Being a Vegan Emissary

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Yesterday our new intern pulled me aside to ask me about going vegan. She seemed interested and eager to learn more since finding out that I was vegan a few months ago. She loves my vegan oat milk coffee creamer and told me she’s even started using it at home because she likes it so much. I was so happy that she felt she could come to me with questions, but at the same time I was immediately tense and anxious about how to respond.

This is not the first time that I’ve been in this uncomfortable situation. Many people have come to me for help when beginning their vegan/vegetarian journey. I thought I would get better at offering that help as I became more comfortable and confident in my own veganism, but it seems like it’s actually the reverse. I am so far removed from the normal meat-eater’s lifestyle that I no longer understand their questions half the time, let alone know what the most beneficial response would be. When people ask me things like: what do you eat? I can’t help but stare back dumbfounded for a few moments. What do you eat, I want to ask. I eat fruits, vegetables, grains, seeds, and nuts. You know… food. The bulk of what any reasonable diet should already consist of.

There is such chaos and turmoil inside of me when I find myself having to give vegan advice. Part of me is overjoyed, part of me is annoyed, part of me is panicked. Overjoyed because my veganism has influenced someone to try to live a more compassionate life. Annoyed because their questions remind me just how far the majority of society is from doing that. And panicked because of the pressure I feel to offer the perfect answers to their questions. I want to make veganism sound easy and appealing to them. I’m afraid my response could potentially prevent more animals from suffering but that I will fail those same animals if my response instead causes the person to turn away.

My mind starts racing, trying to decide what parts of the encyclopedia of information I have inside my head is the most important, useful, or impactful. I have so much knowledge to offer. To break it down into the most relevant and easily digestible pieces seems like an impossible task. After these random encounters, I always feel disappointed in myself. I kick myself thinking I should have done better somehow, even though I’m never sure exactly what “better” would have looked like. At this point it’s impossible for me to remember what would have been most helpful to me when I first became vegan.

I wanted to write this post today to address people on both sides of the aisle. To the aspiring vegan: Don’t expect the vegans in your life to take you by the hand and make this transition seamless and easy for you or expect them to have all the answers. To the vegan being asked for advice: Don’t be too hard on yourself. There is no perfect response that you can give to make someone else change their behavior. All you can do is try your best, be friendly, and be open.

With that said, here is what I would like to say to anyone interested in going vegan: It’s going to be a hard transition. Being vegan isn’t hard at all, but changing is. Especially when you are changing something so integral to your culture and day to day life. There is no amount of information you can gather or questions you can ask preemptively that will make this transition easy. If you’re waiting for it to be easy, you’re going to be waiting forever. Change is never easy. Learning how to live a new lifestyle is never easy. One way you can make it easier though is being gentle with yourself while you’re still learning. I think a lot of people either avoid or give up veganism because it’s too daunting to imagine never eating meat or dairy again. That’s a scary concept in the beginning. You find yourself thinking, what about all the traditional holiday foods I’ve enjoyed with my family my entire life? I can’t have turkey on Thanksgiving? I can’t have a Christmas ham? I can’t eat cake for birthdays? It seems like a huge sacrifice. And some militant vegans will say it’s something you’ve just got to accept and white-knuckle your way through. But I don’t think that’s necessarily true.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with identifying as a vegan or vegetarian and still making exceptions for yourself in the beginning. I also think it’s okay to essentially go vegan without adopting the label if that lets you feel less restricted. What matters is doing our best to cause as little harm to other beings as possible. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Even vegans can’t help but avoid doing harm entirely. It’s just about trying. So if the only thing holding you back from veganism is Thanksgiving dinner, let yourself not be vegan on the holidays. If you’re having a really hard day and you can’t resist one of your favorite comfort foods or don’t have time to cook and don’t have the time, energy, or accessibility to find a vegan alternative, you don’t have to cast the vegan lifestyle aside because you caved and ate meat. Just try again tomorrow.

