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THE FIVE STEPS OF MY VEGAN JOURNEY SO FAR

There were several steps in my becoming vegan, which I’d really like to share with others. Like many, I’ve arrived to this transformation in middle-adulthood, and I’ve largely arrived at it alone and on my own.

The process (so far) for me could be roughly broken down into five steps: emotional, intellectual, educational, “spiritual” and communal.

First, emotionally: I felt guilty and sad about what happens to animals in order to provide me food. The worse I felt, the worse all of it tasted, until I just couldn’t eat meat anymore. But this wasn’t enough to really push me from “lacto-ovo vegetarianism” into a more solid veganism. (By the way, I hope that someday the word “vegetarian” is reclaimed to mean what it originally meant, and what it sounds like. Eggs and cow milk certainly don’t sound “vegetarian” to me.)

Second, intellectually: I read a couple books. The most important for me was Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. I know that the title of that book is going to sound extreme to a lot of people who have not read it yet, conjuring images of militant action, breaking into laboratories, etc. But, in fact, the book is about more about the liberation of human morality than anything else. It may as well be titled, “When Is It Okay to Cause Suffering To Others?” or “What Is Morality, Really?” or many,many other titles. The book — as many others do — provides a very solid philosophical argument that gives you some basic ideas and tools by which to judge one’s own behavior on such basic moral grounds that even a small child (perhaps especially a small child) could understand. You may feel that something is wrong, but how can you KNOW that it’s wrong. This book can help. Basically, if you can survive and thrive without needing to cause suffering to another being, then to knowingly cause them to suffer is immoral, and it behooves you to change your ways. Do I need eggs and milk (whose production requires chickens and cows to suffer) to survive and be really healthy and satisfy my taste buds? No, no and no. Professor Singer ‘s book helped me clear out the eggs and cow milk from my diet.

Third, educationally: I began to learn HOW to live vegan — this really began at Colleen’s site and through her podcasts. Through her podcasts, it was the first time that a human voice explained to me patiently how to live a vegan life. And that made all the difference in the world. The human voice — we must all remember — is perhaps the most powerful tool we have! It’s the one thing or nonhuman friends need of us most. In my book, people like Colleen are bodhisattvas. In order that the rest of us might also see the light, they tirelessly share what they know. The good news is that, as time progresses, I believe it WILL become easier, not more difficult, to live a vegan lifestyle. People like Colleen are almost like secular rabbis or independent teachers, and as more of them become available to the average person, this process will become easier.)

Fourth, spiritually: I visited Farm Sanctuary — farmsanctuary.org — a place where rescued farm animals get to live in peace with humans for the rest of their natural lives, and for the first time in my entire life I felt that I was standing on sacred ground.

I’m an agnostic, but I’d use the word “spiritual” to describe those kinds of experiences which seem to tie into intelligences that are greater than any single person’s individual mind and experience, or connections to greater and more complex forces than those we can easily grasp intellectually. I’ve been to hundreds of churches and temples all over the world, all of which felt and seemed ‘sacred,’ but that little sanctuary in Orland, California, was the first time I felt with all my body and mind the sense that a place was really sacred. I kid you not, as I left that place, I broke down in tears. Bittersweet, overwhelmed, joy mixed with sadness. I’m not sure what St. Paul experienced on the road to Damascus, but I can tell you for sure, it could not have been more powerful than what I felt on the road home from Farm Sanctuary to San Mateo.

I don’t believe in heaven, but I’ve seen a small corner of what it might look like in Orland. I do, however, believe in hells — they are called “factory farms” and “slaughterhouses.” So, here’s the deal you get at Farm Sanctuary: You get to meet sentient beings who have literally escaped hell and are now in the care of human angels.

I dare anyone to really absorb that reality and not be moved.

If you’re unsure of your veganism or feel threatened by peer pressure, then plan your next vacation to spend a day at one of these places. Visiting a place like Farm Sanctuary is like seeing the future. (Hey, and put it this way: A vacation to Farm Sanctuary can save you a lot of money. Instead of flying off to some exotic, expensive locale, or Disneyland, just spend a day or two with animals who just got back from hell, and the wingless angels who watch over them. Adopt a turkey or burro before you leave. It will make your seemingly boring, unexotic hometown seem like the “happiest place on earth,” because you will come home with a lot of joy in your heart, and new connection to a place otherwise known as Planet Earth.)

