When I was growing up, my family didn’t practice any kind of fasting. I had Roman Catholic friends who told me about not having meat on Fridays and about giving up certain foods during Lent, but that was about it. We also didn’t have blood tests at doctors that I can remember, so I never fasted for that reason. I did learn about hunger strikes and protest fasting, however – it was very common in my world in the later 1960s and early 1970s. Jumping forward half a century, I can promise you that I think a lot more about it these days. Especially during the current season of Great Lent.
WHAT IS FASTING
A common definition of fasting would include the following:
Fasting is the willing abstinence or reduction from some or all food, drink, or both, for a period of time. An absolute fast or dry fasting is normally defined as abstinence from all food and liquid for a defined period. Other fasts may be partially restrictive, limiting only particular foods or substances, or be intermittent. (Wikipedia)
Fasting can also refer to refraining partially or completely from any normal or habitual activity. Especially considering the many individuals unable to engage in standard types of food fasting due to medical reasons, it is important to consider additional pathways to a season or life of focus on a purpose beyond daily living. More on this later.
WHY WOULD I FAST FROM FOOD?
- For health reasons:
Fasting can be used for nearly every chronic condition, including allergies, anxiety, arthritis, asthma, depression, diabetes, headaches, heart disease, high cholesterol, low blood sugar, digestive disorders, mental illness, and obesity. Fasting is an effective and safe weight loss method. It is frequently prescribed as a detoxification treatment for those with conditions that may be influenced by environmental factors, such as cancer and multiple chemical sensitivity. Fasting has been used successfully to help treat people who have been exposed to high levels of toxic materials due to accident or occupation. Fasting is thought to be beneficial as a preventative measure to increase overall health, vitality, and resistance to disease. Fasting is also used as a method of mental and spiritual rejuvenation. Read more here:
- For political reasons:
Since food is basic to human vitality but can be avoided or minimized for much longer than air or water, passionate supporters of various causes have gone on hunger strikes throughout the decades and centuries to call attention to matters that they believe are worth putting even their lives and health on the line for. India became an independent nation at least in part because of the fasting of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi undertook 17 fasts between 1913 and 1948 during India’s freedom movement. His longest fasts lasted 21 days. Irish history is also full of many hunger strikes. I have vivid memories of Cesar Chavez’ hunger strike on behalf of farm workers in 1972 and the grape boycott that followed. These were very public hunger strikes to garner public and media attention.
- For religious/spiritual discipline reasons:
Because food is fundamental to life, just about every religion that I know of has a position on what a follower should or shouldn’t eat and when, how, and where food should be eaten. The goal of the fast may differ across denominations, but it is usually to get in closer touch with the Divine and to concentrate less on the needs of the physical body and daily life.
For a good summary of some of the fasting principles/practices of the world’s more prominent religions, go here:
For additional information on the practices of Orthodox Christians, go here:
If you have followed me for a while, you know that I have always been concerned that what I eat is health-giving and that it allows me to optimize my state of physical, mental/emotional, and spiritual well-being. I follow personalized dietary guidelines that are based on my blood type, genotype, and specific epigenetic factors. My natural practice since early adulthood has been one of intermittent fasting (eat within an 8-hour period and don’t eat for the other 16 hours), and definitely no eating later in the evening. I truly enjoy good food and take care to use compliant herbs, spices, pink salt, and other flavorings to make the food delicious. But the bottom line for me is that food is my main medicine and fuel. I don’t have “bad” or “junk” food to give up, and I am careful to do portion control. Hmmmm. So, what does a fast look like for me, and why do I fast?
I converted to Orthodox Christianity (Eastern) about 7 years ago. Orthodox Christians live a very fasting-oriented lifestyle. There are 4 major fasts throughout the year as well as fasting every Wednesday and Friday except for a couple of weeks in the year that are fast-free. Although the food restrictions vary from strict vegan to no meat depending on the fast day, many days of the year are dedicated to a diet that is antithetical to what I know will offer me personally the greatest vitality. For example, among my biggest avoids are wheat, corn, and sugar. As far as animal protein goes, I am most healthy when I eat red meat (lamb, venison, goat) 3x a week, turkey 3x a week, fats and oils (olive and rice bran oils are my mainstays) 5x a week, fish 5x a week, eggs 6x a week, and dairy 5x a week. I can have a number of grains but try to stick to millet, quinoa, and whole grain spelt or einkorn. During the first Great Lent after my conversion – in my mid-60s – I undertook an all-in strict fast. With no real preparation or understanding of the nuances of vegan eating (I had only dabbled at lacto-ovo vegetarianism for a year when my twins were babies), I spent 7 weeks avoiding all animal protein – even honey. The result was significant weight gain, no energy, dizziness and headaches (and I never get headaches), and complete mental fog. Quite the opposite of the higher state of being that I had been seeking. Thankfully, I learned a couple of years later that two or three gentle 30-day cleanses a year provide an excellent tuneup for mind and body.
