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It’s often said that people can't appreciate something or someone until it is gone. Probably one of the most taken for granted treasures is health. Most of us are born with it and are unaware of any other way of being until we discover that sickness is truly a state of suffering. I was born with the wonderful gift of beaming health, but almost died in childhood of pneumonia which kept returning over and over again. All through childhood I have struggled with colds and flu. At twenty nine I had a surgery to remove a benign growth off my small intestine. Five days in the hospital and twenty pounds lighter, I came home with a new outlook on hospitals and sickness and an attitude of gratitude for still being alive. My time at the hospital when I was a child is forgotten, but the few days I spent there about four years ago are fresh in my memory. I remember waking up from surgery to blindingly bright light and nausea so overwhelming that I thought that I surely would vomit all over the nurse that was checking on me in the ICU. I probably would have, but I lost consciousness again and don't remember anything until I was woken up by two other nurses and asked to move myself from the stretcher to the hospital bed. I vividly remember the pain that seemed to infiltrate every single cell of my body with agony. I remember the state of hopelessness that filled hospital air and its smell of sickness and death. Coming back home was a celebration and a breath of fresh air. I truly believe that there is only so much progress that can be accomplished at the hospital before it starts getting to you and depressing you back to illness.

When again faced with illness in the beginning of this year I spent one night tormented by half woken nightmares and anguish. I saw a thousand different ways that I could possibly die, and even though I can smile about it now and say that it was silly because there can only be one way to die and therefore I would never have to suffer through the remaining nine hundred ninety nine, it was a very gloomy dark night. I couldn't imagine not only living through another surgery and hospital stay, but being drugged, cut and experimented on. And this is coming from me, a person who had a natural childbirth and considered it to be one of the most beautiful inspiring experiences of my life. There is nothing natural or magical about being sick and operated on. There is no fervently anticipated reward for suffering through pain. There is, however, a sense of deep disappointment and regret that usually accompanies a serious illness. So, once I found out that I can do some surprisingly simple things to prevent a great deal of possible future suffering, I made major shifts in my diet and lifestyle practically overnight. I am one of those people who don't need to be warned twice and therefore I am not going to wait until another health crisis to make the move. People are surprised. They keep asking me what I use for protein, whether I missed meat and comment on how extreme of a sacrifice it seems to be to live this way.

"What sacrifice?" I laugh to myself. A sacrifice is when you give up something dear to you without getting anything in return. I, on the other hand, haven't given up much beyond some acquired tastes and habits and gained a whole lot of benefits. The situation is a win-win if you ask me. I gave up pleasing my taste buds with harmful foods and in return found other pleasant tastes, clarity of mind, spikes in creativity, inner peace, more energy and stamina, and stronger health. Did I miss meat? - No!! Where do I get my protein? - Everywhere!! It's in nuts, seeds, legumes and grains. It's even in fruits and vegetables. Is it complete protein that contains all the essential amino acids? - It doesn't have to be because protein has to be broken down into smaller units which are then either used or stored in the amino acid "storage bank". This storage bank is there to be drawn from when proteins that are needed by the body are reassembled to their usable form. Moreover, as pointed out by Doris Lin in her article on animal rights, sacrifice, by definition, is surrender or destruction of something prized or desirable for the sake of something considered as having a higher or more pressing claim. She writes, "The implication is that the prized or desirable thing being surrendered belongs to the person making the sacrifice. It can't be a sacrifice to surrender someone else's prized or desirable possession." She makes an excellent point!  She says that veganism is not about giving up, it is about not taking.  

October is a breast cancer month.  There are a number of walks sponsored by big corporations to draw our attention to the problem and to raise more money for finding a cure.  As great as it is that money is raised and women are reminded to self examine their chest for early detection, it really is not enough.  Early detection is not prevention, by any means.  And although it greatly increases the chances of survival, the person still has to go through an incredible amount of suffering.  There must be a better way!  And there is - multiple studies have been done on relationship between diet and health, and diet and cancer specifically.  It has been shown that a person has a huge say in the matter, even though we are led to believe otherwise.  Genetics play a small role in causing cancer.  It is said that in reality only about 5 percent of cases are related to inherited genes, all other cases are connected to environment and behavioral patterns. 

As a society, we are conditioned to think that we need meat and dairy to be healthy.  We are bombarded by endless commercials of fast food, junk food, frozen dinners, milk for calcium ads, cleaning products, makeup and such.  The companies pay a lot of money to make sure people buy their products, and it works – most of the people spend their money on the things that look desirable on TV.  But, if you think about it for a second, it is easy to realize that people are not the ones benefiting from consumption of those products.  Most cleaning products contain highly toxic substances and we seem to be proud of that.  In our obsession to get rid of germs and dirt and attempts to make life easier for ourselves we are willing to overlook that the substances are harming us as well.  We inhale the toxins as we breathe.  They enter our bodies though our skin.  I was surprised that even something as innocent as makeup often contains cancer causing chemicals and substances that damage our nervous and reproductive systems.  I think that once we realize that primary reason of advertisements is to make profit for the manufacturer, it will be easier for us to take them with a grain of salt and question whether something will or will not benefit us. 