Farm Sanctuary truly “closed the deal” for me, and I can never imagine returning to a carnivore lifestyle ever again. Wouldn’t give it a second thought. I’ve been transformed, and I can feel my whole body and mind changing as the reality becomes more “natural” to me.

These first four stages add up to a sense of basic integrity in my life. I have all the other problems that everyone else has (trust me on this one, as my friends know), but now there is a baseline of sanity and well-being. For the first time in my life, I really believe in my own “politics”: What I eat, what I wear, and most of the things I use are in alignment with my belief that all sentient beings have the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” I feel related to the world again, and not just a “consumer” or part of “the marketplace,” but as part of a conversation that really matters, a conversation that literally could change the world. (“Industrial agriculture,” the euphemism for the horrible things we do to thinking-feeling fellow earthlings, is literally killing the biosphere. According to the UN, this meat habit of ours is doing more damage than trains, planes and automobiles! Someone else’s “right” to eat steak, baby back ribs and cow’s milk, is literally depriving all of us the right to a planet.)

If there’s a Fifth stage in my vegan lifestyle, it’s actually happening right now, and it’s about actively building a community of vegans around myself. Why wait? Why feel left alone and misunderstood? Why waste time being frustrated that mainstream society doesn’t “get it”? Be the change.

After all, in this world, no one’s going to come find you and knock on your door and offer you a medal for “being vegan.” (Well, Colleen might, but she’s an angel, and angels can fly and all that sort of thing, and she might have superpowers too.) Again, just “be the change.” It’s a simple guideline by which to organize one’s life.

Anyhow, as a result of the first four steps of this process, two friends and I have started on this “fifth step.” We started a regular weekly dinner (“Vegan Thursdays” is what we call it) in our hometown of Beijing, China, and now have our simple website — the Vegan Social Club of Beijing, at http://vegansocialclub.com. And guess what? We just made seven new vegan friends in the last week alone.

Frankly, I sometimes get very frustrated by organizations like PETA and HSUS, because, despite their monumental work raising consciousness and working for better legislation, they do so little to actually create community. Communities are ultimately far more powerful than the media or celebrities or shocking images or donations. Both Peta and HSUS send strong messages to the media and do wonderful work in terms of fighting for better legislation, for which I’m grateful, but I wish I had their mailing list!


Those members are potentially my friends and why is Peta and HSUS not enabling them to meet each other? I sometimes hear stories about vegans backsliding into meat-eating because of peer pressure. Same thing happens to sober recovering alcoholics surrounded by heavy drinkers. Duh! Humans need community to survive in more ways than one.

Anyhow, nevertheless, I still thank goodness for orgs like Peta and HSUS, and maybe community-making is NOT their job.

Maybe it’s YOUR job — whoever you are who might be reading this right now.

If our little experiment in building a community here works — and it IS working — we’re going to help other people (anywhere in the world) repeat whatever we did that was successful. We’ll make mistakes, I’m certain, but in general it’s so much better than nothing. So much better than grousing about the lack of vegan options. So much better than being silent and alone.

So, if you’re reading this and you’re a lonely or underappreciated vegan, then make yourself a community! MAKE IT. You can do this. If you can’t find one, then, guess what: You’re really lucky, because you have the opportunity to build one yourself. Even if there already IS one, maybe it’s not your style. Well, make another one!

Find a vegan or vegetarian restaurant you like, put up an on/offline classified ad, make a simple website, and watch fellow compassionate humans come out of the woodwork. And, by all means, welcome curious non-vegans to attend! Some of the nicest, most inspiring vegans you’ll ever meet PROBABLY aren’t even vegan yet! Some day, years from now, they’ll be thanking for introducing you to the opportunity to “wake up” and see a new reality. I guarantee you, to be on the receiving end of gratitude is a good place to be. Instant cure for depression or sadness or whatever other unpleasant stuff is going on in your life.