What has happened to my food fasting since then? I fast 16-18 hours prior to receiving the sacramentally blessed bread and wine on Sundays and for 3 hours before any other morning or evening when I plan to receive them. I abstain from meats on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year except during fast-free weeks. It is a wonderful, private way to be mindful of who I am and Whose I am and to feel unity with my fellow believers around the world and through the ages. On specific strict fasting days, I make special foods that I would probably not otherwise prepare or forego foods that I would otherwise plan to eat. I make simpler foods and eat smaller portions. Again, reminders that I am on path that transcends the daily grind.
HOW CAN I FAST IN AREAS BESIDES FOOD?
There are many ways to fast that can bring what you might call a higher consciousness or a closer relationship with the Divine.
- Fasting from noise, distraction, and busy-ness:
This is my focus in this season of my life and especially during this Great Lent. I am learning to allow myself more time and quiet to think, pray, and meditate and am working to understand that these activities sometimes need to take the place of what appears to be urgent, maybe especially when life is most demanding. The purpose of this kind of fasting is to allow the mind, body, and spirit to reintegrate (each functions best when all three are operating in harmony): that is, to allow the processing/collation/prioritizing of the experiences and data that constantly bombard us. Shut things off. Get more rest. Learn to love stillness.
This is charitable giving. It can be money, volunteering in the community, gifts of baked goods or homecooked meals, visiting those in need of uplifting, using skills and talents to meet the needs of others without anything in return. These are things that are life-giving for all of us to do throughout the year, so where does “fasting” come in? In this context, fasting would mean to purposely go above and beyond our usual practices and to forego the things that we would normally do for our own pleasure in order to do more and with more intentionality for others.
- Gather with others more frequently for times of worship and devotion:
For me, this mostly means being at my church more often. There are many more services during the Great Lent than during the rest of the year because of the intensity of preparation for the coming celebration of Pascha (Easter). Being at church frequently – sometimes even daily and often during the late afternoon and/or early evening – means foregoing many other regularly scheduled meetings and gatherings. I used to think of going to all these special services as working around my regular life and would go to church when my secular schedule allowed. I have come to understand that there is a huge difference between simply fasting FROM something and fasting in order TO accomplish something. What I receive and the ways in which I can grow spiritually are so meaningful that I now understand that the best clarity and forward movement comes when I work the rest of my daily life around parish worship. It has been a mindset shift. I fast from doing other things. I fast from my usual schedule.
- Fasting from self:
This could be an entire post and is really the CORE of fasting. Whatever other goods or activities you fast from or dedicate your fast to, the goal of your fasting is to be a better version of yourself so that you can spread more light, love, and positive change out into the world. If you are on a path to transcendence, you are not denying your body and its needs; rather, you are developing practices that focus increasingly outward and upward, ever improving. Over time, you will see that layers of thoughts and behaviors that have encumbered you in the past have actually fallen off and that you no longer want to turn back to reclaim them.
In a recent Lenten homily, Pope Francis offered the following:
Fast from hurting words and say kind words.
Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.
Fast from anger and be filled with patience.
Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.
Fast from worries and trust in God.
Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity.
Fast from pressures and be prayerful.
Fast from bitterness and fill your heart with joy.
Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others.
Fast from grudges and be reconciled.
Fast from words and be silent so you can listen.
My hope is that you can see from the above that there are a multitude of means by which you can fast and at least as many reasons to do so. We only have one life on Planet Earth and it goes by quickly. Let us each find a personal path to culling what’s most important from each day’s experiences and to enjoying the sweet taste of a life well lived. Let me know about your practices and breakthroughs.
You need to empty your cup to fill it with something new. Fast well, my friends.
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