Wednesday, January 18, 2017

10 Questions: Vegan Rockstar with Alex Ciccone




Long gone are the days when “vegan” was synonymous with “weakling” to the public mind. Thanks to some excellent examples who are creating new associations to veganism, such as accomplished ultra-endurance competitor Rich Roll to yogini and activist Seane Corn, famed strongman Patrik Baboumian to award-winning senior runner and coach Ellen Jaffe Jones, illusions are shattering left and right that you cannot be a vegan and a star athlete. One such individual who is helping to create new associations with veganism from the fitness realm is Alex Ciccone of Ciccone Fitness. A fitness coach and strength trainer based in Toronto, Alex is a first generation Canadian (his parents are from Italy) and will be featured in the March-April edition of Vegan Health and Fitness magazine. As a vegan activist, Alex uses his platform as a fitness expert to help bust myths about “the scrawny vegan” while educating people about the often hidden reality of animal agribusiness. You can find Alex on Instagram and Twitter and you can subscribe to Ciccone Fitness via the website to receive fitness tips, recipes, training pointers and more. I am proud to feature Alex Ciccone as this week’s Vegan Rockstar.   

1. First of all, we’d love to hear your “vegan evolution” story. How did you start out? Did you have any early influences or experiences as a young person that in retrospect helped to pave your path?
I was born in Canada to Italian immigrants, and due to cultural “norms” I would have to say that I was definitely the furthest thing from veganism at birth. Yep, you know Italian staples like veal, fish, lamb, lasagna, pizza – the list goes on and on. Looking back I think yikesss!, but it was the reality of the situation. Vegetarianism nor veganism didn’t seriously cross my mind until I was well into my early 20s. However, I do believe it was the small, but impactful influences throughout my life that amounted and lead me to realize that going vegan was the right and absolute only choice for me.

I personally feel the very first glimpse of my future in becoming vegan started under the age of 10 with my refusal of the traditional Italian meal of rabbit. I just couldn’t wrap my head around eating a cute fluffy bunny. Every time the dish would be prepared I would tell my parents “No! A bunny is not food!”

My bond with pets has been a very strong one for as long as I can remember. Growing up we had birds, dogs, fish, even lizards. Although today I disagree with the domestication of certain species of animals, these experiences throughout my childhood were invaluable. These were loyal, intelligent, unconditional loving creatures that I cared for very much and learnt many life lessons from. This coupled with a love for Disney and other animated movies starring animals such as, 101 Dalmatians, Lion King, Rescuers, All Dogs Go To Heaven, Land Before Time – I think it’s safe to say these were significant moments and a major part of the foundation for my transition to veganism down the road.
I was also a provincial level soccer player growing up, so my love for physical activity began at a young age. Strength training ended up becoming an absolute passion of mine and led to a career as a personal training specialist. In order to meet nutritional goals to support my training, particularly protein, I did rely heavily on animal based products. Let’s just say the amount of meat and dairy I was consuming during my first few years of training was absurd and finally struck a nerve. It got me thinking a bit more about the process and where my food was actually coming from. I turned to those typical misnomers… is it healthy, organic, “humanely” raised/slaughtered? Once I started digging, there was no turning back. The disconnect was no longer and the horrors that I was seeing and hearing just did not sit right. It was a slow and steady process making the decision to go vegetarian first and then onto veganism (now going on 3+ years).
Unfortunately protein over the years has become synonymous with animal flesh or certain animal products such as dairy and eggs. Billions of animals are at the mercy of these suggestions every year and suffer a fate that no one would even wish on their worst enemy. Once getting into the fitness space as a vegan I would constantly hear the common misconception that vegans are weak and malnourished (particularly protein deficient). Wanting to break these grossly incorrect statements of not being able to get adequate protein intake or supporting training, it has long been my goal to show how a vegan diet can actually allow you to get bigger, leaner and stronger. Along the way showing that living a vegan lifestyle really comes at no sacrifice. There are plenty of products and activities that are cruelty-free – and it is through cruelty-free that you can truly transcend and enjoy life to the fullest, knowing that you celebrate life and cherish it by not contributing to the unnecessary pain and torture animal agriculture creates.

2. Imagine that you are pre-vegan again: how could someone have talked to you and what could they have said or shown you that could have been the most effective way to have a positive influence on you moving toward veganism?

Although I understand the intention of this question, it is through the many exact experiences I went through that has allowed me to embrace the vegan lifestyle the way that I have today and I wouldn’t change a thing. In saying that I literally experienced it all throughout my transition…whether it was extremely aggressive radical veganism or more unassuming, positive and non-judgmental support. At the end of the day it all boiled down to my own self-awareness and knowing who I was – that’s what mattered most. Whether the message was distributed to me in a more negative tone or more positive tone, I knew I personally wanted to change and I just simply gravitated towards the message distribution I felt gave the most value at the time. So in saying that, for those of you who have yet to make the switch and may be contemplating veganism, I encourage you to practice self-awareness, find those values and messages that matter most uniquely to you and allow them to help facilitate the change.
3. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message as a vegan? For example, humor, passion, images, etc.?

I am a big believer in authenticity. We are all intelligent creatures that can really read through the bulls***. So when I speak about the vegan movement and veganism, I only speak from the heart because I believe that is the only true way to connect with others. Nothing replaces being genuine. Naturally, I am a very positive, supportive and loving person – so that tends to be how my message comes across. It tends to take many forms, whether it be a powerful image, a few key words or the odd meme – all depends on the creative I lean towards in that moment. At the end of the day all I want is to give back to the community that helped support me in my transition, in any way that I can and ultimately end animal cruelty, getting to a plant-based tomorrow, sooner rather than later.

