How I became a Plant-based Missaghian (Part One)

“The food of the future will be fruit and grains. The time will come when meat will no longer be eaten.

Medical science is only in its infancy, yet it has shown that our natural food is that which grows out of the ground.”
(‘Abdu’l-Baha, from Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era, page 102)

I used to be a Vegetarian

When I was a teen, my love for animals as well as my need to be cool and different meant that I became Vegetarian, which lasted about two years. Then one day I remember it was the smell of bacon and the taste of chicken which weakened my defences. Ever since then, I have imagined there would be a day in the future when I would go back to being a Vegetarian. But the thought of restricting myself from yet another thing in this world (when I don’t drink alcohol, smoke, do drugs, didn’t have sex before marriage and don’t even go out dancing any more (mainly to do with not wanting to be a part of that sweaty, lusty, fake scene, than for any religious reason, as I do dance at home!)) prevented me from going back to being a Vegetarian, as did of course my cravings for bacon, sausages and chicken in particular.

Too much cheese

Another of the strange mental barriers to my being Vegetarian (which should have been a sign) was that whenever you go out to a restaurant or eat at the home of friends who don’t usually cook Vegetarian food, but are kindly having a go to accommodate you – everything is smothered in cheese! I do like cheese generally, but too much melted cheese where the fat is running off the surface just makes me feel ill. For many years this was the excuse that skipped through my brain, distracting me from my sadness about eating animals or the need to eat vegetables and fruits for health!

My memories are all about food

A factor that also had a huge impact on my food decisions (including a steady impact on the size of my belly!) was just how much I LOVE food and how much pleasure I get from eating. The main thing I remember about my year living in China, back in 1998-99 is how much I either loved the food (aubergine and potato fried goodness or red rice with spicy chicken)or didn’t like the food (think chicken’s feet and worm-like slimy noodles!). There my love of all Asian food was born, as well as my (thank God now erased) near obsession with MacDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken, as both those places were times of mutual sanctuary to my fellow Western English Teachers when Chinese food became too much, or when we literally wanted a taste of home. I remember the amazing food my Nana (who was a professional Cook) made us every weekend, and particularly her glorious 5 course Christmas menus! I particularly remember the Bahá’í 19 day Feasts in the homes of Persian friends because their fragrant and rich food was amazing – much better than the biscuits and cake served in other homes. Basically if the food was good, that memory has lasted and lasted. Some people think in colour or remember particular emotions – whereas I think in food!

Loving food just a little too much

Apparently as a child I would go to a party and eat so much food that I’d throw up when I came home. I remember going on a school trip and buying my sister a large stick of rock as a present and then eating half of it on the way home on the bus. On another school trip to Paris, when I was about 14, I ate chips on the Ferry over, threw up over myself and another friend, fell asleep and woke up with us both covered in vomit! Yes it’s good to like food, one of this world’s pleasures and a daily necessity – but I have to admit, my love of food went beyond the bounds of constraint.

Starting College – no exercise – got fatter

When I was 16, I passed my GCSE’s and left School to go to the local Tertiary College to study A-levels. This had an almost immediate impact on my weight – as previously I had walked the mile to school every morning, and back again in the afternoon, I was a member of the school Hockey Team and enjoyed PE during the school timetable. I would run around every break time, playing tag, British Bulldog, skipping or hopscotch. I was a very active child so that even though I ate a lot, I was slim and muscular. Also our food at home was generally healthy and we were not allowed to eat a lot of sweet foods.

The College was a bus-ride away however and there was no PE or playing around like a child in the break times! I felt cool and sophisticated as I no longer had to wear a school uniform, I could wear my own clothes and present my style to the world! I wore make-up and earrings and even began to find boys interesting and funny, rather than annoying and stupid as all the boys in school had been. I could buy my own lunch and revelled in chocolate bars and bags of pick-a-mix. Yes it was great that Fleur, the woman, was emerging, but when I look back I am shocked how I completely stopped any exercise and ate so much rubbish (sorry Mum!). And of course the weight began to pile on. Oh, and that was when I stopped my Vegetarian diet also.

