Veganism, exercise, sobriety. They all seem like the negation of experience, the rejection of pleasure. No more can you have gooey cheeses and fat-dripping meats or lie about all day in indolence and decadence with numbing chemicals carrying you away from the pressures of life. All of that is cast aside in favor of clean. Clean food, clean actions, clean chemicals, clean living.
I’ve come a long way on this journey, from where I was 18 years ago. For too many years saw I wallowed in the depths of my own depravity, with blurry nights and feasts and stories of not quite well-considered actions. Without getting into any career-damaging confessions, let us just agree that I explored every Epicurean avenue to the point of boredom. But like most people who are addicted to unhealthy experiences, I have aged out of my over-the-top habits. My pre-frontal cortex finished developing. A friend or two died far too young of completely preventable causes. And I got lucky and, on a whim, tried yoga and discovered that I loved it. I loved waking up without back pain, being able to crouch down to work with my students and being able to touch my toes for the first time.
And it was that yoga experience that really taught me the central lesson: it’s not about denying yourself past experiences. It’s not about rejecting the pleasure of sloth. It is about saying yes to new, healthier experiences that are in line with your more mature or even more “enlightened” values.
I don’t feel deprived with my vegan diet. If anything, it has brought a burst of new tastes and experiences that I’d never given a chance before. Have you ever seen how colorful and vibrant good vegan food is? It explodes before your eyes before you even get it on your tongue. Sure, not every dish is a winner, but there’s no cuisine that has a 100 percent success rate. I am also speaking as someone who has only been in this lifestyle for a short while. Who knows how I will feel in five years?
And I haven’t cut out lying on the couch, either. Yoga showed me that I didn’t have to be totally inflexible (both literally and figuratively) and it increased my strength and stamina, things that I had been losing steadily for the last five years. That means I now say yes to things I never would have enjoyed before, like hiking up mountains and push-up challenges. I haven’t given up anything. I’ve only gained.
It is said that when you give up your vices, you become boring. You lose your fascinating stories when you give up your self-destruction. But I will always have those stories. They will always be a part of me. And I don’t actually need to accumulate any more, because those stories get old. How many times can you tell the story of how much you drank at brunch, before it gets tiresome? Or how you ended up in a Hong Kong McDonald’s at 3am shouting at the other customers until you were thrown out? How many Netflix series do you need to binge-watch as your arteries harden into resin?
This new, clean-living part of my life gives me all the novelty I could ever dream of. Doors are bursting open in front of me on a daily basis. The people I find fascinating aren’t telling me stories about how smashed they were at the club every weekend for the past year. The people I find inspiring are those who are trying to change the world, pitching their non-profit to Google, delving into their childhood issues to have better relationships and fixing their mental health and biking across India in the summer. They keep bees and volunteer at no-kill animal shelters. They are teachers who get kids to build solar cars and convince the director of the school to start having meatless Mondays in the cafeteria.
I want those new stories now, too. I want to care enough about myself to try to live as long as possible. I want to surround myself with others who love me enough to want the same for me, who don’t just want another drinking buddy. We owe it to ourselves to lead lives that break the lazy mold of pedestrian experiences. We owe it to ourselves to live.
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Zach Holz is an American English teacher living and working in Dubai. He writes about financial freedom and other happy things at his blog The Happiest Teacher.