Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Spiritual Retreat Offers Community, Opens Dialogue for Vegans by guest blogger Prarthana Jayaram

What lies at the intersection of spiritual health and ethical choices? How can diet speak to our beliefs and our holistic health? What are the connections between spirituality and a sense of community? These are questions the growing Vegan Spirituality movement seeks to answer. Since 2010, Public Eye: Artists for Animals has hosted monthly Vegan Spirituality Groups and annual Vegan Spirituality Retreats to provide a community for those interested in topics like spiritual practice and the connection between mind, body, and diet.

The Vegan Spirituality movement has since spread to the west coast, now taking up a second residence in the Los Angeles area. A national organization, Vegan Spirituality formed to give vegans a place to come together, explore, and discuss their vegan practices and beliefs with one another. As the name suggests, Vegan Spirituality focuses on the spiritual implications of a vegan lifestyle -- the connections between heart, body, and mind that manifest in vegan living and a respect and compassion for all life.

The annual Vegan Spirituality Retreat offers a place for ethical vegans to gather and enjoy a day of focused activities together, including spiritual speakers, yoga classes, guided meditations, catered vegan food, a nature hike, and an animal blessing ceremony. 2013 will be the first year that sees two separate Retreats -- one in California, June 1st, and one in Pennsylvania, July 20th. Vegan Spirituality founder Lisa Levinson is thrilled to bring the Retreat to the west coast this year, expanding the community of vegans and engaging new avenues for spiritual practice.

Activist Sandi Herman coined the term “Vegan Spirituality” in 1998 and inspired Levinson to start the first Vegan Spirituality Group in 2010, under the auspices of Public Eye: Artists for Animals, an organization which Levinson co-founded to teach compassion for animals through the arts. Vegan Spirituality Groups are regional monthly gatherings designed to build community among spiritual vegans. These member-hosted groups offer vegan potlucks, meal blessings, guided meditations, and discussions on vegan themes. Special events include visits to animal sanctuaries, nature hikes, and guest presentations. Participants celebrate vegan birthdays (when they first became vegan) and offer support upon the passing of beloved animal companions.

Herman says it has been a blessing to find so much understanding and sense of community at the monthly Vegan Spirituality Groups and annual Retreats. A longtime vegan, Herman has been a part of groups that share her compassion for animals (such as animal rescues) and groups that value spirituality (such as Reiki practitioners and yogis) as she does, but it wasn’t until she found other spiritual vegans that she felt like she truly belonged.

“Finding people who share my beliefs, I think, is really important. It’s wonderful to be able to get together with people and create rituals, in the same way that all cultures have rituals, and connect with other beings,” she says.

The annual Retreat is an opportunity to create the rituals Herman mentions. Indeed, for Will Tuttle, author of World Peace Diet and the primary speaker at both the upcoming East and West Coast Retreats, the opportunity to gather with others who share his beliefs will be a chance to grow. He hopes to explore veganism and spirituality on a metaphysical level delving both into the practicalities of diet and the philosophy.

Tuttle believes his spiritual journey has led him to a place of compassion -- a compassion he sees manifesting in veganism. Focusing on the interconnectedness of all life, Tuttle engages in many forms of community-building and outreach with his work. Along with practicing meditation and being a part of meditation retreats, he is a renowned speaker on the topic of compassion for animals, as well as an accomplished musician. Tuttle says his original piano concerts are spirituality-based and designed to help people see music as a spiritual consciousness.

“I realized, along the way, that most people did not have an understanding of the connection between veganism and spirituality,” Tuttle says of his engagement efforts.

With his work, he seeks to demonstrate that connection, helping people view their decisions more holistically. The upcoming Retreat will be a chance to do just that.

“I see it as an opportunity to inspire people. We come to this planet and we are each other’s teachers,” Tuttle says,  “For me, it will basically be an opportunity to explore together with the other participants the deeper reasons (why we practice veganism), to go as far as we can with understanding the interconnectedness of all life.”

Similarly, 2012 Retreat speaker and founder of Plant Peace Daily, Rae Sikora agrees that the event is a rare opportunity to foster community.

“Sometimes, I just want to be with a bunch of other people who are on the same page. It feeds me to get together with chosen family for the best family reunion you can imagine!” she says.

Sikora, a vegetarian since she was a teen and a vegan for nearly as long, found her compassion for animals early in life and allowed it slowly to grow and affect her. She recalls never having met another non-meat-eater when she decided to eschew meat from her diet. When she finally met others who called themselves vegans, it was the first time she had a name, a word to describe herself and her beliefs.

In this vein, Retreat-goers can expect an environment of understanding and empathy. This supportive atmosphere, surrounded by other people who share in the cause of compassion, is often what spiritual vegans crave. Herman points out the common misconception that vegans only care about animals and not other humans. In fact, she says, it’s quite the opposite. Her compassion extends to all living things, human, plant, and animal. Building a community with other humans who feel that connection, too, is just the thing that makes her feel whole.

“All of us probably like to feel part of something,” Herman sums up.

The sense of community comes from being in the presence of others who feel the spiritual connection between a vegan lifestyle and a love for animals. Many participants see veganism as their calling.

“[My veganism] just evolved over time,” explains Sikora, “If you do something in your work that is a spiritual path, it’s hard to pick one particular event that set you on it.”

“To me, spirituality is a connectedness to all things,” agrees Herman, “Veganism touches a part of me in my essence. It’s hard to explain, but it feels like it’s beyond just being ‘an ethical vegan’.”

That indescribable piece, to which both Sikora and Herman allude, is what fuels events like the Vegan Spirituality Retreat. Spirituality, after all, is rooted in the abstract. Ultimately, attendees are not discussing their dietary choices, but their core philosophies -- putting into words and actions, and (perhaps most powerfully) collective meditations, their beliefs.

As Tuttle concludes: “I see veganism not as [dietary]; to me, that is just the first tiny little baby step. Veganism is … a glorious spiritual path that takes us to the highest level of spiritual awakening.”