The first week of my rip-off Orthodox Lent would be the most strict. After fasting for nearly 3 days on Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday, I planned to eat breakfast and lunch on Thursday and then return to another full day fast on Friday. On Thursday I tried to be responsible about my eating and not shovel everything I could find into my mouth, or eat anything that might cause me to be super hungry the next day. I tried to eat lots offats (mostly nuts), because fats are delicious, satisfying, and supposedly don’t have much of an effect on insulin levels.
My normal pattern in a situation like this where I gave myself license to eat as much as I liked would be to eat my favorite comfort foods. However, with my restrictions (no dairy, no gluten, no olive oil, no sweets), pretty much every comfort food was off the menu. When you can eat as much as you want of healthy foods like brown rice and vegetables, dry roasted almonds, rice and beans, or carrot sticks the idea of emotionally eating gets way less appealing.
Not binging emotionally is great for your health, but what to do with all of those emotions? I have already told the story about how the lack of distraction and escape showed me a new solution to a toxic pattern that had been playing itself out at work. But I was also shocked to see how often throughout the day my thoughts centered on food. If I was bored, then I thought about snacking on crunchy stuff. If I wanted a reward, Ithought about sweets. And of course, if I was upset, I thought about food; mostly things that featured cheese. If only I could find a way to stop thinking about food all the time, I would probably have superhuman concentration and productivity. Instead, I probably thought about food just as often as I mindlessly turned on my phone. With my brain bouncing back and forth between phone and snacks all day long, it’s amazing I ever got any work done.
When Friday rolled around, I was feeling exhausted from so much discipline. It was a cold morning: 37º, and I had been cold all week from the fasting. I had lain out all of my warmest cold weather cycling gear, but when I woke up freezing on Friday morning I simply couldn’t bear the idea of both running in the cold dark, and then following it with an even colder ride to work. I broke down and reverted to my usual bike commuting rule: if it’s raining or below 40º, then I drive. Just that little relaxation of the rules felt good. The idea of the reward of an extra 15 minutes in the morning and being able to sit in my nice, warm car with the heat cranking was enough to get me through my freezing pre-dawn run and gym session.
However, despite the relatively low calorie expenditure in my morning workout, I was still very hungry all day. I was more hungry than I had been on Wednesday after 2.5 days of fasting, and so, so, very cold. I also didn’t have the patience to push through like I had earlier in the week. Around midday I caved in and had a few nuts to get me through. They did not soothe the aching hunger or lessen my appetite as much as I had hoped, but with a few handfuls of nuts throughout the day, I managed to get through work without eating anything else. I go to bed early, but when I got home bed time seemed a long time off, and herbal tea wasn’t going to lessen my obsessive thoughts about food, so I made a mug of instant miso soup. Technically this, too, was breaking my fast but still had fewer calories than the chia/apple cider vinegar drink that I had decided was okay for fast days. I usually hate miso soup, but this miso soup was delicious and just what I needed to get through the evening. I was crushed when I read the ingredients and saw that it not only had a ton of gluten in it, but also fish! Duh, I should have known to check for it. I may have given up gluten only out of curiosity, but I had been a strict vegetarian for over 20 years and the idea of eating fish flakes repulsed me. I threw out the miso packets.
On the one hand I was really disappointed that I hadn’t been able to keep a full fast for all 4 cumulative days that I had planned, but on the other hand it was also a victory. I usually live by what I call “the Cheesecake Principle.” I’m one of those people that if I break my diet with a mini Snickers bar, then I automatically think, “Fuck it, the whole thing’s ruined. I might as well have a cheesecake. And since I’m committed to the cheesecake, then I should just throw out this salad and have the pizza for dinner too…” The fact that I had broken my fast with only the food that I thought would allow me to keep going was a tremendous victory. After searching my conscience about the breaches of protocol, I decided that for what I was after (emotional breakthrough… enlightenment… or something?), that “100% compliance or bust” wasn’t in the spirit of the thing so much as finding a way to continue the experience. If a few peanuts would change my hormone levels out of a “fasting” state, but allow me to continue exploring my relationship with food, myself, my emotions, my life… then it was still mission accomplished. Perhaps even finding compassion for myself would lead to a breakthrough? Nah!
I woke up Saturday not particularly hungry, but wanting to eat all of the things. It wasn’t so much that I felt like I had to catch up, but I wanted to loosen the stranglehold I had on all my desires. So during the times when I had given myself permission to eat, I ate a lot. But pretty soon it got a little boring. I mean, who’s going to go on a three day binging bender on yams, peanuts, and fried bananas? Well, maybe the fried bananas…
…well… maybe the fried bananas. Try frying them in coconut oil… you won’t regret it!
