I recently attended Vegfest 2017, with my friend Timea, and you can read more about the event on her blog at Train Strong to Live Strong.
One of the seminars I attended was by James Aspey, entitled ‘From Apathy to Activism.’ Hundreds of people packed the room, & more than 50 people were turned away, as they packed the corridors listening, ears pressed to the door. The energy was electric as the crowd were enthusiastically warmed up.
“Influencing influencers” was the message of the day as the speech was introduced. The prominent messages from the introduction were that “We’re here to make the world a better place.” and “There’s a calling for a deep, inner change in all of us.” “Increasing peace, respect, compassion and equality” is what veganism is all about.
Embellished with animal rights and vegan tattoos, Aspey’s skin speaks organically of all he has come to stand up for, as he begins to share his unique story. (Watch more about his tattoos here.) Aspey introduced his speech with the the simple message; “Anybody can change. Nobody is hopeless. You never know who you’re talking to.” I would describe Aspey as an evangelist for veganism. Listening to him describe how he didn’t even like animals before he became vegan was both comical and refreshing. Aspey’s quote; “The least passionate could become the most passionate,” reminded me of the bible verse, from the book of Luke; “Let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.”
The heart of his message was about James’ controversial 365 days of silence. Aspey encouraged the audience of the power of telling your personal story, as a powerful message, as he began to unravel his own story. James had leukemia lymphomia and had never suffered to this magnitude before. Understanding the nature of suffering in this way gave him a greater capacity for empathy, as he went on to describe how “Suffering is the worst thing we can go through. Coming out of suffering is one of the best things and to help someone out of suffering is the best thing you can do with your life.”
From falsehoods to truths; inspired by the words from a wise man, whispered into his ear, he recalls them “Eating animals is bad karma.” After the man had planted the one seed in his mind, James was inspired to try a vegan diet for one week. As a result, he describes how he felt amazing and asked himself; “How have I been so wrong about this!?”
After this one week, he then went on to watch the increasingly popularised 2005 documentary, Earthlings. Earthlings is about ‘humanity’s use of other animals as pets, food, clothing, entertainment, and for scientific research.’ Describing Earthlings, he originally thought it “sounds pretty chill.” However, he found it to be to the contrary, “it was a real-life horror movie.” “Imagine if it was you, the terror in their eyes. Mutilations.”
This led him to ask; “We don’t need to kill animals to survive, so why?” The reasons he gave were simple; out of “task, convenience, tradition and habit.” Yet, he describes, “there’s no taste worth an innocent scream of a living being. There’s another path to walk.”
After a ten day meditation, and going without speaking, James was inspired to go a full year without talking. This may sound insane to some, so the real question is WHY would anyone do that?!
On becoming a ‘Voice for the Voiceless,’ he wrestled with the following questions;
- “Why don’t you (people) wanna know?”
- “Is this a big enough cause?
- “”Am I just against some cruelty or ALL?”
Answering his own questions, he went on to say;
- “There are 56 billion land animals who feel pain and suffer just like we do. They lead rich, emotional lives. They want to live and they don’t want to die.”
- “Animal agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation, pollution etc.”
- “The number one killer is heart disease. The only diet proven to reverse is a diet free from animal products, which will also reduce cancer, diabetes, osteoperosis and more.”
- “The dairy industry is so good at keeping secrets. There’s at least as much cruelty in cheese / milk / clothing as meat.”
- “I’m no animal lover but I know oppression and violence when I see it. 99% of people are against animal cruelty but their actions aren’t aligned.”
- “You’re in presence of a message that is a true gift to your life.”
- “We let them live. We treat them the way they want to be treated.”
- It doesn’t make sense to pick and choose.
- “No innocent being belongs in a cage.” “There’s no right way to do the wrong thing.”
- Causing unnecessary suffering is wrong. It’s easy – so align your actions with your values.
- “Some things in life are more important than your own happiness.”
Not happy about the fact that he had never met any of the animals he was ‘speaking’ up for, James went to a rescue farm, where he met Rupert, the baby calf which would have such a big part to play in James’ journey. He describes him endearingly; “Big eyelashes.” “Cute.” Although, it wasn’t so straightforward. “He was dying. I spent six weeks looking after him.” After those six weeks, Aspey’s realisation was that “These animal’s aren’t things anymore.”
