There are many spiritual practices that are able to support us in life. One of them is fasting.
Fasting as a spiritual practice is the voluntary intentional abstaining from food and sometimes fluids for a limited period of time for spiritual purposes.
Fasting has been practiced for thousands of years in the context of the world’s religions. It has been practiced by North American Indians, Chinese Daoists and Confucians, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and Bahai’s. The fact that it exists in these diverse religious cultures may suggest that there is something significant in it?
It is also interesting that along with the contemporary interest in spiritual practices such as mindfulness and meditation, that there is a growing interest in fasting too. This is partly because there is some evidence that a regular practice of fasting can have health benefits and may even lead to increased lifespan. These health benefits include possible (but not proven) improvements in the incidence or severity of heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, dementia, cancer, anxiety and depression. More research is ongoing in relation to the role of intermittent fasting and these health problems.
Our interest in this paper is in fasting as a spiritual practice. One of the principle ideas in spirituality is that our normal awareness, or our normal consciousness does not give us a full and reliable picture of the world. We tend in our natural state to limit our perspectives and concerns to ourselves and our immediate family or other grouping. We tend to be insular and competitive in a way that leads to much suffering. It is this limited consciousness that gives rise to so many of the problems we see in the world. We tend also to think that the world of our physical senses is all that there is. Only what we can touch, see and control is real. Spirituality calls this normal consciousness a state of ‘sleep’.
In higher states of consciousness, we wake up to realise that this normal experience of the world is incomplete. These experiences are often called awakening experiences, spiritual experiences or experiences of the presence of God. At these times the world around us comes to life in a new way and is filled with a sense of meaning and wonder. Not only that but we become aware that the world is permeated by an energy or spirit that we can have a relationship with. And this relationship is one in which we experience the most profound love and compassion. Furthermore, this energy or spirit – what we as Christians call ‘God’ – invites us to align ourselves with it such a way that we too become more loving and compassionate and can contribute to a more beautiful world that our hearts know is truly possible.
These awakening experiences or experiences of God can occur in a variety of situations or may simply come spontaneously as a gift or grace. But two forms of practice cultivate this possibility[i]. The first is to do with practices and situations that still and intensify the spiritual life energy within in us, the spiritual life energy that is one with the divine. These practices include worship, contemplation and meditation but also some experiences in nature, music, or even with sexual intimacy. Normally this life energy is caught up with all our thoughts, anxieties and activities. When all of these are stilled, as in worship or meditation, there is an intensification of life energy within us in such a way that we are more able to sense our connection with God.
The second is to do with practices or situations that disrupt our homeostasis, physically or psychologically. This is where fasting comes in. A number of things including fasting, sleep deprivation, pain or loss, even certain types of drug, types of breathing pattern and types of dancing (eg sufi whirling) and sometimes illness can disrupt our normal homeostasis in a way that may promote spiritual experiences. Fasting has been known for generations to have this effect or make it more likely. The most prominent examples in the Bible may be the fasting of Moses before receiving the incredibly significant ten commandments and the fasting of Jesus during his temptations in the wilderness when his whole life’s purpose was laid out before.
The practice of fasting and prayer or meditation bring these two things together: the stilling and intensification of life energy and the disruption of homeostasis. Hence its potency.
Let me tell you a story from the Jewish tradition[ii]. In Judaism the most important fast day is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Traditionally Jews observe this most sacred day with approx. 25 hours of fasting and prayer.
Within the Hasidic Jewish mystical tradition the most beloved Hasidic master was Levi Isaac of Berdichev (1740-1810) in the Ukraine. He was said to be so holy that even mentioning his name was enough to open the gates of heaven and the love of God would pour through.
Well, one Yom Kippur Levi Isaac was leading the prayers at the end of the day. Everyone had been fasting and praying intensely. These twilight hours towards the end of the fast are known as the hours of spiritual potency. It was considered that at such a time, because of this period of prayer and fasting, it was possible for an enlightened prayer leader such as Levi Isaac to enter Ultimate Reality to effect (what is known in the Jewish tradition as) a tikkun – that is to effect a healing shift in human consciousness which would benefit all beings for all time.
This was what was happening with Levi Isaac on this Yom Kippur day of fasting and prayer. Night had already fallen, the fast should have been over by now but the ecstasy of Levi Isaac was rippling through the gathered congregation. Everyone held their breath in awe at the power of these moments, in the experience of the love and presence of God, and the possibility of what could be achieved. All of reality was pulsating with him towards an ecstatic evolutionary shift in consciousness! At that moment the great rabbi spotted out of the corner of his eye an old, wizened, frail man. He too had been fasting and by now was suffering with hunger and thirst. For him the fast had been long and he was so thirsty. And so unexpectedly in the midst of his ecstasy Levi Isaac ended his prayers and brought the man a glass of water. This was the culmination of the fast and the shift of consciousness for this day.
