Several years ago, one of the most-thoughtful readers of my blog commented on a piece I’d written about the spiritual benefits of fasting throughout the year, rather than solely during the month of Ramadan.
In that article, I’d reflected on how it was during the times I’ve fasted regularly on either Mondays or Thursdays (or both), a practice rooted in Prophetic teachings, that I felt more connected with the Divine and in tune with my body. Even on the days in between when I’m eating and drinking normally, the periodic fasts would inspire me to stop consuming as though I was on autopilot and listen more intently to what my body needed. I became more aware of each mouthful and grateful for the sustenance I’d otherwise be inclined to take for granted. That morning coffee is immensely more enjoyable when I’ve skipped it for a day or two.
My reader, Karen, pointed out that Ramadan’s dawn-till-dusk fasts are a lot like embarking on a long-distance run. For most of my life up to that point, I’d never fasted outside of the holy month and therefore wasn’t getting ready for its rigors like I would if I was training for a marathon.
“You’re like a marathoner who is keeping up your base miles before the big event,’’ Karen said. “You’re literally preventing spiritual flabbiness! No wonder it is so hard for people to fast just for that month. They have to be in training really, to do it justice.”
Karen’s words often pop into my mind outside of Ramadan, when my decision to fast is optional and I don’t have the community support that makes the Holy Month so immensely comforting. She has no idea how many fasts her analogy prevented me from breaking, including in the past couple of months I refrained from food and drink for several days to gear up for one of the most-demanding Ramadans of our lifetimes, when the sun rises before 3 a.m. and sets well after 9 p.m. in the U.K.
There were numerous mornings standing in the well-stocked office pantry that I craved a caffeine boost before a long workday. And several afternoons when I longed for a glass of water to help ward off an oncoming headache. Yet conceptualizing fasting is a form of internal exercise that’s essential to my overall spiritual wellbeing would usually stop me from given in, even if physically it sometimes hurt.
Instead of engaging my calf muscles or abs, fasting energizes and awakens my consciousness. As my outer self slows down, something inward is enlivened, a concept Kabir Helminski alludes to in his book Living Presence: a Sufi Way to Mindfulness & the Essential Self:
“Fasting, as long as it is not excessive, is based on a positive relationship with the body, for it eases the burdens the body must carry. Indulgence — whether in food, intoxicants, or pleasures — is a form of cruelty toward the body because of the price the body must pay for our so-called pleasures. Purification leaves the body, especially the nervous system, in a more responsive state. Hunger reduces the need for sleep and increases wakefulness. Eating our fill hardens the heart, while hunger opens the heart and increases detachment. In hunger, some of the veils between us and what is real are removed: remembrance becomes a way of life.’’
Fasting, in this way, becomes a mechanism whereby I can interrupt the all-too-rigid habits I tend to fall into of overindulging my ego. It forces me to be aware of those difficult inner thoughts and feelings that are easy to avoid when I’m satiated with food and drink. Rather than numbing my senses with a comforting cup of tea or sliver of cake, I have to draw on my inner resources to come to a place of tranquility and stillness. While agonizing at first, the burden eases over time and fasting becomes natural and nourishing.
We are constantly persuaded to enjoy and live life through the value of things and with a sense of immediacy. By consuming, earning, buying, selling, indulging, owning and exchanging things now, the message is that we are pursuing life to its fullest. Paradoxically, I’ve found that fulfillment unfolds in my life with every gentle step I take to loosen these chains of material existence.
This is where daily prayer, meditation and zikr have really helped me find greater balance and perspective. When I add fasting into the mix, I carry a spoonful of the spirit of Ramadan with me always. It’s a way of deepening my spiritual strength and enhancing my willpower, resilience and gratitude.