Becoming Vegan and Finding Integrity

Four weeks ago, I decided to go vegan.

When I became single four and a half years ago, I stopped eating meat. I had wanted to do this for many years – since I was eight years old and watched a beautiful, frightened pig being murdered. Once I decided to make this compassionate change, transition to being a vegetarian was quite fast, except for fish, which was the last thing to go. Going vegan is an entirely different scenario, as it takes added effort to figure out what things we purchase have animals in them.

When people ask me why I went vegetarian (and now vegan), I am often hesitant to respond. In reality, many people don’t want to know, but want to use this question as a springboard to defend their own fallacious position. When I do respond, I either keep it very short and say, “compassion” or – if the person seems genuinely interested – I mention three reasons (animals, the environment and personal health). I then say that while my choice was based on compassion for other beings, it is also nice to know that I am helping to save the planet and improving my own health. Excellent collateral benefits!

Regarding my health – while I noticed myself being less sluggish when I stopped eating meat, the effects were not nearly as dramatic as I have noticed since going vegan four weeks ago. For one, the weight is just dropping off me. I would guess I have lost 8 – 10 kilos in four weeks. Pants I couldn’t get a single leg in four weeks ago, I can now wear.

What else? My cognitive dissonance about trying to be compassionate for animals, while still consuming them in butter, milk, cheese, etc. is gone. It is difficult to hold contrary ideas in one’s head. When we try to do so, we tend to want to ignore one view, pushing our focus onto the contrary view that we prefer. This is cognitively a lot of work. We are not then able to sit with ideas or ourselves, but are constantly defending the wall to the castle of our protected views. We find it difficult to be honest with ourselves about other things, because we know that we are protecting views that – if allowed to be truly examined – would not stand under scrutiny.

So, in addition to my health benefits, what else has changed? I have greater peace of mind. My meditation practice is further improved. I am taking comfort in being true to myself and in knowing that I am not causing the suffering of countless living beings.

We tend to use the word “integrity” to mean “moral”, but there is another meaning. Think about the use of this word in engineering – structural integrity. This relates to wholeness, consistency (e.g. it is desirable for a ship to be consistently strong – one weak section and the ship sinks). To say that a person has integrity could mean that they are moral, but at an arguably deeper level, it can be mean that they are consistent. Their views and actions are in harmony. I personally prefer this use of the word. When I stopped eating other beings, I realised greater integrity within myself.

When I look at the top choices of my life, the decision to go vegan is in the top four. It is also nice watching my weight returning to what it was when I was 18.

Wishing you the best of mental health!

Jerry's signature

In the Moment

Most of us spend significant parts of our lives either dwelling on the past or planning (or dreading) the future. The exception might be when we are young and are living in that moment – remember savouring an ice cream on a hot summer day, wanting nothing else and to be nowhere else?

As we get older, this changes. We propel ourselves into an imagined future, as we live our lives mentally in what we want to exist. My first experience with this was when I started university and – as I worked so hard with my studies and jobs – I imagined myself finishing university. These visions kept me going when little else would. Sadly, what started as a strategy to accomplish a goal (many of our dysfunctional actions start off to address real situations in our lives, but outlive their usefulness) became an unhealthy pattern of living in the future.

Why is this a problem? Other than losing out on your experiences now – such as the attention of your child – living in the future is not terribly productive (how much of what we imagine actually happens?) Also, such projections can lead to significant anxiety, when the future we imagine is not a positive one.

What about the opposite – living in the past? Nostalgia can be comforting, for a moment, but can quickly morph into regret, bitterness and sorrow. Living in the past offers little assistance in making it through the rest of your life.

People present to therapy who cannot stay in the moment. They are depressed about the past or anxious about the future. How can the therapist help?

There are quicker ways to come into the present:

  • Grounding in the body. This involves exercises within the therapy session where the client is taken through attempts to focus on what is happening in their body at the moment.
  • Changing speaking patterns. This involves encouraging clients to speak in the present, not the past or the future (e.g. only present tense verbs). This can be difficult and cause frustration for clients accustomed to doing otherwise.
  • Initial attempts at facilitating a meditative state, perhaps utilising something like Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT).

