The Bible says that when you fast you should put oil on your head and a smile on your face and not go around dour-faced and boasting about it. It doesn’t say you should blog about your fasting either. So why am I doing just that?
It started as a Lenten practice. St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral was holding Compline services on a Wednesday and a friend wanted to us to attend together. I’d been shocked to find out another friend undertakes 3 day ‘dry fasts’ (which I certainly wouldn’t recommend) and inspired by numerous Muslim friends who are a lot more sensible! In comparison, taking only liquids for about 20 hours (including some soya milk in Barleycup about 4ish) wasn’t very taxing at all. Especially when I could look forward to breaking my fast with a lovely hot vegan meal home-cooked for me after the service.
During these hours I also switched off the WiFi and didn’t use data on my phone so WhatsApp and iMessages didn’t come through until I turned it on again and I couldn’t check email and scroll through Twitter and Instagram. That was the biggest relief and also the most challenging part of the fast. That’s, principally, what I want to talk about.
First the food, or (voluntary and temporary) lack of it. Fasting is to dieting what celibacy is to being single: a completely different mentality. Dieting (which I never recommend) is all about losing weight and is a limited and strategic resistance to our grossly self-indulgent consumer culture which rarely works in the longterm and often plays straight into the hands of the sugar-pushers who created the problem of obesity in the first place. What fasting has in common with celibacy is that it takes an initial determined mental effort and then it becomes a habit. (People who say ‘I’m celibate’ when they are just not in a sexual relationship at the moment – and jump at the chance of one – have no idea what they are talking about.) Fasting also has nothing to do with involuntary starvation.
Fasting gives the digestive system a rest and, crudely, in terms of intake and output, for most people in post-industrialised nations, that’s a very good thing indeed. There are many health benefits to having a colon that isn’t continually stuffed with food – especially when it’s a long (human) one which specialises in gradually getting the nutrients out of fibrous vegetables rather than being rancid with all the toxic chemicals in factory-farmed meat.
For this reason, fasting may have a limited and very gradual effect on the waistline. Not because of a calorific deficit. The metabolism reacts in various ways to an alteration in intake, and fat-creating panic and eating large quantities after eating few or none are two of them. I find that my body doesn’t panic if my brain doesn’t. No, I’m not being New Age about this. My Muslim friends have often told me of the clarity and serenity they feel while fasting and it was only when I restarted this ascetic practice of my youth, after many decades, that I re-experienced that feeling.
DON’T accept an invitation to a meal and sit there saying “Oh I’m fasting but do go ahead don’t mind little me” in a saintly voice with your head to one side, gazing off into the middle distance. DON’T attempt to do anything that requires great physical or mental effort, especially if collaborating. Schedule both for another day. DO tell people if it comes up. It’s not a big deal. You’re not a hero. They may be interested. It’s not all about you. DO use the time in a productive way.
So, second, the thoughts and feelings. The biggest challenge to me while I’m disconnected from the internet is not so much Fear Of Missing Out but a great anxiety that, without me twirling it, the world won’t spin by. So I invent all sorts of reasons why I must just check (whatever) right now just in case (whoever) has tried to contact me about (whatever) and is in total despair that my sage advice is temporarily unavailable.
This hunger, for attention, is more insidious that that for food. I very rarely break my food fast once started (although the end point is somewhat variable) but have on occasion just checked that there’s no-one who desperately needs me on every single means of internet communication at my disposal. To combat this self-centred anxiety, I’ve started texting the couple of people who I feel may be in touch through one of these means during those hours to say when I should be back online. People react well. The world spins by.
This letting go of people, of my concern to be the one dealing with their concerns, of being in the limelight, is accompanied by a general quieting of input. I can’t see video clips of cute animals on social media, with the WiFi off, the TV series I’m watching are unavailable (I do sometimes put on a video or DVD and have the pleasure of focusing on a film uninterrupted by adverts). And if I suddenly come up with an interesting question, such as ‘why are there no East Asian actors in S1-7 Games of Thrones?’ (the author’s answer raises even more questions about representation, Orientalism and rationality – some of which I addressed in the essay I cheekily inserted in this novel) then I have to wait patiently until the fast is over. – resisting my inner urgent ‘I wanna know and I wanna know right now!’
So I’m in a bit of a cocoon for about a day and I welcome it and look forward to it. It’s not all about me. Very, very little is. Meanwhile, I find I get on with things. Preparing for my tax return, making up menus for my elderly mother, writing my series of inclusive novels. Walking my dog. Thinking about an area of ethics I’d like to tackle next. I have so much time!
At the end of the day (I’ve not yet switched to the post-breakfast till pre-breakfast fast which is probably more ideal than missing out breakfast and lunch and having a late dinner) I am grateful to have a meal. Even bread tastes wonderful when you haven’t eaten for 20 hours. Yes I’m reminded of those who have no food, as our national bard famously prayed (even if he didn’t write the Selkirk Grace himself) but I’m also profoundly grateful that I do and I may also think of all the people who contributed to the production, transportation and marketing of my food. Burns would say, as we still do in Scotland, I mind them.
Pope Frances, of whom I confess myself a not uncritical fan, recommended fasting during Lent as a way to combat violence. There are links here that repay exploring. Thomas Merton, another man of peace, withdrew from the American Peace Movement when an anti-Vietnam war protestor burned himself to death (and was only just persuaded to throw the baby he was cradling to safety). Sadly, this kind of protest, and that kind of war, is not unknown today.
Fasting reminds me that it’s not up to just me to fix the world; that my anxiety may contribute to a general lack of serenity out of which arise bad decisions; and that our collective compulsive urge to consume is the basis for the violent conquest and acquisition of peoples and lands and animals – and of the mineral deposits that all our oil wars (with an ever-changing enemy) are really being fought over.
I don’t recommend fasting. It’s something you do if you feel drawn to it. It doesn’t work for everyone and it doesn’t have to. If it’s for you, you may wish to consult a medical professional and to start off very gradually. If you do start fasting from food, or even if you don’t, try disengaging from the internet even just for a few hours. Experience the joy of the world spinning by, without you twirling it.
Thanks to George Hodan who has released his photograph ‘Zen Stones and Butterfly’ into the public domain.