4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?

There are many but I would like to choose one and that is passion. Vegans are PASSIONATE. My caps button didn’t stick there, it was certainly intended. I always hear the joke… “How do you know someone is vegan… Don’t worry. They’ll tell you.” Although I do find this absolutely hilarious, the punchline is…it’s because vegans are passionate. Some may consider this incessant need to talk about veganism as a bad thing, but being the optimist I am, I think it’s the best thing for the movement. Passionate, caring and dare I say obsessive individuals. This obsession to spread the word about veganism GETS. WORK. DONE. Change will not happen unless we all put in the work to get the word out and vegans are the best in the biz! Animal agri --- we’re coming for you!

5. What do you think are our biggest hindrances to getting the word out effectively?

Censorship. Government and certain media outlets intentionally go out of their way to keep information on the down low to protect industry. Absolute bulls***. Silver lining? Social media. Each and every one of your posts, photos, videos, shares, likes, comments, follows – they all matter and count. Let’s all leverage that advantage of existing in this tech age and keep spreading the word as much as we can.

6. All of us need a “why vegan” elevator pitch. We’d love to hear yours.

Win-win-win. In no particular order.

-       Ethical Treatment of Animals
-       Environmental Health
-       Personal Health

7. Who are the people and what are the books, films, websites and organizations that have had the greatest influence on your veganism and your continuing evolution?

In all honesty, everyone – vegan or non-vegan. Each and every single person I have ever had a conversation with around veganism helps me in continuing my evolution and spreading the word. In saying that, those entrenched in the vegan community, organization or individual, who take time and energy out of their day to post, share, like, comment and follow – it all matters and counts in spreading the word and allowing everyone to level up. Together we are truly plant strong – as nerdy and cliché as that sounds.

If I can get a bit romantic with nostalgia, I do recall the exact resources that helped me when I was knee deep in my transition - Animal rights organizations like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), documentaries like Food Inc. and plant-based supporting literature like The China Study and Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness.

8. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?

Going back to the quality of vegans being passionate. Because of that I tend to believe I have a really high threshold for burnout. I can and do pull 18-hour days eating and breathing the vegan movement. But if I had to choose a few things that allow me to unwind, recharge in order to inspire again it would be the following…

-       Spending quality time with friends and family – all the furry ones included 
-       Getting a quality workout in
-       Watching tv/movies or playing video games

9. What is the issue nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like others to know more about?

Ethical treatment of animals. The disconnect between our plates, retail stores from the animal itself is way too large. I know many individuals who are still omnivorous or purchase animal products but when asked if they love animals the answer is still undoubtedly yes. Call it naïve – I call it being optimistic…I truly believe this affinity for love of animals is the care and key to a more cruelty free and plant-based lifestyle for the entire planet.

I encourage those who are not vegan to explore social media/media and expose yourself to the "behind the scenes" of where these animal-based products come from. In getting closer to the truth and reducing the disconnect is where this affinity of love for animals can truly shine and awaken a sleeping giant within.

If you begin to feel the pressure of "there’s no way I can be vegan", don’t stress... you don’t have to be vegan overnight. It took me many years to make the full transition and there is no shame in that. The final destination is what counts. Trust in the process and do what you uniquely can do to reduce your animal based product consumption. Vote with your dollars and the system and the societal "norm" will certainly change. You as an individual do truly have the power. The good thing is, you already have a vegan community army behind you ready to fight side by side.

10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan is...”

Compassion.

The deep pain I feel for the sufferings and misfortunes of each and every animal involved in animal agriculture is what drives me day in day out.

I feel very fortunate to be part of such a passionate community doing such fantastic work. Together we are plant strong and I cannot wait to be a part of that change alongside each and every one of you!


Wednesday, January 11, 2017

10 Questions: Vegan Rockstar with Raffaella Ciavatta



I first saw
Raffaella Ciavatta’s work when the animal rights organization she helped to found, Collectively Free, burst on the scene in 2014 with daring videos and actions that have garnered wide media attention. I was initially impressed by Collectively Free’s activism but I have been even more impressed as the grassroots organization has grown to become even more intersectional and encompassing as their work has matured. I am always looking forward to what I will see next from them.

As co-founder of Collectively Free, Raffaella brings her design
skills and her unabashed passion for integrated social justice to their activism, from creating striking and memorable actions to keeping the organizations core values transparent and considerate of everyone. We need more vegan organizations to place the high value on intersectional activism as much as Collectively Free does. You can find them – and should follow them – on these social media platforms. I am honored to feature Collectively Free’s Raffaella Ciavatta as this week’s Vegan Rockstar.

1. First of all, we’d love to hear your “vegan evolution” story. How did you start out? Did you have any early influences or experiences as a young person that in retrospect helped to pave your path?

I was actually raised a vegetarian and was diagnosed with anemia when I was a kid by a doctor who told my mom the only way to cure it was for me to eat flesh. So, I started eating flesh (never solved my anemia, FYI) and let myself be carried by social pressure. Being born and raised in Brazil made it extra easy for me to continue to eat animals as there were as many steakhouses there as there are Starbucks here.

It wasn't until I moved to NY and got involved with rescuing dogs and cats that the dissonance really hit me. During the meetings of the rescue I was part of, which was ran by a vegetarian, there were always animals' bodies being served and one day something just clicked. I went home and watched as many undercover videos that I could possibly cram in 24 hours, then I read tons of articles in the next 24 hours and became a vegan. 



2. Imagine that you are pre-vegan again: how could someone have talked to you and what could they have said or shown you that could have been the most effective way to have a positive influence on you moving toward veganism?

