Keeping it Real with Karen KenneyWritten by Ali Donahue
"Look, I understand. I’ve been there.
When I was 12 years old, my mother was murdered.
And I was faced with the tremendous task of forgiving the
man who killed her and no longer feeling like a victim.
I’m not going to lie, it wasn’t always easy.
But here I am, on the other side & I can tell you first hand,
that it can be done." -Karen Kenney
Think David Goggins meets Marianne Williamson meets Brene Brown, and you've just met Karen Kenney.
Karen is a spiritual mentor, writer, speaker, yoga teacher, and the founder of Fearless Flow Mentoring. A native New Englander, Karen is known for her no-baloney approach to spirituality and her vivacious, hilarious storytelling. She works as a spiritual mentor, helping people craft kick-ass lives from a place of inner power, forgiveness, freedom, and Spirit.
"WHAT WOULD YOUR LIFE LOOK LIKE IF YOU DECIDED
TO JUST CUT THE CRAP ALREADY?" - Karen Kenney
Karen is also a dedicated animal lover, supporter of animal rescue and rights, and advocate for plant-based eating. She definitely didn’t start out that way. Lawrence, Massachusetts, in the 1970s and 80s was about as far from veganism and animal welfare as you can get.
But a shattering childhood tragedy led Karen, step by slow step, to a profound understanding of the contentedness and dignity of living creatures.
“I believe that all beings deserve to live happily
and freely from cruelty and suffering,” -Karen Kenney
What You’ll Learn
Karen’s, honest, kick in the pants, down-to-earth approach to… everything!
- Karen’s early life and path to spirituality[3:15]
- Where Karen grew up, and the tragedy that hit her [5:56]
- How Karen survived after the murder of her mother [8:54]
- What encouraged Karen to choose a spiritual path [14:38]
- Karen’s fight against forgiveness — and the book that literally fell on her [21:30]
How Karen discovered a plant-based diet
- How a man named Bobby Rock taught Karen what “vegan” really means [31:31]
- When Karen connected her mother’s murder and eating animals [35:50]
Plant-based eating wake up call
- The key to advocating for plant-based eating [52:19]
- Why Karen believes plant-based eating starts in the mind [1:05:54]
- Karen explains A Course in Miracles [1:13:32]
- One of Karen’s most important prayers [1:21:32]
- The questions to ask to change what you eat [1:29:03]
Read the Karen Kenney interview
Whether it's talking about spirituality or veganism, to me it's about taking these bigger concepts and asking how do I bring them down to earth in a very kind of blue-collar direct, no bullshit way so that it's actually something you can apply.
Because I know whether you're trying to transition to a vegan lifestyle or diet or you're trying to incorporate daily spiritual practices, if you're not able to live it...I don't want to sit around and fucking talk about it or theorize about it! I want to make it so that people can live it and that's what's most exciting to me.
Where Karen grew up, and the tragedy that hit her [5:56]
I grew up in Lawrence, Massachusetts, which is 30 miles north of Boston. It's a tough little city. It was an immigrant city right on the Merrimack River, a bunch of blue-collar kids basically like hanging out.
My parents got divorced when I was two and then my stepfather, who I consider my dad, came onto the scene when I was three and my parents were really young. I mean back then, back in the 60s and early 70s, the babies were having babies. So my mother was 18, 19, had me when she was 20 and it was kids raising kids.
So, I always say my parents were wicked smart. They were beautiful. They were beautiful to look at, they were wicked smart, but they were also really stupid in terms of like paying the bills and like being responsible and like things like that. You know, they both had good jobs, but we always seemed to not have any money and the electricity would get shut off, blah, blah, blah.
And their communication style was, there was no communication. It was zero to 60; it went from whatever would happen to screaming and yelling and somebody throwing a plate of food and it was a war zone. It was crazy growing up as a kid. It doesn't mean that we didn't have some fun, but it was eggshells. You just never knew what was going to happen.
When I was 12 and my sister Kim was 13, about to turn 14, it was one of those periods when my parents were split up. It was May 1981 and they were split up and I thought, this was it, they were gonna get a divorce. My dad was living at my aunt's house. He was already dating somebody else, and my mother went out one night, and she just didn't come home.
We woke up the next day, my mother was missing. My sister sent me to school and by the time I came back from school around 3 p.m, still, nobody had heard from my mother. And so my dad just showed up out of the blue. We hadn't seen him in a few months and he just showed up out of the blue and he sat us down and he said, “Hey, look, I'm just going to tell you. Your mother is dead.”
