A RUDE AWAKENING.
I would miss meat too much. I can’t get enough protein. Bacon is good for me. Steak gives me strength. I just don’t see myself being able to do it. These are all statements I once held to be true and I confounded them, I preached them. I went to the gym everyday, I was ripped, and I was strong. I religiously drank my protein shakes and saw carbs as the devil. I ate what many of you would still consider to be extremely healthy. It all began with a question; a feeling that something wasn’t quite right, something needed to change – that surely there was a better way? I just didn’t know what it was; something was standing in my way. Ignorance.
I loved animals, but like many of you I had been brought up to totally and blindly disassociate myself from the process of mass-slaughtering animals in regards to the food that ended up on my plate. I was oblivious that this was the food that could potentially be making us all sick.
Then one day, my little brother collapsed after a sudden onset of type-1 diabetes. He was totally healthy, fit, strong and full of energy. How did this happen? We may never know the answer. What we did know was that we had the power to do something about it.
My dad scoured the Internet for days. He researched and investigated every possible path. Western science came up with medication after medication – drugs that simply destroy and ravage the body, offering no real solution. There must be a deeper answer. So we looked to diet and in turn, found that the solution that bested all was a high-starch, high-fibre, whole food, plant-based diet. Veganism.
Not even one week had passed on a vegan eating plan and my brother’s blood levels had made a rapid stabilisation that baffled the doctors – a stabilisation that takes many patients months, even years to accomplish. The units of medication he had to take in order to reduce his blood glucose levels drastically dropped – all whilst consuming enormous quantities of carbs! Wait, what? I thought carbohydrates were supposed to spike blood sugar levels? Interesting. What could the secret be?
At this point I decided to truly educate myself on nutrition, leaving any bias or close-minded, egotistic misconceptions at the door. Fast-forward, and today I can say I have NEVER felt so light, so lifted, and so flowing with boundless energy.
My digestive system thanked me. Even with such a high volume of fibre, my stomach felt free and unobstructed, as opposed to how one may feel after a heavy lasagne, for example. After meals I feel satisfied and satiated, not heavy or sleepy.
The changes were immediate and began to affect my exterior also. My skin began to glow; it was soft, plump and fresh, with blemishes clearing up entirely within days. Yes of course rogue pimples are inevitable in life, but I experienced much less inflammation and the odd spot would simply pass with ease.
The truth behind my diet was that it was based on a high-starch, high-fibre principal: incorporating large portions of leafy greens, fruits and vegetables whilst eliminating almost all processed foods.
In September 2017, I made plans to visit South Korea. I had booked myself a trip of a lifetime to go and visit my brother, who teaches English in Jeonju (the food capitol of South Korea) for six weeks. I could not wait!
However, I was conflicted. Travelling to Asia is a once in a lifetime experience. How could I visit Asia and not even eat a single piece of meat or try a traditional Korean meal? Not eat bugs or a freshly caught fish by the coast? Not enjoy a shared meal amongst friends? Surely this would mean I would miss out on an amazing, priceless experience?
Korea is famous for its traditional barbeques and widespread drinking culture. South Koreans consume twice as much as alcohol as the average Russian: a staggering 13.7 shots per week. The most popular tipple is Soju – a super sweet, hard-hitting beverage, perfect for washing down an endless evening barbeque. I learnt the hard way, two shots of this rocket fuel was more than enough!
So, what did I do? I threw caution to the wind, took no prisoners – and eventually paid the price. After relentlessly saturating my pallet with barbequed delicacies, seafood, and meat for two weeks (none of which I regret) I could not take anymore. Yes, it was delicious. I shared laughs, ate bugs, and had a brilliant time. YES, I became constipated. I ate and ate until my heart was content, but somehow I never felt truly satisfied; not once did I feel truly good after eating. Not once did the huge array of traditional, authentic foods on offer make me feel as good as a simple bite of a cool, crisp apple.
Very soon it became clear that no amount of meat I ate was worth compromising how well I could feel – and for this lesson I am truly grateful. By simply allowing myself to have meat I gained a profoundly deep appreciation for the simple, subtle plant-based foods I had been eating.
I will always remember the weekend I returned to veganism. My brother Daniel booked an overnight stay in Baekyangsa, a Buddhist temple dating back over 1500 years. It was not one moment, but many that defined this experience as life affirming. It could not be foreseen or scripted, yet it was clear and poignant. The message was unmistakable.
We arrived on a hot autumn day; the first of the leaves had started to change. It was Chuseok, Korea’s harvest festival: a time of thanks-giving and a sign that summer is over.
We began a 4 km trek up a winding mountain path from where the bus left us; it was beautiful to be in such wild nature. Once we arrived, we had an introduction into temple etiquette and were given some pretty kick-ass robes to relax in for the rest of the evening, all before a chilly 4 am wake up call for morning meditation. Dark by 7 pm, we were asleep by 10 pm and it felt like 4 am rolled around in the blink of an eye.
First call of the day was the bowing ceremony, a recital of Buddhist chants and meditation. It’s hard to put into words the profound sensation of warmth, power, and resonance I experienced during the chanting – there was sincerity felt within the reverberation of their voices that flowed through me as if I was a tuning fork. The sequence was imperative, the intention of bowing was to empty the mind and literally pour yourself clear in giving true thanks. Chanting mantras would repeat wholehearted gratitude and affirm the beginning of a beautiful day, whilst the meditation was a time of reflection.
The ceremony ended at 6 am, followed by sweeping the yard. It was explained that every action should be carried out with intention and presence. Simply sweeping the floor or washing dishes, if done with pure heart, presence and intention – was practising Buddhism. We had a breakfast of traditional temple food: rice, soup, seasonal vegetables and plenty of fermented foods such as kimchi, mugwart, radish and many more.
The best was yet to come: our cooking seminar with the famous monk, Jeong Kwan. Featured on the hugely popular Chef’s Table, her name is known amongst top chefs worldwide and we had a backstage pass to meet her in person. Jeong Kwan explained her philosophy on food, on Buddhism, and how it’s all interconnected – how we should live in harmony with nature. She explained how she uses ancient methods of preservation and fermentation, for years at a time letting the natural energy of each season refine the process with time. How we may guide it, yet must learn to leave it to grow undisturbed. Her passion was palpable – I could feel it. She was small but her energy filled the entire room and lit smiles upon the faces of everyone there. We made an instant connection and even though she was addressing the whole room, for 45 minutes she spoke directly to me, rarely breaking eye contact. She spoke to me with more than just words. This memory I will always remember and for this I am truly grateful.
Jeong Kwan had prepared a huge array of food for us along with a bespoke soup that she made in the moment inspired by the interaction and energy of her audience. We waited until everyone had sat down with their meals, said a prayer and were treated to the most outstanding, vibrant and positively charged food. It was simply the best meal of my life and it was 100% delicious VEGAN food.
Koreans have a love affair with meat, so here begs the question, how do I survive as a vegan in Korea? Well that is the best part. Korea is bustling with street markets, fruit stands, old women squatting cutting onions – this is the true heart and soul of the city. It has been two weeks to date and I am doing just fine, in fact, better than ever. So if you love a good bargain and have the discipline to stay true to yourself, then anything is possible. This is where my journey begins once again.
Peace and Love.