I really, really wish I had met a pro-intersectional vegan who had shown me how my struggles as a queer, immigrant and woman are intrinsically related to the struggle of nonhumans. Also, how to unpack my own isms to not only be a better activist but a better person. Finding out I had been lied to about nonhumans was already mind-blowing, but putting that into the context that's connected with so many other forms of oppression is even more mind blowing.

That way, I wouldn't have wasted nearly a year of my veganism being so "animals first," saying really racist, binary and awful things, thinking you can "vote with your dollar" and that veganism was going to solve the world's problems.

3. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message as a vegan? For example, humor, passion, images, etc.?

Passion and framing anti-speciesism as a social justice issue have worked really well for me. On the other hand, street theater and satire have worked really well, with our campaign Swapspeciesism. Examples
here and here.

4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?
We have all sorts of very solid facts on our side.

5. What do you think are our biggest hindrances to getting the word out effectively?

The thing with facts is that it's not enough to convince the vast majority of people because, well, we are creatures who love to cling to the ways we are used to thinking and we have a lot of biases.

I think the biggest obstacle is ourselves - we want changes for tomorrow and a lot of us are going to do whatever it takes, even if that includes making very superficial analogies that come off as very disrespectful, using triggering words or selling veganism as this cure-all-solution.

We have to resist the urge of taking shortcuts when advocating and we have to broaden our horizons and put veganism and animal liberation in a position that it is not isolated from everything else, but one more piece of anti-oppressive work that we need to tackle to make the world a better place.

That also includes meeting people where they are and linking anti-
speciesism to something particular that they already practice. For example, as an immigrant, for me the link between wildlife displacement and my own displacement are undeniable. Going deeper, stealing land from nonhumans of any kind is an atrocious act that we can link directly to colonialism and white supremacy. If I'm speaking to an activist who does that type of work, this is where I'm framing the conversation.

6. All of us need a “why vegan” elevator pitch. We’d love to hear yours.

I usually shy away from the word vegan, I prefer animal liberationist or animal rights activist but to the answer, because anyone, regardless of their gender, species, class, sexual orientation, ability and so on, deserve the right to live free from harm. Also because the way we treat animals directly influence the way we justify violence against one another - we dehumanize minorities and reduce them to "animals" in order to keep them underprivileged.
Aph Ko writes brilliantly about this. I always say that nonhumans are our allies, not our enemies.

7. Who are the people and what are the books, films, websites and organizations that have had the greatest influence on your veganism and your continuing evolution?

Books

Dr. Amy Breeze Harper,
Sistah Vegan

Carol J. Adams,
The Sexual Politics of Meat
Angela Davis,
Freedom is a Constant Struggle
Timothy Pachirat,
Every 12 Seconds
Greg Jobin-Leeds,
When We Fight, We Win
And many others!

Films

Usually documentaries that will make me very upset and angry lol so I can go figure out what to do next about it.

The most recent one I watched that was phenomenal was the
13th, which addresses the fact in the United States prisons are disproportionately filled with African-Americans. I recommend this to any vegans who want to start grasping the idea of racism in this country.

Websites
And many others!

Organizations
And many others!

8. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?

I hit the gym pretty hard, with weights. I have been neglecting it but now I'm back to it! Also design and poetry.

9. What is the issue nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like others to know more about?

The liberation of all, humans and nonhumans is one of the dearests causes to me. I wasn't born knowing all I know. It took so much work to get to where I am. It took daily unpacking of my own privileges. It took tears and sweat and above everything else, it took so much humility to admit I hadn't it all figured out like I thought I had. If I could ask something, that would be - remain open.

10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan is...”

Powerful!

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Beyond the Bubble Bath: Cultivating a Practice of Radical Self-Compassion




Man, 2016, am I right? I won’t get into all the gory details because I am going to hazard a guess that you, gentle reader, are more than up-to-date with the caca explosion that was last year. But what can we do with our discontent and angst besides putting our elected officials into our phone contacts (check/barf), drive around with protest signs in our trunks (check) and take on a new urgency to get recreational pot legalized in your state (check)? How can we be kind and compassionate to ourselves when we most need to be? It seems like “self-care” is one of the buzzwords of the year that I dare not speak again and for good reason: many of us were seriously hurting. But what does self-care really mean? Too often, it’s reduced down to what I call the Bubble Bath Cure.

Feeling stressed? Take a bubble bath.

Feeling out of sorts? Take a bubble bath.

Feeling unappreciated? Take a bubble bath.

Feeling freaked out because the tacky-ass, pussy-grabbin’ boastin’, disabled-mockin’, Putin-humpin’ hobgoblin from reality TV is now your President-elect as if his human form materialized from your worst nightmare? Take a bubble bath.

I want to make this clear: I love me a bubble bath. LOVE. I love my bath pillow and fuzzy robe and all my bubble bath accouterments, too. Bubble baths can only do so much, though. Same with chocolates, massages and any other way we’re encouraged to treat ourselves to a Valentine’s Day special when we’re feeling down and out. All are lovely but do not come close to nourishing our souls when we are deep in that dark heart of the night. What can we do to show real compassion for ourselves in a way that feels like it is actually shifting our inner tectonic plates in a way that helps and changes us? Most important, how do we practice, yes, that word is italicized for a reason, what I am calling radical self-compassion?

I came up with a list of some of what is working for me. Some suggestions are external tools that can easily help and some are commitments to yourself that are more of a challenge but extremely worth it. Please understand that I don’t claim to always make the healthiest or the most optimal choice; part of self-compassion, radical self-compassion, is being forgiving to ourselves for being flawed humans.