Transitioning from previously not caring about animals much, to experiencing the closeness and the connection with Rupert, made what he was standing up for that bit more poignant. “They (referring to the animals) added this richness to my life. Life is so much more valuable and interesting now. ”
When it became time to leave he recalls; “I thought how can I say goodbye?” Describing the ‘cow-human’ moment, of how when it became to say goodbye to the calf, Rupert instead of the usual head butting James, he came up gently to James and let nuzzled in to him, as if he knew that it was time to say goodbye. Fondly describing the experience, he goes on to say that; “We’ll never fully understand the complexity and awareness of other species. Keep an open mind. Animals will continue to surprise you and amaze you.”
After this experience, he became fired up about the dairy industry. He describes how the baby cows journey through the dairy industry; from baby boy in a slaughter house, to piece of meat on a consumer’s plate, makes it “one of the most cruel industries on the planet.” Talking about one of his subsequent visits to a slaughter house, where he had to “dress up like a ninja” to get inside, he recalls how he could hear the animal’s screams and how he could feel their pain.
“It’s huge, it gave me the fuel I need to keep fighting and to fight hard. There are some things more important than your own.” “We should be speaking up the way we would want to be spoken for. I put my life on the back burner.” After his 365 vow of silence was over, he still felt the need to break sterotypes. This included a 500km cycle across Australia, to break the perception that vegans are weak.
James describes how he was once having a meal with friends. During the meal, he became aware of a massive injustice; “the victims of the torture was on their plate and they paid for them to be there while they pat their dog.” It was then that he realised that he’s “there as a shining example of being a vegan.” Rather than get angry at people, he now uses these opportunities to be an example and lets his actions do the talking.
“Vegans are a small minority. ” Aspen recounts on the advantage of being voiceless. The fact that people ask you why. Being voiceless was ironically becoming a platform in which he was able to speak. Whether that meant his answer was communicated through body language or in writing. He started to think to himself; “What am I gonna do when I start speaking?” He would no longer have people coming up to him asking why he wasn’t speaking and less opportunity to spread the vegan message.
Tattoos were his solution, because “people always ask you what your tattoos mean.” After getting covered in tattoos in Indonesia, James was encouraged by the newly converted tattooist’s vegan lunch and when he asked about it, the tattooist replied “If you can do it, so can I.”
After the year, it became time to finally speak out. ” He didn’t feel like the TV show had really given him the opportunity to say everything he had wanted to. “I expected deep conversations, but they (the TV show) steered the conversation away.” However, after the TV show was aired, he gained a significant following on social media and had made a massive impact on the viewers.
On speaking about the experience, James reminisces; “It’s not just what you say, but how you say it, and who you are when you say it. Be the best version of who you can be.” “I made it my purpose to be an instrument of truth and peace. I just had a crack at it.” In summary, the journey “started with one seed.” “I committed to this, and millions of people were reached.”
If you still need the answer to the question ‘why do it,’ Aspey concludes; “I did it to raise awareness for the voiceless victims. and the way I’m living my life” ” I became voiceless because they’re voiceless , they scream in terror, but we’re not listening because they don’t look like us.”
Four years ago, he wasn’t even vegan. Now he has a massive following as one of the leading figures spreading the word for veganism. His encouragement to you; “You’re a warrior in an army. We’re so lucky we can fight in this way.” Quoting Einstein, he said; “No one else is gonna do it. Those who have the knowledge have the duty to act on it.” Essentially, it’s the case that “When we know better, we can do better.”
I would say the key takeaways from James’ engaging and inspiring talk were;
- Consider the way you live your life. Do your actions align with your beliefs?
- Engage with the richness of life by awakening and opening your mind and fully engaging with reality and what’s going on around us
- Make ethical, conscious choices about your lifestyle, especially food choices and consider eliminating meat and/or dairy out of your diet
- Don’t be afraid to be fully alive, standing up for a purpose higher than yourself
- To enact change, or to make people listen, sometimes sacriice e.g. not speaking for a year, or cycling 500km on a vegan diet, can be a great way to obtain interest and gain momentum for a cause
Voiceless365 “I took a 365 day vow of silence as I travelled around the nation
to promote the abolition of animal exploitation.”