Secular fasting: finding spirituality in the process, not the goal

Secular fasting: finding spirituality in the process, not the goal January 4, 2013

Nun of That (2009) – “A blast for you and a blasphemy!” movie poster. This picture has nothing to do with anything. I just found it hilarious.

*Trigger warning: Personal talk about fasting with a (mostly controlled) eating disorder to follow. Please don’t read if you think this could harm you. I do not recommend fasting as a healthy habit for eating-disordered people as a category. The work I’ve done over the years to know my triggers means I’m assured that fasting itself won’t become an addiction or compulsion for me, but it might have done in years past. If you find something of value in fasting or what I’ve said about it, please use it in love and knowledge of – and respect for – your own body.

I never fasted for religious purposes as an evangelical-fundamentalist kid. Gluttony, along with sloth and arguably greed, had fallen off the list of deadly sins before my church got started. I was familiar with the concept of fasting, however, and had seen several adults practice it.

Fasting occupied a strange place in the spiritual cosmos of my church. It seemed exotic, a remnant of Judaism from our roots – not that any of us understood Judaism beyond the level of Charlton Heston’s Ten Commandments. When adults in my church fasted, they did so in part to remember that they were under the covenant of grace, not law. Fasting was therefore important because it was optional.

As an apostate, it would be typical for me to highlight the potential hocus-pocus dimension of the practice. For example, people fasted in my church during periods of mourning and distress. Some said it was a way to get God’s attention, to tell him that you meant business. On one occasion, a member of my church fasted explicitly in a “hunger strike” against God until her prayers were answered. Needless to say, this kind of attitude wasn’t orthodox.

I’m fasting today, but not religiously. I’m not chaining myself to a metaphorical pillar in front of God, nor am I meditating on gratitude for grace. I’m doing it for the most banal of secular reasons: I’m trying out intermittent fasting as a means of cutting down my bodyfat level.

That’s pretty much the least spiritual thing I could have said. Right?

Still, the practice of fasting occupies a place in all three of the world’s major religions. They all incorporate bodily discipline at some point in their history or the calendar year. They all think it means something more than simply not eating; none of them would tell you that it’s just a leftover practice from days of famine. They would mostly tell you that it’s about singleminded focus, dedication, commitment and discipline.

I don’t have much of a personal religion these days. I’m a member of a Unitarian Universalist church, which I love, but I’ve deliberately left a crater where my doctrinal core used to be. I don’t want to be one of those deadly certain people anymore. I’d rather be surprised at the afterlife than go in with a dog-eared map and a headlamp. So what does a secular person like me, fasting for totally shallow, cosmetic reasons, have to do with religious fasting?

Well, it’s an opportunity to put into practice one thing I do believe: that spirituality is nature. What I do with my body is always a spiritual practice, whether I’m conscious of it or not. When I left my fundamentalist church, I made a commitment to this life, to be aware of living it rather than waiting for it to end. So the fact that I’m fasting has got me thinking: what could it mean, spiritually, to withdraw from food for a while?

Here are a few things that it could mean for me, personally.

I’m an eating disorder survivor. Food and I have an abusive-codependent relationship. If I could divorce food without dying, things would be a lot easier on me. Because of that whole “starving to death” thing, though, I can only take temporary breaks from the fights, the bickering, the humiliation and the decadent make-up sex – err, binges. Normally, I manage this state of affairs pretty well by building boundaries: focusing on what my body can do (weight lifting), getting angry about the injustice of beauty standards that tell women they don’t have the right to take up space (thanks, feminism!), just eating the damn cookie and then doing something else to distract myself (compromise).

But those boundaries are electrified fences, and sometimes I run out of juice. Enter fasting. By deciding ahead of time that I’m not going to think about food for a set period of time, I’m effectively locking the door behind myself and leaving the food demons in their prison. Fasting is a chance to experience life without compulsion, obsession and anxiety about food. I can feel hungry without going into a panic about what to eat that will satisfy but not overindulge; I know I’m going to eat later, and I’m going to return to electrifying those fences. I’ll eat something reasonably healthy, I’ll probably throw in a dessert, and then I’ll go push some iron around and feel powerful. But for now, I don’t have to worry about it. This strange state of affairs – the emptiness of that part of my brain that’s usually reserved for food anxiety – can only be healing. It’s like procrastination that actually helps. I’m putting off food, literally, so I can handle it better later. 

As a result of this lessened anxiety, I have time to think philosophically about what I’m doing. Why am I interested in cutting bodyfat? Well,if I’m honest, it’s mostly about conforming to a beauty ideal. How do I feel about that? What makes me want to do that? Why do I want my body to be smaller?

As a feminist, I ask myself these questions all the time, but usually with guilt: I shouldn’t be ashamed of my body! I should be embracing my curves! Fighting the system! Being the change I want to see in the world! … Blech, I don’t want to embrace this. I’m a bloody tool of the patriarchy.

Asking those questions spiritually, though, means coming at them from a different angle. It means taking a break from judging myself and asking the deeper questions: What is my body for? What are my goals for it? How does this thing I’m doing right now help me feel better satisfied with my body? How does it help me advance those goals? Does it help me connect or push me farther away from the web of life of which my body is living proof?

Could I ask those questions without fasting? Sure. I tend not to, though, because I’m so caught up drawing my boundaries and worrying about fortifying them.

As a matter of principle, I resist spiritualizing weight loss as a goal. I’ve only seen it before as an excuse for Christian patriarchs to use words like “discipline” and “duty” and “sin” (sometimes they do drag out the gluttony for their own greedy purposes) to bully their wives into looking like models. I utterly reject this. Weight loss isn’t a spiritual goal. It’s not that important for most people. It doesn’t determine character or prove spiritual fortitude. Attempts to make it so are often exploitative, even abusive.

My aim here, therefore, isn’t to spiritualize the goal. It’s a secular goal, a small one, an unimportant one – both my spirituality and my politics demand that weight loss not have any relationship to character. What I am doing, though, is making use of this religious tool I’ve picked up – the stillness and discipline of fasting and meditating – to get to know my own mind and body better. To get to know myself outside of my constant struggle to eat. Dude, I didn’t know I could do that.

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