Last week Michael wrote about ahimsa and it got me reflecting on my own messy, awkward attempts at trying to incorporate ahimsa (non-violence/non-harm) into my own life. As I sit down to write this, I realise that I can’t avoid talking about my relationship with vegetarianism; more specifically my departure from a vegetarian lifestyle. This feels very uncomfortable, because I know it will be a great disappointment to some people I hold very dear.
To set the context – Up till summer 2015, I had been vegetarian for around about ten years. There were a few years at the beginning where I called myself vegetarian, but would occasionally eat a bit of meat. Not good quality meat and not with much/any thought of where it had been sourced from. I’m afraid to say that I’m talking Sunday morning low-quality pork sausages from a greasy spoon in East Belfast.
Going to my yoga teacher training (October 2006) changed all that. I resolved to be strictly vegetarian and I was – for a very short while! I don’t remember when I went back to eating fish, but I don’t think it could have been very long. Actually, only a cursory probe into my memory banks reveals at least one memory of eating a fish taco in Mexico, less than a month after my YTTC.
I started to admit to myself that I was really pescetarian. About 11 months after that first fish taco, I ate fish and chips at a renowned joint in St Ives. An hour or so later, I had agonising abdominal cramps. That was the sign from the universe that I needed – (I was big into that at the time!) – and so I gave up fish as well as meat.
This continued on for years and years. When I met my husband Michael (at the ashram where I had originally taken my YTTC) I had assumed he was vegetarian too. We were committed yogis after all and since all the food at the ashram was vegetarian, the issue just never came up. So I was genuinely horrified and angry to discover that he was a devoted omnivore with zero intention of giving up meat – again! It’s up to him to tell his story, but he had been vegetarian and even raw vegan in the past, and he wasn’t anymore.
Still, I kept thinking I could change and pressure him; through guilt or shame maybe. This was a period of profound power struggle for us..we fought..a lot..both of us are pretty wilful and at the time we had no idea how to communicate effectively. Over time I slowly fell into a sort of resigned (un)acceptance of the situation. I believed for a fact that vegetarianism = ahimsa and that the world would eventually see this fact and move in that direction. There was no other way.
Fast forward a few years. Michael and I were living in Germany. I was getting burnt out by a stressful job and dealing with immigration paperwork for Michael’s return to the UK with me. I started to get sick – a lot! I caught every virus going, I barely slept, I was tired but wired. My mind wasn’t grounded. In the midst of a 40 degree flu-induced fever, I suddenly and intensely craved chicken soup. Michael dutifully prepared us a chicken and vegetable soup. I found myself throwing out all the veggies (and I am a true lover of vegetables!) and only eating the chicken and drinking the broth. My fever broke within minutes/maybe an hour or so. It’s hard to remember exactly as I was slightly delirious at the time.
In the following months, I started to crave meat, which seemed odd because I had never liked the taste of meat very much back when I used to eat it. I didn’t tell anyone, because I was ashamed. I didn’t even tell anyone about the one-off chicken incident, because I was disappointed about my weakness. Students and acquaintances I barely knew had been pointing out over the last year how pale and ill I looked – all the time! I felt dreadful, looked dreadful. After we got back to the UK, I had blood work which showed I was low in iron and B12. After hearing about my insomnia and fragile mental state, a friend (a yogi, no less!) advised me to eat meat ‘for grounding’. I started to secretly entertain the idea.
I’m briefly going to back up to talk about the fact that I was what you’d call a ‘healthy’ vegetarian, or so I thought. I had green smoothies, with added maca, spirulina, flaxseed and almond milk for breakfast, salads and veggie/bean soups for lunch and quinoa or millet with vegetables for dinner. I eschewed processed foods and sugar almost in their entirety. I drank herbal teas. And I had terrible digestive problems all the time. To be fair, I don’t remember exactly when those problems started. It could have been before I turned veggie, but being veggie certainly wasn’t the cure.
The final straw came at yoga camp that I attended in the summer of 2015. All the food was vegan – lunch and dinner each day consisted of some sort of beans with veggies. By about day 5, I was in absolute digestive agony. Those that are used to abdominal cramping will know what I mean..the sort where you have to bite into your pillow to suppress the screams. I was bloated, had diarrhoea and had to make frequent trips to the drop compost toilets throughout the day and night. In short, it wasn’t pleasant.
