Intention, Impact, And A Revolution Of The Spirit

Posted by Ariel Nessel on Apr 24, 2019
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Over three decades ago, at age twelve, I was walking on the Venice Beach Boardwalk while on vacation with my family. A man had set up a booth of sorts along the boardwalk showing in graphic detail how “food animals” are caged and confined, separated from their families, physically abused and eventually slaughtered. I carefully read most of the literature at his table. About thirty minutes later, I went on with my carefree vacation and my merry life, seemingly unaffected.

Fast forward to eleven years later. I’m now 23 and living in California, walking down that same stretch of beach. Looking about a hundred feet ahead, in the same location, I see the same guy in the same booth! I didn’t need to approach the booth because in that moment, everything I saw a decade earlier suddenly hit me.

I realized that, by the choices I was currently making, I was perpetuating the horrors I had read about with such great interest as a pre-teen. There was a choice I could make in that moment. I could continue with my current ways, eyes now wide open to the consequences – or – I could stop contributing to these horrors and the suffering endured by animals. It didn’t really feel like a choice, though, but more like the universe had finally made me receptive to acknowledging the laws of cause and effect.

At first the insight was mainly about my food choices. I immediately stopped eating land animals and, over the next five years, gradually eliminated the secretions of land animals and the bodies of sea animals from my diet. I found as I began to further pull the threads of this unjust and wicked system, it became hard to ignore how interconnected food is with culture, and culture is with ignorance, and ignorance is with dukkha (suffering).

That day was the beginning of a new awareness. By some great fortune, I was able to recognize the connection between cause and effect and I started to appreciate how every choice I made had an impact. It was the realization that my choices always matter, and in whatever I do, there will be always ripples.

The experience of that fateful day led me on a long journey that continues today. The journey is an inquiry into my interconnection with all of life, and a longing to use the precious time I have in this human body to embody qualities I now know as wisdom and compassion.
This new path I was on, which some might call a path of ahimsa, was pulling me to question my unexamined assumptions about what constitutes success in life. If three times each day I was unwittingly contributing to some of the worst abuses imaginable, what else was I involved with that was also antithetical to my deeply-held values? Where else was I sleepwalking through life? If something so blatantly obvious had been imperceptible to me, what would it take for me to adjust my awareness so that the familiar could be seen with new eyes? What would it take to have vision less conditioned and blinded by culture, upbringing, and selfishness?

As I tried to answer these questions, the insights from that day on the boardwalk became more embodied and integral to my being. It became clear to me that getting what I wanted was not going to actually get me what I really wanted – happiness. I could see myself two decades hence, at the pinnacle of worldly success and achieving the American dream, yet still wondering “is this all there really is?”

Not knowing what options and alternatives existed, I began my own spiritual quest. Up to that point I was highly atheistic and skeptical of organized religion, which I saw as its own form of delusion. I had always been a bit rebellious (which worked well in my transition to becoming vegan). This, combined with a chip on my shoulder, disinclined me from traditions that demanded a form of faith that trusted the insights and experiences of others. Also, if any spiritual practice was worth its salt, it would have a strong moral framework that honored the lives of more than one-one millionth of the species on this planet.
After reading books about various prophets, gurus, spiritual practices and religions, however, I felt no closer to an answer. Most of the people I read about were dead and their teachings were not accessible to me except through books. However, one day in 1998 I somehow came across a Zen Buddhist temple in Hamtramck, Michigan (I had recently moved back to Michigan earlier that year). I read a bit about a guy named Buddha and went to check the Buddhists out.

Early on a cold winter Sunday, my girlfriend and I went to visit their weekly public gathering. When we got there, we followed everyone else and proceeded to sit on a round pillow on the floor. Then suddenly a bell was rung, and everyone went completely quiet. It all seemed strange. I looked around the room for what seemed like an eternity, seeing all these people just doing nothing. Always used to doing something, I felt a heightened sense of discomfort. The bizarreness was amplified by several folks there with shaved heads dressed in grey robes. Then, abruptly, the guy at the front rang the bell again. Now everyone began chanting unfamiliar words, mostly in an unfamiliar language, in a weird cadence, in a most unmelodious way. Finally, they stopped. The fellow at the front then proceeded to give what I now know to be a dharma talk.

