Many spiritual traditions see fasting as a way to purify oneself and get closer to God. Jesus began his ministry after a 40-day fast in the desert. Moses came down from the mountain with his 10 commandments after a 40-day fast. The Buddha achieved enlightenment after six years of fasting. The prophet Muhammad received the Divine inspiration that eventually became the Quran during extended periods of fasting and meditation. Even the guy that invented Reiki claims to have come up with its magically charged symbols after a seven-day fast. Many religions prescribe certain kinds of fasts for their followers, the most famous of which are probably Lent and Ramadan.
I am not a person of faith. I was raised with a casual relationship to the Episcopalian church, but have not gone back to church since I was given the choice. I do not believe in God, but I deeply respect the faith of people who do. If you believe in God, then the answer to any Why is easier to find. For those of us who don’t believe in God, we have the responsibility to come up with reasons ourselves to live a good life, make tough decisions, and swallow tragedy without destroying ourselves. I am not looking for God, but sometimes I do feel His absence.
That being said, I don’t think that man is god either. There are forces at work in the universe that humans don’t understand, nor do we need to understand them to heed them and experience benefits from living by them. You do not need to understand magnetism to use a compass. I follow a kind of intuition to help guide my emotional life that is something like spirituality, but I don’t overthink it. Whether living a “virtuous” life makes me feel better because it supports healthy brain chemistry, or because it is in alignment with some guiding spiritual principles doesn’t really matter. Does it?
I go through this whole preamble to explain why I am interested in the practice of Lent in a way that is respectful of true believers’ faith. I also makes it clear that I do not wish to appropriate anyone’s traditions and be respectful to anyone whose faith compels them to participate in spiritual fasts. That is not my journey, but I am compelled by the idea of spiritual growth through asceticism and fasting. And Lent is the low-hanging fruit. Lent also starts this week.
I have been going through a kind of spiritual and emotional crisis for the past year or so. I went through a divorce, and a long string of hard life blows left me emotionally drained. At the beginning of this year I seemed to have pulled myself together by taking care of my body, doing healthy things for my brain, and reconnecting with friends.
Although I feel much better, I have had a few strings of incredibly bad luck pile up on each other. Not the “I’m running late to work and there’s a line at Starbucks” kind of bad luck that happens to people who can’t get their shit together, or take responsibility for their own role in their problems. More like, “I slipped on some black ice in a snow storm in Miami, and while I was still lying on the ground I was struck by lightning” sort of bad luck. Okay, maybe not that unlucky, but no matter how much I try to get myself right, I just can’t seem to catch a break. Life has been hitting me in my own most frightening areas; throwing me into the types of situations that mimic my recurring nightmares and anxiety dreams. Life has been dropping a lot of clues in my path that something is still out of balance, but I don’t know what. Meanwhile, I also have big decisions to make soon about my career that will determine the direction that the rest of my life takes. Without a strong set of values and goals for my new life, I’m at a loss for how to face big decisions or bring my life back in balance.
I try to keep these posts as evidence-based and scientific as possible and keep the boo-hoos to a minimum. But not everything important in life can fit into a spreadsheet or a set of numbers. So I decided that I would borrow from the tradition of Lent to do a spiritual fast and see if removing many of the comforts from my life for a time would bring a new depth of gratitude for what I have, more clarity on what I want, and a different perspective on what I need out of life. I may not be talking to God in the sense of “Dear God in Heaven,” but I would be listening for any messages that God/life/the Universe/the Flying Spaghetti Monster had to tell me.
But which fasting tradition to follow? I began by looking at the most obvious one: Catholic Lent. This is the one where from Ash Wednesday until Easter (40 days+6 Sundays, which for some reason don’t count) you give something up, and observant Catholics eat fish instead of meat on Fridays. Well… I’m a vegetarian, and I’ve already given up sweets for the past 6 weeks, so this one didn’t seem like it was going to bring any kind of spiritual awakening.
Then I found something called The Daniel Fast, which is supposed to be based on the fasting practices used in The Book of Daniel. Daniel hung out in a den of hungry lions without getting mauled, so that seemed pretty cool. Lions are badass. People really had an emotional intensity in Biblical times, plus, they seemed to have a much healthier relationship with food than we do today. If people claim that going back to caveman roots is good for your body, then I thought that not going back as far –– after the dawn of civilization –– might bring mind and body together. It was worth a shot.
