A genuine choice never feels like a sacrifice. If you act from your heart, instead of feeling constrained, following your values is liberating. When your actions match your morals, the strength you gain inside is, I believe, the most powerful force in the world.
That is why, a few months ago, after years of learning, debating, and struggling, I decided to follow my heart and do what I felt was right. I became a Vegetarian.
My choice was natural, spiritual. A few years ago, I did a 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat, during which we pledged to not harm any living beings. Thus, we were pure vegetarians, eating delicious cuisines twice a day while meditating in a beautiful location. It was remarkably easy, consuming healthy, nutritious salads, Vietnamese vegetable curries, vegan tacos, the bounty of nature nourishing me thoroughly, putting me closer to mother earth than ever before.
Inspired, I stayed vegetarian for a month, and, for the next two years, was a “90%” vegetarian, only eating meat whenever I ate out, attended potlucks or dinners with friends, or traveled abroad. My own desires, though, began to align with my diet. All I needed was the power to trust my own ability to succeed.
Vipassana teaches that all sensations – cravings, feelings, emotions – arise, and fade away, and this is the only constant in life, change and impermanence. Through deep observation, we can see this inside ourselves, through our own fine-tuned senses. The path of Buddha is to understand this, and live your life without attachment to things that will, inevitably, disappear.
Cravings are powerful, especially to travelers. My first time living abroad, when I studied in France a decade ago, I badly missed Mexican food and Indian food. Later, when traveling around the world, the lack of dairy in Asian cuisine used to have me running to grocery stores to buy small cartons of milk and yogurt. Random smells, images, would erupt into massive cravings that would often overtake my body. Holidays, such as Thanksgiving, or bouts of homesickness, would only make things worse. We accept this is a part of travel, a sacrifice that we make to experience the world.
The longer we travel, the more we think of our cravings, the worse they become.
Yet, cravings are only feelings, within ourselves. So, this past year, I tried something different. When I feel a craving, ignore it. When a meal was in front of me, focus all my senses on it; the unique flavors, texture, color, and not let my mind wander to other foods. Be where I am through what I eat.
I started in Taiwan, where I took breakfast wherever my hosts ate, choosing health rather than recreating home. Thick steamed bread with lightly fried eggs, doughy, Taiwanese pancakes with sweet soy sauce and chives, steamed dumplings with vegetables. Savoring each bite, letting it nourish me. Listening to my body, training my mind. For a month in Taiwan, I ate only local.
In Singapore, my next stop, instead of what I used to do, spend hours searching for the perfect meal, I just sought the first, healthy, local place and ate there. Most hacker food courts, I found, had at least one vegetarian stand. In Thailand I frequented street stalls and night markets instead of Western food courts, enjoying the flavors of lime and chili Tom Yam, friend rice with mushrooms, and mango sticky rice. The cravings came, but they also faded as I focused on the true essence of food.
I wasn’t perfect. A case of food poisoning had me fleeing to a chain pizza place in Bangkok. But in four months, I found that by eating what I could, instead of thinking of what I wanted, I enjoyed where I was more.
I was finally ready.
“We feed almost half the world’s grain to livestock, returning only a fraction in meat … while millions starve.” Frances Moore Lappe
Too often, we define ourselves by what we consume, whether it be food, clothing, or even music and movies. I don’t want consumption to define me, and its the same with being a vegetarian. I want to be defined by my actions.
Thus, it wasn’t really a decision, more of a transition, bringing my diet closer to my pro-environment, spiritual heart. Upon returning, knowing my mom’s South Indian kitchen would easily be able to accommodate my vegetarian desires, I told her to not cook me any meat. That was it.
There will be challenges. Being vegetarian in Taiwan or Indonesia would be much more difficult, so I will allow for occasional cultural exceptions. But I know that I will never go back. I am healthier, my mind clearer these past four months, and it hasn’t been a struggle at all.
But I also refuse to judge those who aren’t ready. I ate meat, in some form or another, for 29 years. To look down on other meat-eaters would be hypocritical. One reason so many are turned off by vegetarianism is the haughty elitism exhibited by too many of us, who look down on meat-eaters as lesser beings, and too often, close ourselves off to meaningful debate and learning. That is defining ourselves by what we consume.
For me, my diet isn’t a lifestyle choice, or a political statement. It is an expression of my experiences, my beliefs, and my spirituality. I am putting my moral values into action, towards my ultimate goal of inner peace. This is who I am. My choices don’t reflect on you, but I’m happy to share my reasoning and will gladly help anyone else interested in following a sustainable, noble path.
But only if you are genuinely ready.