Practicing engaged veganism

Susie Coston, animal caretaker at Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, with Michael the cow

Susie Coston, animal caretaker at Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, with Michael the cow

This article was originally published in my column The Vegan Examiner of New Orleans

Mahatma  Gandhi (1869-1948)

Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)

One of the most oft used quotes from Mahatma Gandhi is "You must be the change you want to see in the world." It is a simple prescription, small enough to fit on bumper stickers and refrigerator magnets. Usually it is presented next to a little icon of Gandhi's bespectacled head. Funny how Capitalism has a way of repackaging the truth until it becomes invisible. It is up to us to rescue these words and to remind ourselves or their deep practicality.

Everyone has run into the angry vegan. The one who ruins people's dinner by describing factory farms and  slaughterhouses as the hapless omnivores around her gnaw on the once-tortured flesh. The one who is always angry, always complaining. It has unfortunately become one of the stereotypes of veganism, along with the unhealthy pasty white vegan stereotype. These stereotypes help boost the collective omnivore ego, reinforcing a dismissal of the vegan lifestyle. Why would someone want to become a vegan if this is what vegan is?

It is easy to become the angry vegan when we first learn about the horrors that animals face on their way to becoming our food. We must resist this temptation. Veganism is certainly a boycotting of the abominations of industrial farming, and at a subtler level a rejection of the concept of considering animals as property. We need to be well educated about and able to debate these concepts. Still, being surly and confrontational to those around you is not a good way to change hearts.

Veganism is a celebration. It is a healthier diet than one based on animal protein. Plants are a direct connection to the earth, full of life, color, nutrition and energy. Most of the medicines in the world come from plants. Supermarkets put their produce sections at the entrance of their stores, so we walk into a world of colorful diversity and life. The more unprocessed foods and uncooked plants we eat, the healthier we become. If our minds weren't cluttered with marketing and cultural myths it would be obvious to us.

We should strive to embody the beauty of veganism in our lives. Just as plants grow towards light, the people we interact with in our daily routines are drawn towards the qualities in us that shine the most. To be the best activists we must learn about nutrition and eat in healthy ways, so that we are radiant. We must also learn to prepare food that is delicious, and to share it with others. Doing these two things will get more people around you thinking about veganism than almost anything else you can do. After all, it is about food, and people are very emotional about food. Criticizing someone's meal will cause them to close their mind to anything you have to say. Seeing how happy you are because of your food will have the opposite effect.

Veganism is also a lifestyle. It is about the clothes we wear, the things we buy, the way we spend our money. We need to be aware of issues outside of our own sphere, and where the inconsistencies in our lives are. If we are avoiding leather but supporting sweatshops and polluters we are just trading one exploitation for another. There are defensive omnivores all around us looking for these ethical flaws in our philosophy. Veganism is at its essence the goal to do as little harm as possible. We need to be sensitive to other causes, to human rights issues, to environmental issues. To be taken seriously we need to be compassionate towards all beings, humans included.

Another pillar of veganism is community. Finding the other vegans around you and building connections is very powerful. As individuals it is easy to forget the reasons we became vegan. It is easy to feel that there is nothing for us to eat and no one that shares our worldview. But this is not the truth. The truth is that there are millions of us in the world, and many around us. In New Orleans there are hundreds of vegans and vegetarians. You might not know it from going to the restaurants here, but there is a thriving vegetarian meetup group and a Veggie Foodfest coming that will bring thousands of people to the area. Strong communities attract other people to the cause, and keep the existing vegans vegan. Do not underestimate the power of the group dynamic, and reinforce it where you can. Start your own potluck group if you don't like the ones out there!

Engaged Veganism (coined by me?) is an idea borrowed from Engaged Buddhism. It is a way of thinking about our lives and the impact we make. It is easy to become overwhelmed by all of the troubles in the world. It is easy to look at the 10 billion animals slaughtered for food in the US every year and become discouraged. It is easy to become depressed about the epidemics of obesity and diabetes, heart disease and cancers that we know could be reduced if those around us chose a more compassionate diet. Unfortunately depression, discouragement and despair tend to create more of the same. If we want to be the change we wish to see we need to dwell in other emotional realms.

It all starts with what we eat. Seek out those colorful nuts, seeds, grains, fruits and vegetables that are dense with nutrition and find delicious combinations that encourage you to eat more of them. Once you find the combinations share them with those around you. Go out into the sun and soak up some vitamin D and warmth. You will feel your energy levels rising; channel that into exercise and socializing. Nurture the connections that nourish your soul. Give back to your community by volunteeringBe the change. You will be amazed how much your own life will be enriched.