Get Your Read On

Remember that speech Peter Falk gives lectures his grouchy, sick grandson in the beginning of The Princess Bride where he says, “Back when I was your age, ‘television’ was called ‘books’”? I imagine the grandfather in the Princess Bride would be even more curmudgeonly today, where filling up on empty mental junk food is much more the norm with all the devices and chances to distract oneself than when that film came out many years ago. I think that social media can deceive us into feeling like we’ve been reading but it is without much of that deep, nutritious soul satisfaction we get from a real, undistracted, glorious experience of getting lost in a book.

When was the last time you became immersed in a book or even a long article? I am as guilty as anyone with not prioritizing deep reading enough. There is always one last argument on Facebook I need to close off or one last unhinged thread I need to gawk at again. Oh, but did I check Jezebel? It’s been a few hours. Here is the person I need to reconnect with when I am feeling simultaneously overfilled and undernourished with unsatisfying mental clutter and noise: that girl who loved the library. From as young as I can remember, the library was always a luxurious haven for me. As much as I dreamed about living in Barbara Eden’s funky bottle from I Love Jeannie, the library would have been my first choice as a home. Every week, I would grab as many books as my little arms could carry – new ones and old favorites I checked out again and again – and stack them into wobbly towers on the library checkout counter. What a wonderfully content and exciting feeling that was to see all those books and know I would soon be swallowed up by them.

As clumsy and resistant I can be with technology, I am not claiming to be a Luddite. Online articles are a great resource to easily share with one another and there is some great journalism happening today; social media has allowed people to connect, support one another and interact in entirely new ways. But a good book or long-form article is nutritious soul food for the brain. Fiction or non-fiction; lofty or pulpy. The idea here is to just make it a regular practice to lose yourself in a book. Looking for book recommendations? Look no further than your local library, staffed with bibliophiles who live to share the love.

Speaking of your local library, remember to take advantage of this free resource that is fantastic in many communities, not just for books but for the free programs that bring us out of our homes and engaging in person. Many library systems also have free passes for local museums and attractions you can reserve as well.

Volunteer

Is there anything that gets us out of our little lives and gives us a sense of meaning and contribution more than volunteering? There are so many volunteer opportunities that it’d be impossible for me to do justice to it here, but if you are wondering what might be a good place to get started, check out Volunteer Match and noodle around. From volunteering at a battered woman’s shelter to taking your sweet dog to visit seniors, putting in some hours at a vegan soup kitchen to tutoring children, there are countless ways to contribute your time to help and support others in your own community.

Connect with a friend

Our relationships thrive depending on what we put into them and sometimes we can neglect the very people who matter most to us by taking their presence in our lives for granted. Speaking from personal experience, I can say that if you neglect these relationships for long enough, they can easily whither and die on the vine. On the other hand, by nurturing these relationships with our attention, we can keep these lifelines flourishing and healthy. More and more, we are learning how much intimacy and emotional connection matter to our overall sense of wellbeing and this ripples out to affect our actual physical vibrancy and longevity. Want to give yourself a gift? Reach out to a friend. Whether it’s an old friend you have some history with or someone more recent who you connect with, one of the best things we can do for our overall wellness is keep our relationships alive. Whether you meet for coffee, make a phone date, even just send a little text to let your friends know you’re thinking of them, you are nourishing yourself by keeping your connections intact and thriving.

Protect Yourself from Soul Suckers

The flipside of the previous point is to do what you can to distance yourself from those who drain your spirit. Sometimes it’s not easy to completely disconnect from such individuals, like with family members and co-workers, but even then, you can protect yourself by paying attention to how you contract around them or how you are triggered into behaviors or mental patterns that don’t serve you. Using visualization techniques, setting and maintaining firmer boundaries, or, if need be, disconnecting entirely, are a few ways that you can show up for yourself in these less-than-ideal or even toxic relationships.

Sometimes, this is very painful because the people we need to keep at arm’s length are those who have been in our lives for many years and perhaps the relationship has remained stagnant or even gotten limiting as you have grown and evolved. Sometimes we still love those people but the relationship is no longer healthy for us. Only you can say if the relationship is worth fighting for or if you should cut your losses and move on. I can say from personal experience, sometimes we need breaks from one another and sometimes those breaks can last for years and there is no guarantee you’ll ever revive your relationship. I have one friend who is back in my life after more than ten years apart. It’s wonderful to have reconnected and while it was painful when we went our separate ways, over time, I began to accept that both of us needed time apart. Sometimes you will reconnect and sometimes you won’t. That is okay. Don’t be rash but don’t cling. Do what feels right.

This also applies to newsletters and updates from online entities that no longer resonate with you or the person you are evolving into but still show up in your email or Facebook feed. Cut loose by unsubscribing or unfollowing and send them on their merry way.

Joyful, No-Stings-Attached Movement

Man, gym class was emotionally scarring for many of us, wasn’t it? It was for me. I had one gym teacher, the infamous and terrifying Mr. Byers, who actually attached a fifth grader named Jeff to a rope, swung him across the gym, and insisted that all the kids in the gym yell “Tinker Bell” at him. There were two other gym teachers in middle school, Ms. Kramer and Ms. Fisher, who cozied up with the cool kids by laughing at the unpopular ones and mocking our lack of athleticism. And who can ever forget the experience of sitting there, waiting and waiting to be picked for a team as the captains, with a look of mild or overt disgust, went back and forth among the unwanted stragglers like we were the last of the damaged, bruised produce they were forced to choose between at the grocery store?

Our families can mess us up, too. Between ultra-competitive, sports-obsessed older siblings to parents who label us as not athletic, many of us enter adulthood with no shortage of baggage about our bodies and our abilities to move with strength and grace; popular culture cements our limiting beliefs about our bodies by telling us that if we don’t look a certain way, we are unattractive and we are failures who should be embarrassed to be seen.