Don’t know how to set up a website or community blog? Well, a vegan-near-you probably does! Don’t know how to organize dinners? Well, do your best to organize the first one and I guarantee some vegan will show up who DOES know how to organize dinners! Too shy to do this kind of thing? Find a partner who’s not too shy, and just get it started. People naturally “make community” — all you have to do is get them into the same place at the same time.

I’m only a month and a half into my community-building phase, and already it’s changing my life. Our last vegan dinner in Beijing had only 6 people (compared to 11 the week before), but four of them were newcomers (people who needed this community and were very happy about being there) and all of them were some of the finest people you’ll ever meet anywhere in the world.

For me, “Thursday” has become the one day of the week I know I’ll go to sleep feeling good about things — no matter how badly the day started. I could be broke, feeling depressed, frustrated, etc, but I know that on Thursday nights, I’m going to be surrounded by new and old friends, and unexpectedly good things will happen or be said. (Which is why we’re already thinking about starting some kind of event on Saturday too.)

Anyhow, I’m SO GRATEFUL TO COLLEEN PATRICK-GOUDREAU and everyone who makes compassionatecooks.com possible. You’ve changed my world and indirectly, you’re changing the world for people far, far away from Oakland, California. You have no idea!

Christopher Barden
Vegan Social Club of Beijing
http://vegansocialclub.com

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I was a vegetarian for about 10 years before finally taking the vegan plunge this summer, and have always been proud of my choice not to eat animals. The notion of veganism was a niggling presence in the back of my mind, but I told myself that I “couldn’t” do it for all the standard reasons — it’s too hard, I couldn’t live without yogurt and cheese, I wouldn’t be able to go out to restaurants any more, eggs and milk don’t kill the animals, yadda yadda.

Listening to your podcast changed all that. It was in finally making the connection that the veal industry exists because of dairy that really clinched it for me. As a vegetarian, I had always felt that veal was one of the most reprehensible things you could eat, yet there I was supporting that very industry every time I put milk in my coffee.

Honestly, I don’t know why I never grasped that connection. After all, I grew up in a rural area and we actually had our own cow when I was a child. My parents would have the vet come around and artificially inseminate her — a process we knew she was none too fond of, because she would always try to hide when she heard the sound of his van coming down the driveway… which goes to show  just how smart cows really are! The driveway was not visible from the paddock  where our Moo and the other animals lived, yet she was able to make the connection between the sound of his engine and the nasty procedures that were done to  her.

Clearly, Moo was a lot better at making connections that I was, considering I never made the link that she had to have babies in order to give milk. The more I think about it, the more it amazes me that I managed to get through forty years of life without considering the implications of what it would mean on a scale of mass production to have millions of cows constantly giving birth to calves that would be 50% male, and just what would happen to all those male calves.

The same thing goes for eggs. Even after I went vegetarian and educated myself somewhat about factory farming, I still somehow thought that free range-eggs and organic cheese were the answer. I sort of assumed that “free range” hens would live the way our hens did when I was a kid. Even when I was little, though, I knew that my parents killed the roosters. In fact, this was one of the formative experiences that eventually turned me towards vegetarianism; being served the flesh of chickens that I’d known personally made it difficult to avoid the knowledge that meat is animal flesh. Yet I never quite grasped the idea that this killing-off of male chickens is simply part of the egg-producing industry, and that it happens on “free-range” facilities just the same as any other.

I suppose that’s a symptom of being raised in a culture where everything is so disconnected; we become blinded to what’s going on right in front of us. And the unvarnished truth is that, like most people, I didn’t make those connections because I really didn’t *want* to make them.

Listening to your podcast is what finally cleared the cobwebs from my  thinking. I really appreciate how thoroughly you debunk the myths and assumptions of  our carnist culture, replacing them with facts and logic. Not only do you make a powerful case for the importance of becoming vegan, you also make veganism seem really accessible. I think that even just listening to your voice helped me; it made me feel as if I “know” someone who made the transition, and that if you were able to do it, maybe I could do it too. I don’t know if that makes sense, but it really helped a lot. I’ve now transitioned my diet and most of my wardrobe to veganism, and am working to gradually eliminate animal products from my life.