As a first step, I started with eating consciously, meaning that I was aware of what I was putting in my body as food.  I looked at each item carefully, read the labels and determined if my body will benefit or be harmed by my choice.  It is not about calorie counting and it is not about fat content or sugar content or how much the food was artificially enriched with vitamins.  The easy way to determine if something is good for you is seek foods that haven’t been processed at all, like fresh raw fruits and vegetable and to eliminate foods that contain over processed ingredients such as white flour, sugar (choose an occasional dried cane juice, honey or dates instead), salt (choose sea salt or just go with extra lemon juice which is an excellent addition to a salad), white rice, fructose corn syrup, oil that has been heated (heating oil molecules breaks their structure converting them to something that is not only indigestible by our bodies but also to something that can harm us), frozen dinners and foods that have been microwaved (the process of heating foods in the microwave also breaks the molecular structure of the food making it toxic, even carcinogenic).

The harmful food list can go on and on.  In fact, it seems that most of the supermarket foods should be on the taboo list, that’s how low we have scooped where it comes to nutrition in this day and age.  Food doesn’t mean nutrition to the most of us - it means taste and convenience instead.  But can you nourish your body in any way solely on taste and convenience?  Of course not - and that is why there are so many overweight and malnourished individuals in the US today.  There are no advertisements that tell the public that animal products such as red meat, poultry, eggs and dairy greatly increase our chances of suffering from heart disease, cancer and diabetes (among other things).  There is no fast paced monologue that follows a burger commercial listing potential side effects as in case of an advertisement of a new drug that is being introduced to the market.  There is no requirement for it, no profit to be made from such a disclosure and a great deal of money spent by the meat and dairy industry to deny the facts found in research. 

So, since we cannot expect the entities that benefit from selling those items to acknowledge the role they play in harming our health and to spend some money informing the public of remarkable findings of various research studies, we need to rely on our own judgment and on sources that are trustworthy and don’t have vested interest in what we consume to provide us with this information.  One of such examples is John Robbins, the person who was supposed to inherit Baskin Robbins and who walked away from the family business and its fortune to be true to himself.  Early on he recognized the connection between diet and health and has worked hard to educate people about proper nutrition.  It is easy to see that companies that make millions and sometimes billions of dollars from sales have a conflict of interest and that people who willingly walk away from fortunes have a sincere goal to improve the lives of ordinary people. 

Bottom line is that people need to know and I am willing to be scoffed at and hated by the companies that might lose potential profit.  If that’s what it takes, so be it!  From more places we hear about products that are harmful to us - the better.  The more people stand up who are aware of the benefits that a healthful diet can provide - the better.  Sometimes a piece of information has to be presented to us from countless sources to convince us that there is something to it and worth looking into, even if it means that one has to go against what is widely accepted by our society.  I think that we can all greatly benefit from an awareness walk, a walk that will truly contribute to preventing and possibly healing cancer.  What is more beneficial - a walk for early detection of one cancer or a walk that significantly reduces our chances of getting a whole spectrum of cancers as well as other sicknesses that cause countless deaths which could have been prevented if people had the knowledge and weren’t so afraid to step out of the norm? 

It is impossible to not feel more peaceful after a sincere yoga practice, after all its very principles are built on integrating all the aspects of life and its focus is on bringing our true, wise, more compassionate sense of selves out and into the world.  Sadly, there are a lot of places now that forget the yogic roots and associate the practice solely with physical appearance.  My yoga body is a great benefit, but it is only a tip of the iceberg, so I believe that people whose sole desire is to acquire a yoga body of their own are missing out on the rest of the benefits that it provides.  Of course, some of the deeper benefits of yoga will still be felt even if they are not what the person strives for.  Many report a sense of calm after a workout because yoga is a natural stress relief tool.  

When I started to practice yoga eleven years ago, I wanted to condition my body and to improve my balance and flexibility.  Stress relief was not something that I have expected, but I noticed that even on the most stressful of days I felt anxiety relief practically few minutes into a workout.  It worked faster than running!  With time I came to expect that serenity from yoga without knowing much about its roots.  I have continuously done yoga, mixing it with the other workout routines, instinctively seeking it on days when I needed to find my inner center.   In the beginning of this year I wasn’t feeling that well. Going for a run was the last thing on my mind, some days I struggled to get off the couch after a minor activity around the house.  I felt drowsy from the lack of energy and gentle beginner yoga seemed all I could manage at a time.  