When the interest in nutrition began

Between then and now, my eating habits have dramatically shifted. In part this is to do with taking notice of how eating different foods affect my body and in part to do with educating myself through my strong interest in health and healing. Actually this all began when my brother’s eczema noticeably reduced (as a toddler) when his diet was restricted; when my Mum, Rita, had breast cancer and went into remission purely through focusing a healthy diet with daily fresh juices and healthy foods for ten years and then when my husband was diagnosed with MS back in 2003. I wanted to figure out how our actions create or reduce illness and what we can do to heal ourselves.

Screen Shot 2015-10-24 at 21.39.10My friend, Vicky, wrote a wonderful book in this time called ‘I’ll have the fruits and grains please!’ exploring the Bahá’í Writings on food and healing which she kindly dedicated to Ramin and myself. In fact, even though I was living in Germany and Vicky was in England, we worked together to produce an online monthly magazine for a year (a whole year!) called ‘Little Guru’ – featuring articles from fellow writers and friends interested in the subject of health and healing for the mind, body and soul. This monthly commitment to produce read-worthy articles that would assist people’s healing was the first time I had focused on nutrition – and it began to change my own habits. I ate more fruit and added more vegetables to our daily meals, I reduced my bread intake (oh gorgeous German bread!) and tried out new kinds of cheese rather than eating sausage and cold meats for breakfast.

A particular book that shifted my mind-set enormously was the bookEat to Live’ by Joel Fuhrman, M.D. I realised that it was not a lack of will power which had prevented me from eating healthily, but a lack of knowledge. I learned so much from Dr Fuhrman and I still go back and read that amazing book every now and then, to remind myself of the principles and practical actions needed to live a healthy life. The really cool thing is that reading this book changed my focus from losing weight to losing bad health and learning to enjoy food for it’s healthful benefits, not just it’s taste.

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One of the main messages I received from ‘Eat to Live’ was the effect sugar has on our bodies. I used to eat so much sugar, it’s a wonder I am not obese. Yes I’m overweight (it’s slowly shifting now!) but I thank my body for effectively dealing with the excess sugar I fed it and I’m so grateful (and kind of astounded) that I don’t have type 2 diabetes. My sugar intake is so low in comparison to when I was a teen and a young woman due to reading this book as well as support from friends, Vicky in particular. Dr Fuhrman explains clearly, that ‘Refined foods cause a swift and excessive rise in blood sugar, which in turn triggers insulin surges to drive the sugar out of the blood and into our cells. Unfortunately, insulin also promotes the storage of fat on the body and encourages your fat cells to swell.’ The thought of my body sending out a hormone to deal with the sugar and that being responsible for the fat on my body really changed my mind-set and I became far better at controlling how much sugar I ate.

The change began with goats milk

About five years ago, I began to make the correlation between eating dairy products (milk in particular) and stomach aches as well as other anti-social side effects. In fact it became so obvious – like a continual low-grade period pain – that I really had to make a change. My sister had recently swapped to goats milk, and found she gained masses of energy and didn’t feel the listlessness that used to overcome her anymore; my Dad had swapped to soya milk after suffering from persistent stomach problems and my brother, Kalim who has severe eczema, had only ever drunk soya milk. So I too swapped to goats milk (the thought of soya milk made me retch at the time!) and even though the slightly bitter taste took a bit of getting used to, in a few months I could drink it straight and even preferred the taste. Clearly lactose intolerance runs in my family – but it took me about 30 years to realise this! Changing my milk from cows to goats milk was a first step towards independence from the societal norms and I realised I began to start caring less, if at all, about what other people thought. Yes goats milk tastes funky (the American version) to many people, but I liked it and I didn’t have stomach problems with it – so whatever other people’s reaction, I knew what was good for me.

Why are animals food? It just feels wrong.

