Speciesism, conditioning and empathy

I stopped eating dairy in my early 20’s because I am sensitive to dairy protein, like many other people in my family. Dairy gives me eczema, messes with my bowel, makes my tonsils swell up, gives me sinus and hay fever problems, and negatively affects my mood. When I don’t eat dairy, I don’t get respiratory infections.

As a naturopath, I advise clients to avoid or at least reduce dairy. Dairy has long been known to naturopaths as an inflammatory food that creates inflammatory gut, immune and mucous membrane problems. It took me another 20 years to learn about what was really happening in the dairy industry and to realise that my food sensitivity was in alignment with my core values on an ethical, empathic level. About a year before I learned about the plight of dairy cows, a fellow naturopath said to me “I think you need to examine your dairy issue. Could it be connected with mother/child nurturing issues, or your capacity to nurture yourself?”

It is hilarious to think that I learned about mother cows losing their babies at exactly the same time my youngest child was leaving to go to University. Quite naturally, I could empathise with the mother cows losing their children, although my loss was nothing compared with theirs. Around the same time, I read a story about an amazing lady who became an activist fighting for the abolition of slavery in America, when slavery was still an acceptable social practise (in the same way that owning animals is today). She was a white lady who had slaves herself, but when one of her babies died, she suddenly had an empathic epiphany and could understand how her black sisters might feel about having their babies taken away from them simply because they were slaves without any rights.

With the hole left in my life due to my daughter’s absence, my heart expanded outwards in search of someone to love, someone to mother… a way to soothe the ache. My heart found cows. Other mother cows. And factory farmed animals who couldn’t speak up for themselves. And animals everywhere who are are treated like property, like things…. As a woman I could certainly relate to the experience of being objectified. And if I don’t like being objectified, why would I want to do that to another? I realised very quickly that my deep, lifelong values to do with empathy, kindness, fairness and freedom had a big blind spot. A blind spot called ‘speciesism’. It hurt me very much to realise how unkind and blind I had been. But it was a good pain, a ‘waking up’ pain, a reviving pain that gave me back to myself by helping me step more deeply into my values.

This entire journey, to do with animals, has always been about nurturing my inner child. Over the years, whenever I slip out of a happy-fulfilled-centred way of being into something tense, anxious, restless and over-serious…. I eventually sit down and ask myself what the difference is between these two states. What is it, specifically, that characterises my wellbeing state from my angst state? And the answer is always the same: when I’m happy, it’s because I’m in touch with my inner child. When I’m in touch with my inner child I have access to her creativity, playfulness, optimism, enthusiasm and authenticity. I like myself much more when I’m like this, which means staying connected with my inner child is a priority, a necessity…. a non-negotiable must!

The thing is, my inner child loves animals. And she is highly empathetic. So if I want to stay friends with her and create a happy welcoming space for her in my life, I have to behave in a way that is loving and empathetic towards animals. I can’t hack at bloody meat in my kitchen and call it ‘food’. That bloody piece of flesh is a mutilated friend of hers. It’s not food. No wonder we disconnect so much from the inner child and all the glorious energy that comes with having a healthy inner child relationship. The world as it stands is far too comfortable with brutality and insensitivity. Between my teenage years until around the age of 40, I had to disconnect from my inner child and her sensitive caring nature in order to cope with living in this world. But as I healed childhood wounds, I became strong enough to reconnect with my inner child, and she with me. And I feel so much more enriched, alive and ME, as a result of this connection.

From my healers perspective, the inner child is part of the basic self. This Haawiian Shamanic concept sees the basic self as a conglomerate of memory, subconscious, body and emotions. Unlike the conscious self, the basic self is childlike, emotional and irrational. As a healer, I am working to facilitate a healthier mind body connection in my clients, and the inner child can be one aspect of (or a metaphor for), the body. Many people have trouble listening to their body, and making the connection between body sensations and emotions. They can be anxious, sad or angry about things without consciously being aware of this, but these emotions still affect their behaviour, choices and physical health.

And without making these mind body connections and bringing their less conscious feelings to light, they are unable to then take the next step and ask ‘When have I felt like this before? How is my past influencing me right now? How might past experiences be shaping the way I am seeing myself, others and this situation?.’ Waking up from previously invisible past conditioning so you can make conscious choices is incredibly liberating. It can also be a bit painful, because we suddenly realise how this past conditioning has been affecting us for all these years. When I ‘woke up’ from the collective social conditioning that taught me to be speciesist, I felt liberated, but horrified and sad.

These are the same feelings a client might have when he finally realises that his unresolved issues with his father have made him pursue a career he detests, simply because he was looking for approval that was impossible to get. Or when a client suddenly realises that the reason why she is sick is because she keeps trying to rescue people who don’t want to be rescued, from the consequences of their own actions because that is what her mother real-modeled for her as ‘love’.

My mother taught me to have empathy for the world around me. Some conditioning is a double edged sword: a blessing on one side, a curse on the other. Empathy without balance can lead us into messy places. We might cease to be able to function because the pain of others overwhelms us. We might get depressed because we feel unable to make a positive difference. We might empathise unconsciously without realising it, taking anger that isn’t ours out on our loved ones. We might become emotionally unstable because we are constantly losing ourselves in the feelings and experiences of others. Or we might even shut it down altogether, switching off and desensitising in or to protect ourselves from pain.

As an empath, I have learned to expand my heart in loving ways out into the world around me because this keeps me connected in a meaningful and joyful manner. I am often moved to happy tears by the beauty and kindness in the world around me, because I listened and responded many years ago when my sister was having one of her very wise moments. “You empathise so easily with the world’s pain”, she said. “Why not try empathising with the worlds joy?” Smart lady.

And I am careful to manage my empathy by staying centred in my values, my sense of self and my sense of humour. I expand outwards from my centre, always staying connected with my core sense of self, rather than leaving myself behind. I expand my love outwards from a hug that starts with my own heart first. My love and compassion for others is grounded in my love and compassion for myself. And for me, this has to include a little bit of gentle loving humour, otherwise I tend to take life just a little bit too seriously! Our work, as people who are seeking greater mindful self-awareness and balance in our lives, is to consciously recognise our past and current conditioning so we can make discerning conscious choices about whether we want to keep this particular belief, attitude, behaviour or disposition, discard it altogether, or modify it.

Conditioning can trap us without us ever knowing we are trapped. And it can make us blindly behave in ways that violate our true values. Waking up to my own speciesism helped me gain an insight into, and compassion for, racist people, sexists and angry religious fundamentalists. It’s actually very difficult to see your own faulty thinking when you are surrounded by it, and you’ve been raised with it. You can be racist or sexist and still be a lovely person, a very caring person. It’s just that when we have these blind spots created by powerful family, cultural and social conditioning, it’s almost impossible to make that kindness consistent. It becomes limited by your prejudices, just as mine was before I went completely vegan. It still amazes me to think that I loved spiders so much I would rescue them rather than kill them, but I was happily supporting the mass murder and total species subjugation of their silk-spinning cousins. Why does one species matter and another not?

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