I’m amazed by how profoundly becoming vegan has affected me. It’s a much deeper change than becoming vegetarian ever was, and seems a lot more significant. Looking around, I find myself seeing the world through new eyes. For example, I can’t believe how many leather items I’ve thoughtlessly purchased over the years, or the fact that I never questioned what happened to the ducks whose feathers fill my duvet. What was I thinking? How is it that I could have  given money to support such things, all the while believing that I loved animals?

These are painful realizations, yet it’s a good kind of pain because I’m finally being honest with myself. It feels like a homecoming, like I’m finally living a life that’s true to who I really am — and I have you to thank for it. So thank you, Colleen, for all the wonderful work you do. Never doubt that you are making a huge difference, both for the animals and for the people who love them.

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I tried being vegetarian a number of times but it never stuck.  I realize now that while intellectually I was drawn to it, my heart wasn’t really in it.

Then about 2.5 years ago I was going through a divorce (a nice kick in the butt causing me to reevaluate pretty much everything) and got connected with a Buddhist group based on Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings.  The first mindfulness training is: Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow to cultivate compassion and learn ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking and in my way of life.

There are so many different ways and levels to read and understand that…and over time it started to sink deeper and deeper into my heart.  I realized before long I would be vegetarian.

First however, I was moving towards a life without alcohol as I began to see how it wasn’t serving me or supporting my life’s journey.  This was a real challenging one though because a significant part of my job involves entertaining clients (which inevitably revolves around drinking).  Also, when I would connect with friends from college, it was the same thing.  So while I had a lot of resistance around giving it up, there was a strong sense I needed to to be true to myself.  Then…a lyric from a song called Western South by Kate Callahan pierced me.  The song was about her struggle with alcohol and the line was:

          it’s not the drink I think I need

          it’s the illusion that i’d be so much happier free

          from the sound, and the weight, and the history

          that comes from saying “no” all the time

It was like my own heart talking to me.  And shortly afterward, I was done with it without any struggle at all.  Amazing. 

A few months later, I went on retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh and the movement towards being a vegetarian became permanent…and again it very easy because my heart had opened even wider.  I knew my only remaining resistance was the same as it had been with alcohol…the perceived weight of explaining my choice again and again to people who didn’t understand it.

But I had no choice.  My heart had already decided for me 🙂

In the following year I slowly learned more and more about the suffering and killing involved in cheese and egg production and my resistance/fear to living vegan quickly became untenable.  Last fall, following my heart I made the switch, again without struggle.  I’m learning to cook 🙂 and am loving the exploration of all the new foods I never new existed!  Physically, my body feels great.  And best of all, I’m living in greater harmony with my heart and soul.  What more can I ask for?

That’s my story in a nutshell.  I found your podcast a few months ago and am so grateful.  Thank You for shining your Light in the world! 

~David in Colchester, CT

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Living in a state of denial and blind to the exploitation and atrocities of the outside world, I grew up calling myself an “animal lover.” But why then, did I eat animals? It’s odd reflecting on my past non-vegan persona and my newfound joyful vegan identity. My non-vegan persona knew of the horror and of the pain which animals endured, but hid from reality, hoping to escape the guilt which stems from consuming once-living creatures.

The main staple of any of my meals was chicken, fish, or meat. I never questioned or wondered why; I never refused to eat; it was simply ingrained in my mind that my body needed protein and that animals provided the best protein for my body. It took me a long time to realize, to learn, and to transform. However, after becoming a more health-conscience and thoughtful, observant individual, I thought about my diet, researched, and finally faced my fears. I experienced the heartache of knowing how all animals endure such hardships and grief and then I knew that I could no longer allow myself to contribute to the suffering of animals.

At first I went “vegetarian”, but ironically still ate fish. After having another rude awakening, I truly became a vegetarian and then slowly transitioned to vegan. I thought it would be difficult, but it wasn’t. I was so pleased and so happy to feel like I could make a difference and use my own voice to speak for the animals that I was willing to sacrifice the food. Now, I don’t even describe it as sacrifice.