You can also start slow. Try making a vegan dinner once a week. Make one meal a day a vegan meal. Test out some vegan menu options the next time you go out to eat. These small steps matter. They still have an impact. And if this is the best way for you to make the transition and feel confident and comfortable enough to stick with it, I think it’s an excellent way to do it. There is no one way to live a vegan lifestyle. It is going to take some time and experimentation to discover what works best for you. Your body and mind are going to need time to adjust. There are going to be days when you “screw up” and can’t live up to your own expectations and that’s perfectly okay. I still have those days over 10 years later. The important part is that you’re trying. That alone is a beautiful gift to the animals, your body, and the Earth. That alone is something to take pride in. And for that alone, I for one, thank you.

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Overwhelm

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This week has been a busy, hectic, nightmare for me. Thankfully, I’ll have a few moments to collect myself this afternoon since our evening appointment at work canceled. At a certain point, it feels like my brain just completely checks out. There is no helping myself when I get to this point. Despite everything in your body telling you to keep going, that there is so much to do, the best thing to do is actually take a moment to rest.

It’s difficult to negotiate with a tired brain. It reminds me of a toddler throwing a tantrum, impossible to reason with. The overwhelming sense of urgency and dread that consumed me in these moments is nearly impossible to ignore. All of my bodily systems are screaming out for my attention. Telling me that the world is falling apart around me and that I need to fix it somehow. Unfortunately, I’ve had a lot of experience with these types of brain states.

Given that our minds are the window through which we see and interpret the world around us, it’s not an easy task to override the messages our brains send us, even when logically we know they are false or exaggerated. I’ve only recently started to learn how to overcome my evening anxiety, for example.

For some reason, every evening, I have a huge spike in my anxiety levels. I start to ruminate and worry about what happened that day or what may happen the next. Problems that seemed minor in the morning, take on an eerie urgency in the evening hours. Even though this pattern has been apparent for a while now, it doesn’t make it any easier to dismiss. For some reason, when we find ourselves in these anxious states of overwhelm, it feels like life has always felt this way and it will always feel this way. Yet at the same time, there is a sense of unrest, like in some way we are supposed to address and “fix” whatever is causing this unpleasant state.

At times like these, the only thing I’ve found helpful is just reminding myself that even though I am feeling rushed and ruffled, the things I’m experiencing inside of my head are not an accurate representation of reality. We forget that our mental states aren’t solely effected by the world around us. Our moods and ability to cope with stressors are also effected by what we’ve eaten, how we slept, the time of day, hormone fluctuations, etc. Just because a situation seems overwhelming today, doesn’t mean that the same scenario won’t strike you in a completely different way tomorrow. I’m not telling you to completely disregard your feelings, but sometimes it’s enough to just notice and acknowledge them, without reacting. Perhaps try saying to yourself, “I am feeling overwhelmed right now, and that’s okay. This feeling will pass. I’m doing my best.”

Sometimes I also find it helps to make a list. There are days when it feels like I have so much to do and more tasks just keep accumulating. The fear that I may forget something important really adds to the stress. There is an immediate sense of relief once I’ve written down everything that is on my mind. Often it even seems silly how short the list looks compared to how long I imagined it would be. Getting this to-do list onto paper and out of your crowded mind makes a huge difference. It allows me to find some much needed space inside my own head.

It seems counterintuitive, but taking a moment to set aside the thoughts that are overwhelming us, is actually the kindest thing we can do for ourselves in these situations. Part of the reason the stressors seem so urgent is the false sense that things will only continue to get worse if we don’t address the issue immediately. Most of the time, this is simply an illusion. While slowing down seems like the worst possible option when you feel rushed and overwhelmed, it’s actually the most beneficial option. Taking a moment to just be, to just breathe, will allow you to step back and gain some perspective.

Dealing with chronic anxiety, I always notice myself searching for a “cause.” “I’m feeling anxious. There must be something wrong.” This is what I’m unconsciously telling myself. And in a normally functioning brain, that makes perfect sense. Our fight or flight response is there to keep us safe. Ideally it is only activated when we are in immediate danger that we need to either overcome or get away from as fast as possible. When this natural defense system is distorted however, it becomes a never-ending feedback loop. I feel anxious. I find a “cause” or something to blame my anxiety on. My anxiety is justified, reinforcing my brain’s idea that it was correct to feel anxious.