That was it. That's how we found out, and we come to find out that she had been murdered. She was beaten to death, brutally kicked and punched to death beyond recognition. It was a horribly violent, just brutal crime. The [local] police and the state police said they'd never seen anything like it and it was just awful, awful, awful.
That, as you can imagine, changed the whole trajectory of my life.
How Karen survived after the murder of her mother [8:54]
I was 12 and I was a tomboy so I hadn't tipped in yet into that crazy teenage girl thing. My mother was still the love of my life and I just adored her. My mother was the light of my world. She was like the sun to my solar system. So it was like losing what I call my internal compass.
I was a wicked shy kid and I would mumble all the time and couldn't look people in the eye And my mother was the one who just, she saw me; my mother saw me and she saw my sensitivity and she saw my creativity and she saw my intelligence and she loved me. She always used to, they call it breathing life into a person, and my mother breathed life into me, all the time that I could do whatever I wanted to do.
After she died I didn't have that anymore; my whole life blew up. My dad didn't want us. He didn't want to take care of us. My biological father showed up. I didn't know who he was. I hadn't seen him since I was two. He already at that point had a shit ton of kids. I have a biological sister, two half-brothers, where we have the same dad but different moms. And then I have like 20 stepbrothers and stepsisters and just because of all the intermarriage things and so it was just a shitshow, to call it what it was.
Another aunt and uncle wanted to send us off to a boarding school, a Catholic boarding school in Rhode Island. We ended up going to live with an aunt and uncle that I didn't even know, and it was like moving in with strangers.
So we lost my mother, I lost my house, I lost everything that was familiar except for my sister. And we were never... The way that my father raised us there was no room for any weakness... so you were looking out for number one. There was no, hey, let's team up to beat the system, because it was no beating the system.
Nobody in my family talked about my mother. Her body was found on a Thursday morning outside a pet cemetery in Methuen by the MSPCA. She was in the ground on Saturday by 11 and it wasn't open casket because she had been beaten so brutally. It was like she disappeared overnight, you know, and it was really, really hard and I suffered for a really long time.
But one of the ways that I sought comfort as a child, always, was through books and animals. Animals were always my best friend and I say that animals were always one of my fastest and least complicated pathways to God and to the Divine or to Spirit. I just turned to books and animals.
What encouraged Karen to choose a spiritual path [14:38]
There are three things that I can point to.
I was a Catholic kid. I see a lot of people from faith traditions, or Catholic kids especially, when something awful happens, they say, Why did God do this? Why would God let this happen?
But for whatever reason, I was just really clear that it was a man that had murdered my mother. It wasn't God's doing.
I used to get mad but not at God. Does that make sense? I wasn't raging. I might be like, Why? Why? I just didn't understand and I was trying to make sense of a senseless action. I suffered for a really long time. I got drunk for the first time when I was 12,and I started drinking and I started experimenting with drugs and thank God I didn't have an addiction gene. Like it just, you know, I didn't get the gene. So I was able to dabble deeply, I shouldn't even call it 'dabble'. I was able to [go in] deeply with a lot of different substances, but there was always a voice somewhere deep inside of me that would break through every once in a while and say, you might want to be fucking careful kid.
It's not like, oh, I was just always so spiritual. But when my mother was sucked from our lives, it created a lot of space for the Divine to enter in.
One time, my aunt and uncle dropped [my sister and me] off to go to confession. It's kind of a creepy thing. You go in a little box and it's like a spy movie; like a guy in a black outfit slides the thing and you can't really see his face. It's just like, what is going on?
My sister was sitting right outside the confessional and I went in. And the guy slides the thing open and already the fact that you have to admit that you're a sinner has never really resonated with me. But anyway, it's like forgive me, Father, it's been this long since my last confession. This is what I did. I know I stole or I lied or I swore, I yelled at my sister, whatever. And I would equally say true things and I would lie and I would make shit up just to have stuff to say and then at the end, they say there's a prayer and you're supposed to say the Act of Contrition, right?
And I was just months out from my mother being murdered. So I have no doubt now that I was traumatized, but it didn't even occur to me then because I was such a tough kid. It was like, I'm just gonna get through this thing.
So [the priest] is like, say the Act of Contrition, and I couldn't remember it and he started yelling at me and he was like, You go up and say this many Hail Marys and this many, whatever the punishment was. I just knew my sister could hear all this and when I stepped out she had this shit-eating grin on her face and I was equally embarrassed and pissed.