As a vegan, the palate (and more importantly the mind) is cleansed; there is a plethora of healthy, vibrant, nutritious and wonderfully delicious foods to choose from, a diet much more fulfilling than my non-vegan diet ever was. I look forward to cooking such beautiful, tasty food with a smile on my face. And even though the suffering still exists, and even though at times I find it extremely difficult and sad to face the other blind people of the world or continually witness the injustice which exists on Earth, I smile because I am no longer blind. I can see clearly. With no fog clouding my vision, I can attempt to alter the injustice and I am able to pour my heart out to the animals; I use my voice for the animals. I can now sincerely and honestly call myself an “animal lover.”

~Samantha, high school student in southern California

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I’ve been vegetarian for 3 whole years now. From the time I was in high school & saw my first PETA film in 1990 until 2004 I rarely ate red meat, pork or chicken. My yoga instructor encouraged me to cut meat all together – not just for the physical benefits it would bring to my yoga practice, but the spiritual awakening I would experience. She was right on all counts and I soon discovered we had a new closeness in our relationship.

Being vegetarian is no problem for me. But a few months ago, my husband discovered he was lactose intolerant. I’ve been saying for a while now that I would love to be Vegan but had no idea how to do it mindfully without destroying my health & nutrition. I figured his lactose intolerance would be the little push I needed to go all the way to Vegan. As it turns out this was only part of the reason I became vegan. One day I actually read the ingredients in cheese & discovered the wonderfully horrible ingredient: rennet. I literally spit out the piece of cheese in my mouth & have never looked back. It’s been about 2 months now without milk or cheese and there doesn’t seem to be a real issue when out to eat or at other people’s homes.

I have found that my mind is clearer, my emotions steadier, my temper more even, my actions more compassionate when dealing with other people, and, yes, my yoga practice has deepened. Without yoga & the community involved in that lifestyle, I’m not sure I could do this alone. Often, after class, we share stories of our struggles, but swap recipes or names of restaurants that cater to vegans. We can confess our shortcomings, our fears and our failures. And I’ve discovered that my husband is even more supportive of my vegan choices than I ever dreamed.

My eyes have been opened & I don’t expect they’ll ever be closed again. I had my nose pierced 10 months ago as a reminder of my commitment to yoga & the life choices that go with it. When I feel frustrated or lost, I look in the mirror & remember that commitment. I have a horse tattooed on my shoulder & he reminds me who I am doing this all for.

~Lisa in Nevada

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I have been a vegetarian my whole life—not because vegetarianism was imposed upon me by my parents, but because for one reason or another, I had a natural aversion to meat. My mother likes to tell the story of how, on our weekly trips to Friendly’s after church, I would order a hamburger but ask the waiter to “take the cow out.” Though they didn’t restrict me from eating meat, I have no doubt that they had a hand in my early ability to make the connection between what appeared on our plates and the animals that, as a child in rural upstate New York, I had seen grazing around our home. They must have taught me at that early age to empathize with other creatures. So many people go through childhood, if not their entire lives, without bridging the mental divide between cow and hamburger, pig and bacon, and all those other carefully created euphemisms.

Still, I went for nearly three decades—until my 29th birthday, this year—as a lacto-ovo vegetarian without seriously considering going vegan. What held me back was a fear that if being vegan would turn me, an essentially happy and joyful person, into a negative being, and that my entire existence would come to be about what I was not, what I couldn’t do. I feared that it would take so much time and energy to be vegan that it would take over my entire identity until vegan was all I was. I feared that my social life would suffer because my friends and family would feel alienated, judged, or offended, and because I wouldn’t be able to eat out anywhere. And I feared that I’d become full of anger and bitterness about all the terrible things that other people did to animals. In short, I believed all the stereotypes that our culture has about vegans, and I sold short the people in my life by expecting the worst from them. So, I decided that vegetarianism was enough and I stuck to that.