And that did it. My housemate (and a great cook!) knew what I’d been going through and prepared a lamb bake for me on the day that I arrived home. The next day my guts were almost ok again.
My journey back to being an omnivore hurt. I had labelled myself ‘vegetarian’ and even ‘vegan’ for some of that time. It became a foundational part of my identity, who I felt I was, and how other people knew me. I loved the camaraderie of meeting and being with other veggies. I did feel a bit morally superior at times – though other than my husband I had never tried to pressure anyone else to convert. I felt they would see the light themselves, at least on a long enough timeline.
But there was a fundamental disconnect. In yoga we talked about listening and honouring your body, but I wasn’t. We talk about witnessing and knowing the Self, but I wasn’t. I read a lot of things which said that vegetarianism was more healthy than other ways of eating, but I didn’t ever look for any science to back that up. I never contemplated very deeply into my own nutritional requirements. I never read anything from anyone who didn’t already agree with me and so there was no perspective. I had fallen into the classical logical fallacy of confirmation bias.
Still, my thoughts about industrial meat farming haven’t changed, even today. I still think the practise is unnecessary, cruel and ecologically damaging. A few years back, I had spent time volunteering at an organic farm that happened to be located next door to an industrial pig farm. I never saw it from the inside, but I saw how small the barn was and what I heard back then still disturbs me whenever I think about it. There was a sort of high-pitched wailing that the pigs made, day and night. I felt like that must be the sound of pure suffering. It was such a contrast to the good-natured snorty gruntles made by the two pigs that roamed freely around the organic farm. And the smell..if the wind was blowing in the wrong direction…well, it made you wretch..not physically vomiting was a sheer act of will…and even when the smell passed an odorous residue seemed to linger in your lungs.
I’ve reconciled myself to knowing that the human race survived by hunting and eating meat, and that none of us would be here if it hadn’t. We can get game meat now, but only part of the year. I haven’t quite embraced game meat yet, but I think that’s probably the most sustainable and ethical way to eat meat. I’ve tried insects once or twice, and would be willing to go down that route a little more. Michael and I now get most of our meat from Ford Hall Farm in Shropshire. It’s less than ideal, because it has to be driven here by courier and to reduce transport, we buy in bulk and have to consume electricity to keep it frozen. However, the farm itself, which was part of a BBC documentary called Farm for the Future, does seem to be a model for how I wish farming would be. They have moulded their pasture land so that cows and sheep can live outside all year. They eat their natural diet – wild grasses. Pigs have shelter, but it’s open so that they can roam in and out as they please. They are a community owned farm and they are using permaculture principles.
But sometimes we buy meat from Morrisons, our nearest supermarket. It’s organic or has the RSPCA Assured sticker on it. But our research hasn’t really helped us to find out how truly ethical that is. For fish, we try to prioritise small, local fish that are still plentiful, like sardines and mackerel. But we do sometimes eat salmon and very occasionally I buy Fish For Ever’s tinned tuna from our local wholefood coop. None of this is my ideal. But a lot of the way the world is not my ideal. I imagine that that disappointment and frustration at the lack of and the longing for the world of our imaginings is a feature of a many a human mind.
This is the point where I might be expected to justify how I believe that eating the flesh of any other living creature can be reconciled with ahimsa, especially as a yogi. My experiences over the last few years have led me to believe that animal protein is necessary for the community of life forms that make up my body. That to deny their needs is to prioritise my sense of identity instead. I know that whatever I say, some will agree and others will rip my words to shreds. I just know that I feel a lot better now, both physically and mentally.
I agree with Michael. Ahimsa in this world is a hard ask. At times it is more present in my mind at other times less so. I learn new things. Sometimes they change my behaviour, sometimes they don’t. In the end, I’m just human. I no longer think that if I strive hard enough, I can be perfect, ethical and free of causing any suffering, intentional, accidental or distant. I can remember the exact moment I realised that. I was swimming in a river deep in the Brazilian subtropical rainforest, whilst communing with The Rainbow Tribe. I had been listening to the part of me which said that nothing less than total purity or perfection would be enough. Yet in that moment, it was suddenly clear that I had been running from everything, trying to escape the world and physicality completely. I cried a lot…but it was cathartic and I was freed a little. To live in the world and fully live life I had to go back and embrace the whole messy and awkward business of walking through the world, but learning to tread lightly. And, so here I am today.