Ahimsa and me:  A real life story

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.
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Deep Roots


You have deep roots”, she told me.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  Perhaps there was hope for our fledgling social enterprise after all.  She had asked me how working with homeless people and asylum seekers made me feel and why, and I while I was honestly stumped, I found myself revelling in the feeling too.  Here I was, communicating with someone who wasn’t content with my superficial answers about empowering people…words that I had batted back all too easily…words that I had subconsciously thought would please my questioner.  No this questioner was different.  She wanted more.  “But WHY does that make you feel good?”, she gently insisted.

And so I paused….for more than a moment, because the deeper answer took its time to bubble up.  It meant I had to sit in the discomfort of silence while neither of us said anything.  And though it seemed on the outside that nothing was happening, within my mind was whirring away…”why do I like working with people who are facing incredibly difficult situations?…because they are so often despised, scorned, ignored, left to fend for themselves, blamed for their own circumstances when I personally feel that our ‘system’ is what is really responsible?  Yes, certainly”, but I could sense it ran deeper than that.  I felt like an outsider as a child, as a teenager and often still now.  Of course I am in the world, but I also feel  separate from it; as if I don’t quite fit, as if I’m only observing.  For me this feeling of being an outsider has often brought tremendous pain, so of course I feel the tug at my heart by those cast as outsiders too.

Ten years ago I found yoga, or as yogis like to say, yoga found me.  The practice unexpectedly changed my life, subtly shifting the direction in which I’d been going.  It wasn’t exactly a magic overnight cure, but bit by bit, I would notice little changes: my anxiety was less pronounced and made itself known less often, my relationships seemed closer and more real , my affection for non-human life seemed greater and most notably the depression that had burdened me since my teenage years just faded away.  And then there were the instances of profound joy, the reemergence of play in my life and the moments of being shaken to my knees gratitude.  That all felt wonderful!

I don’t mean to make out that this was a nice gentle process, that if mapped out would look like a gentle upward gradient.  No, that would not reflect the richness of the process, the enormity of some of the struggles, the childhood hurt and existential angst that had to be worked through.  This transition on a graph would have looked more like the scribblings of a toddler….but even amidst the deepest pain there was always a part of me that was so glad that I had found yoga.  How could I not want to pass on to others what it had brought to me?  

And once I told her this she smiled and told me we had deep roots.  ”I see how deep they are when people start to mention their childhoods”, she said.  It was my turn to feel a moment of deep appreciation for my questioner.  She took me to a place, I hadn’t up to that point, noticed.  She is right, this mission of ours does run deep.  The message came when I had been losing faith about whether we can make this social enterprise work.  I’ve spent a lot of my life wondering why certain things have happened, why my life went in this or that direction.  It doesn’t often make sense at the time.  Yet, I have also noticed that if I wait long enough, hindsight does seem to bring clarity, somehow revealing order amidst the chaos.  It turns out there were never really any wrong turns along the way.  It all lead to this point.

And this point is where we are.  I’m not going to pretend that the doubt isn’t still there.  I’m wrestling with it daily.  Michael is too.  Our own little fight between the light and dark.  But I can’t say that life isn’t interesting because of it.