I was so like, urrghhhh! And so I remember walking up to the front of the church, St. Pat's in Lawrence, and I remember kneeling down and just looking up and there was Jesus strung up And as I look at Mary, holding the baby Jesus and I look up at Jesus and I say this is it. No more middlemen. I'm not doing this anymore. If we're gonna talk I'm talking to God, I'm like if we're going to talk, we're going to do it right here. I'm not doing this anymore.
I still made my confirmation, I still went to church but I just had a different relationship now, so I had access to something greater than me.
And then my mother started coming to me in dreams. She said to me, speaking about the guy that killed her, I've forgiven him. Now, it's your turn.
Karen’s fight against forgiveness and the book that literally fell on her [20:30]
[When I had that dream,] I was like, "Uugghhh!" Because I grew up in an environment that was very much an eye for an eye, no forgiveness happening. And if there was forgiveness, first of all, there was really no forgiveness. My Uncle Manny, in his 40s, got a tattoo of an eye on his shoulder like an eyeball. One day I said to him, I'm like, "Uncle Manny like what's with the tattoo? Like why did you get that tattoo?"
And he goes, "So when the bastards try to stab me in the back I see ‘em coming."
It was that kind of family. There was no forgiveness work going on.
At that point, I was living out in California. Books and animals had always been my saviors, but I couldn't have pets win this apartment in LA, so I always went into bookstores.
One day I went into a bookstore and I was in the workout section because I was really into lifting and stuff like that. All of a sudden, I literally hear a very clear voice in my head saying, "You should go to the self-help section because you could use some help."
And I was like, "Okay," so I went into the self-help section.
This is 1992 or 93. I'm in Burbank, when self-help just blew up: Louise Hay, Deepak Chopra, Marianne Williamson and Iyanla Vanzant, Tony Robbins. Everybody had books coming out.
I'm walking down the self-help aisle, stacks here and then tall stacks here. Nobody else is in the aisle and all of a sudden, this book just fell off the shelf at my feet. I look down and it's a Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles by Marianne Williamson. I see the picture of her like on the cover and I'm like, Who's this broad?
I just sat on the floor, because I had no money to buy it, but I sat on the floor and I started to read it and I always say I got equally pissed and inspired because nobody had ever talked about God, forgiveness, and choice in this particular way.
I eventually saved the money to buy it and I remember [learning] that I was responsible for my own happiness. I was responsible for my own suffering. That I actually had a choice whether or not I suffered. That I was not at the mercy of the world. That I was not a victim unless I chose to be. That my mind was the cause, the world was simply the effect. That the world was simply an outward reflection of an inward condition. If I wanted to change anything it had to happen in here.
It taught me about forgiveness in a whole new way and it was just like it blew my mind.
And so that was probably I would say I had always been on some sort of a spiritual journey, but I think we all are because we're actually spirits. Our whole life is our spiritual life, there is actually no separation, but we're not taught that as kids.
That's when I started to take my spiritual journey more seriously, and then that's when I started to put some tools in my tool belt about how to navigate stuff. Because it doesn't matter if you read all the books or go to all the seminars and get all the therapy, if you don't practically apply it and live it, what's the point?
How a man named Bobby Rock taught Karen what “vegan” means [31:31]
Marianne Williamson became my spiritual godmother and my mentor and my teacher — and she had set me up with this guy, Bobby Rock, this professional musician. He had also had a murder in his life, and she thought we would understand each other. And he was a vegan.
don't know if I fully understood completely what that meant because this was like 20 years ago. I was like, vegan what? I was always like a gym rat I'd come out of the gym and go to McDonald's. It made no sense.
When I was out on tour [with this guy] one time, I'll never forget this, we went to a restaurant. I already had decided, out of respect for him, I was not going to eat meat. I wasn't going to like eat that on the tour or whatever and he kept it really clean. He brought his blender everywhere. And I was just open. I've always been curious.
When it came time to order I said I was just going to get some pizza. I asked him, “Would you ever eat pizza?” I just knew he didn't eat animals. I didn't know about the dairy and the eggs yet.
He just looked at me with the most disgusted face and said, “Why would I ever eat that? It's nothing but suffering soaked in pus and blood.”
And I'm like, what? I literally didn't know what he meant. I literally didn't know that dairy cows didn't just naturally produce milk. I didn't know that they were like women that they only lactated when they were impregnated. And I didn't understand the process of how the dairy industry keeps them pregnant and then the dairy industry is because of the veal industry only exists because of the… I had no idea.
When he cracked that knowledge open, in that moment, I was like, oh, I don't know shit. So I started to educate myself that was number one.