In these last few years I have felt a yearning to let go of eating animals but really didn’t have, what I felt, was the emotional strength. I knew I could never kill an animal to eat it and I also found that as time went by I became more aware of the bones and muscles of the chicken, or the veins in the prawns, or the connective tissue in lamb and had to work on not thinking about the slice of meat on my fork and the fact that slice used to be a part of a living animal. The reality that this food had once been a living, breathing creature and wasn’t just a slab of ‘food’ you bought in a supermarket began to hit home. Looking back I wonder how it took me so long, but it’s amazing how blind we can be to a truth when, for example, the power of taste is so strong.

I kept yearning for beans, this was so strong that when I went to Nandos (a famous chicken restaurant) I wanted to eat the bean burger more than the chicken! I would still choose the chicken, because it tasted so good – but then would wonder if this chicken had lived a good life, would look at the wing and think of the feathers that had been plucked from it. In fact it’s quite weird to me how long it has taken me to stop eating meat, when I’ve been having these quiet thoughts and inner battle for years! I always thought I wasn’t strong enough to give up meat and fish, even though all I wanted to eat was beans!

Forks Over Knives

Screen Shot 2015-10-24 at 21.40.17I heard about the film, ‘Forks over Knives from my friend Della, while teaching singing at a Bahá’í Summer School in Romania last year. She was trying a plant-based diet (quite a brave thing to do in Romania) after being inspired by this film. Back in the UK another friend told me about the film, and then – still having not seen it (resisting, maybe?) I joined a Facebook group which friends of mine had set up, exploring and learning about plant-based diets and I was impressed by the articles, videos and thoughts shared. I felt particularly inspired by the knowledge and gentle responses of my friends, Ronnie and Rosie and I began to experiment with different vegetables and beans and herbs and spices. I really began to consider that if I did give up eating animals, I would still have tasty meals. I even began to entertain the thought that; so what if my meals were not as tasty as before, why was I letting my taste-buds – that temporary mouthful – influence me so deeply and overrun my conscience?

So, a few weeks ago I sat down one afternoon and watched the entire film, ‘Forks over Knives’ with Ramin (this was the second time for me, as I’d watched it last year with Kalim). Suddenly (and this didn’t happen the first time I watched the movie) I was blown away by the extensive studies which showed clearly the negative effect meat and dairy have upon our bodies – so much so, that for the sake of our health and as a pilot project (my Mum loved those!) we decided to try a plant-based diet for 3 weeks then see how we felt……..

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Knocking on Heaven’s Door

How often do we sit down and pray ardently for our friends? Do we sacrifice our time and energy in prayer for others? Or do we just pray for ourselves and what we want out of life? Going through some challenges at home, I realised I needed some Divine assistance. A few friends of mine were also going though difficulties, so I thought I’d make a prayer list. The following blog post are my thoughts on the experience of doing a 9 day prayer plan. I put out a request on Facebook;

“I am going to start a 9 day prayer plan next week from the 16th September to the 24th September. If there is anyone who would like me to include them on my prayer lists – healing/marriage/tests/new challenges/ guidance etc – please message me and I will be honoured to do so. If anyone would like to join me in prayer, that would be great too! I’m happy to pray for friends of all faiths or no faiths – so this message isn’t just for Bahá’ís!”

Then on the 16th I also said this:

“Day One of my 9 day prayer plan starts today. I have about 25 people on my list. Any more takers? Last chance – after today you’ll either need to wait until the next prayer plan, start your own plan or ask someone else to pray for you! :)”

I was overwhelmed with responses – message after message flooded in. Ten people also joined me on the 9 day prayer plan – two dear friends (one in the UK and one in Minnesota, USA) also synching the timing of their prayers with mine.

Just before 8pm, another few people quickly contacted me – one literally as I was turning off my phone – and I added them to the list. On day two another dear friend asked if I could remember her son and of course I agreed.

So the 9 days have now come to an end and I’m reflecting on the experience.

