We all have our favorite haunts to meet friends or dine out – mine are scattered about in numerous places, magnets that draw me back time and again. My current number one is The Hungry Elephant vegan/vegetarian cafe in Matakana, a leisurely one hour’s drive up north of Auckland in Rodney – it offers that full spectrum immersion in all of the essentials: great food; the company of friends; uniquely peaceful atmosphere; beaming staff. The latter are like family and their heartfelt greeting and warmth are always going to be the foundation for a great meal.
I usually order the burger option plus garden salad, most predictable customer ever, maybe an almond tecchino chaser. I quickly succumb when dessert is mentioned, a landslide of indulgence, opt for the raw blackberry cheesecake and sample the vegan ice-cream. OK, a small chai tea also.
Come summertime and there is a beautiful outdoors seating space, persimmon trees laden with their beautiful orange orbs of fruit, even a waterfall down in the nearby stream. You can sprawl about on your choice of those oaken chairs while the staff fuss about, pander to your eccentricities. Head chef Shouri’s lunchtime hotpots are also perennial favorites and I’ve been known to shamelessly queue jump to secure a last portion.
On a trial breakfast there recently I was steered by a staff member towards a newly launched in-house cereal, all my hesitations overwhelmed by a salvo of irresistible affirmatives: ‘vegan’, ‘gluten-free,’ nutrient dense’, ‘ organic’, ‘prana rich’, ‘super food’, ‘colon cleanse’, then jokingly, peering at this customers thinning locks….’hair restorative’ (that won me over). I poked about for a while, scrutinizing chia seeds, goji berries, soaked muscatels, ground flax seed, almond milk – delicious!
There’s a shop as well and you can potter about and update your knowledge of nutrition, explore a range of genuine superfoods, summon your intentions to live to 100 years! It’s totally different from anything in the usual cafes and restaurants in Auckland – but you come away feeling really peaceful without even knowing why. I rate the Hungry Elephant right up there – a five star.
The following interview is reprinted with the kind permission of the IndiaNZ Outlook newspaper.
Contributing writer Jogyata Dallas interviews Auckland nurse Cheryll Martin on the topic of food, sustainability and living as a vegan.
Question: Cheryll what led you to become a vegetarian then a vegan?
Cheryll: I started out on a personal journey of discovery, one that’s really part of a much larger inquiry, a global awakening about health. I read up on the benefits of a vegan or vegetarian diet which are well documented and compelling and I began to feel so much healthier almost straight away. Even recent NZ Herald coverage has looked at the mounting evidence of the health positives, and mentioned the link between high animal protein diets with the risk of colon cancers and numerous other health disabilities. Of course I’m always being challenged because the old myths are still there, milk needed for healthy bones and calcium, animal protein for sound nutrition and so on, but they’ve been rigorously disproved – it takes a while though to get past all this to the facts.
Question: Do you really think the vegan diet can become popular in a country like New Zealand?
Cheryll: It’s happening now, and much faster than you think. Vegetarians and vegans are rapidly growing in numbers – it’s part of a consciousness shift that you can see in the bigger global canvas, an incoming tide of knowledge and change, the interest in mindfulness and spirituality, vegetarian schools, the scores of online websites dedicated to raw food, green smoothies, fasting, yoga and health. We’re taking more note of the environmental aspects of it all as well, the huge and unsustainable misuse of land and the massive environmental footprint of the agri-businesses.
Question: And you practise meditation too – where’s the link here?
Cheryll: Mind and body are inseparable – in looking for optimal health you can’t focus only on one and neglect the other. A lot of meditators are vegetarian because it helps us to have a more calm and peaceful mind. Ayurvedic medicine talks about the rajasic, tamasic and sattvic qualities of food, the type of body energies we have in the subtle realms. These principles have been known for thousands of years. Vegan and vege foods enable the deeper, subtler experiences in meditation. I meditate with the Sri Chinmoy Centre – there are 6,000 vegetarians in our organisation worldwide, all super-healthy people who run marathons, treat the body as a body-temple.
Question: You mentioned the environmental impact of farming and that’s quite a topic right now. Even the United Nations has identified land based animal farming as the leading driver of environmental degradation.
Cheryll: It’s true. A World Bank report stated that animal agriculture is producing 51% of all greenhouse gas emissions, and is the number one contributor to human caused climate change. Researchers also agree that the primary cause of loss of species – the largest widespread extinction of species we’ve seen since the age of the dinosaurs – is caused by habitat loss and overgrazing from livestock production. Our last rainforests like the Amazon are disappearing at the rate of one acre every second to enable beef and dairy farming, soya crops – and palm plantations are wiping out the last Indonesian rainforests and causing many extinctions.
In New Zealand there’s a lot of concern too at the degradation of our lakes and rivers and coastal waterways caused by farm run-off. And look at the global epidemic of diet based, high animal protein health problems – cancer, obesity, coronaries etc. It’s all reversible!
