The discipline of fasting dates to ancient times, is common to nearly every religion in the world (as well as philosophical systems like Stoicism), and is mentioned in the Bible more times than baptism.
As it is with the spring season setting in Lent just ended, Christians, specifically Catholics, give up certain foods or practice fasting. While fasting is often associated with the season of Lent for Christians or the season of Ramadan for Muslims, many other cultures and religions around the world fast throughout the year, all fasts have similar goals of showing sacrifice and cleansing oneself.
Religions and philosophies that practice fasting include: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Taoism, Jainism, and Hinduism. Fasting can last for just a few hours or even a few weeks, usually with practitioners eating at night. Interestingly, even within a religion, different denominations or sects may fast differently or at different times. For example, within Christianity, there are several different denominations that fast at different times. Catholics do not eat meat on Fridays during Lent, while Coptic Christians (the main form of Christianity in Egypt, for example) fast for different durations for a total of 210 days throughout the year. They have eight main fasts, and each lasts for a different duration and restricts the diet in a unique way.
Some cultures even fast for non-religious reasons. The town of Geneva, Switzerland, holds the “Jeune genevois” or “Fast of Geneva,” which is a public holiday and day of fasting in the canton of Geneva occurring in September. The holiday originated in the Middle Ages, when some days were officially decided to be fasting days as penitence after calamities such as wars, epidemics, or the plague.
The spiritual essence of fasting
In many religions, feasts are supposed to be preceded by fasts: Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians are asked to fast on Good Friday before the celebration of Easter; Jews are to fast for 25 hours for Yom Kippur before ending the holy day with a large, festive meal; Hindus opt to fast for sevens days before welcoming the Hindu New Year, giving up food and water for 12 hours.
Arguably the most countercultural of the spiritual disciplines in a time of unprecedented conveniences, fasting interrupts and re-sets the metaphoric hedonic treadmill. It restores anticipation for eating that has long grown dull. In abstention, our normally saturated senses get a chance to recalibrate, so that when we eat again, the food has a bit of its “newness” back, and tastes better than ever. As the old saying goes, “hunger is the best spice.”
Fasting is the most concrete and viscerally embodied of the spiritual disciplines, and its intersection of the physical and the metaphysical produces uniquely potent, perceptible, sense-arousing effects that bridge the often too-wide gap between body and soul. It offers you a chance to reflect on your mortality and finitude — your weakness, neediness, and brokenness. You’re a fragile creature that relies on the constant intake of external sustenance to function. Go for several weeks without it, and you’re dead. You’re not all-powerful. You’re not completely self-sustaining.
Buddhist “Forest Monks” consider fasting to be one of the “dhutanga” austerities — a group of 13 ascetic practices. Dhutanga means “invigorate” or “shake up” and that’s exactly what fasting (whether from food or technology) can do to the de-humanizing ruts you fall into. It disrupts your routine in a life-affirming way.
Contrary to popular belief, fasting is less about what we’re giving up and much more about what we’re making room for. When we fast, we exchange what we need to survive for what we need to live. Fasting is a great time to remember the spiritual connection we have to our physical bodies. Without the toxins we put in our bodies, we not only give our bodies a break from the digestive process, but we also allow our spirits to be detoxed.
Stories of observers near and far
One story comes from the town of Rovaniemi in Finland, a land of extremes. At 66 degrees north, it straddles the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland. During midwinter, it is cloaked in total darkness. But in the summer, it is bathed in daylight. The long days pose a particular problem for fasting Muslims like Shah Jalal Miah Masud. The 28-year-old moved to Rovaniemi – 830km (515 miles) north of the capital, Helsinki – from Bangladesh five years ago to study IT. He has not had any food or water for 21 hours. And he laughs.
“It doesn’t get dark. It always looks the same. The sun is always on the horizon and it’s quite difficult to get what the time is actually right now,” he says.
While in Dublin, Aina Misra, who just completed her fasts for the Hindu New Year, calls Navratri a bitter-sweet experience:
“The idea of fasting is not daunting in itself, it’s rather the lack of festivities and family that makes the experience more testing. It makes the experience focused more on gaining happiness within.
’Back home these seven days are filled with visits to your extended family, fasting and eating together, and experiencing joy in activities that we usually don’t take notice of. But fasting in Ireland has added a new dimension to the experience, wherein I now celebrate with my friends and introduce t to parts of my culture that are relatively unknown.”
As the world suffers through a global calamity, now more than ever people are seeking solace in their spirituality, now more than ever maybe it’s time to explore realities beyond the ones we have built in our steel jungles.