I suppose the moral of the story is that spiritual practice, including fasting, is not for its own sake. It’s not for the sheer delight of ecstatic spiritual experiences if and when they occur, but rather the consequences that may follow - that we may be changed and make a practical difference in this world.
So what about fasting today; is there be a place for it, what could its value be? I have some friends at a nearby church and I have noticed that they have a practice of fasting which includes 5 consecutive days in January every year. Their guideline[iii] this year has some simple sound advice:
The main aim of fasting with prayer is not to get God to do something – a kind of spiritual blackmail; but it is to draw close to God, to hear from Him, to allow Him to purify our hearts and to receive all that He wants to give us (anointing, authority, revelation, faith etc.)….. Do make time to pray, it’s not an endurance test, it is about drawing close to God, in the knowledge that He promises to draw close to us (James 4:8). Fasting is about shutting out external distractions and focussing on God. It says to God “I am serious about seeking you”. The very act of feeling physically hungry can link to our awareness of spiritual hunger – so don’t fight it, harness it.
In Buddhism there is a beautiful articulation of spiritual truth which I find quite helpful in this context of fasting. It is the idea of ‘One Taste’. Beyond all the experiences that we have of life and the world there is something that is more important – the One Taste. This is the taste of the eternal, the taste of the infinite, the taste of Ultimate Reality. In a theistic context this is the taste of the Divine, “drawing close to God,” sensing the Presence of God.
In the spiritual practice of fasting, we give up the taste of food and we experience hunger for a time, in order to open ourselves to a deeper experience of the One Taste, the most important taste – not of food but of the divine. Human beings have a deep desire or hunger to be heard, to be understood and to be loved; the greatest fulfilment of this hunger is the experience of the love of God. In fasting we give ourselves to this One Taste.
But the One Taste is not enough – there is also the Second Taste. The Second Taste is the conversion of the experience of Ultimate Reality or of God into transformed ways of living in this world. The Second Taste is the delight of seeing the world change in the direction of goodness, beauty, truth, reconciliation and peace and making our own unique contribution to that.
All of us probably know something of the experience of waking up in the morning hoping that we can be a new person today. We may want a fresh start in our personal lives. We may want to leave behind some of the weakness that trouble us. And we want the same thing for our city, our nation, our economic system, the eco-environment and for the nations of the world. We are so conscious of suffering in many place in the world – Syria, Palestine, Afghanistan. We are conscious to of the increasing unfairness and inequality that leads to suffering in our own society. From ancient times spiritual practices including fasting have developed because they help to shift our consciousness and help us to evolve towards better ways of being in this world. The whole is evolved by the part: what I mean is that even though our own act of fasting and praying seems small, it contributes to a collective consciousness and action that can change everything.
Here are a few observations arising from my own practice of fasting.
- I had a psychological barrier to fasting. I am so used to eating three meals a day and usually having two small snacks that missing even one of them seemed quite a big thing.. Having fasted, it now seems much more manageable. I think this is one of the benefits of fasting: it helps us to be free from habitual ways of thinking and doing and this can help us to change where we need or want to. There is a delightful freedom in thinking, “no I don’t have to eat today”.
- It has been helpful to see fasting in positive rather than negative terms. Not so much not eating but rather having more time to worship, pray or meditate. There were some special moments when I felt close to God and had some valuable insights and I found myself really looking forward to the next meal time, which could be given over to prayer or meditation.
- Hunger, weakness and feeling faint were sometimes part of the experience but this is likely to lessen with practice. I chose to be curious about these feelings and to accept that they would pass. Fasting can help us to be less reactive to our experiences and sensations and help us to have more freedom to choose what to do or how to respond.
- I found it helpful to convert my feelings of hunger into an expression of hunger for God and hunger for the change I want to see in the world. To feel hungry became a time to pray. To fast seemed like a tangible and serious expression of my desire for these things.
So, I recommend fasting as a spiritual practice at appropriate times for you and taking into account any medical circumstances that would make this inappropriate.
Jonathan Jelfs, September 2015
[i] See Waking from Sleep by Steve Taylor
[ii] Adapted from Soul Prints by Marc Gafni
[iii] Frontline Church, Liverpool