One of my favorite mantras recently is: It’s okay to feel anxious. Instinctually we try to escape from anxious states, but when you have an anxiety disorder, trying to escape only increases your anxiety. You become anxious about being anxious. The next time you notice yourself feeling overwhelmed or anxious, try simply allowing yourself to experience these feelings rather than running from them. Say to yourself: I am feeling anxious/overwhelmed right now. *deep breath* It is okay to feel anxious/overwhelmed sometimes. *deep breath* I am okay. *deep breath* I am safe. *deep breath*

Everything is going to be okay. I promise. You’re doing the best you can, even if that might look different from the way “doing your best” has looked in the past, or how you expect it to look. The state you’re in right now is temporary. It will pass all on it’s own. Just breathe.

Calm Amidst the Chaos

Even when I don’t have a lot of free time in my day, I always make time for my yoga and meditation. Some days that’s a half an hour, others it’s only 5 minutes. I try not to let myself get caught up in an all or nothing mentality. Just because I can’t find the time to do my normal routine, doesn’t mean that those five minutes I do have won’t make a difference.

Today I noticed myself getting caught up in a totally different problem, though. I was exceptionally pressed for time. I had to squeeze my meditation into the 15 minute span before a new client was coming in for an appointment. As I tried to drop into my breath and let the world around me fall away, I couldn’t help but become preoccupied with what was going on in the rest of my office. I was fixating on every little noise, anxiously anticipating the client to show up early and force me to jump up and greet them. I was worried my coworkers were irritated at me for still being closed away in my office so close to our appointment. I considered giving up on my meditation all together. I wondered if it was just a waste of time, if I was too on edge to meditate.

I’ve found myself in this situation many times before. Sometimes I can’t find a quite place or I keep being interrupted or whatever other kind of inconveniences the world likes to throw at us from time to time. Occasionally, I will actually decide to forget about meditating all together. I tell myself that it’s not the right environment or I’m just too distracted or uneasy.

For some reason, the ridiculousness of that reasoning really struck me today. How silly it sounds to say: I’m too anxious to meditate. I can’t meditate because I feel rushed or it’s too loud. These are all perfect times to meditate! Meditation and yoga aren’t things that we need ideal conditions to practice. One of the most beneficial and important parts of these practices is to learn how to use them to cope with hectic times in our lives. Through these practices we can learn how to sit with these moments of discomfort. We can use them to step back from our own drama and distress and simply observe ourselves from a calm neutral perspective.

If you are just beginning to incorporate mindfulness into your routine, it may seem impossible to meditate unless you are in the right atmosphere or headspace. Developing a designated area where you can feel calm and relaxed is an excellent way to help you stick with it in the beginning. However, if you have been practicing for a long time like I have, it may be time to challenge yourself a bit more. You’ve laid the foundation, now it’s time to test it. I promise you, you won’t regret it.

Give yourself a chance to notice what it feels like to be rushed, or irritated, or interrupted. Get curious about this experience. Ask yourself questions. What is happening in your body? In your mind? What is your internal dialogue telling you in these difficult moments? How is that self-talk exacerbating the already tense situation? What might be a kinder or more gentle form of self-talk you can implement instead? This is the perfect time to start changing patterns of thought that are not serving you.

Meditation isn’t always supposed to be easy and effortless. No matter how long you have been practicing, you are going to find yourself struggling from time to time. Going through phases of discomfort internally, externally, or both is all part of the human experience. The incredible experience that we are all here to witness. Meditation is about learning to be present through it all, not just the calm, clear moments, but the rough and tumultuous ones as well.

Amped Up By Good Energy

The other day at work I had the pleasure of meeting a very lovely, interesting, intelligent young girl. As you may already know, I work at a child advocacy center. At centers like ours children come to disclose physical, sexual, or other types of abuse. After their interview, I spend time with the child in the waiting room while my team members talk with the parents. Even though normally this is one of the highlights of my job, I still get very anxious about being left alone with anyone, let alone a child. I consider myself to be a very awkward person and am not very good at making small talk with the teenagers. It’s usually easier for me when it’s a toddler or a child that just wants to play while we wait.

Some days end up being extra special though. There are certain older kids that I have an immediate connection with. We seem to have a lot in common and find a lot of interesting things to talk about. This is always an extremely pleasant experience for me. I am so grateful for the opportunity to meet so many awesome kids and have a positive impact on their lives.