Question: In NZ and a lot of western societies agri-businesses are fundamental to our economy. News that milk and meat production are driving climate change, environmental degradation, species extinctions, health problems and so on will unleash a real firestorm of resistance.
Cheryll: Yes, it will take a long time for the inevitable changes to go mainstream or bring about a shift in our way of living. But there are moral issues as well – it has often been pointed out that the acreage and resources required to produce a kilo of beef or mutton or a litre of milk can produce between fifteen to twenty times more plant based protein. There are over 210,000 people being born on our planet every day – the present systems can’t feed them all. A US report I saw stated that one and a half acres of arable land in a single year can produce 37,000lbs of vegetables, but only 375 lbs of meat. In a world where food shortage is a growing problem, the implications of this are obvious. There are almost one billion hungry people on this planet – 82% of starving children live in countries where vast amounts of grain and food are fed instead to animals that are raised to feed the wealthy. We are heading towards food wars, water wars, arable land wars, mass migrations of people to liveable climates and away from rising sea levels.
Question: Do you really see significant changes soon happening?
Cheryll: We might be on the verge of an evolutionary jump, perhaps one forced upon us through necessity. The outcry of agri-businesses – the number one polluters and environmental wreckers on our planet – will fade away, just as the outcry against the right of women to vote or outrage at the abolition of slavery faded away.
I also believe in the goodness of human beings, something better and higher that we have within us. The majority of vegans are also conscious of the enormous scale of suffering that human beings inflict on virtually every other furred, feathered and marine creature on our planet.
Question: Veganism – is it a modern phenomenon?
Cheryll: No, not really. You can see it in different cultures way back in time. In India the Jains have an ecological philosophy synonymous with ahimsa or non-violence. Ahimsa is the principle of compassion and responsibility, practised not only towards human beings but towards all animals and nature itself. For them there is no greater virtue than reverence for life because as a highly evolved form of life ourselves, we are seen to have a great moral responsibility in our guardianship of the planet. But we are instead the most terrifying predator earth has ever seen, numbed down by habit and culture to the accepted exploitation of all other species, thought to include over 100 billion land animals annually.Perhaps it is time when the growing sensibilities of our race will include, as the Buddha proposed 2500 years ago, a widening compassion for all other creatures, including man, on our planet.
Humankind has long been the most systematic, successful predator and most terrifying carnivore to ever walk this earth – yet it is heartening to witness the quite rapid growth of vegetarianism and a sense of responsibility for our planet that is partly a consciousness-shift. Many people choosing a vegan or vegetarian diet do so primarily for reasons of health or animal ethics, while environmental issues and the non-sustainability of meat production are also becoming very relevant and pressing. But an incoming tide of spiritual concerns is also becoming evident.
In a growing culture of compassion for other forms of life, the Jains of India have long been in the vanguard. Jaina ecological philosophy is virtually synonymous with the principle of ahimsa (non-violence) which runs through the Jaina tradition like a golden thread. Ahimsa is the principle of compassion and responsibility, practised not only towards human beings, but towards all animals and nature. In their use of the earth’s resources, Jains take their cue from “the bee that sucks honey in the blossoms of a tree without hurting the blossom, while strengthening itself.” For them there is no virtue greater than reverence for life – as a highly evolved form of life, human beings are seen to have a great moral responsibility in their relationship with the rest of our planet.
A further interesting viewpoint favouring both vegan and vegetarian nutrition is demonstrated in the lifestyle of many practitioners of meditation and supported by a persuasive body of spiritual teachings. Here, a plant based diet is seen as both a positive next step and fast-track in our spiritual evolution.
Historically, a number of humanity’s most respected meditation masters have taught that our diet has an impact on the development of our consciousness– the clarity or restlessness of our minds, the expansion and refinement of awareness and the functioning of our subtle body and nerves.
Many health and healing disciplines have their own language to describe this phenomenon –Ayurvedic medicine, for example, talks about the rajasic, tamasic and sattvic qualities of food – but in the realm of meditation diet can and does significantly alter the depth and subtlety of our experiences and the purification of our entire being.
In 1974 the late meditation teacher Sri Chinmoy wrote a popular book called The Color Kingdomwhich identified the spiritual qualities and properties of specific colours. It described at length the principle that everything in the physical world – even colour – carries a specific vibration, energy and consciousness which in some way shapes our experiences in life. By extension and even more powerfully, the food we eat significantly adds to or subtracts from the quality of our inner spiritual life and impacts on the subtle world of our consciousness.
Comments spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy, whose 7,000 meditation students worldwide all follow a vegetarian and often vegan diet:
“I wish to say that it is always advisable, if possible, to have a vegetarian diet in order to further one’s progress in the inner disciplines.