After February and my switch to raw food vegetarian and then vegan lifestyle, I regained all my energy and then some.  However, most of the days, I choose yoga over all other possible forms of exercise.  I don’t need to work hard to burn fat anymore as my body naturally maintains its ultimate weight.  I work out more days a week than I previously had because I have more energy to do so, but yoga doesn’t feel like a tedious task.  It has become a part of my daily routine and an integral part of my life.  A reach for a yoga mat first thing in the morning is like taking a deep breath and doing sun salutations is my saying hello to the world.  I have awoken from sleep.  I am here with the start of a new day.  I am devoted to creating peace on my yoga mat and taking it everywhere I go. 

For me, starting the day with yogic sun salutations is like turning the inner light on and aligning all the aspects of my life with each other.  While my body is working physically, stretching, holding poses, finding balance, the mind unwraps itself of the unnecessary thoughts that often obstruct clarity.  The spirit seems to grow stronger as the warm joyful energy smoothly flows through the body, penetrating every cell and nourishing it with its healing power.  I feel peace and love toward the universe.  I am at home within my body.  The flow of action and relaxation is life itself and long after I am done with my morning yoga I will be synched with that rhythm, breathing deeply, calmly, inherent integrity preserved and maintained by the strong sense of self throughout the daily activities.

Yoga is my favorite form of exercise for a variety of reasons.  It conditions the body and increases its strength and flexibility.  It works from the inside out, activating every possible muscle there is.  Simultaneously with toning, it promotes detoxification.  Cleansing the body of toxins is as important as strength, even more so because the body will always have some harmful elements that will need to be eliminated.  These toxins are either a product of metabolism or have entered our bodies with food, air or through the skin.  If not expelled, they will cause havoc in the body (as well as mind and spirit). 

Balancing poses help me find my center, literally and figuratively speaking.  Even on one foot with limbs spread like a bird, leaning forward until the balance is achieved I feel firmly planted on the ground.  And then, through the day that balance remains.  If something sways it, I just need to breathe deep and focus, as if entering a balancing pose.  Sometimes, if my immediate environment permits, I actually do a tree pose and reap deeper balancing benefits.  I am reminded that life is all about the balance and an integration of numerous aspects that cannot exist without each other.  No matter what happens to disturb it, I have the power to find my center again.

In the past, I used to focus on jogging and aerobics.  My primary goals were physical fitness and stress relief.  I still occasionally enjoy these physical activities, but now my focus is on efficiently covering all of my needs with one workout instead of doing one for the cardio and fat loss, one for toning and one for stretching.  Also, I don’t miss my trips to the chiropractor because of the knee aches that were caused by too much running.  Yoga is much gentler on the body.  I can do it every single day, whereas with aerobics and even more so with running, I had to take frequent breaks as the knee pain would return after three or more days of strenuous exercise. 

I read somewhere that walking on the ground barefoot has grounding and energizing effect.   No wonder I always preferred to walk barefoot as a child, and even as adult, I love the way the earth feels under my feet.  I especially enjoy walking barefoot on the grass - I get the tickling sensation that spreads from my feet upward into the rest of me, revitalizing me from my toes to the crown of my head.  In a sense, I feel like a blossoming tree with moveable roots planted deep in the ground.  I am grounded and sturdy, but not restricted in any sense.  That’s another reason why yoga appeals to me - I get to practice barefoot!  The vibrations of the earth and my feet are merged while I am on my yoga mat saluting the sun and the earth, flowing like water and opening my heart in the infinite space of the air to life and its endless potential for love.  

After the weekend at the summer house last July I came home feeling angry and frustrated.  My own family was seriously annoyed at me for speaking up about animal rights and for no longer being able to suppress my repulsion at the sight of meat at the dinner table.  I agree that I might have spoiled their appetite when I made the sounds of disgust while they bit in “juicy” pieces of fried pork.  I couldn’t help it, and I couldn’t help moving myself and my plate of bright crispy vegetables farther away from their plates filled with oiled chunks of animal carcass.  I got yelled at for behaving disrespectfully.  There was no point arguing that there was nothing respectful about killing animals for food, that would only lead to more yelling at the table and tears would surface in at least one of us by the end of the argument.  I tried to suppress my deep disappointment and anger, I thought that my mom and I were on the same page, but I was wrong!  Carefully observing the sounds that I made, I finished my salad as fast as I could and fled away from the dinner table to chant my frustrations out. 