But looking back, it’s clear that part of me didn’t believe that I was doing enough, because while I hadn’t made the full “vegan plunge,” I was, without realizing, going through a gradual process of eliminating the use of animals from my life. After college, I started buying vegan cookbooks, and I took on vegan cooking and baking. I switched to from cow’s milk to soymilk. I stopped buying leather, wool, silk, and down. I made all sorts of gradual changes, until only a handful of animal-reliant habits remained, all of them dietary: ice cream, eggs, and—most looming of all—cheese.

Cheese was my crutch, my lifesaver, every time I went out to a restaurant. Not only that, but I was passionate about it. Pizza and macaroni and cheese were the staples of my diet. This became embarrassingly clear once when I went to a branch of Sbarro near where I worked after having been away for a couple of weeks, and the guy behind the counter gave me a “welcome back” discount. So the difficulty of envisioning life without cheese was immense.

But in the end, it was something surprisingly simple that convinced me to take that last step. I had been reading vegan magazines and websites (another testament to the fact that I was still seeking, that I knew that my diet still wasn’t fully reflecting my values) and all of a sudden, a confluence of examples of positive, joyful veganism came into my life. One was VegNews Magazine; another was Colleen Patrick-Goudreau’s podcast, “Vegetarian Food for Thought.” (I still swear that the “Life after Cheese” episode was written with me in mind.)

I discovered that being vegan could be positive, affirming, and expansive. It didn’t have to be all about what it wasn’t—though of course, animal abuse is, to some extent, the elephant in the kitchen for anyone who knows the truth about modern food production—but could be about what it was: a transformative, enlightening, lightening, compassionate discovery of a new way of life. To discover that you can live happily, healthily, and in a whole way without causing needless suffering is a reason to rejoice.

My goal from here onward is to become for others what I myself sought for so long: an example of a life lived with not just conscience but with joy. I think veganism as a movement can grow and flourish as long as people can see examples of vegans who are happy and whole. Being whole also means having a lack of judgment of others, which may be one of the most important thing vegans can strive for. (I think the feeling of being judged is what gives some omnivores such unwarranted venom toward vegans and vegetarians.) For my part, in the short time that I’ve been vegan, I do feel happier, and, contrary to everything I had expected, more free. So, I’m leaving behind my welcome-back discount at Sbarro, but I’m looking ahead to a better life for myself and all this planet’s other beings.

~Erin, Cambridge, MA

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I was raised in a meat-eating household, and vegetarians were viewed as an exotic myth to scare children away from their steaks. I did not come across the word “vegan” until I was an adult. While I do not remember the exact moment, I am sure that I just decided at the age of 20 or so that eating flesh caused needless suffering to beings with central nervous systems capable of experiencing pain and fear.

I was an ovo-lacto vegetarian for years, and I would rationalize that eggs and dairy products did not cause the same suffering as meat consumption. That bit of self-deception eventually crumbled under the weight of evidence and I was left with the only ethically consistent course that a thinking person could follow; I became a vegan.

I am a physician with the Canadian military, so you can imagine that I have plenty of opportunities to defend my position against vigorous debate. Most people are just genuinely curious and want to hear my position, but a few are hostile and confrontational. No omnivore has yet offered a logical rebuttal to my position. (There have, however, been a surplus of illogical and often bizzare rebuttals — and yet I love them and live amongst them.)

Being a vegan in a non-vegan world is an odd experience. I am always a little frustrated when I see otherwise kind and intelligent people using, or extolling the virtues of, animal products. By any other measure my friends and colleagues are good people who do not see themselves as a cause of suffering. There is a kind of willing ignorance or self-delusion about it that baffles me even though I was guilty of the same thing for a large part of my life.

Animal products are so ubiquitous that I often have the feeling that I am not a part of the society in which I live. It is like those horror movies where the main character knows the monster is real but no one is willing to listen (think “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”…). My wife is reading this over my shoulder and has told me to lighten up — she reminds me that we just had an awesome vegan meal (courtesy of her) and that if I pull myself out of this morose reflection I may get some cupcakes as a reward. So there you have it; the many faces of veganism! 🙂

~Pete in Petawawa Ontario, Canada

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