As a result of these and other influences, too often, an inner-tape plays that tells us really hateful things about our bodies. I’m fat. I’m out of shape. I am a klutz. I’ll look stupid. People will laugh at me. These cutting insults are so pervasive and round-the-clock for some of us, especially females, we really aren’t even aware of how constant they are because this running stream of hateful commentary is our normal. What if, though, we ejected that mix-tape of cruelty? What if we just pursued movement for the love of it? There are so many ways to add conscious, joyful movement one’s life, from walking to cycling, yoga to kick-boxing, and all can give us a great sense of satisfaction and well-being, especially if we don’t sandbag it with a laundry list of expectations and judgments.

I will say that one of the smartest and most compassionate things I did for myself in 2016 was revisit my old practice of sun salutations first thing in the morning each weekday. I probably would have survived the year without it but not nearly as well. A regular practice of movement can help us sleep better, can make us feel more anchored in our bodies, can boost our confidence. Not sure what’s right for you? Start with walking. Add some music you love. Make sure you’re wearing shoes that are comfortable. Most yoga studios offer a wide variety of classes and many also offer a complimentary free class for you to test it out for yourself. Community classes are also an affordable and less committal way to try out new approaches. Don’t want to leave the house? I don’t blame you! I love these yoga teachers and I also enjoy the variety offered on Fitness Blender as well as this super-fun crew. Try something. Find what you love and commit to it as much as feels right for you but, ideally, aim to include some joyful, no-strings-attached physical movement every day. Go ahead, release some endorphins. Aim to more kind to yourself than that inner-critic is mean.

A Little Cleaning Every Day

Seriously? Cleaning is on the list? Well, yes, because I’ve learned that when my life feels out of control and stressful, my home environment tends to reflect that; further, a messy house tends to aggravate my feelings of discontent until it’s like a dog chasing his tail. By the same token, when my house is neat and tidy, I feel much more empowered to take on what my goals are for the day. If I am feeling out of control, taking a little time to straighten up and clean helps me to become centered. In my own home, I have noticed a clear connection between dirty dishes in our sink and diminished household peace. Even fifteen minutes every day of tidying before bed can give you a sense of achievement and accomplishment, especially if you bring mindfulness to it and gratitude to it.

Speaking of Gratitude

I don’t know if there is any one practice that has brought more valuable bang for the buck into my life more quickly than taking the time for practicing gratitude. When I find myself being petty, snippy, mean, bitter and envious – in short, when I find myself being your run-of-the-mill ingrate – I know that it is time to take out my notebook and a pen and resume my practice of gratitude. I know it’s a cliché but it works. This is approach I use: each night before bed, I write down three things I am grateful for that happened that day. The idea is to frame it in a personal way, so instead of “I’m grateful that the sun was out,” which is perfectly lovely but something you had no control over, try “I’m grateful that I took advantage of the sun being out to enjoy an extra long walk with the dog.” Notice the crucial difference? You are in the driver’s seat of what has made you grateful.

Once you have written each point down, include the ways in which you made what you are grateful for happen. For example, with the walk above, maybe you took the time to look at the forecast the day before so you knew it would be nice out. That shows taking ownership of your wellbeing. Maybe you told your family you’d be doing this so no one expected you to be home. And so on. The idea is to notice and take responsibility for the positive moments in your life. These can be small things – like allowing yourself the time for a long walk – or they can be much bigger things, like getting a promotion at work. Aim to write at least three of these things you are grateful for that happened that day, big and small (most will be small!), even if some feel like a stretch. As you continue this practice every night, not only will your gratitude increase, your worldview will become more positive and you will find yourself creating more good in the world so you can add it to your list at the end of the day. The sneaky-seeming ulterior motive eventually becomes part of your daily practice of creating more opportunities worthy of gratitude to flow out into the world because the smile from the stranger you held the door for at the drugstore belongs on your list, too.

Feel the Music

Sometimes we don’t realize how much music affects our mood until a certain song comes up and suddenly your spirit is completely transported to a different place. For me, it’s music of the 1980s, specifically New Wave, that I can rely on for an instant happiness infusion. I have gone grocery shopping with an utterly blah disposition and left with much more pep in my step and a smile on my face because Yaz was playing over the speakers. If changing my mood is that simple, I should surely lean on music a little more as it’s such an accessible and dependable wellness tool. I am lucky enough to have a partner who understands and shares my musical tastes so he puts together amazing playlists for me to have on my phone in different themes (I have two workout playlists, a “good mood” playlist, a best “girl bands” of the 1980s playlist, a Johnny Cash playlist, etc.) and all can be counted on to feed what my spirit is craving. I can’t claim to be an expert on what resources are out there as my husband is pretty much our music curator but I do know that Pandora, which is what we use, and Spotify both offer customizable music streaming in free (with ads) or paid (without ads) versions. What music do you love? Bring more of it into your life.  

Aromatherapy

Like music, aromatherapy has a way of really shifting us and our emotional states quickly and effectively. A couple of years ago, I asked for an essential oil diffuser for my birthday and I keep it on my work desk. Depending on what I am looking for, I have various blends that I use pretty much every day. From uplifting ones in the daytime to more calming blends for the evening, ones that promote mental clarity or ease of breath, essential oils can be a reliable tool to reach for in our wellbeing toolbox.