After chanting I dug further into my books.  I needed to hear another voice that matched my own so that I wouldn’t feel so alone in the world.  I quietly hugged my son and diverted my attention to yet another book on Raw Food.  Coincidentally, I reached the chapter on animal rights.  I read colorful descriptions of things that go on in the slaughterhouses and tears blurred my vision.  I was no longer able to hold them back, they were freely flowing down my cheeks and dripping on the pages depicting the horrible scenes.  In a midst of a crying bout I questioned myself whether I really needed to hear these gruesome details, but then a sentence struck me in the heart – while it is painful to read about the suffering of animals, it is by no means comparable to the pain that animals are subjected to.  If the animals have no other choice but to endure the things that go on in the slaughterhouses, then we should not turn a blind eye on it and have the courage to face the truth.  Paul McCartney said - “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian.”  People need to be aware! (Choose to be aware by watching a video.) 

For the rest of the trip I resisted talking about animals or food or anything related to the subject.  But, on the two and a half hour ride home from the summer house we had another argument.  This time it was about helpful benefits of yoga and its potential to make people more peaceful.  My optimistic view was shot down immediately.  I got overruled by my mom and my brother, with my son and my ex step father sitting quietly and wishing that they weren’t in the car.  It took me by surprise that even something as seemingly unoffending as yoga practice that integrates body, mind and spirit could bring such a negative response from my family.  As a firm believer in its benefits because I experienced them for myself, I defended my view only to be accused of not being accepting of views of others!  I wanted to say that there was nothing wrong with believing that something like yoga could make people more peaceful and positive, bringing forth the compassion toward all living beings. 

I could hardly get two words out at a time - both my brother and my mom kept loudly interrupting me, “No, Nadia! No, you’re wrong!”  Talk about being disrespectful of other people’s views.  Our voices got loud and out of control, and once my brother told me that I haven’t changed one bit toward being more peaceful because of my yoga practice, I was no longer able to hold back the anger that I tried to control for the past two days.  I just hated the negativity, the disbelief and the way that my opinions got shot down by my own family.  I admit that I have yelled louder that I should have and that there came a point when I didn’t want to speak or to be spoken to by either one of them.  I was unable to talk to my family about anything that mattered to me and I felt like my heart had been squeezed to fit in a tight little box, never to be taken out in their presence.  I stared at the window as we drove in heavy silence for another hour, tears dripping down my cheeks again, thoughts of walking away from them once and for all filling my mind.

I called my boyfriend when I got home.  He listened and carefully tried to calm me down, explaining to me that I can’t push other people to believe what I believe in.  I understood all that, but the sense of urgency was overwhelming.  I felt stuck in the “culture of death” kind of world where people were more concerned with you making a silly noise at the dinner table than with the fact that millions of animals are dying every day.  I was in an awful mood and knew that talking about the issue wasn’t a good idea anymore, so I tried to get off the phone, letting my boyfriend know that that I needed some quiet time.  As he often does, he ignored my warning and continued to push the conversation further, this time bringing up his Italian culture and heritage and how he didn’t see his life without having pasta and meatballs.  Before I knew it I was weeping hysterically, I felt the pain of the animals as my own, saw each of their deaths as something that I needed to prevent, but being unable to talk to anyone about it I felt like I failed them.  I wept for a while and by the time I was out of tears my whole body ached and my head felt swollen.  I was doing it again, making myself physically ill because I was emotionally upset.  I got myself to chant for a little bit even though my throat was sore and my eyes were puffy and red.  Since every problem in life can be resolved, there must be a solution.  And my crying myself to sleep was not it!  I won’t be helpful to any animals ever if I don’t pull myself together and learn how to be patient with people, understanding that it takes time to change a perspective on something like this.

The next day at lunch I went online, looking for websites that encouraged vegan lifestyle.  I visited PETA and Humane Society, but I craved a human connection.  I wanted to read personal articles by people who were vegans and who, despite the opposition, had the courage to bring up their kids vegan as well.   On one of the websites that I found there were beautiful pictures of children and animals.  Those children were brought up to treat a dog and a pig the same way, with love and respect.  It was lovely and I didn’t feel as alone anymore.  There was one picture in particular that touched me – a baby holding a tiny kitten.  It was a symbol of harmony and deep cross-species friendships.  At that moment I wished with all my heart that I could have a second cat.  It may seem silly, but the thought made me warm and toasty inside, like a hot bath on a winter day after playing in the snow, but much more pleasant.

I went back to work, putting the thought aside, leaving it as an idea that may one day manifest itself into a reality.  I got home and went back to the usual routine with my son, calmer, more relaxed and determined to figure this out without starting a war with everyone who didn’t agree.  My son and I went to get pizza for him.  Sadly, he hardly eats anything and pizza is one of the few foods that he loves.  When we came back to our house my neighbor called me with urgency.  I went outside to see what happened.  I was flabbergasted to see a tiny black and white kitten trotting clumsily on the grass under my window.  He let out a tiny meow and my heart floated upward like a balloon.  I loved him, the little fur ball of a creature with bright blue eyes, pink nose and pointy ears.  He must have been three or four weeks old.  My neighbor didn’t know if it was a boy or a girl, but I had a feeling that it was a little he.  I was about to call my son, but he was already running out toward us, barefoot, pizza forgotten.  I watched him settle on the sidewalk with a little kitten which was now playfully biting his hand, running to get his toe and then his other hand.  Maximus and the kitten seemed to be in their own little world - he was giggling, kitten was running around him in circles and purring.

