own species-specific natures. For people things aren't always ideal either. In order to stay mentally healthy you have no choice but to try to overcome a sometimes brutal reality. In this respect, there are three ways to try to raise (at least part of) reality to a higher quality level:
  1. You pretend nothing is wrong, as if earthly reality is not your responsibility. Spirituality comes down to searching for "enlightenment" by "exposing" normal everyday experiences and the suffering that comes with them as illusory.
  2. You limit misery to yourself and you strive to overcome only that misery. Spirituality comes down to shaping your own life as positively as possible, and trying to banish your own suffering as much as you can.
  3. You recognize all misery to the fullest, and try to do something about it for yourself as well as for others. Spirituality implies a search for personal happiness and that of others, and putting an end to your own and other people's suffering.
Let's see what this means for our attitude toward violations of animal rights by others.
This text was written by Titus Rivas, and joins up with the model behind veganism and inner liberation of man and his relationship with animals. Glossary
  • Spirituality: realizing life and reality in searching for inner and religious experiences.
  • Engagement: taking action and joining a good cause.
  • Escapism: the aim or inclination to withdraw from the pressures of the present, to escape the problems of one's own time or life.
  • Hedonism: teaching according to which pleasure is the greatest good.

The illusion of earthly suffering

Even though Marx didn't say it exactly like this according to some, we all know that he is supposed to have said "Religion is opium of the people". By this he meant that people under miserable conditions that they cannot change are inclined to deny the importance of those conditions and to flee in ideas of a better, supernatural world. The question is whether many westerners still adhere to a traditional religion in this way. Anyway, there are forms of escapism that are now much more popular, such as the "ideals" of neoliberalism and unchecked hedonism. There are some movements in the New Age world that come across as escapist. Not because they involve in spiritual affairs, but because they state that worldly problems are unimportant (that they are illusory). Realism as a whole is in fact right just as it is, and contradictions between good and evil are only based on an error in our own perception. This means for instance that we do not have to do anything to fight wrongs in reality, because there are in fact no wrongs at all. According to this statement there is only one real problem, which is that we see reality as too "dualistic" and randomly classify it into good and evil. Both are supposedly just aspects of one, undivided reality. For this reason we must not want to change the reality around us, but only ourselves. So we have to resign ourselves to reality as undivided, "in order" and just give up our wrong perception of it. What does this attitude imply for the approach toward injustice against animals? People will deny animal suffering as much as possible, trivialize it or even try to represent it as something that is in fact just as it should be. Advocates of bull fighting, for instance, claim that God has created fighting bulls to die in the arena, and suffering and dying in the hands of a bullfighter means that they fulfil their divine destination. Generally, people with this attitude will see no wrong in using animals for consumption.

Striving to improve yourself

Many or even most people who escapistly try to overlook the negative sides of life, do not succeed in this in the long run. After all, we have a mortal body with pain receptors and a mind with emotions such as grief and fear and sometimes frustrated desires. Sooner or later the denial of the existence of worldly suffering is abandoned. At first, these people will often be preoccupied with their own misery. Spiritually this means that they no longer try to tell themselves, as they would in the approach mentioned earlier, that worldly suffering is an illusion of which they can magically, after a sudden inspiration of the correct insights, be cured. Instead of this they will recognize that escapism is senseless and try to get as much grip as possible on their own suffering, for instance through spiritual exercise, techniques and therapies. If we apply this to the attitude toward animal suffering, it may mean that people claim that they simply don't have room for engagement, because their own lives are still too painful. From the perspective of the humanistic psychology of Abraham Maslow this is in itself very understandable. According to Maslow, people have to feel safe, satisfied and happy enough first, before they want to engage in others. As far as that is concerned, modern society is not a very suitable breeding ground for engagement, because neoliberalism has led to a hard competitive mind with an exaggerated emphasis on working out your own salvation and having your own responsibility. This has affected human welfare to such a degree that from a psychological standpoint you cannot expect much engagement from others anymore. To some, engagement has become almost suspect, and people tend to try to reveal some sort of self-interest behind it. And to prevent this distrust, people don't get involved with others at all anymore or they shun engagement. Unlike the attitude mentioned earlier, people do not deny animal suffering, and that it would be better for animals not to be used needlessly for consumption and other purposes, but they do claim that it isn't their task to change this.

Improvement for everyone

Maslow's humanistic model offers a realistic alternative for the old dichotomy between selfishness and altruism, by stating that people's own happiness is often a precondition instead of an obstacle for active engagement. As an advocate of animal or human rights you do not have to regard spiritual exercise and development as an obstruction of your ideals. On top of that, a strong basis for personal happiness is a good guarantee for extra enthusiasm in campaigning for everyone, including animals. When your own needs are alleviated, you will be more able to see the needs of others. According to Maslow it's mainly the balanced and happy people who most effectively stand up for the rights of fellow creatures. It would even be a natural requirement to engage in others as soon as your own life is sufficiently settled and satisfying. Of course, Maslow doesn't claim that you can only do this once you are completely happy in your own personal life. The point is not that people are first concentrating on their own needs and only then on those of others. The point is that this does not have to be mutually exclusive and that compassion for others, just as in Buddhism for instance, has to be founded in compassion for oneself. So the more personal happiness, the more people are able to show enthusiastically commitment to others. This is also connected with the fact that you can only help others if you understand them and their needs from their own perspective, which you can only do after you have learned to fathom your own needs. Without self-knowledge, knowledge of others is impossible and so-called help often comes down to patronizing from projection instead of from understanding. Some (but definitely not all) relationships with pets seem to be based on this phenomenon. According to this division there is not a single inherent clash between spirituality and commitment. Such a clash only occurs with those forms of spirituality that are rooted in the denial of suffering in this world.

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