Then it occurred to me that I was a fucking hypocrite. That I've been saying my whole life and I still do believe this, animals are one of my fastest pathways to the Divine, animals have saved me. They have saved me time and time again. That unconditional love, that relationship that I have with them, it's very uncomplicated. It's very pure.
And I realized that I had been walking around my whole life calling myself an animal lover, while I was eating them. While I was participating in their suffering, their abuse, their rape, their slaughter.
Once I saw that I couldn't unsee it. I realized that I had made a lot of choices for a long time without thinking past the plate. I started asking, What's the consequence of this choice? And why am I doing this just for my taste buds? Like really? I'm going to participate in the slaughter and suffering of all these animals because it tastes good?
When Karen connected her mother’s murder and eating animals [35:50]
First I started to educate myself and I watched all the terrible videos and I watched all the movies and the clips and I read the books and I did my homework and I was like, oh my God.
[At first,] I was a pescatarian. Then I became a vegetarian and then I stopped eating eggs. The last thing I gave up was cheese. Because dairy is, as we know, is so seductive. Dairy is one of the hardest things for people to quit but I finally did it.
Here's what happened. At the same time during all of this was going on, I started doing research for my memoir about my mother's murder. We weren't allowed to see [any of the reporting] when I was a kid and I had just been like haunted by what happened that night.
I called The Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, and I asked if there was anybody there who remembered my mother's case. They were so kind to me and they dug up all these different articles and they photocopied them and they sent them to me.
I'll never forget getting that package in the mail. My hands were shaking, I was terrified. I finally got back into my apartment and I sat down and I opened it and I will never ever, ever forget. Because one of the biggest questions, when something violent or traumatic or awful happens to somebody that you love, that haunt you is ,did they suffer, did they suffer?
There was a line that said she had cuts and scrapes on her hands and her knees from trying to get away. And I just like, it was like, oh, that's my mom.
And then I was like, oh, all these [creatures] just want to live and they will try to fight to live and they want to survive and they want to be with their kids and they want to have a life and they don't want to be beaten or slaughtered or murdered or raped. My mom she was found half-naked from the waist down. I have no doubt [her murderer] was probably trying to rape her.
To me, this is no different than what we do to cows. What was happening to my mother is what happens in slaughterhouses all over the country. It's what happens in big agriculture. When people are talking to me about backyard chickens or the farms that letthe cow graze I'm like, yeah, until you murder them.
I just could not in good conscience keep participating in the suffering, the slaughter, the rape and murder of other sentient beings who were my brothers and sisters.
"People always say, oh, vegans think they're so much better than everybody else. And I'm like, no, we're vegan because we don't think we're better than other beings and that's part of it. "
All that suffering [from my mother’s death] is what taught me how to have deep, deep, deep compassion for other people for suffering and for other beings’ suffering.
I've been vegan for a little over 16 years. I was a vegetarian before that, and then I went in and made the commitment to veganism. And I'm not just a vegan by diet, I'm vegan by lifestyle, like [in] my whole life. I think there's a little bit of a difference. Those moments as a child really inform the work that I do in the world now and how I show up now in the choices that I make now.
The key to advocating for plant-based eating [52:19]
In yoga, say. If you've been doing something that you might claim or label bad, we don't focus on this and judge this and attack this and make you guilty for this. What you do is you choose its opposite.
So I look at it as like, just give [someone who isn’t eating a plant-based diet] a vegan cupcake or give them an amazing whole grain salad with dressing that's yummy.
Just show them that there's another way that doesn't harm them, their health, the environment, the animals!
Here's the other thing too. There was time to dick around and dabble before; it is urgent now. The planet is in trouble. We can't keep doing agribusiness. We can't keep chopping down the rainforest to make room for more cattle to feed all the fat Americans. We’ve got to get smart about what's happening to this planet, to the environment, to our water supply, the chemicals we’re spraying, to grow the crops, to feed all the animals.
Everybody can be an activist just by what they choose to put on their plate and in their body and I [think] that was so empowering.
Why Karen believes plant-based eating starts in the mind [1:05:54]
When I’m being still, I have these recurring thoughts: right now someone’s being born, someone’s being raped, someone’s being murdered 100 millions animals are being slaughtered, someone’s dying in a ditch, someone’s being sold into sex trafficking.
I’m hyper aware of what’s happening not only to our human brothers and sisters but also animal brothers and sisters every day.
I know I can’t change all of their realities. I can’t go into all the slaughterhouses with a behind the scenes cameras and out them. I can only write so many articles, I can only do some many podcasts.
The only way I can do anything helpful is in the quality of my thoughts. It all starts at the level of the mind.