My neighbor told me that she found the kitten a few days ago at her doorstep and that she could only keep him temporarily, she already had two cats at home.  The kitten needed a home and a loving family.  I didn’t expect the kitten to be handed to me the same day when I made a hypothetical wish, but here I was.  Maximus was pleading, even though he was pretty sure that I would say no.  I told him many times that we already had one cat and there was no space in our one bedroom apartment to have more animals.  Plus, my boyfriend wasn’t really a cat person and we have talked about moving in together at some point.  Having two cats would be complicated.  As thoughts zipped from why I should to why I shouldn’t and back, I was overcome with love toward the little guy and before I knew it, I was telling my neighbor that I wanted to take him.  I needed to straighten some things out before I could do it, but the more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that his presence there was a gift from the universe, its reaction to my heartfelt wish earlier in the day.  

We went home and the kitten was on my mind every single moment, no matter what I busied myself with.  I would get him, I decided!  If my boyfriend couldn't deal with me adopting an animal then he just didn’t get me or didn’t care to get me and we weren’t supposed to be together.  I called my neighbor and told her that I would be happy to adopt the little guy.  I then called my mom, forgetting the anger that I felt and seeing the fight that we had as an insignificant milestone of our relationship.  Just a day before I felt like I could never talk to her again, but the kitten filled my heart with love where there was pain and I was able to see past our disagreements - she just needed more time, I should be patient and encouraging.  She was surprised to hear my voice.  Not sure if I will yell more or not, she cautiously asked me what was going on.  I couldn’t hold back my giggles, “Mom!  Guess what?!  I am adopting a kitten…”

Back in January 2004 I have met an amazing person, Sidney Springer.  He came to DDC where I worked at the time with his wife and daughter.  His daughter was probably about two years old and his wife was pregnant with their second child.  He came to share his experience at the weekly Buddhist meeting that we had during lunch breaks on Wednesdays.  I knew he was coming and made sure that nothing interfered with me being there.  Carlyle, the man who introduced me to Buddhism (he also introduced Sidney to the practice), said that a young man will come to the meeting who was recently diagnosed with cancer.  He said that this young man wanted to encourage people with his positive outlook and victorious spirit.  Despite Carlyle’s confidence, I wasn’t expecting a happy encouraging person.  How can someone recently diagnosed with cancer not be swayed by the fact that he was probably dying?  Forget encouraging me with my silly inconsequential problems, I wanted to go so that there would be someone who supported him during this trying time.   

Everyone knew he was coming and there was sadness in the air - he was only twenty eight.  However, when he stepped into the room with his wife and his daughter at hand, the atmosphere transformed in seconds.  It was still sad, but now that we met him, we were encouraged by his remarkable strength and positivity.  He was living his life to the fullest, without fear, without regrets and without asking “why me”.  He talked about his sickness, but I could tell that his main reason for coming was to encourage everyone not to give up on their dreams no matter what.  It was as if for him living to the fullest was touching as many hearts as possible.  He fearlessly cheered people on to pursue their happiness without a selfish thought.  It was beautiful how his wife supported him with her genuine loving smile and gentle touch.  

I often thought about the bright young man that I have met on the cold day In January years ago.  His smile, his words and his love for his wife reminded me about important things in life time and again.  I hoped that he got well and overcame his sickness.  I wished that someday I could tell him how grateful I was and give him a piece of my happiness to return the favor.  Sadly, the only favor I could return was attending his memorial this October.  He died on September 2, the day before his 36th birthday.  On the day of the memorial it was raining and snowing, and everyone knows how I dislike going to the city without a class or dinner incentive, but there was no question that I had to be there for him and his family.  My boyfriend came with me, knowing how important this memorial was from what I have told him.  My grandfather also had lung cancer and died, but all he had was six months after the doctors got involved.  Sidney was fortunate enough to have another eight years with his family.  He got to meet his second daughter and see both of his children grow.  He didn’t just disintegrate mentally, physically or spiritually, he lived with joy and vigor while he was alive.  

