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My Childhood as an Undercover Vegetarian

By Shakta Khalsa

As an adult, I know I have many gaps in awareness, times that I am just functioning from my habitual mind. When I want to be more present to myself or to a child, I have found it helpful to remember what it feels like to be in a child’s mind. When I recall how I felt as a child or how my mind worked, it seemed that I had understandings that were rarely evidenced in my family. Even though these thoughts and feelings were not fully formed within me, I unconsciously sensed that I understood life differently from the adults around me. I had a private world that was filled with wonder and kindness. I felt the whole Universe was smiling me along; that everyone had the same connection to this wonderful energy as I did because we are all made of the same stuff. Animals, trees, plants, and the loving feelings that would emanate from my family toward me, were touchstones for something that I knew very deeply within me: that we are good, that we are born in goodness, and that we are shining lights of love, born in Radiance.

Since young children are innocent of the id, or mental quality of self-reflection, most of our early memories are vague and subtle. They are more felt than consciously understood. It is possible, however, to have an experience that is life-changing enough to “flash” an imprint in awareness, even at a young age.  This clearly happened to me on one poignant occasion.

When I was four years old, I had an experience that has remained with me as a conscious moment in time. I can still recall the scenario and dialogue, and most importantly, the flash of understanding that occurred in my four-year-old brain. I was at a family gathering at my grandparents’ house. The food was on the table and everyone was serving themselves buffet-style. I was looking at my uncle when my mother’s voice pierced the moment. She said, “Jim, do you want another chicken’s leg?” With a shock, I saw that my Uncle Jim held a piece of food in his right hand…a piece of food that before this moment was just “food,” and now became a chicken’s leg. I saw the shape of it, and in my mind matched it with an image of a chicken running around on her two legs. The image turned to a feeling of dreadful pain; of seeing her leg being cut off, seeing her being cut up. With a sickening lurch in my gut, I realized for the first time a horrible truth: that meat is animals' bodies.

From day one, animals had always been my best friends. My own beloved dog, Stubby, was born around the same time as me. She was my only true friend until my sister was born five years later. She and I shared looks that needed no words. If I needed to use words, she was always there to listen and make things better. Somehow the magical connection between myself and animals extended to every one of them, from bugs to birds to cats to frogs. They were more true and natural than the adults around me. I understood them; they understood me. I didn’t even think about them as “animals,” they were just friends--from the spider carefully collected in a tissue to be returned to the freedom of outdoors, to Stubby, who patiently lent herself to whatever my mood and situation needed.

After the chicken revelation, I could not stand to eat meat. I literally choked if I so much as put it in my mouth. And so began eight years of the Meat War, with my parents wanting to show they were in control by placing five or so morsels of meat on my plate each night. I became an undercover vegetarian agent, and as artfully as a pre-schooler could be, slipped my token pieces of meat to Stubby under the table. As the years went on, I became more sophisticated in my strategy for ridding my plate of meat, until finally at age twelve my meat-and-potatoes German-descendant parents resigned themselves to a daughter with strange eating habits (the word ‘vegetarian’ did not exist in the late 1950’s), and left me to my own eating routine.

I wonder sometimes what it would have been like if my parents had been encouraging, or even supportive, of my food choices. In truth, their attitude was completely consistent with their own upbringing and the views of that time period, and I feel no blame. It just was what it was, and that is okay. Better than okay, really. There were gifts to be gained. For example, I learned to rely on my own instincts and develop my own creative strategies to get what I felt called toward.

My original understanding of who we are as radiant, connected beings has always been the guiding light for me. This passion has set me on my life path of wanting to be who I really am, and help others along the path. We help children best by helping ourselves to stay in alignment with our own inner being, our authentic Self. Since this is who we really are, we don’t have to make ourselves “better.” All we have to do is uncover the being that has always been there--to let it be who we are once again, but this time with the wisdom and experience that the living of life has imparted.

[This is an excerpt from Shakta’s soon-to-be-published book on reclaiming our radiant selves and nurturing the same in our children.]

Shakta Khalsa has been teaching yoga and children for over 3 decades. She is the author of several yoga books, the mother of a teenager, and is happily married to Kartar for over 30 years. Shakta is the founder of the Radiant Child Yoga program, a teacher training program for keeping kids joyful, aware, strong, and beautiful. It works for us adult children too...