Why Fast So?
Every year since living in a 98% Muslim country I’ve taken up the challenge of fasting for Ramadan. I’m not a Muslim, but I find great satisfaction in doing daily (or often just 2/3rd of a day) what a billion people around the world do for 28 days. (Technically: 1.57 billion Muslims in the world, but like Christians, some are more devout than others.)
So Why Fast?
One answer is related to the bewildered look on your face as you ask, if you notice my strange behavior. (Though I’m happier when people don’t notice – it sparks a long explanation, which is the reason for this post: My long explanation.)
I continue to try fasting each year for Ramadan, though I’ve never succeeded for the full 28 days, precisely because too many people in America find the notion inconceivable. Any society this tethered to the daily pleasures of coffee and food-on-demand is suffering from some deep undercurrent of imbalance. I don’t know what the nature of that suffering is, or where it comes from, nor am I writing to define it. I’m simply stating that it is there, evidenced solely by how few people in America would fast, or believe they could fast, if they chose to.
I’m in no way stating that food is somehow evil, that those who don’t fast are wrong, or that we need to give up coffee the way Catholics give up chocolate for lent as a symbolic sacrifice. Fasting is not about food, but rather, it is about ourselves. What kind of mettle are me made of? But yet Ramadan (as I have experienced it) is not about putting ourselves to the test, not in the way Reality Television tests the limits of humans in awkward or uncomfortable situations. Ramadan is much simpler, more elemental.
As Neil Degrasse Tyson says, we are recycled stardust.
And someday we will return to dust (As Catholics say on Ash Wednesday). But in between, these elements, fused long ago in a cosmic sun and henceforth congealed miraculously into a sentient sum, deserve to be put to greater use. The daily grind binds us to circular paths in life. Ramadan is an exercise in being alive more fully. Ramadan is an excuse to awaken to the idea of a vast universe made of stardust.
Awakening seldom comes comfortably.
In Laura Hillenbrand’s bestseller, Unbroken, there is an amazing passage about downed airmen who drifted for months in a life raft. The exposure and hunger provided Louie with a moment of ecstatic clarity on the 39th day:
This was the defining moment in Louie’s life. It transformed him. I believe we can all be lucky enough to experience glimpses this without the life-threatening suffering. Try feeling hungry for a day. Deprive yourself of something you deserve, want, and could have at any instant. The experience might surprise you.
And each time you say “this is awful” or “this isn’t possible” – just think that at that moment a billion people are also doing it. No, not like me. They’re really doing it. Until the sun sets for real. I stop around 5 or 6pm.
Seriously. NFL training camps are underway, and there a players trying to make teams while fasting. These guys have mettle to persevere in the heat without water. You can do it.
“So you’re saying you suffer so that you can experience existential insanity?” You reply. “I can just catch a sunset.”
That’s not my aim. I am also trying to maintain my capacity to persevere, because someday that kind of ability may be important.
Answer #2: Discipline.
Discipline is something you think you have until you exercise it. Discipline, like a muscle, atrophies as soon as you stop exercising it. While Buddhism and Taoism are religions where Discipline forms the core, Christianity seems to paint only faint brushstrokes around the concept. Avoiding sin is a form of discipline, but that is far less than engaging in some sort of daily activity. Muslims pray five times a day. It’s hard to do that and forget God for very long.
As a practicing Christian, I might contrast Christianity with Islam by describing Christianity as a mental state of exctasy propogated by living in constant spiritual union with our personal mental projection of God. Christianity’s core is a relationship, a conversation of sorts, with a being. Some even describe the being as One who answers back. But I have yet to meet anyone who can describe these conversations and whom has never heard or read anything about this God before. I imagine it would be possible to meet an Aborigine in the jungle who describes conversations with God that align with how Christians talk about the experience, but perhaps our language limits a good description of the experience. I know for my part what this aspect of Christianity feels like, but I wouldn’t trust English to provide anything more than metaphors to what it really feels like.
Now Islam, after several years of trying Ramadam Fasting, feels a bit different. Islam means “submission”, as in Submit to the Will of God. And the rules of the religion outline daily practices that keep God on your mind constantly. The Bible says to keep holy the sabbath; The Qur’an says to keep holy every moment of every day by praying 5 times a day, Fasting one month a year, giving 10% of your wealth (not your income!) to the poor, and taking a longer pilgrimage to Mecca. Only one of the five pillars is about belief. Much of what has been added to both Islam and Christianity after the time of Mohammed / Jesus has been about belief. Yet the original inspirations of both religions spent a lot of their time talking about behavior.
So it goes. Prophets outline right actions and later Leaders impose proper beliefs.
What I do know is that when I fast, I always remember to say a blessing before breaking bread. When my stomach growls, I think about how we are all interconnected by our needs and our common actions – the basis for our common wealth. Sometimes when my stomach really growls, I think about God for a moment.
As a Christian Unitarian, a part time Muslim, a one-in-a-while Buddhist & Taoist, these are all really good ways to spread a little stardust around the universe for good.
“But I can do this all without fasting,” you say. And I believe you. I never said I was any good at this spirituality stuff. I just know that as a spiritual actor I am woefully inadequate. I really need the occasional drastic restructuring of my routine, lest I begin to see the world through a lens of flesh and money, and not sunsets, angelic voices, and stardust.
Why Fast So?
Answer #3: Mindfulness.
Fasting is NOT dieting. People diet as a means to an end. They find the swollen husk of their body inadequate and suffer as long as it takes to reshape that body to meet their image. But dieting is temporary; fasting is a mindset.
When you fast you aren’t reducing the calories, but rather, you are denying yourself and delaying the immediate gratification that comes from eating when you’re hungry. Too often I find myself eating even when I’m not hungry, because it feels like it is time to eat. That need is almost never real – always an imagined need. Just like many of our “needs” in a world whose rules and priorities find fasting insane.
Dieting is about denying something and fasting embracing something. What you embrace is mindfulness. So long as you cannot wait for the fast to be over, you are not mindful; you are suffering. When you fast and your mind is aligned with something out there that is more worthwhile that the lowly grumblings of your stomach, you discover something strange – you’re not hungry. You’re filled.
What you are filled with is as hard to describe as the special relationship a practicing Christian might have with God, but it no less real. Some words to that come to mind are ‘satisfaction’, ‘fulfilled’, ‘balanced’, ‘wakefulness’, and ‘clarity’.
Imagine if all that you needed to do to feel satisfied with everything at the end of each day was fast? And yet we try to fill outselves with everything in the hopes of being satisfied. What if we started emptying ourselves instead? There might be something deep underneath to uncover.
I assure you, this ’emptying’ is less ‘crazy’ than much of what Religion had demanded of us over the centuries:
And a society that can fast would never be responsible for this reality:
Could fasting be a step forward?