My Vegan Journey

My Vegan Journey

I grew up in a family where not just animal products, but meat of some sort was a part of every lunch and dinner.  The only time I ever remember eating a dinner without it was when we would eat greek bread and dips, and I didn't like the taramosalata (fish egg thing), so would just eat tzatziki (yoghurt) and hommus. I didn't think of it as a vegetarian meal any more than I thought of my usual diet as not vegetarian, I just ate what was in front of me and what I enjoyed.

Family occasions all involved meat. Visiting my Scottish paternal grandparents usually involved a breakfast with eggs, bacon and black pudding, the latter a sausage made of congealed blood which I didn't like and ate only out of politeness.

No one in my family was vegetarian, I had never met a vegetarian, I'm not sure I had even heard the word vegetarian until someone told me a friend at high school was one, unhappily so and just because his parents were.  Even then it didn't really enter my consciousness, the idea of not eating meat, vegetarian was just a word.

The interesting thing about this is that I had grown up around other animals, some of my best friends growing up were our household "pets", we shared our life with guinea pigs, dogs, cats, even a poor goat whose entire life was spent alone tied to a short chain in the backyard.  I would often spend cold nights curled up asleep on only my pillow because our large dog Sascha and our cats Mister Mishka and Domino would share my bed with me and take up almost all the space, but I loved having them with me.  It was often my job to feed the animals, I would go up to be with Billy the goat, give him some food and try to play with him.   I never deeply thought about his welfare, however, whether his life was a happy one or even what happened to him until I was much older.  I wasn't immune to the suffering of animals, I remember my stepfather treating the dog cruelly, and once whilst out walking the dog, a small Labrador came running onto the road to bark at us and it disappeared beneath the chassis of an oncoming car.  I ran home crying before I could see any more.  Both of these affected me greatly, they remain with me still.

It doesn't surprise me that as a child I conformed to the culture in which I was formed, it seems like the only sensible thing for any animal to do in an evolutionary world.  Eat as those around you eat, behave as they behave.  As an adult though little changed.  My favourite restaurant for a long time was a steak house, where they would bring you out a steak on a plate without so much as a sprig of parsley to accompany it.  A waitress would bring out a large tub of mustard and offer you a spoonful.  You could also order a salad separately, however, my friend Jamie and I were more likely to order another round of steaks.  I remember to my chef sister's admonishment whenever I was asked how I would like my steak done, I liked to say "cremated".  Looking back now, perhaps this was a subconscious attempt to distance myself from the reality of what I was eating, I didn't like to see the redness of the blood.

So how did I go from this to being a vegetarian in a short space of time?  Well, I would say that there were a few glimmers of my future self evident at this stage, the main one being that I refused to eat veal.  I have no idea who, but someone had mentioned to me that they were young calves and that they lived terrible, abnormal lives.  Like many people who pick and choose seemingly random bits of morality, I made this positive step without any logical consistency with other behaviours I engaged in.

The first time I started regularly eating vegetarian meals was when my friend Caine and I would go to a cheap Hare Krishna restaurant purely out of having very little money.  Then later another friend Toby introduced me to an "all you can eat" falafel place in a predominantly Jewish street in my home town of Melbourne, it was cheap and filling.  The lady who served there was always very nice and would cook me fresh falafel when I came in.  I enjoyed these and even felt I was being healthy not eating a meal with meat in it, which compared to what I usually ate perhaps was, however, fried falafel and oily, salty Indian food with white rice is hardly healthy.

The real change I think was two coincidental occurrences.  The first was that I started questioning everything in the world around me, and quite frankly this lead me astray into some avenues of thought I look back on with some embarrassment, but it also led me to read a lot of interesting things such as the history of the great religions.  Part of my thinking was that if I wished to understand people, I needed to understand the religions around which so many of their lives and meanings revolved.  I found that the religions of the east sounded most interesting, Buddhism, Taoism, Jainism and Hinduism.  They were more philosophical for a start and this was helped by a previous fascination with India and China.  I would like to say this was a scholarly fascination but it perhaps had more to do with having met attractive women from those cultures as a young man.

After reading the life of the Buddha I felt drawn to his teachings, I expanded into other texts, such as the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, What the Buddha Taught and many others.  They talked about mastery over one's mind and emotions (of which I had none), about ridding ourselves of delusions (of which I had many), and about compassion.  Since I was a child I always felt the injustice of how people treated one another, I would be the only boy who played with the American Indian figures, or even the German ones at school because I felt when watching the movies that it wasn't right that they were always being killed in great numbers without any seeming moral questions.  At times growing up I am sorry to say I didn't always act from this part of myself, but as I read the teachings of the Buddhists, their treatises on compassion rekindled a flame inside me.  I knew at that point, I had a word for what I had always felt, that thing which human society lacked, that could make the world the place I had always hoped for, compassion.

Most religions have aspects of compassion towards animals in them, however, in Buddhism, it is central to many of the teachings.  May all beings be free of suffering I would often read, and this became something of a mantra to me.  Whenever anyone asked me to make a wish, even though I don't really believe in such things, I would say to myself "may all beings be free of suffering", I say it still.  I knew now that animals mattered, that I had been blinded to that now self-evident fact in my life even though I had always thought I loved them and that I had to change how my life affected them.  It also seemed logically consistent, I had already given up veal, why would I willfully participate in the suffering of any other creature if I could choose not to. 