During the first part of the memorial there was a lot of chanting, this would have made Sidney happy.  I chanted for him with appreciation - thank you for being who you were, thank you for bringing so much optimism into the world that it stayed there even after you were gone.  People shared their memories of Sidney.  His wife remembered the lessons that he taught her, most important ones being that one has to be happy first before he/she can make others happy and that we need to chant for people who make us miserable because they need it most since they are suffering.  One of his friends remembered how toward the end Sidney was so week that he had to be rolled in his chair from one room to the next, but he was always up for chanting.  Another friend shared Sidney’s confidence that we always get back what we give.  Sidney firmly believed that no smile is wasted, that each one will be returned by the person smiling back at us.  That’s how he lived his life, bringing his smile wherever he went!  His daughters danced for daddy, his friends sang and told jokes.  It was a celebration of a wonderful young man’s life, a young man who deserved to be remembered.  Sidney’s spirit is now a part of all the people that he has touched and therefore will live on through us as ripples of goodness and compassion that we project forth with him in mind.

One weekend in July my son and I went to my mom’s summer house in Pennsylvania!.  I brought loads of fresh organic fruits and vegetables to last me while I was there.  Everyone else ate what they usually ate.  Even though my mom was the one who suggested that I would read the Raw Food book and believed the concept to be genuine, she wasn’t ready to switch completely.  She started to include more salads and replaced breakfast with fruit and then she was what I call stuck, for the time being.  I encouraged her to stop eating meat, especially the meat that was fried or contained large chunks of fat, but at one point she asked me to stop badgering her.  I guess I did it one too many times.  Now that I was aware of how unhealthy it was and how much suffering this kind of lifestyle promoted, I just couldn’t stop myself from telling people that it wasn’t a good idea to eat that poor pig, cow or chicken.  Just like in case of a seatbelt, I was making the annoying “beeping” sound, “Beep, don’t eat that!  Beep, that’s an animal right there! Don’t you care!?”  In this case, however, I didn’t feel like I needed to apologize because while it is surely a person’s choice whether they want to wear a seat belt or get a ticket, or to eat foods that are unhealthy, the animals, however, are not given a choice and that is not right.  

By eating meat we are supporting the “culture of death”, as Gabriel Cousins calls it.  As long as we buy meat, the animals will be grown for food.  They will live miserable lives until it’s time for them to be killed and become dinners.  The idea of animals dying to be on our plates may not bother some at first because we, as society, made it acceptable and even expected to sacrifice other species for the joy of being alive.  For many, a fancy dinner is the highlight of their existence, and if you ask them to give up eating meat, you will get the same rebellious response that you have gotten back in the days of slavery.  They need meat just like slave owners needed slaves.  Well, guess what – slavery has been abolished and now everyone in a civilized society seems to agree that it was unethical and wrong.  So, why not go a step further and cherish not only the lives of people of different races, but also of animals.  They too can think, feel and love!  The truth is that we don’t need animals to die in order to stay alive.  Our obsession with consumption of meat is driven by our appetites and the bottomless wallets of the meat industry owners who only care about making a buck.  Just like the truth about the ever speeding demise of our precious planet, this truth may be inconvenient, especially for those who hide their selfishness behind the protein myth.  

As human beings, we are free to choose how we will live out our lives.  We are free to choose to be more compassionate and kind, even if wisdom to do so is slightly out of reach in the present moment.  I understand that it is hard to walk away from something that has become a culture or a tradition, from something that you have identified with all your life, to walk out of your comfort zone and into the unknown.  I must agree, it was easier for me than most, but it is only because of years of seemingly invisible progression toward this goal.  We all are in different places in our lives.  Some of us can do more than others, but we all should do something, even if it is only thinking about the problem.  Devoting some time to honestly reflect on the issue is the hardest thing to do - to many this is a foreign concept that the mind can’t wrap itself around. But, all great things start with a thought.  After all, the world is only as big as your perception of it.  Open up your mind to the possibilities and expand it as far as your heart desires!

My mom and I were convinced by the book and I was willing to try it, there was no point waiting until the health was declined to the point when one is bedridden before “scooping down” to unconventional methods that others scoffed at.  “Cures cancer, ha!” – most people said, “Wouldn’t doctors know about this?”  My boyfriend was very skeptical and, like most people I was surrounded by, discouraged me from undertaking the “experiment”.  It was very hard for him to watch me change in front of his eyes.  All over a sudden I didn’t drink coffee, milk or soda anymore, nor did I eat any processed foods, foods containing heated oil, white flour, sugar or meat.  Some days everything I ate was raw and vegan.  I fervently defended my newfound beliefs and to provide him with more evidence I started researching holistic healing online.  There were so many stories of people overcoming serous and “incurable” illnesses and they were all talking about the Raw Food Vegan Diet.  I got numerous books on the subject and hungrily read them.  After dealing with negativity and disbelief from friends and coworkers, I wanted to establish connections with people with similar mindset and reading those books was almost like talking to people who wrote them.

