Why “Fasting” Can Be Beneficial

A revised version of this article has been published on Psych Central.

orchid
Orchid on my living room window.

This year I’ve decided to go on a “fast.”  For the next 40 days, I will be “giving up” consumption of meat and chocolate.  Why would I do something so crazy?  Especially with two types of food I dearly enjoy eating (especially chocolate).  Well, there are various reasons.  However, first I’d like to explain what the concept of “fasting” means (in my opinion) and the types of fasts I’ve done in the past.

Fasting is an act of willing abstinence or reduction from certain foods or drinks, or both for a certain period of time.  We’ve all done it, whether we’ve realized it or not.  Many of us have had a horrible morning with a vicious hangover after a long night of partying, and vowed to “never” drink again.  You might have even stopped drinking for a period of time (no matter how short the time period was).  I’m also pretty sure that at one point you’ve decided to  stay away from a particular type of food that gave you food poisoning or made you feel extremely sick. I have decided to forever “fast” from jello for my entire life because of a horrifying jello experience I had in the 1st grade.

I don’t think fasting has to do with just food and drinks, and I don’t think its purpose is just to “stay away” from something.  It has more to do with the intention behind it.  However, to go a step further, after the intention is set, then the act or discipline of what’s been stated must be followed.  We’ve all heard the saying that so and so had “good intentions” or “means well.”  That’s great.  We definitely want to surround ourselves with others that are thoughtful and sincere.  Though it shouldn’t just end there.  Many “good intentions” have gone down the wrong road because the discipline and willing action didn’t match the original statement.  To state to someone “I love you” then repeatedly abuse them is confusing.  The abuser tells the victim they “didn’t mean to” hurt them, yet repeatedly do.  A “man of integrity” who cheats on their spouse or significant other doesn’t coincide with who they are claiming to be.   To say “I like to live a healthy, active life” yet the reality is that person is eating fast food everyday on the couch in front of the TV doesn’t match the stated intention.

So what does this have to do with fasting?  Fasting is beneficial because it allows one to have a reflection period, set a stated intention, then follow and work through a process within a certain parameterSome people may say that fasting is prideful and ego-based, as if the faster is trying to “prove” something to themselves or to someone else that they can “overcome,” accomplish, or say they did it.   Many (if not all)  decisions we make are based around ourselves, so perhaps deciding to fast can be added to that never-ending list.  My hope is that it can possibly be approached in a more meaningful way.

Some say fasting brings you “closer to God.”  I’m not sure if that’s exactly true and realistic.  But maybe if you’re “giving up” something (for example social media or TV), then perhaps space will open up and become available for prayer or meditation.  It seems that when we are in extreme pain or when something in our life seems to completely fall apart, then all of a sudden we find ourselves on the floor reaching out for answers or becoming engulfed with despair or anger of why any Higher Being would ever let suffering take place.  Yet what about those moments of pure joy and contentment where time is standing still?  What about after the tears have been shed and you get up from the floor and walk into the other room?  Are those moments available to you?

In the tradition of lent (a highly controversial subject in which I don’t want to get into the nitty-gritty details about), some people fast in “preparation” for the arrival of Jesus on Easter.  I’m not sure you can ever “prepare” yourself for the arrival of God or anything for that matter.  Things arrive when they do and often times one is never fully prepared.  No matter how many books you read or  “expert” classes you take on birthing or parenting, I don’t think anyone is ever whole-heartedly “prepared” when their baby’s head first pops out into the world.  Often times we’re not ever fully prepared to change jobs, walk down the aisle, start exercising, experience a family death, walk away from a relationship or move to a new country.  However, once the stated intention is set, the stage and parameters are in front of you, and the opportunity is available to live out what’s been stated.

I’ve fasted in the past for various reasons, mainly for health and “spirituality purposes” (whatever that means).  Every spring I would do a vegetable broth/juice cleanse in which I would not eat solid food for about 5 days.  For breakfast, lunch and dinner, I drank a homemade broth made of potatoes, celery, carrots and beets.  Then in between for snacks or anytime in need, I would drink fresh grape or melon juice from a juicer to keep my blood sugar levels up.  It was quite an experience.  The first 2 days, I thought I was going to die because I was hungry and it was weird technically not eating or chewing anything.  However by day 3, I felt like I was flying high on juice.  I felt energized, liberated and lost a few pounds. Reflecting back, I’m not sure what my stated intention was behind doing this.  I was in an experimental phase of my life, probably doing it for vanity purposes, wanted to “try it” to see if I could do it and was at the time obsessed about being overly-healthy.

Another fast I did was when I went on a 10 day silent meditation retreat.  I didn’t talk for 10 days (fasted from speaking).  This was pretty insane.  I can be pretty talkative at times depending on who I’m surrounded with, so this was something I wasn’t quite  ready to embark in, but I did it anyway.  At this Buddhist retreat center, we had to wake up every morning at 4am with the sound of a gong and meditate all day in a room until 7pm at night.  We weren’t allowed to talk, and only took breaks for meals and to shower.  The practice and discipline that it took to wake up that early in the morning, sit all day and not speak was extremely challenging, yet very valuable.  Day 1, the voices in my head were screaming in agony.  By day 10, everything was diffused, calm and still. Upon coming home, I didn’t want to start talking again, and was semi-afraid of coming back into the “real world” with all of it’s noise pollution.  The silence became really comforting to me.  Though I am no longer practicing within this meditative realm, the fasting, silence and retreat experience is something I recommend people to try.  It will really open up your world and provide benefits in ways you can’t even possibly imagine.

Currently, I’ve been trying to scale down my extreme nature and live a more balanced life.  I’m a huge advocate for slowing down and taking breaks, especially from things we find ourselves constantly attached to.  Though to clarify, I’m not a supporter for being chronically lazy and consistently (idly) loafing around.  This past summer, I “fasted” from my phone for a month while I was on a pilgrimage in Spain and this past winter, I turned off my phone and Internet again for 10 days.  It was quite freeing and I became available to see what was outside my window instead of what I was trying to control on my personal telephone screen.  In my late 20’s, I decided to quit smoking marijuana.  A new world of clarity opened up, and I realized I had been living in a fog for several years (I’m an advocate for medical marijuana when used in moderation).  I’ve taken extended breaks from coffee, but always come back to it.

So here I am “fasting” again, deciding to not eat meat or chocolate until Easter.  Why?  First of all, my eating became out of control over the holidays, and I “let myself go” eating massive amounts of cookies, bread and pastries (things I would usually only have in moderation).  After a huge laundry list of stressful events took place, I found solace through food.  Now that spring is arriving, I’ve”snapped out of it” and am moving forward past these vices.  Doing this fast will help get me back in a mode of discipline and routine.  I find flexibility and freedom in routine.  I’m also doing this fast for “spiritual purposes.”  As a new Christian, there is so much to explore in my faith.  I’m taking this season as an opportunity to reflect on my behaviors, as well as take a close look at some things I’m prioritizing and putting my hopes in.  I’m attempting to shed or “fast away” certain things that aren’t leading towards fulfillment or providing fruition.  One may say that this is “anti” the faith, by trying to “be in control.”  However, if it was up to me.. there would be no way I’d ever dream of giving up meat or chocolate (or end up in certain scenarios I often find myself in).  But it’s been stated and now I’m doing it.  We’ll see how it goes.


by Kristin Bach
Copyright 2014

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