The only problem is I’ve noticed that even excited energy is very similar to being anxious to me. Even though I was really enjoying my conversation with this girl, I still felt somewhat panicked. I felt the urge to run, to escape. I found myself hoping that my coworkers would hurry up so that this girl could go home sooner. I’ve noticed feeling this way when I’m happy and excited many times before, but I have absolutely no idea what I can do about it. I feel compelled to avoid not only negative situations that make me anxious, but positive ones that excite me too much as well.

Even after the family had left, I found myself overwhelmed with excited energy. As a child I used to shake or flap my hands/ arms when I was really happy. When I’m alone, I still can’t resist the urge to flail my hands rapidly at my sides in an attempt to disperse or use up some of this energy that has no where to go. I know this is often something people on the autistic spectrum do, which is one of the many reasons I think I’m autistic. I would love to talk to a specialist or another person on the spectrum to see if they are doing these types of actions for similar reasons. Maybe I’ll look into finding some books about autism from people that live with it themselves. I’m sure there are plenty interesting books like that out there.

Physiologically I think that anxiousness and excitement are pretty similar. This may be the reason that sometimes my mind can struggle to differentiate between the two. Whatever the reason though, I want to find a way to manage this phenomenon. Strangely it doesn’t seem to have the same effect if I am excited about a solitary activity. It is only social excitement that tends me make me feel panicked. Perhaps I am just afraid of embarrassing myself or worried that I’ll somehow mess things up and lose this person’s approval. Maybe it’s just scary to feel seen by someone. Or perhaps it’s that unconscious belief that I am unworthy of positive attention, that by making this person like me I have somehow tricked them into believing I’m someone I’m not, that if I accidentally reveal my true self they will be angry or upset.

I’m probably just thinking too much into things again. In the end, the real problem is not the feeling, it’s my concern and distressed reaction to the feeling. I just need to reassure myself that I am worthy of positive attention and friendship. It is normal for someone to like me and for me to like them. And if for some reason they should change how they feel towards me, well that’s okay too. Maybe my mantra for today will be: It’s okay to feel excited.

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Another Day

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My mind is only rarely actually in the present. To be honest, something scares me about surrendering to the moment. My brain is always working overtime, trying to predict, prioritize, and protect. If feels like if I’m not always checking off lists in my head, planning what to do next, or policing my own thoughts that everything will fall apart. I guess it’s just my ego’s desperate endeavor to maintain control.

But no matter how frantically I struggle against myself and this world, the fact is, it is not within my control. I don’t know why that seems so scary to admit. In most of my life, I prefer not to be in control. I’ve never wanted to be in a position of power at work or within my family or friend group. I was the last to take a leadership role in school even in group projects that would have probably turned out much better if I had. Yet when it comes to my own personal life and inner landscape, I am so rigid and domineering.

What am I so afraid of? There is nothing in this present moment for me to fear. Here I am, in my pretty, cozy bedroom, at my cute little desk. There is a slick, frigid February morning outside of my window. My dog is perched at my feet, licking my socks like a precious little weirdo. I am still allowed to work from home. Not only that, my boss texted everyone last night asking us to stay home today because of the weather. How many people can say they work for a place so caring? It truly warms my heart.

Despite all these things, my mind veered off once again. The mere mention of work led me to swirling through panicked predictions of how it could all go wrong. I find myself constantly having to talk myself down, to reassure myself that everything is fine detail by detail. It is actually quite funny when I stop to think about it. If I spend all the peaceful times in my life focused on the fear of losing them someday, what am I even afraid of losing? I’ve not been allowing myself to enjoy all that I have to be grateful for anyway. What sense does it make to agonize over what could change in the future when by doing so I am sacrificing any peace and pleasure I currently have in front of me?

Maybe today, I’ll designate something small to place around my house as a reminder, a reminder that I am happy, a reminder to pause and be grateful. Perhaps the raw crystals I have in every room. Whenever I see one I could take a moment to feel its rough edges in my fingers, to take a few long, deep, mindful breaths, and be present. That might be a nice way to stay grounded. I could also design a small symbol to put up in the corner of my windows or somewhere that will catch my eye. These things will be my anchor. My guide back to the present moment.

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