There is a long-term (or perhaps better worded, a more persistent) way to come into the present:

  • Developing a mindfulness practice. Once a client is able to spend 20 – 60 minutes a day meditating, he or she will find that this state will start to work into other parts of life. This is the point. Mindfulness is not about a few minutes of focus, but focus that becomes normalised for the practitioner.

Do you live in the moment? Is the here-and-now your normal mode of existence?

Do you:

  • Spend significant time reviewing the past?
  • Do you often find yourself feeling sorrowful about what has happened or what might have been?
  • Do you dread the future?
  • Do you find that normal things happen without you seeming to notice them (e.g. eating, spending time with family)?

Anxiety has a hard time taking hold when you focus on NOW. Depression loses it power when you find wonder around you.

This moment is all we really have. Make it your focus.

To good mental health!

Jerry's signature

Frustration in Meditation

When I first started meditating, I thought I had to get it “right”. I thought that somehow I could completely focus and then I would have a startling epiphany – a moment of “enlightenment”. Many of us start out with these sorts of ideas.

First, some would argue that “enlightenment” is not an instant insight at all. Stephen Batchelor in “After Buddhism : Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age” argues that the Buddha saw enlightenment as a practice to alleviate suffering and not a mental epiphany that allows one to “break” with corporeal existence. I would say there are some merits to this view. One of the many difficulties I had with the Dharma (Buddhist doctrine) was that after the Buddha reached enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, he continued his existence for another 40+ years. This makes sense if enlightenment is a process, rather than a flash of insight. So, I have come to see meditation not as some mystical experience leading to immediate release, but rather as a practice, which takes effort and whose goal is release from suffering through this practice.

Second, in my straining to focus, I didn’t realise that the simple act of returning to my breath is the purpose of meditation. Rather than beating myself up over my inability to focus, I realised that simply realising my mind was drifting and returning my focus to the breath was itself meditating. I was not “failing” by wandering, I was “succeeding” by noticing and returning to the breath. How did this help? Rather than scolding myself when my mind wandered, I felt good at noticing and returning my concentration to my breathing. This self-encouragement has had remarkable effects on my meditation practice (including my excitement, rather than dreading or putting off my practice).

When your mind wanders, gently notice and return to the breath, over and over again. Each time being gentle with yourself and realising that this is actually meditation. You are not doing it wrong. You are not failing. You are taking the same path we all take. The “monkey mind” will calm, over time. Frustration will not help. Frustration will not motivate you. Being kind to yourself will encourage you. You are brave to explore the mind. Many live their whole lives without looking inside. You are an explorer. Be kind to yourself and keep going.

When Sitting Meditation Just Won’t Happen

We all have those days where we can’t sit. Sometimes it is something physical, such as pain or injury. Sometimes, our minds want to be anywhere else. When I was new to meditation, I would just give up for the day! There are other ways to meditate than just sitting. There are practices for walking meditation, where you focus on your feet striking the ground (for example). There is eating meditation, where you focus deeply on the food, the movement of your mouth, etc. There is meditation while using the toilet (I will let you figure this one out for yourself). There is chanting (“OM”, “Om mani padme hum”, etc) meditation, where rather than focusing on your breathe or a flame, you chant to a rhythm.

Meditation mala for mindfulness practice
Meditation mala for mindfulness practice

One of my preferred options, if my sitting meditation won’t happen, or if I am in a situation where it is not practical (sitting at doctor’s office, on the train, etc) is chanting to myself while working along my mala. One of my malas is pictured here. I work along each bead with focus, inhaling on the bead and then exhaling and clearly chanting “OM” as my finger works into the space between the beads. This can have a very powerful effect on me. It is different from sitting meditation, but also a balancing, centring and calming experience.

Another practice that is helpful for me, especially when I am feeling too centred on my own ego, is loving-kindness meditation. I might mention that in another post.

Until then,

OM . . .