But then, after a little more research I realized that The Daniel Fast was mostly some dumb diet book based on a handful of sentences from the Bible and interpreted by some lady named Susan who lives in Washington state. It basically boiled down to “eat vegan unprocessed foods for 3 weeks and drink only water.” Even worse, it didn’t seem to be based on any historical way of eating. I actually read the book, and it drove me nuts that it followed the preposterous circular reasoning of, “For God, because God” that only makes sense to zealous Bible people, which I am not. The reason that Jesus and the prophets influenced so many followers was because their explanations of things made a sort of sense. Since there was no Book of Susan in the Bible, or Saint Susan of Ellensburg, Washington in the church, and this diet allowed tofu (something that I don’t think was around in ancient Mesopotamia), I decided to ditch the Daniel Fast idea. Plus you’re not supposed to drink anything but water. So you can drink soup (vegetables boiled in water), but you can’t have herbal tea? I decided to leave this one for the Born Again crowd and keep looking.
I had read that the Orthodox church had the most fasting days of the year, and the pro-fasting camp has used that fact to explain why Cretans are among the most long-lived people in the world. So I started looking into Orthodox Lent next. The Orthodox fast is some serious sh…. business. First of all, their Lent starts on the Monday before Ash Wednesday. By the time Ash Wednesday rolls around, those that follow the Orthodox tradition already have 2 days of full fasting under their belts, fasting right through Fat Tuesday. Beast mode.
Once the Orthodox followers (Orthodoxers?) start eating again on Thursday (or maybe Saturday, different sects do it differently), they eat no animal products. Okay, not no animal products. You can’t have meat, fish with spines, dairy or eggs, but the Antiochian Christian Archdiocese specifies that octopus is okay. Thank god. So no meat except shell fish and octopus. Since the Octopus is the tentacled scrotum of the animal kingdom, I decided not to include it in my Lenten diet anyway.
You also can’t have any olive oil (other vegetable oils are okay) or wine/alcohol, except on weekends. Since I don’t drink, only the olive oil would be an issue for me.
Monks eat only one meal a day during the week during Lent. But luckily I’m not a monk, so I decided that this one wouldn’t apply to me either. In the spirit of the thing, though, I would plan to skip snacks and continue with my two-meals-a-day habit.
Weekends are different in Orthodox Lent. All Fridays during lent are full fast days (so no food), but on Saturday you get an extra meal and you can have olive oil and wine during that meal. I decided that since I don’t drink alcohol, then that would mean that I could have milk in my tea those days. I don’t think that God would mind the substitution. On Sundays you can also eat olive oil and wine, but you shouldn’t eat until after taking communion. Since I’m not a wafer-tarian, I decided that my “communion” would be time out in nature with my dog.
During Holy Week (the week before Easter) the rules change again. On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday you can choose between a full fast, or eating uncooked foods after dark. On Holy Thursday you’re allowed wine (half and half in my Starbucks in honor of the Last Supper!). Then Friday and Saturday are full fast days again before it all ends on Easter Sunday.
I decided that I would observe these dietary rules, but the whole point of this thing wasn’t just to go on a diet. I wanted this period of asceticism to catalyze spiritual growth, not just catalyze an eating disorder. So I also wanted to take away nonessential comforts in other aspects of my life to force myself to pay attention to what life was trying to tell me. After some reflection, I decided that in addition to the fasting described above, I would also give other things up for Lent.
I am a prodigious consumer of Audiobooks. I’m listening to something nearly every waking, non-working minute, and tear through over 100 books per year. But all that content means that my brain is never quiet to work through its own thoughts. I can feel myself suffering from information overload with too much coming in, and not enough coming out. I can never remember what I was about to do, because by the time my phone has unlocked or I have walked into the other room, my mind has already spit up another thing that I would like to check on. So in order to rebuild my focus, I decided that during this time I would also go on an Audible fast and only listen to nonintrusive instrumental music, or silence.
I also spend the majority of my time within a 10-mile radius of my house. I decided that any trip that I wasn’t carrying cargo (e.g. groceries), passengers (i.e. my dog) or that wasn’t too far away that I would ride my bike or walk instead of driving. This way I would reacquaint myself with the world around me and reconnect with my movement.
Finally, I would cut out all nonessential spending. I wouldn’t cancel my Netflix or Hulu accounts, but I could go six weeks without eating out, buying Starbucks (damn, there went my Last Supper half and half!), or making impulse buys on Amazon.
Next up, see how the first 3-day full fast went.