**This post was written by contributor Kimberly Spanjol
As people become more aware of the impact of their choices on other humans, animals and the environment there can be an increased risk of depression, anxiety, feelings of disconnect, and helplessness (see more from fellow Exploring Veganism bloggers on the difficulties of being vegan in a non-vegan world). The harsh reality and mass destructive impact of commonly accepted human practices and systems that exploit other animals for their parts, fur, skin and flesh has caused irreparable damage to many on multiple levels. Industrial animal agriculture, animal testing, and the fashion industry are just a few examples of human created systems that have turned the torture and exploitation of animals into big business that harms us all. When people wake up to these practices, they may want to stop supporting these violent and oppressive systems with their dollars. They may want to choose alternative behaviors and create new social norms that are in alignment with their highest values such as kindness, compassion and justice. That can be challenging to do and feel like one is making an impact when many other people are seemingly unaware, uncaring, or indifferent. It is possible, however, to have intentionality around increasing well-being while empowering ourselves and others with our new awareness, rather than focusing on the despair that can so easily take over.
As Buddhist psychologist Jack Kornfield writes:
“In Ancient Greek the word for awakening is “alethe.” Awakening’s opposite is not evil or ignorance, but “lethe,” sleep. Even after some experience of inner awakening, we can still be asleep to the consequences of our modern way of living. Sadly, interdependence is not explicitly taught in schools or a valued part of our political conversation. With compassion we can educate ourselves to see the invisible benefits and costs of our actions, until our outer life is in harmony with our heart’s true values”.
Sometimes being hurt or victimized ourselves in some way causes people to “wake up” and empathize with the plight of animals, who are almost always at the mercy of human kindness or cruelty. Psychologist Erwin Staub’s research suggests that when people experience difficulty they are more motivated to help others. Humans who have been victimized may become more sensitive to the incomprehensible torture billions of animals are subjected to every second around the world. Staub would call this response “altruism born of suffering”. I was the victim of an abusive stepfather for many years. The unpredictable and violent nature of his abuse was something I was lucky enough to eventually escape from. This experience caused me to have extreme empathy for animals. I identified with them from a very young age in part because of our shared inability to reach safety or access help when needed.
Dr. Alex Hershaft, the Founding President of Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM), describes the realm of possibility that opens when we experience victimization and oppression and as a result open our hearts and minds to a new way of seeing and engaging with the world:
“Once World War II was over and my life no longer in constant danger, I began to reflect on what meaningful lessons could be drawn from my people’s supreme sacrifice in the Holocaust and what my own role should be. In the early 1970s, I had two revelations: I visited a slaughterhouse and I came across a statement by Jewish Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer: ‘To the animals, all people are Nazis. To the animals, life is an eternal Holocaust.’ This is when I knew that there was a lesson to be drawn from the Holocaust and that the rest of my life would be devoted to fighting all forms of oppression, starting with oppression of animals. Why animals? Because animals are the most vulnerable, and therefore, the most oppressed sentient living beings on earth. Once we stop oppressing animals, we will stop oppressing one another”.
In order to make choices that are based on our true values rather than on harmful conditioned and indoctrinating rhetoric or unresolved repetitive trauma, we can learn to become aware of what triggers our choices and learn to see our thoughts and behavior as an opportunity to create a kinder world. We can become empowered to make choices that increase our own and other’s happiness and well-being. We can choose kindness, compassion and justice for all as an anecdote to the suffering and exploitation that exists and will take time to reduce.
People are capable of moral thinking, and when they are supported over time, can successfully make changes in their behavior that help rather than harm. This way of living can increase individual well-being and be a catalyst for positive social change by modeling an authentic message.
Viktor E. Frankl, an Austrian psychologist who was also a holocaust survivor, said “between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom”.
Here are some tips to create space to make thoughtful and empowered choices that increase wellbeing for ourselves and others:
- Develop psychological flexibility by practicing to move away from the human tendency to perceive thoughts, images, emotions, and memories as real and unchangeable truths.
- Accept and allow unwanted and uncomfortable private experiences (thoughts, feelings and urges) to come and go without struggling with them. Practice self-compassion and allow yourself the opportunity to make thoughtful, empowering choices without being led around the nose by your impulses and emotions.
- Connect with the present moment. Stay aware of the here and now. Practice having experiences with openness, curiosity, interest, and receptiveness. Leave behind former indoctrinated teachings, regrets from the past or fears of the future that do not serve you or others and get in the way of respectful communication and effective perspective taking.
- Access an observing self. Experience a more transcendent view of self as a continuity of consciousness, deeply intertwined and interconnected with other humans, animals and the environment we share.
- Identify and clarify your values: Dedicate time to explore and discover what is most important to you in a supportive environment. For example, Peace, Justice and Freedom are core values that I believe all beings are entitled to, and I act and behave accordingly.
- Take committed action and model your message: Set goals according to your values and carry them out responsibly, in the service of a meaningful life. Practice self-care to carry you through the inevitable struggles that come with being on the forefront of creating positive social change. Forgive yourself and others when you inevitably fail at times. Move on, correct and continue with compassion for yourself and others. Be kind and listen with an open heart and mind in your communication, rather than perpetrate further disconnect and violence. We are all a work in progress.
Learning mindfulness techniques such as meditation, taking classes, engaging in community activities and groups with like-minded others, participating in activism and advocacy, and working with a skilled therapist are some very helpful ways to get the support needed to accomplish these steps. Individual people in relationship with each other create the systems we exist in and ideas that shape and reinforce our world.
For better or worse, the world will change as we do. It is our responsibility to continually work with ourselves and others in a respectful and dignified way to create a more equitable and sustainable world that empowers all humans, animals, and the environment we share. In this space lies the hope and possibility of the vegan movement.
**This post was written by contributor Kimberly Spanjol
Kimberly Spanjol, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LBA, LMHC is a Licensed and Doctoral Level Board Certified Behavior Analyst, Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Certified Humane Educator. She holds certifications in Animals and Human Health, Animal Assisted Interventions, and Teaching Mindfulness to Youth. She has served as an educator, researcher, consultant and clinician. Dr. Spanjol is currently an Assistant Professor at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York. She teaches courses in Environmental Crime, Environmental Justice, Species Justice and more. Her clinical work is focused on children, teens and young adults with a variety of behavioral, developmental and mental health issues as well as their families. Dr. Spanjol has worked in private practice, educational and correctional settings for more than 25 years. Her canine therapy partner, Ella, creates miracles in human health and happiness regularly. Dr. Spanjol’s areas of expertise are Behavior Modification, Cognitive Behavior Therapy, Social Emotional Learning, Humane Education, Intersectionality and Social Justice, Ethical Animal-Assisted Therapy, The Human-Animal Bond, Animals and Criminal Justice, Animal Protection and Environmental Criminology.