If I want to see a less violent world, I must eradicate all violence within myself. I must change my mind because the quality of my mind and thoughts is what creates my speech and words, and is what creates my actions and intentions.
It’s like, a lot of people complain about the dirty neighborhood but all the trash is blowing out from your own backyard!!
The homework isn’t even vegan-specific. The homework is to eradicate thoughts of judgment, jealousy, attack.
A Course in Miracles said this and it was so powerful, especially for me, any time that you are not thinking lovingly or kindly about a brother a sister, anytime you are judging them, you are actually attacking them, actually murdering them.
When I heard that… ohhhhhhhhh. Look, I’m not beating someone to death with my fists, I’m not slaughtering animals, I’m not pulling a gun. But I have been a serial killer in my mind all day long today with my judgments and attacks. That’s what I needed to clean up. Get your own mind right, then you can be helpful and not harmful.
The questions to ask to change what you eat [1:29:03]
Every time you go to put something on your plate or in your mind, just ask yourself, Is this really in line with what I'm doing? or Why do I do this?
So much of what we're doing in this life is just repetitive patterns of being hostages to the small-minded thinking that came before us. And so we have to question everything about the way we vote, and the way we eat, and who we sleep with and what we create and what content we put out in the tone of books.
My clients ask, I have to be vigilant for the quality of every single thought??
I say yes, that is the work, and it becomes easier. Because you will naturally start to choose (I always jokingly say) “less stupid.” You start to awaken to your own patterns.
Karen explains A Course in Miracles [1:13:32]
It’s spirituality, psychotherapy, and education. It's like a 1,200 page book!
But basically it says, just like yoga says, and quantum physics suggests, is that this whole world illusion. In ACIM, we call it the dream. The books states that as we have never actually left God, we have never separated from a source that we are in heaven, dreaming a dream of separation.
[But ACIM reminds us that] only love is real. None of this illusion is really real; we have never actually left the state of perfect Oneness. It's really hard to remember that because the separation feels real. We're always looking for things outside of us to complete us because we want the experience of oneness that is actually always available to us.
The first half of the lessons of the workbook is relinquishing the thought system of fear. We strip back the illusion and we strip back our thoughts of separation in these bodies, and we stopped playing dumb.
It doesn't mean while we're down here in the illusion that we deny our feelings. It just don't make them that big of a deal.. It doesn't mean I don't vote, I don't give hungry kids a sandwich, I don't stand up animals. But I'm always here in service to love.
One of Karen’s most important prayers [1:21:32]
My meditation teacher teaches passage meditation. The passage that I have been repeating for the last 20 years is the prayer of St. Francis:
Make me an instrument of thy peace
Where there is hatred, let me sow love
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
It's a call to action. I'm not asking for anything I all. I'm asking for is to make me an instrument of peace. Make me show up as the love that I am, which is the only thing that's actually real about me. Not this hat, not these clothes, not this house. What’s real about me is the spirit and essence of myself, which is love. And if I can remember that, it keeps me from doing clumsy things, stupid things, cruel things, unkind things. It helps me to make better choices.
Why Karen advocates for veganism with understanding and great food
[When I was younger] I was just trying to survive, and only had two bucks for the week. So I ate ramen, and I ate bologna sandwiches on white bread, and I ate crap food.
It's really easy for white people with access to money and cars and food to talk about be vegan, be organic, do these things. But people who don't have access, what they need his help, and what they need is education. And what they need is somebody to be patient and to teach them how to make good meals.
When I encourage people to go vegan, I encourage them to think about like, hey, even if you're kind of broke, rice and beans go a long way. There are ways to do this.
There are more and more and more people waking up, there are more and more and more people choosing differently and making better choices. And that's exciting to me to play a part in it. I don't really have this big of a voice but I do have to use my voice for the voiceless. I'm going to do it to the day I die, using my platform and my voice to let people know, there's another way.
How to remember your taste buds when you’re switching to plant-based foods
Your taste buds have been trained for sugar, salt, fat, processed food for a really long time.
So it starts with, “this [new food] doesn't suck.” And then gradually it's, “Oh, I prefer this because this is real food.”
So give it a shot. Stick with it. When I had to go macrobiotic vegan for two years [due to health problems], it was like tasting real food for the first time because I couldn't use condiments, I had to just eat food for a few weeks. Grains and leafy greens and root vegetables and soups. Simple simple food. I did it for two years, I never felt better. And the first time I tried to eat processed food again. I was like, Oh, it was like it doesn't even taste like food!
Learn more about Karen's work: www.karenkenney.com
Karen’s podcast: The Karen Kenney Show
What you should do now
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