Fasting as a Spiritual Practice (starvation with benefits?)

What strikes me the most about the spiritual practice of fasting is that it was really popular back in a time when there was not much to eat.  I mean, come on, how hard was it to fast in ancient India?  Going from one bowl of rice to no bowl rice was not a big leap.  Yet there was this class of ascetics that roamed the country not eating.  Siddhartha even joined them for a while, starving himself for seven years before he realized the practice was not working, and then he made the great decision to be a Buddha instead.  The funny part is, when The Buddha developed his “middle-way,” which many monks still follow today, their practice of eating one meal a day was considered quite gluttonous compared to the average literally-starving-to-death holy man of the time.  But let’s face it.  Modern Americans have it so much harder.  The ancient saints did not have to give up chocolate cream pie, Panera lunch baskets, egg foo young, blue cheese burgers, Mexican pizza, any kind of pizza…the list is endless.  So why fast?

Catholics, of course, still kind of fast.  That’s why I’m 30% Catholic.  I love abstaining from meat on Fridays in order to stuff myself silly at an all-you-can-eat fish fry over a couple pints of beer.  That’s what I call fasting.  But for some reason, I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind when he first started deep frying beer-battered Walleye.  Lets be honest.  Abstaining from meat is not much of a practice when you substitute it for a shrimp and lobster platter at a TGIFs.

Yet fasting remains one of the great spiritual disciplines used by countless great sages and saints of the past.  I’ve been determined to try it on a consistent basis in order to see if I can come any closer to enlightenment.  So for the past three months I’ve fasted for one day a week.  I did not do anything crazy, just a simple dinner to dinner fast.  I tried to stretch it to about 24 hours.  I did it this way because it was easiest.  Dinner is important for my family, so I was not going to skip that time with my three kids–or weird them all out by drooling over their plates.  Also, I specifically arranged my fast so that nobody knew I was doing it.  This was very important to me because I believe that doing any spiritual practice as a way to get noticed or praised immediately negates the practice (so, I guess, I’m negating any benefit I’ve gained by writing about it).

What did I experience?  Did I find any spiritual benefits?

Well, the best evidence I have is that after two months, I’ve decided to continue the practice.  I did not lose weight or faint or experience any spiritual highs.  But I found the practice of fasting rather invigorating and cleansing in our culture of instant gratification.  On a basic level, my experience was simple.  I was a little bit more hungry than usual for one day a week.  I had no other side effects. What surprised me is that I became more interested in the practice over time.  I assumed the novelty would wear off and I would get tired of it.  But I liked it.  I used the hunger as a way to focus myself.  There was a simplicity to the practice.  There was a good dose of empathy as I recalled the millions who commonly get less than one meal a day as a rule.  There was also a tangible sense of my body slowing down.  I liked the feeling of calm and quiet that settled over me when I had no food inside.

Another surprise was that as it got more interesting it also got harder.  As time went on I would get annoyed (not enlightened) when I moved to get something out of the cupboard and realized I was not supposed to eat it.  This, of course, was a great moment to be mindful, to study the nature of my desire, and to whimper.  We don’t often abstain from things in our modern culture.  If I don’t know something, I google it.  If I miss someone, I call them.  If I want something, I buy it.  The simple practicing of abstaining once a week taught me a lot about how I handle the abundance we live in.

Bottom line, we live in a world of abundance, and a fast can be a great guide in helping an individual understand how that richness affects us, and perhaps dulls us.  I would say, that after a few months of fasting, I have a little more self-control in general when it comes to food.  But a fast these days does not need to be food related.  The modern world has many things we can fast from:  TV, phone, movies, and internet.  Taking a break from anything is a healthy way for you to understand your connection to it.  Absence makes the heart grow fonder, or at least grow in understanding and appreciation.  I think I now have the faintest appreciation for those spiritual masters who went weeks and years with very little.  I’m curious to continue to explore this practice.

That said, these days, fasting can be dangerous, especially if the primary motivation is to lose weight.  Health fasts are a different thing altogether (and I know very little about them).  I want to stress that I have lost no weight from my practice.  In fact, I’ve gained weight because I’ve been a little more nonchalant about what I eat the rest of the week.

If you’re interested, try a single day fast.  Go from supper to supper.  Tell nobody.  See how it feels to live with nothing in a world of abundance.

A few other spiritual benefits I found:

-Learning to really enjoy something very simple like a glass of water or a long, deep breath.

-Simplifying for the day.  Food takes a lot of time and space in our life.  Without food for a day, I had more time to meditate, write, pray, play…or most importantly for me…do nothing.

-I found fasting to be a good little boost of willpower every week.

I will be writing more on this topic as I learn more myself.

Give Up and Die to food (or TV or internet) for a little while in order to better understand your relationship to it…you’ll be glad you did.

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