Eat as Well as You Can Afford

It seems like when I feel the most precarious in my own life, I crave the very things that nourish me the least: potato chips, tortilla chips, cupcakes, ice cream, etc. I know I am not alone with this. We reach for these things when we are seeking temporary relief – which means it is rooted in a desire to feel better – but we make a mistake by not remembering that the consequences of empty calories on our emotional wellbeing can deflate our spirits worse than before we reached for them. I am not recommending a puritanical approach to your diet but instead a reminder that the things that nourish our bodies best – whole plant foods – also will reap dividends for our moods. When we are feeling unsteady and fragile, that is when we most need build a better foundation for ourselves with health-supporting foods. Of course, all things in moderation, even kale. A bowl of ice cream has its place, too.

Hydrate!


Research shows that even mild dehydration can lead to an inability to concentrate, headaches, energy loss and a worsening mood. My solution? I have a Klean Kanteen covered with my favorite vegan stickers and I have it at my side all day. As my friends will vouch, this dented vessel is my security blanket. I don’t even drive ten minutes to pick up my son from school without it. Is this because I think I’ll become dehydrated in that amount of time? No, it’s because it’s now a habit for me to always have my mug nearby. (And, believe me, I reach for it even in that short drive.) A well-hydrated person is someone who is taking care of herself.

Mindfulness

You know when we suffer the most? It’s when we are living in the past or our projected future or when we are wishing to not be where we are at the current moment. Think of the sitting at the DMV to renew your license: would it be worse to sit there, thinking, “I have stuff to do. I am so behind! Can’t they hire more people? These chairs are so uncomfortable. This sucks! I wish I could do this online. Gah!” or just to sit with the breath and live in the moment, regardless of how much that moment sucks? Trust me, things are not so intolerable when we are in the presence. As someone who has always been a failure at meditation, I will say that watching this short video (http://www.yogajournal.com/livebeyoga/meet-darnell-mcdonald-mental-skills-coordinator-for-the-chicago-cubs) featuring the “mental skills coordinator” of this year’s World Series-winning Chicago Cubs was a game-changer for me, really helping me to reframe how I conceptualize meditation, specifically this quote: “Any conscious breath that you take is a meditation.” What a fresh and original way of communicating meditation. Taking a conscious breath, being aware and in the moment with your body as you inhale and exhale is something that we can all do at any time. Is your mind churning with worries, anger, resentment? You don’t need to set up shop with your yoga mat: you can instantly access more peace with your conscious breath. For those who do want to take the practice of meditation and mindfulness a little deeper, I highly recommend the Insight Timer app for so many wonderful guided meditations, customizable music tracks, talks and more. Even the gentle, meditative sounds on these free resources can help us to cultivate a peaceful environment around us that support emptying the mental clutter.

Plant Yourself

I have found that having even a few plants around the house brightens my mood considerably and helps me to make it through our long winters with a bit of hope. This is a small investment for a big boost. They can also contribute to healthier home by cleaning our air, but if you have kitties, make sure they are not toxic.

Lighten Up

Another survival strategy for those of us who live with punishing winters, light boxes can help everyone from the mildly depressed to those with Seasonal Affective Disorder. Again, a light box is a rather small investment for big results.

Press Pause and Check In

I am someone who is a pleaser by nature and training so my default is to try to make people happy. When does this stand in the way of self-compassion? When I take on way too much. When I rush to apologize whether it is called for or not. When I impulsively jump in to try to fix an uncomfortable situation. I am learning the habit, slowly but surely, to check in before I hurry in with a reflexive response and press pause on that reaction, asking myself some essential questions first. Is my response fear-based? Is it rooted in wanting to please? Is it what I honestly want to do? Call it a gift of aging but pressing that internal pause button is becoming more natural to me. Let me jump to the upshot here: believing that my reactions can fix a chaotic and unsafe world is a mistake. They can’t. What can change the world? If I am happy, content, and living my life with intention and modeling that for others. Same with you. By the way, the same strategy of pressing pause is not just for pleasers: it is for anyone who is apt to make decisions from an impulsive, reactive place. Press pause. The world won’t explode, I promise.  

I hope you find this helpful.

What do you find helpful for practicing self-compassion? Please let us know!





Wednesday, December 28, 2016

10 Questions: Vegan Rockstar with Nicole Moore Eisenberg

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One of my best-loved perks of doing this feature is being able to help get the word out about some of my favorite vegans. About half the time, this is someone I have not met in person but I am so inspired by their work and their message; the other half of my interview subjects, I am fortunate enough to know in person. Nicole Moore Eisenberg is one such individual. We met some time back as part of the Mercy for Animals contingent with Chicago’s Gay Pride parade and I was immediately struck by Nicole’s great sense of humor and love of fun (she always was dressed really, um, memorably) and her warm, vivacious, unpretentious personality. Nicole is one of those “all in” people and as a fellow (sister?) “all in” type, I appreciate it when I recognize that quality in someone else. Let the others roll their eyes at our enthusiasm and spunk while we create the world we want to live in.

Sadly, Nicole is no longer local to me but Chicago’s loss is New York’s gain. Nicole and her equally sparkly husband are now based in Brooklyn where they run Veg Option Allies and Advocates, or VOAA, a non-profit that works to break down barriers to veganism – like social isolation, perceived difficulties and ingrained habits – to make compassionate living accessible to everyone. They do this with fun events, like their Massive Vegan Potluck Parties and educational, helpful videos on YouTube. Through their mission of community building, VOAA offers a powerful resource for helping those who are already herbivores to enjoy feeling solidarity and, more uniquely, encourages vegans to listen and hear about the reality of other lives so as to become true allies. The idea here is to create a win-win: we get to share the vegan love while gaining the empathy and understanding that comes from engaging outside of our usual social circles. I love the mission of VOAA and Nicole Moore Eisenberg makes me giddy. I am honored to feature her as this week’s Vegan Rockstar.