Overall I feel honoured and moved that a large group of people asked me to pray for them. It felt like I was standing outside a sacred temple, with over 100 people who all entrusted me with their hopes, fears, concerns and pleas. I heard their voices, embraced them virtually and then walked into the temple, offering my desire for my friend’s healing and guidance and asking for God’s Will to be done. Walking beside me, adding my voice to theirs were the ten people I mentioned before as well as my father and my husband who joined me most nights.

It would have been too arduous a task to think of all the people every night – so I read the names of the people on the list out-loud before saying the first prayer, placing them in the care of a higher power, a greater memory. It’s interesting that I had over 100 people on my final list and over ten people who prayed with me – maybe I should have given each praying friend the names of ten friends from the list each? That’s an idea for next time.

Most nights I said either The Long Healing Prayer or The Fire Tablet from the Baha’i writings. There were a few nights when I said 9 ‘Remover of Difficulties’ instead, as I was just too tired to say a longer prayer – and there was one day when I just plain forgot and so said prayers the next morning.

I realised a few things:

I believe in the power of prayer for transformation, for shifting obstacles and for placing one’s life in God’s hands. I always feel much stronger after saying prayers, I have a greater focus and can handle challenges from a place of calm rather than panic. When I put out a call for people who needed prayers too I was quite surprised just how many friends responded. I thought about 20 people would respond. Receiving over 100 requests, this makes me wonder if we need to be asking friends if they need prayers more often!

In the West, we tend to hide our faces away when life gets tough, and suffer in silence a lot, thinking we are the only ones having such a hard time. Yes it’s good to not burden others with our worries, but asking a friend to pray for you throughout a particular challenge is a way your friend can help, it might be the only way sometimes.   Even if someone doesn’t believe in God, in a next world, in the soul – it actually doesn’t matter. The fact that I am sitting down over a period of time to think of my friend with love in my heart and asking a Higher Power (whatever that means to me or you) to help that friend – is a beautiful thing for the intention is pure. So let’s do it more often!

I’ve been brought up to pray my way through difficulties. It’s always been a part of family life. They used to call it ‘knocking on heaven’s door’. I remember my parents ardently praying through periods of time when we were involved in sharing the healing message of Baha’u’lláh with new people. I remember repeating healing prayers over and over again when my brother was a small child with terrible weeping excema to help him fall asleep and to calm myself down because his cries were so distressing. I remember saying the Long Healing Prayer day after day by Ramin’s raised bed when he was sleeping, thin and vulnerable because his relapses were rushing him to hospital month after month.  I remember saying the same prayer as above every day of the last few months of my Mother’s life – not for her Cancer to be taken away, but for her to move into the next part of her eternal existence peacefully and for us all to have the strength to let her go. I do not know how anyone copes with life’s huge ups and downs without prayer.

I think we need to talk about this subject more. We need to say less ‘token’ offerings and more heartfelt yearnings. I certainly want to immerse myself in the ocean of prayer and gain strength from it’s force and ceaseless movement, its healing power.

On Baha’i.org the way we pray together as Bahá’ís around the world is beautifully described,

“Devotional meetings spring up naturally in a community where a conversation about the spiritual dimension of human existence is growing. In diverse settings, Bahá’ís and their friends and families unite with one another in prayer. There are no rituals; no one individual has any special role. Meetings consist largely of reading prayers and passages from the Bahá’í sacred texts in an informal yet respectful atmosphere. A spirit of communal worship is generated by these simple gatherings, and this spirit begins to permeate the community’s collective endeavours.”

Something very special happens when you remember people in prayer. Its like all the external differences just melt away and you feel a pure connection. In these 9 days, I felt so much love! About prayer —‘Abdu’l-Baha says,

“Praise be to God, thy heart is engaged in the commemoration of God, thy soul is gladdened by the glad tidings of God and thou art absorbed in prayer. The state of prayer is the best of conditions…”

So in these 9 days when I said a special prayer for my friends, my soul was ‘gladdened by the glad tidings of God’.  I am thankful that my friends gave me the opportunity to be in ‘the best of conditions’. Praying is truly an example of these insightful words, ‘to sacrifice is to receive a gift’.

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