Having this knowledge was one thing, putting it into practice was another.  The second part of the change was that life I had lived up until this point was an unhealthy one, drinking too much, smoking too much, never exercising, not drinking water, driving to work, staying up all night, eating cheap rubbish from take away stores.  This caught up with me, I started to have health issues.  I had difficulties with my breathing, and this seemed to be exacerbated when I was under stress or smoked.  I went to a doctor who told me it wasn't my lifestyle, and that nothing was physically wrong with me.  I pondered going to see a psychologist after this, but instead, I decided to change my life.

It was around this time that a friend Adrian gave me the book Food For Life.  I read it and it made a lot of sense to me, so I started eating fruit in the mornings, a habit I have kept to this day, and I am something of a fruit junky.  I started changing my diet slowly, eating more vegetarian foods, but it still wasn't particularly healthy.  I moved into a place of my own and this helped me start exercising, buy cruelty-free products and cook more, instead of meat I would buy vegetable burgers to have in buns or to eat next to my steamed vegetables instead of fish, but I was still doing things like going to Kentucky Fried Chicken and just ordering all their sugar-laden salads and some chips.   I stopped eating meat entirely at home, but I still would eat meat when out at restaurants and with friends, I wanted to make the final change but quite frankly I didn't know how and I wasn't sure if I was embarking on some experiment with my health.

There is a saying that when the student is ready, the master will come.  For me, this came in the form of my next girlfriend Irene.  My friend Christine asked me to help her fold some newsletters for a university magazine I wrote some regrettable articles for.  When she came to pick me up she brought a friend with her, this was Irene.  I hadn't had breakfast so I grabbed a bag of fruit from my fridge.  When we were half-way there Chris said she was hungry so we stopped at McDonald's.  I left the bag of fruit in the car and decided to eat with everyone else, though I noticed Irene wasn't eating anything.  I asked her why and she said "I am a vegetarian", to which I replied, "I'm trying to become one", and protested that I didn't eat at places like McDonald's much anymore, brandishing my bag of uneaten fruit as some sort of lame evidence.

Irene and I got along well, and before long we were seeing each other.  She was a wonderful cooking professional and was soon making me delicious meals I had never had before, introducing me to lentils, eggplant, tofu, vegetarian restaurants, this was it, I finally became a full vegetarian.  I gave away my leather jackets and any shoes I had which I thought were worthy of being recycled.  The last time I ate meat was at my mother's house, I went to visit her on Good Friday 1996, and as I hadn't been around in a while she announced to the room "I have made all of Cameron's favourite dishes".  I said nothing, ate the meal, and then afterwards when I had a moment with her, told her that I had become a vegetarian and that this was the last time I would ever eat meat.

Perhaps the strangest experience of my whole vegan journey was the first time I saw a cow after I stopped eating them.  It was such a mind-expanding experience, here instead of an abstract thing I had always looked at without any emotions attached, like a tool or an inanimate object, was a sentient creature looking into my eyes with its own.  I could perceive a questioning mind like my own looking back at me, it was like in one moment I viscerally felt what I should have always known, that I am kindred to all, that we are sentient beings on a similar journey called life together, that we seek a similar happiness and freedom.  I saw the world in a new way at a level deeper than my conscious mind, there could never be any going back.

Irene and I moved from Melbourne in the south-east of Australia, to Brisbane in the central-eastern subtropical region.  It was here in the late nineties that we got involved in the group Animal Liberation.  We were involved for a couple of years and we started seeing some of the other aspects of factory farming we hadn't seen before.  Irene then found the Vegan Society film "Truth or Dairy" randomly in the video store of the somewhat redneck-y outer suburb in which we lived.  We watched that and it made a big impression on us, here was the next level of compassion to which we could aspire.  We first changed to drinking soy milk, which was remarkably easy to do in hindsight.  Irene made a quicker transition to veganism than me, I did it so slowly I'm not even sure when I went vegan, I just found one day that the only non-vegan thing I was eating was honey, so I declared at that point that I would be fully vegan.  If I remember rightly it was around the turn of the Millenium, so I like to use that date and pretend it is symbolic of a new age for humankind that I am part of.  The age of Aquarius will hopefully the age of herbivorous.

That was a long time ago now, and I think it is the best change I have ever made in my life, I'm certainly very proud that I made the decision.  Everything I have learnt since becoming Vegan seems to affirm my choice.  I've discovered a whole new world of food I didn't know existed, I've met wonderful vegans from every walk of life, had three beautiful, intelligent vegan partners, I've eaten at amazing restaurants all around the world, I've owned a vegan restaurant for a short while, helped other people become Vegan, I started the London Vegan meetup which is the largest in the world, I was even in a follow-up Vegan Society film to Truth and Dairy, such a coincidence given the role the previous film made in my life.

So that is my vegan story.  Hopefully, the rest of the story is helping society transition to a new awareness and way of living, still with my wish that all beings may be free of suffering.  When I became vegan I saw an estimate that there were 500 vegans in Australia, few people knew what the word even meant, today I'd be surprised if there weren't 100 times that number and veganism is starting to be everywhere, the world is changing.

It seems the dream of a more compassionate world I had as a child is coming true, slowly but perhaps that's the only way lasting change happens.

Ahimsa.