In the family in which I grew up, meat was eaten every day; actually, more than once a day. So, consuming meat seemed very natural to me and, as a child, I never questioned whether it was something I wanted to do or not. Actually, I was convinced that I needed to eat meat to remain healthy.
Over time, things happened that brought up questions in my mind about eating meat.
One time, when riding in a bus on a high school ski trip, heading from L.A. to the Mammoth Mountain, one of my friends told me about a cow he'd raised. He had cared for the cow from infancy and loved it as his pet. It was a sweet story with a bitter end. When the cow was fully grown, his family sold the cow to be slaughtered. Shocked, I asked "How could you do that to your pet?" This story left an impression in my mind.
Some years later, there were a couple of episodes with chickens in Greece that affected me. I'd been raised in the city, and, in my mind, there was a disconnect between a living, breathing chicken and the packaged substance, labeled "chicken," in the supermarket. On one level, I knew they were the same, but some trick of thought kept them separated for me. All this changed when I traveled to Greece after graduating from law school and saw dead chickens hanging in the butcher's window.
Then, one day on that same trip, while staying on the Greek island of Paros, I watched a man chase down a chicken and chop off the poor animal's head with an axe. I guessed he wanted chicken for dinner. No longer could my mind trick me into thinking the chicken wrapped in plastic in the supermarket was not an animal that had been killed.
Another time, when back in the USA, I visited an organic farm and was introduced to a calf. It was so beautiful, with such loving eyes. It occurred to me that this darling animal, when killed and slaughtered, was sold as veal. After that, veal lost all attraction for me as a food.
Yet, I still believed that I had to eat meat to maintain health, and kept doing so.
Some years later, I noticed that I felt heavy and sluggish after eating red meat, and chose to stop eating red meat. My diet then continued to include poultry and fish because of the very tenacious belief that eating meat was essential to health.
The final move to vegetarianism began a year or two later on my first visit to India. The stay there was two months long and was the first time ever I'd been entirely on a vegetarian diet. The food was delicious and left me feeling well. But, upon returning to the USA, my old meat-eating thoughts re-asserted themselves, and for a little while I was in conflict over whether to return to a carnivorous diet or stay vegetarian.
Some months later, in July, 1987, I spent three weeks with my meditation teacher, Dr. Ushurbush Arya (who later took vows to become Swami Veda Bharati), at the Meditation Center in Minneapolis. One day, while walking along the Mississippi river with a couple of Indian friends who were were also students of Dr. Arya, we discussed the matter of whether to eat meat or stay on the vegetarian diet. One of them said "Stay on the vegetarian diet; you won't regret it."
Why his simple statement so affected me was not clear. Perhaps it was the cumulative effect of countless experiences, like those previously recounted involving cows, chickens, and the calf. Whatever the cause, I chose to stay on a vegetarian diet.
It's been nearly 26 years since deciding to be vegetarian, and as time has passed I've grown more and more happy with the choice. What has kept me going and strengthened my resolve is knowing that vegetarianism is a beautiful way to practice ahimsa (non-violence) in daily life. No longer do I feel conflicted when seeing cows, pigs, sheep, chickens and other "food" animals. No longer is there a disconnect between my diet and my heart.
A few days ago, when reviewing my reasons for choosing to stay with a vegetarian diet, I watched a video of Dr. Melanie Joy giving a talk titled, Carnism: The Psychology of Eating Meat. Her powerful talk sums up all the reasons I practice vegetarianism. If you'd like to watch the video, it's included on this page.