1. First of all, we’d love to hear your “vegan evolution” story. How did you start out? Did you have any early influences or experiences as a young person that in retrospect helped to pave your path?

My “vegan evolution” story keeps getting realer and realer - lol. It’s probably pretty sad. But it’s honest and, to me, that’s the only thing that matters.

I was always that kid who freaked out with happiness when animals were around. I think a lot of us unheard, lost, lonely kids were like that. Unfortunately, my go-to coping strategies for childhood/adolescence were people-pleasing and stuffing down my emotions as to not inconvenience anyone. So, though I did get leafleted in college (and even watched a few seconds of undercover footage!) and around the same time realized my dog resembled a little lamb and began feeling guilty for eating animals, I didn’t change my behavior because I was deeply scared of being abandoned for being different or difficult. Years went by and I started running and working out regularly. At that point, I became vegan over a weekend because a popular health/weight loss-themed book I picked up presented all the health and vanity points for me. It was like my spiritual self wanted to go vegan for years but I couldn’t because of my immense self-doubt. Then, eventually, my physical self wanted to do it and did. But even after being vegan 7 years, I feel like I’m still doing the work of merging my emotional and physical selves; Of un-stuffing my emotions and ditching the false-self I adopted early on in life and that I have relied upon without even knowing it until recently.

The take-away for me - and what I try to impart upon folks when I give my “Finding your own voice in the veg/an movement” talk - is that there is no such thing as an immediate transformation, even if we do go vegan very quickly or overnight. I like to call our tendency for romanticizing our “vegan evolution” stories “the butterfly effect”. This totally happened to me, which is why I am comfortable sharing my theory with you. I am not judging here, just passing along this observation in hopes it might help others. When we’re in vegan circles a LOT and share “our story” a LOT, it tends to get fable-ized. We live in a culture seeped in competition, so it’s only natural that we want to out-do and out-vegan each other a little bit when we compare stories. It’s unfortunate for everyone involved because SNORE! I don’t know about you, but I get bored to tears hearing “here’s what I want you to hear” stories rather than “here’s what really happened” stories. Plus, it gets us in the habit of sharing our “fable” instead of our story, and I can say with certainty not many non-vegans are buying it!

So, here goes: “It all happened one day when I was serenely perched atop the Grand Canyon and a butterfly landed on my shoulder and spoke to my soul…that moment forever changed me as I dropped my beef jerky into the canyon and have been vegan ever since that exact moment. I have never missed anything and it was the easiest thing I ever did. I was immediately repulsed by all animal products, even grilled chicken, and I never even crave vegan cheese or meats. I am so pure and evolved.” Obviously it’s an exaggeration, but my point is that it’s a waste of everyone’s time and energy - especially yours - because you’re missing out on an opportunity to really CONNECT to the person with whom you’re speaking.

I’ll pull out one of my favorite quotes by Philip Seymour Hoffman here because, well, it always helps me and makes me less scared to be vulnerable and share the good/bad/ugly of my story!! "If you're a human being walking the earth, you're weird, you're strange, you're psychologically challenged."



2. Imagine that you are pre-vegan again: how could someone have talked to you and what could they have said or shown you that could have been the most effective way to have a positive influence on you moving toward veganism?

See above. hehe. They could tell me their full, un-edited, flawed, ugly, honest story!! Every part of it. They would open up 100% and be real, human, imperfect, vulnerable, curious, patient, and still open to learning from me. They don’t have an evangelical, sales-person vibe to them. They share their story because they know I’m a good person who wants to do good in the world, too, and not because they want to “win” at being pure and right. They have self-love and inner-validation and don’t use veganism to feel validated (it took me years to figure out I was doing this!!) They would tell me that consciousness is a lifelong process of learning and unlearning, that everyone has their own path, and that I can start wherever works for me. It would be a collaborative conversation wherein both sides are being heard; them talking WITH me and wanting the best for me rather than AT me and wanting to feel powerful/important.

3. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message as a vegan? For example, humor, passion, images, etc.?

Based on the above, it won’t come as a surprise to you when I say; Honesty. But seriously, it has helped me a lot to recognize that I am right-brained and have fruitlessly been trying to turn my aspirational self into a left-brained person for as long as I can remember (2nd grade, to be precise). It’s been a revelation for me to do work that works for me; in the realm of emotions, creativity and intuition. Right-brained, creative, emotion-driven folks - IT’S OUR TIME!! BE YOU. OWN IT, EMBRACE IT, LIVE IT. Our country is full of other right-brained folks ready and eager to hear you, feel you, learn from you, and be inspired by you.

Anyway, my point here is that self-knowledge/self-discovery is paramount. We’re most effective when we’re being authentic and playing up our natural strengths. For some of my favorite resources to help with this, check out VOAA’s inspiration board.  

4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?

Facts. We destroy it on the facts!! We are ready to be fact-tested on a moment’s notice.

And I’m incredibly inspired by the strength, creativity and momentum of our pro-intersectional vegan movement. We are well on our way to ensuring that veganism is for everyone and that fighting oppression means fighting ALL forms of oppression!! There are so many vegans who get it - that small is the new big. We are community-based, community-facing, cooperative and collective!! By pointing our focus and attention toward those whose work also exemplifies community over competition, cooperation over capitalism, and collectives over hierarchies, we will empower each other, take power away from the oppressors, and change the landscape of veganism in the US.

Fred Rogers knows it and we know it, too. “But how do we make goodness attractive? By doing whatever we can do to bring courage to those whose lives move near our own, by treating our ‘neighbor’ at least as well as we treat ourselves and allowing that to inform everything that we produce.”