The vegetarian diet plays a most important role in the spiritual life. Purity is of paramount importance for an aspirant. This purity we must establish in the physical, the vital and the mental. When we eat meat and fish, the animal consciousness enters into us – our nerves become more agitated and restless, and this can interfere with our meditation. But the mild qualities of fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, help us to establish in our inner life as well as in our outer life, the qualities of sweetness, softness, simplicity and purity. So, if we are vegetarians, it helps our inner being to strengthen its own existence. Inwardly, we are praying and meditating; outwardly, the food we are taking from Mother Earth is helping us too, giving us not only energy but also aspiration.”
“At one time the animal consciousness was necessary for forward movement. If we had not had animal qualities, we would have remained inert, like trees, or we would have remained in the stone consciousness where there is no growth or movement. But the animal consciousness also contains many unillumined and destructive qualities. Now we have entered into the spiritual life, so the role of the animal consciousness is no longer necessary in our life. From the animal consciousness we have entered into the human consciousness and now we are trying to enter into the divine consciousness.”
Many people feel that eating meat gives them strength and nutrients unavailable to people on a vegetarian diet. But nutritional research does not support this view – indeed, a growing body of credible research supports the opposite point of view. Often, too, even one’s ideas about meat – the power of the mind! – confer strength. But as Sri Chinmoy comments,
“It is not meat but the spiritual energy pervading one’s body that gives one strength. That energy comes from meditation as well as from proper nourishment. The strength that one can get from aspiration and meditation is infinitely more powerful than the strength one can get from meat.”
“As a general rule, it is always advisable to be a vegetarian because we are trying to throw away the animal qualities and propensities from our nature. Already when we go deep within, we see that we have two different qualities or natures; the divine and the undivine. The undivine is the animal in us and the animal within us will always be aggressive and destructive. The divine in us will always be progressive and illumined. So if we want to march and run towards our Goal, then we have to do away with our animal life. To do that, whatever animal qualities we take into us in the form of meat or in some other form have to be discontinued.”
These comments explain why many spiritual paths encourage a vegan or vegetarian diet – if we are to make an evolutionary jump, develop more purity in the mind, a deepening understanding of our oneness with the intricate ecology of the planet, and from this a greater compassion for all living things, then the impact of our diet in the refinement of our consciousness is critical.
I was sitting in Dublin airport, looking out through acres of glass windows at the procession of exiting jets; at summer’s blue skies with their cotton wool clouds; the tableau of distant landscape moulded by centuries of habitation – and seeing all around me the scurrying crowds, the endless flowing stream of lives unfolding. Feeling the strange vacuity of travellers and wanderers in our hyphen between departing and arriving. We were like a swarm of bees converging on their aerial hive, laden with our pollen of suitcases and expectations, then winging away again in ones and twos into the huge garden of the world.
My own departure now, up and away to Gatwick. Below me England is a jig saw puzzle of ragged farms, a quilt of greens and furrowed tawny browns, fields dotted with the spoils of summer’s gathered hay, hedgerows and emerald coloured pastures, forest tracts and the black specks of cattle like handfuls of tossed seed. And dim coastal towns huddled against the tide, and the tiny furrowed wakes of pleasure craft scooting about on tidal estuaries and brown seas.
At my ongoing departure gate I sit next to an unkempt elderly man, his deeply lined face like that of the poet W.H. Auden. He peers at the world like an old disapproving tortoise, the lined face above the swivelling neck. He notices my ragtag Peace Run t-shirt and tells me all such efforts at peace are futile. We talk a little about the world situation , the to and fro of travellers – he is oblivious of the other passengers and speaks in a loud voice. His son stepped on a landmine in Afghanistan and died at the age of 22. They sent home his gathered bits in a child’s small box coffin. He asks me, have you ever lost someone you really loved? Yes, I tell him, but he does not enquire.
When I heard my son was gone I stayed in my room for a week, he tells both me and his now attentive audience. I walked round and round in circles in my grief. I couldn’t bear to stay alive. Something died inside me. My boy had given me a big jar of honey for my birthday, a last gift, and I kept spooning it into my mouth, a meaningless, absurd act of consolation and remembering – my face was covered in tears and honey. I kept calling out his name as though to bring him back.
Now from his wallet he shows a picture and we dutifully crowd around to see – the son that died far from home is looking past the camera, smiling as though at another, or at some private thought. He is not in his fatal battle dress but a startling blue shirt, looks away into the distance with the optimism of the young.
When we board the plane I have an empty seat adjoining mine and no one is there to talk to me. But all the way across the Atlantic sea I remember the strange pathos of the dead son’s honey jar, picturing the sobbing father spooning the golden sweet syrup of the bees into his mouth, the bereaved man’s lined and wretched face, his hopelessness, and the endless sticky tears…..