For the past three weeks, I’ve been on spiritual retreat. I didn’t go to a magical forest or a temple or an isolated cave. I went to my mother’s house, in the city where I grew up, amidst noise, smog, unconscious driving, and much interspecies suffering. I spent much of my time with the animals and plants in the community. I ate no food. Drank minimal water and tea. I drank the rays and particles of the sun. I fell in synchrony with the changing season, the sun, the moon, and my womb. I read various spiritual teachings to guide my thoughts. It was a much needed retreat.
One of the reasons I went on this retreat was to begin healing my womb. As a sistah vegan, I heard so much about the wonderful knowledge and successful healing techniques of Queen Afua’s Sacred Woman. My mother and I decided to take this path together, though we are not moving at the same speed and in the same direction. After adopting some of Queen Afua’s medicine and teachings, I finally noticed how much I was suffering. I realized that I have what it takes to heal myself, that healing is an essential first step to any social transformation work, and that healing is never a process done in isolation. I relied on my interspecies community, my family, my contemporaries, my ancestors, my elders, my personal experience and self-determination, and the Great System (Earth, the Solar System, the Galaxy, the Universe) for personal and interpersonal healing. I was never alone.
Throughout the retreat, I noticed I was carrying a lot of emotional baggage. I’ve been carrying baggage for a while. Even when I call myself working for social justice, animal rights, and ecological living, I did so with a large chip on my shoulder, with immense suffering. During my junior year in college, spring semester, I interned at Farm Sanctuary, giving care to chickens rescued from the Hurricane Katrina aftermath. I shared a house with six cats, an overzealous high school graduate, and a metropolitan woman of color whose motives and views were a mystery to me. The vegan house, as the house is called, was all female and filled with imbalanced, emotional intensity. Progressively, my overall health deteriorated. I frequently cried myself to sleep, I was suffering from severe asthma (and had to visit the hospital twice), I missed several days from work in the barn because of my health and as a result had to switch positions where the chickens were not directly dependent on me, and I began to fall into a grave major depression. Eventually, I decided to leave before my term was up and I returned to my apartment and college town and shortly after attempted suicide. Even after years of counseling and medicinal rehabilitation (with pharmaceuticals for a short while and later herbs, meditation, and behavioral modification for longer-term), I never forgave myself for leaving Farm Sanctuary early and in the way that I did, and I’ve never been able to work directly with animals in a sanctuary since. Since that experience, I have felt restricted to the abstract realm of working for animals, and it makes me miserable.
I’m not the only animal activist or social justice activist who called myself an ally
or working to help others when I wasn’t open or kind enough to help myself. I’m not the only one who harbored resentment and despair, burying the pain deep inside without relief. I’m not the only one who spoke of animal liberation but was a daily prisoner of a wounded psyche. There are books, contemporaries, teachings, and communities out there for us to heal ourselves. We live in interspecies communities that, if we are open to it and willing to let go of control and conceptual notions, can heal and transform us. Remember, we must heal ourselves before we call ourselves trying to bring about social change and save the world.
I’ve discovered that healing is not a definitive process so much as it is a balancing act. It’s on-going and requires our daily participation and flexibility to the changes around us and within us. It also requires taking responsibility for our lives. Despite the debilitating forces of institutional oppression and culture, we as individuals and relationships are responsible for healing ourselves and the relationships in which we participate.
It wasn’t until I took the initiative and allotted the time for me to take retreat that I could finally admit the burden I carried and how animal liberation depended on my liberation as well. Healing myself and taking responsibility for my health became a concurrent affair with healing human-animal relations. This post is the beginning of many in Animal Visions that will start taking the work of healing seriously.