People often ask me why I am vegan. Unfortunately, this usually happens not in a context of rational discussion, but, for instance, at lunch time at the start of a work meeting when the person asking has to get the words out around a mouthful of pork or chicken or beef and they happen to notice that I'm not eating. In such circumstances, I have to assume that they don't really want to know, but are making polite conversation, so with reciprocal politeness I usually respond with something like, "For ethical reasons," offer to discuss the issue in more detail another time, and change the subject. This feels like a betrayal of values, though it is really duelling values: the wish not to embarrass others or make them uncomfortable v. the wish to express what I really think and feel, which might make them very uncomfortable indeed. But this is what I would like to say.
I'm a natural vegetarian. My mother tells me that in order to get me to eat it, she had to hide the meat baby food under the vegetable baby food. The smell of cooking meat always did (and still does) nauseate me to the point of gagging. I had the same reaction quite recently when I tried Bryanna Clark Grogan's "Beefy" Seitan from her Authentic Chinese Cuisine, made from ingredients I had around the house, but the result was just so real. This has nothing to do with compassion or moral values: I find the idea, and the fact, of eating the bodies of other animals repellent. If the world were peopled with clones of me, eating meat would never have occurred to us even as a possibility.
Little kids don't have the mental capacity to make ethical choices. Their orientation is to absorbing values rather than expressing them. I remember being eight or nine and believing that there was something not quite right with me, that I wasn't thinking about meat in the proper way, that one day my outlook would realign and I would be able to eat the bony pieces of Kentucky Fried Chicken with their tendons and veins and lumps of fatty skin, instead of delicately picking out shreds of breast meat. I tried, but what happened instead was that at the age of 13 I became aware that I could make choices for myself instead of mindlessly accepting the cultural status quo. This was a revelation! My life changed in all sorts of ways, one of which was that I announced, four days before Christmas, that I would no longer eat meat. "What, and miss out on Christmas turkey?" my family teased. Little did they know! They were accepting about my decision at a time—this would have been around 1977—when vegetarianism wasn't common in our culture, and no one had even heard the word vegan.
I was vegetarian for 22 years. During this time I consumed a lot of dairy. Milk, cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese, butter, everything. What I used to say to people, my analog of "But I just couldn't live without cheese!" or "The only good cow is a dead cow," was "If the animal doesn't have to be killed for a product, then it's okay." What a perfectly idiotic rationalization this is becomes obvious the instant you peep into the practices of the dairy industry. Which I didn't do. On purpose. Because I really, really liked cheese.
This post is entitled Involuntary Mindfulness, but it could also have been called Voluntary Mindlessness, because that kind of turning away from something you're reluctant to look at—because it may be ugly, because it may be inconvenient, because it may give you the sickening sad feeling of having been very, very wrong about something important for a long time—is a basic human trait. This is what "But I couldn't live without cheese!" really translates to.
Ten years ago I was poking around on the Internet and chanced on a site called meatsource.org. It was a really simple site, just five or six icons of different kinds of meat, and if you clicked on one a video would play. I clicked on one, the pig, and the video showed a pig being slaughtered in a slaughterhouse. That was it for me, the great conversion, the realignment, the precise axis of compassionate change. Other beings enjoy their lives as I do mine. They feel pain and fear. They love their children. They want to live. I knew all that before, of course, but I hadn't allowed myself to fully realize it. To do so you have to make that shift, you have to turn toward the suffering of others instead of looking away and pretending that it doesn't exist or doesn't matter.
I didn't watch any of the other videos, ever. I was drinking a latte at the time, but took it downstairs and poured the remainder down the sink, and threw or gave away all the dairy products in my house. I learned the word vegan and began studying what it meant.
In my experience, going vegetarian was effortless, a relief. Vegan was different. The world suddenly seemed full of horror. I missed cheese. I hated the taste of soymilk (at first; I love it now). I didn't know what to eat. I lost a lot of weight, not in a good way. There wasn't the avalanche of information on the vegan lifestyle available then that there is now. But I learned. Anybody can. I'm a much more inventive and daring cook now than I used to be as a vegetarian, and I'm having a lot of fun. I'll post another time about how I conquered my cravings for cheese, but suffice it to say here that I don't have them anymore.
You don't become perfectly enlightened all in an instant. At least I haven't, and there are many areas where I am still—intentionally or unintentionally—deaf and blind. But little by little, as I say almost involuntarily, the world begins to open up in all its wonderful aliveness. I made a commitment to cause as little harm to the animal world as I could, and then I became free to study it in all its manifestations with a whole, benevolent attention. It's been like that with my garden. Digging had always been a pleasurable activity for me, but I would feel sorry when I turned up worms and other creatures, plant and animal (because it seems obvious that although they may not have the sort of consciousness enjoyed by beings with brains and a central nervous system, plants also very strenuously struggle to live and to fulfil themselves). After a while, the uncomfortable feeling translated into the urge to learn about them, to observe them and read about them, and once I began doing that I lost the desire to dig and instead became fascinated with their beauty and the weird complexity of their lives.
And that's why I'm vegan.