The biopsy results came back negative!  I was to be retested again later in the year.  I breathed a sigh of relief and continued to chant and read.  I wasn’t switching back to Standard American Diet (SAD, it really is sad!) now that I knew the things that I knew.  My eyes have been opened and in a way I am glad that the whole incident happened.  It caused me to really delve into my being, to learn and discover things that I was not aware of, important things that every person should know so that they can make educated decisions about their health.  By April, after a month of closely following the system I finally overcame a three week “cold” that I was having, lost 18 pounds (I went a little faster than was suggested when switching, thus creating a sped up process of detoxification), going back to my high school weight and had loads of energy to run in circles if I wanted to.  My stomach problems that tormented me on almost daily basis were gone, the allergies, and with them constant sneezing and sinus headaches, were nonexistent. 

After the initial key switch to eat more naturally, I continued experimenting with foods that were still on the menu and eliminated a few more.  By June, I was vegan (except for honey) and proud!  I wanted to stop eating meat for the longest time, ever since I became a Buddhist.  Nichiren Daishonin Buddhism doesn’t have a requirement for people to be vegetarians, it is something that each one of us has to come to realize on our own, but I always knew that one day I will do it.  I love animals and eating flesh disturbs and disgusts me.  Any time that I ate meat in the past, I had to pretend that it wasn’t a piece of an animal that I had in my mouth.  I have to admit that some of it, clean boneless stakes and white chicken meat, tasted good, as long as the thought of what it was that I was eating didn’t cross my mind.   Sometimes it did and I then I had to urgently search for a napkin to spit the food out before it caused me to gag.  

Just like my ex-husband dismissed my interest in Buddhism as another one of my unfinished projects, my boyfriend didn’t think that the whole “I don’t eat meat anymore” streak would last.  Well, I have been chanting for almost eight years and have no intention of ever stopping.  The same goes for being vegan.  Just because something is new doesn’t mean that it isn’t serious!  Besides, there isn’t one reason for me to come back to eating meat. Innocent animals live a life of suffering, get tortured and then get killed so that humans can have some food on their plates that they can’t even digest properly because their bodies aren’t made for assimilating animal protein.  Growing stock for meat consumption majorly contributes to pollution of our environment.  It isn’t good for my health and even the idea of tasting it is repelling.  There is no more pretending that the stake is not some poor cow dissected in pieces.  I can see its sad eyes looking at me with horror as it is being jolted by a shock of electricity.  I want to weep for it.  I want to beg its forgiveness for my greedy selfish appetite of the past, for other people who don’t know any better and for those who just don’t give a damn.  Humans have been rewarded with independence, intelligence and creativity.  But we, misunderstanding the gift announced that we are superior to all and let our egos grow out of proportion.  Instead of fulfilling our roles as the protectors of the Earth, we selfishly proceed to mow everything that stands in the way of getting what we want.  

An abrupt awakening to a possible challenge that my body was facing last February got me revisiting my existing beliefs about health, doctors and food.  After the initial shock subsided and I could again think somewhat clearly, I decided that I was done relying on others when it came to my health.  As a Buddhist, I know that I am responsible for my health, my happiness and my wellbeing.  There is no external source to pray to, no predetermined destiny to follow without having a say.  Therefore, I have the freedom to choose what I’ll do and what kind of effects I’ll create in my life.  I continuously applied this to my life in all other aspects, except for when I fell ill, that is.  I chanted for positive energy and best doctors, which is all good and well.  But I forgot, or rather it didn’t occur to me, to chant about what I can do to help myself.  However, in case of this particular challenge, passing the reins of my life to doctors was simply not an option. 

I took a walk, letting the cool February air sober me up and get me focused on the task at hand - being healthy.  Immediately, all other worries not only seemed insignificant in comparison, but it became clear that I had to be more relaxed about everyday things that I often stress myself over in order for them not to become the very reasons of my disease.  I am a workaholic and at times when there is a problem at work I would still search for a solution while I ride on a train, exercise, or wash dishes at home.   There seemed to be no boundary where my job ends and my personal life begins, I was all merged and as a result of that my work duties tended to transgress on everything else in my life.  I would often skip meals, stay late, and back in the day when I was still married, come to work on an occasional Saturday “to catch up”.   It wasn’t healthy or fair, and it had to stop because the stress that my attitude toward work was generating was contributing to my health problems.  As I walked and sipped ginger tea that replaced my usual morning coffee I saw hope ahead.  