Saturday I was walking on air after my release from my work conflict, but by Sunday I was beginning to replay aspects of the conversation in my head and beginning to see subtext that I hadn’t noticed at the time. I woke in the middle of the night with a realization that made me furious, and could not calm down for the rest of the night. Eventually I gave up and went for a longer-than-originally planned run of 10.5 miles. I hadn’t eaten since the afternoon before, but since I’d had two full meals (14 hours earlier), my body felt fantastic and I felt like I could run for ages. Once I had finished running, I came home, fed Oscar, changed, and headed back out for a 7.5 mile hike. By noon I had covered about 18 miles and been fasting for over 20 hours, and I felt great! I didn’t feel hungry, and at no point in my hike did I feel like I was suffering from low energy.
Even though emotions were running high, the idea of trying to eat away the bad feels with sautéed spinach and lentils sounded completely unappealing. So even after an 18-mile morning, I walked away from lunch with food still on my plate. The problem was, without food, or mindless spending, or escape from my thoughts by listening to an audiobook, I had nothing to help me turn away from a series of very painful realizations that were coming over me…
After writing the above, it sat in my drafts folder for weeks. Meanwhile, I continued to stare unflinchingly at some problems I’d been having, and circumstances took an unexpected turn. A few days later, I started a new draft…
Where we left me last, I had just completed a week of what was supposed to be more than half fasting. I had also reached a major breakthrough at work. Fasting was awesome! If all that happened in a week, then I was going to reach Nirvana at the end of six weeks…
…well the joke was on me. Does anyone ever go to their boss and say, “The demands of my job have become overwhelming, and so I would like to do a different job now, please?” and then get what they asked for? If you do work at a place like that, I would love to send you my resume… because I’m now in the market for a new job.
Of course I’m oversimplifying here, because no one but me cares about the details of all of the injustices done to me and how misunderstood I am. But when you are going through the protracted process of a slow-paced job loss, it is an emotional rollercoaster. Everything is turned upside-down, nothing feels secure, and every day you are reminded of plan that will need to change or a person that you will lose from your daily life.
In that context, holding myself to strict fasting rules felt like a punishment, and what I needed right now was a little slack, and a little what the Christians call “grace.” When you are trying to hang on to the security of a steady paycheck, a 401K plan and health insurance it is hard to go without food to force gratitude for everything that you have. To stick to too restrictive a lifestyle in that situation is not a celebration of life, it is a frantic grasp for control over anything, made by a desperate person who feels that they can control nothing. As I said when I first started talking about fasting: there is a difference between fasting and an eating disorder. I was at the line and had to choose whether the “right” thing to do was to cross it. What would Jesus do?
Well… Jesus took his experiments to an extreme and I’m not even religious, so I decided to just settle the spiritual fasting question right there. Conclusion? You need a pretty damned strong compulsion to stick with a spiritual fast, and even the prophets had to go to the desert or a cave to remove the distractions of daily life that will mess with your focus.
Even though I didn’t achieve enlightenment, I did learn from the fast.
- There really is less hunger with extended fasting than a normal 3-meal-a-day day – although I didn’t go a really extended period of time without eating, I was surprised to find that I was not as hungry as I thought I would be during a day of two of not eating. There were certainly times when I wanted to eat, but I never got lightheaded and weak, or had that gnawing feeling in my stomach that I associate with hunger.
- The most unpleasant side effect was the monotony of not having any similar pleasures to break up the day. I do wonder whether with more practice that feeling would go away, like the smoker’s desire to smoke in certain situations eventually fades with enough practice.
- You can work out while fasting – I was also surprised at how good I felt during my workouts. While I didn’t try any really intense workouts, I was fine on 3-4 mile runs as well as bike commutes to/from work.
- No animal products is easy, as long as you’re prepped
- My body began to feel really good. I didn’t even want sugar.
- I don’t feel any better eating normally than I did while fasting. In fact, once you have cleared out your digestive tract and then reintroduce a hearty meal, it actually feels kind of gross. Having a meal is also what triggers feelings of hunger a few hours later.
- The “no spoken word audio” was possibly the best new habit from this experiment. I hadn’t realized how often listening to a narrative would pull my thoughts away from a train of thought and on to whatever I was listening to. I had hoped to relieve my information overload, but I did not expect my thoughts to go deeper than they had in years and make connections that I had been missing.
- Cutting off my nonessential spending also worked out better than I thought. It was easier than I thought to move my mind off of ways to spend time that cost money, and once I stopped spending the money I found myself no less happy for lack of stuff, and much less stressed to have more money in my account. As with other habit changes in the minimalist vein, once I had tried it, this one felt so natural that I wondered why I ever spent so much money to begin with.
- Even just a week of restricting activities and paying attention to my reactions made a tremendous difference in my life and perspective.