None of this had much of an impact on me. However, after it was all done, I took one long last look around the room as we departed. I saw a certain lightness in these people. Their faces somehow seemed softer, their smiles brighter, their demeanor more at ease. I distinctly remember saying to my girlfriend, “I don’t know what those people were doing in there. However, if doing it gets them that sort of result, then I am willing to try it.” Twenty years later, I am still trying it!

For many people, a deepening Buddhist practice leads to a gradual expansion of their moral circle. Eventually that leads to the inclusion of the animals they mostly know as breakfast, lunch and dinner, until one day they are unable to eat beings they now recognize to be sentient and worthy of kindness. For me, it worked in the opposite order. The suffering of others, and my longing to reduce their suffering, led me on my spiritual journey. However, either one without the other would be insufficient.

Over the years I have attempted to integrate the wing of compassion with the wing of wisdom to create a revolution within my own heart. At first it seemed more like the two were completely separate endeavors. I would meditate daily and go on silent retreats multiple times each year. Simultaneously, I dutifully advocated for farm animals, passing out leaflets about the horrors of animal agriculture and participating in various protests (even donning costumes when helpful). I also began a personal practice of “earn to give,” seeking to use my skills in the business world to provide financial resources to the farm animal advocacy movement. In time, I saw the transformative power of compassionate action, not just for those being harmed and society at large, but for me, the activist. Wanting to support, empower and encourage a movement away from apathy and towards engagement, I co-founded The Pollination Project.

Over time, however, I felt like I was bifurcating my essential nature into two distinct people, Ari the activist and Ari the spiritual practitioner. This approach was oddly amplified by the sanghas I had been exposed to. The dharma teachers openly condone eating animals and were also disinclined towards seeing activism as a potentially skillful manifestation of compassion.

I wanted to live out my full ‘Ari-ness” and could not find a place where this was embraced. Activist circles were highly focused on impact. Buddhist circles were focused on intention.

Through my longing for greater wholeness, I am now on a path to reconcile the two, seeing how tightly intertwined the dharma is with social justice, and how integrated my liberation is with the freedom of all sentient beings. To that end, I have begun to host meditation retreats and workshops for activists and encourage fellow Buddhists to, as Thich Nhat Hanh has said, make compassion a verb. I’ve also helped co-create a retreat center called Banyan Grove, in my role as a volunteer with Service Space, as a place to support this integrated ethic.

It is remarkable how much impact one person can have on the world. I knew that the man at Venice Beach, who I now know as Jingles, might never know that his choice to show up on that boardwalk and educate people about animal suffering would change the course of my life. And yet, his commitment to ending animal suffering led him to set up a booth and dedicate his life to it for twenty-five years, without acknowledgement, praise or recognition.

Jingles is a constant reminder to me that we never really know who we have influenced. We influence people by everything we do, from what we wear, to the bike we ride, to the job we have, to the car we drive, to the food we eat, to the products we buy, to the time we spend in silence, to the time we spend in activity, and by all of our thoughts, words, and deeds. It all has an impact.

Buddhism has taught me that unless I pay close attention to my six senses, I will ride the endless, discontented roller coaster of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Most likely, in the process, I will limit my ability to create the change I seek in the world. Without awareness and internal transformation, I will be planting lemon seeds and hoping they sprout oranges.

My friend Pancho Ramos-Stierle sums it well, “It is time for the spiritual people to get active and the activist people to get spiritual so that we can have a total revolution of the human spirit.”

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Comments (3)

  • Victoria Crawford wrote ...

    Dear Ari, Thank you for taking the time to write this out and share your journey. It's such a beautiful reminder of how we truly don't know the impact of many actions and yet with time and curiositiy, we can see how things unfold so kindly and patiently....with gratitude...

  • Brinda Govindan wrote ...

    Dear Ari,
    Deeply moved by your journey and whole-heartedness in integrating your intention and action.
    With gratitude and hugs,
    Brinda

  • Rohit Rajgarhia wrote ...

    Dear Ari, thank you, this is so moving and on so many counts. Thank you for your amazing work and sharing it with all of us. May the strength of love always be with you and all in the inner and outer journey. :) :)