I started reading the book that my mom urged me to read for years now.  The author of the book, Maya Gogulan, was seriously ill.  She was bedridden for over a year and was deemed to die by her doctors.  She was slowly approaching her end when she found out about Nishi System of Health.  This system combines a diet rich in raw fruits and vegetables with special exercises that improve circulation and help detoxification that even people who are bedridden can do, thus cleansing the body of toxins and nourishing it so that it could heal itself.  Within few months of eating this way and performing the exercises she was not only out of bed, but leading a normal life, completely overcoming her illness.  She surprised doctors when she came by the hospital, they thought that she surely died by then.  But, as amazed by her miraculous recovery as they were, no one was interested in learning how she did it.  The doctors wanted to continue doing what they were doing.  So, being a journalist, she took it upon herself to let people know about their options by writing books and giving lectures.  Through her knowledge many were able to overcome cancer, the tumors shrank in front of the doctors eyes.  As part of her book, Maya included research done by renowned dietitians on the effects that different foods have on our bodies, the role of vitamins, minerals and enzymes, and the consequences of taking over the counter and prescription drugs.  As I read the book it all started to fall into place and make sense.  The way our bodies work is amazing, we don’t give them enough credit!  Instead, we over abuse them, poison them and take them for granted.  I gained tremendous appreciation and respect for my body, it is truly a temple!  

We live in a competitive material world, and while it is absolutely essential for us to be able to support ourselves, the aggression and the never ending pursuit of financial gain slowly strip our lives of joy.   Everyone who has a full time job knows that the job becomes a big part of who we are.  Because we spend the majority of our waking hours at work or commuting to and from work, there is little time left for anything else.  In general, my day is extremely hectic  – wake up, do morning yoga, get my son and myself ready for the day, take him to school, get to work, work, lunch with a few minutes of chanting/meditation, back to work, get home, pick up my son from afterschool, dinner, review homework, if lucky, there is a little time left to do some cleaning, if very lucky, there is some time to do more chanting/meditation, if very, very lucky, there is some time to do something creative, and then story time and bedtime for us both.  With that kind of routine, I have got to either enjoy what I do or expect a nervous breakdown.  And I am one of the people who seldom, if ever work overtime.  I can only imagine what some people feel after working ten, sometimes twelve, hour days.  When do they see their families?   When do they do anything that they enjoy?   Do they have any energy left but to collapse in exhaustion?

More and more people are becoming the lemons of greedy corporations.  They are being squeezed till the last drop to produce.   More profit for the company, perhaps more wealth for stockholders – how nice, we feel prosperous as a country.  As if stock prices were a valid measure of happiness that common people are experiencing in their daily lives.  Instead, it is the despair and the uncertainty that they tend to reflect.   The more money we make, the more we think that we need to accomplish financially to be happy.  There is always something that we haven’t achieved yet that is stopping us from fully enjoying what we have.   Comparing ourselves to others is something that happens naturally, without much thought.  However, it is not constructive in any way to feel inadequate just because someone has a bigger home or a nicer car, or earns more money.  I admit, at times it is hard for me to pass a beautiful house without a thought that I should somehow figure out a way to get one of those, or to see someone with 400 dollar shoes on and a fancy outfit and not to feel poor for a second in my everyday clothes and somewhat worn-out sandals.  It isn’t easy, but nothing is impossible and we have to try because there will always be someone who is wealthier, more beautiful, having something that we desire and don’t yet have.   It took some practice to silence the hunger for material things and be able to pass something that I would fervently desire without a feeling of urgency to immediately acquire it.

Buddhism is the science of life and it teaches in its common sense way that while desires are and will always be a part of our lives, they shouldn’t dictate how we live.  Our lives should instead be aimed at balancing all three aspects of true prosperity – beauty, gain and value.  Beauty is accomplished by creating something from the heart and having the time to see it in the world around ourselves.  Gain is the financial security that a good job supplies.  Without it our basic needs for food, water and shelter will not be met.  Value is an ability to positively and productively contribute to our environment, be it our society or the world on a bigger scale.  In this day and age, it is very rare that a job will satisfy all three.  The focus seems to be mostly on gain, choosing beauty or value will most of the time lead to poverty and while some of us bravely storm through life following their passions without a penny to their name, others count their possessions and try to convince themselves that having a job they intensely enjoy is awfully unrealistic.

I am rich with experiences that taught me appreciation for life.  When I look at my life as it is at the moment and ask myself if I am happy and if I am doing my best to live it to the fullest, all that matters is how I feel about it and how I feel about myself.  The career is not the first thing that comes to mind and it is not the second.  Treasures of the heart make my life full, not the number of properties that I own.  Did I love enough?  Did I laugh enough?  Those are the questions that I ask myself.  I am ambitious.  I take pride in my skills and in my success.  I need to have a job that I enjoy doing.  I need to be able to support myself and my son, to live comfortably and to be financially secure.  However, I am not interested in trying to get rich while my life is slipping away without anything happening that’s worth remembering.  Ambition is important, but once you pass the invisible boundary separating reasonable striving for success with a seemingly inevitable all-consuming obligation, the reward at the end of that tunnel is not really worth it.  


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