5. What do you think are our biggest hindrances to getting the word out effectively?

We need to be more REAL and encourage others to do the same. Especially those with the most power and influence. Speaking of those with the most power and influence, if you’re listening, why not take a more reciprocal approach and help amplify the voices who don’t get the same air-time as you?

"As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has--or ever will have--something inside that is unique to all time. It's our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression." -Fred Rogers

6. All of us need a “why vegan” elevator pitch. We’d love to hear yours.

“I direct a communication-centric non-profit all about bringing together vegans and non-vegans - here, have a sticker! The website is on there - you should check it out.”

I’m always carrying VOAA stickers. I hand them out as my business card every time I meet someone new. And I put them up anywhere in the city where there’s stickers. I live in Brooklyn, so this means I have many opportunities!

I also LOVE this quote and use it often in VOAA videos to introduce folks to what will hopefully be a lifetime of being FULLY AWAKE: “It takes courage...to endure the sharp pains of self discovery rather than choose to take the dull pain of unconsciousness that would last the rest of our lives.” -Marianne Williamson

To be honest, I am definitely still recovering from a few years of putting myself out there in way that really messed with my mental health, so VOAA stickering is my current elevator pitch! This sort of blends in to #8, but I just want to say 1) Your pitch - and your activism - don’t have to take away all your joy in life. You deserve to be happy!! Activism requires bravery and strength, but it doesn’t mean you need to sacrifice yourself. 2) If you can make your pitch actually be YOUR THING; something where you have autonomy over your duties and are able to be 100% YOU, it will be more fun for you PLUS folks will instantly FEEL all that amazing energy and pick up what you are throwing down!!! So, get out there, get started. Start an Instagram, a YouTube channel, a recurring event, a directory, a ‘zine, a book, a film, a support group, a community garden, a community kitchen, anything!!! It will be awkward and probably suck at first. 1) Awkwardness is way underrated 2) Everyone sucks at first. Everyone starts sometime; what better time than now??!

7. Who are the people and what are the books, films, websites and organizations that have had the greatest influence on your veganism and your continuing evolution?

SO MANY! I link to many of them on the VOAA site. I’ll also link to a few more who aren’t vegan, but who influence my work in #9.

One film every vegan needs to add to their list is the documentary 13th. Watch it, recommend it, talk about it, host a screening (Netflix is offering free screenings). The film summarizes the issue very succinctly: slavery in our country never left. It turned into Jim Crow laws, which turned into mass incarceration. The 13th amendment turned slaves into criminals. We say we would have been on the front lines and been active in the civil rights movement, but why aren’t more of us getting active now when one in three Black men are expected to end up behind bars while it’s one in 17 for a White man? The United States is home to 25% of the world’s prison population even though we’re only 5% of the global population. Corporations are making a killing off of prison labor. We’ve now reached over 151 years since the abolition of slavery yet institutionalized racial inequality in our country continues. We have a moral imperative to be a part of this movement and fight for racial equality and justice.

Another note about awkwardness. Yes, when we’re new at advocating for something, we’re awkward. That’s just the way it is. New vegans are going to be awkward and make mistakes just like new White allies are going to be awkward and make mistakes. It’s just one more reason inner-confidence and inner-strength from a deep sense of self-love is so vital for spreading social change! We have to be OK with putting ourselves out there simply because it’s the right thing to do. And not having a meltdown if a Black person corrects us or calls us out on misinformation. We can’t link our ego and our activism or we’ll be fragile pieces of pottery; not sturdy enough to stand up to incredibly strong evil powers.

8. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?

I got caught up in what turned out to be a pattern in my professional life: ignoring my own needs to please others; to gain love and acceptance from perceived authority figures in the movement. Habits learned in childhood die hard! I have seen this happen in other vegans, too. Since I started working on VOAA, it’s been such a relief and life-changer to start from scratch and get to know the real me. This is the first time in my career - and I’m 34 - that I’ve had autonomy over my job duties. I spent all the years before this biting my tongue and telling myself that if I just stay busy enough and say YES enough times that SOMEONE is bound to notice. What would happen once someone noticed?? I had no idea! It was an exhausting, unending treadmill of seeking-validation/love/acceptance-from-outside-myself. Anyway, nobody noticed. THANKFULLY! lol. I thoroughly and completely burned myself out. So, I decided I had nothing to lose. Now, I feel like I’m making up for lost time and learning who the hell I really am!!

The best thing we can do is figure out how to do activism that is 100% US. A funny thing starts to happen when we do this. We realize how much we need others. So, then we get to join forces with other amazing activists also doing their own thing!! We learn emotional, intellectual and spiritual skills from them. Boundaries become easier; being able to turn off WORK and turn on PLAY. It’s awesome. I’m just beginning to experience all these awesome changes and can’t wait to really LIVE THIS in 2017.

That said, it’s always a delicate balance. It’s just like Janelle Monáe says, “Whether I'm high or low, I got to tip on the tightrope.”

9. What is the issue nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like others to know more about?

Abuse of power over children. Childhood emotional neglect is the cause of so many adults with boundary issues, debilitating self-doubt, living life feeling powerless; from the viewpoint of victims, inability to ask for help, unhealthy view of the world; issues being strictly black or white, having an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, fearing authority figures, and becoming professional approval seekers. The books Running on Empty; Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect by Jonice Webb and The Drama of the Gifted Child; The Search for True Self by Alice Miller have been very helpful to me personally as well as adultchildren.org and the group’s printed resources. If you find yourself relating to these qualities, check out the “Laundry List” on adultchildren.org. It will get you started in the right direction!

10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan is...”

An important part of my true self.