Practice of the Week
Category: Occasional. These are practices suggested for "every once in a while." Some of them are responses to a particular need that may arise; others are simply enriching occasional enhancements to the spiritual life. All of them are worth a try at least once. And any of them might become a regular and central part of your spiritual practice.
adapted from Marta Morris Flanagan in Everyday Spiritual Practice, Ed. by Scott Alexander
"I want to fast to help me
slow down and connect with myself,
to be more conscious of my decision,
not only about food, but about all the ways
that I "stuff my feelings, my spirit.
I want to live more consciously." --Matt Muise
I fast at least once a year, for three days at a time. I abstain from all solid food and limit myself to drinking fruit juices, herbal tea, and water. This juice fast prevents dehydration and provides many vital nutrients while still inviting me to abstain and feel that emptiness of body and openness of soul.
When I fast, I pay greater attention to life. I am more mindful. Some practice fasting as a time of repentance and self-sacrifice. For them, like other ascetic practices, fasting involves the denial or withholding of pleasure. But for me, fasting is not a form of suffering, because I do not find suffering in and of itself a useful spiritual discipline.
Instead, I fast to make more room for God. When I want to deepen or reawaken my sense of the Spirit, it is helpful to let go of something else. When I fast, I create more room for God in my life, sometimes simply by the large amount of time that is freed from thinking about, shopping for, and preparing food. My hunger during the fast also serves as a visceral reminder of my own deepest yearnings.
We are all hungry people. It is often difficult to be in touch with our spiritual hunger if we are satiated with food. Try to meditate on a full stomach! Often we stuff ourselves with food in a vain attempt to feed another kind of hunger that cannot be satisfied with food. Often we fill our hungers with food, with drink, with busyness, with distractions like television. Fasting is a time-honored spiritual discipline that awakens us to the deeper hungers within.
During a fast we give up anything that has become a habit that might harm the body during the fasting period: caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, sweeteners o all kinds, drugs, and medicines, as far as possible. Fasting is not appropriate for people who battle bulimia or anorexia or those with special health problems. But fasting for a short period of time is healthy for most others. It cleanses the body of toxins. Some medical doctors have advocated fasting for purely physical health reasons. I find that the first twenty-four hours are the hardes physically. I can feel tired and have headaches. But there is a sense of freedom that comes to me on the second day.
In the beginning of a fast many people are fascinated by the physical aspects of the experience. But more important is to monitor the attitude of your heart.
Fasting is spiritual discipline known to every world religion. The Jewish calendar includes several fast days, most prominently the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur, while Muslims fast between dawn and dusk during the month of Ramadan. In the Christian tradition, fasting was once a common discipline, continuing from the early church up to the Reformation. During the Middle Ages, it became associated with excessive ascetic practices involving rigid regulations and extreme self-mortification and thus fell into disfavor. In recent years, fasting has attracted renewed interest.
Moses, David, Zoroaster, Kongfuzi (Confucius), Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, and Buddha all fasted for spiritual reasons. Like Elijah, who was fasting when he heard a still small voice, we are more open to the Spirit when we fast. And like Jesus, who was fasting when he was tested in the wilderness, we realize depths of faith and personal powers when we fast.
Fasting reveals things that control us. We often cover up what is inside us with food. When we fast, these things surface. While fasting we may feel the sorrow, anger, regret, or pride we have been hiding from ourselves.
Fasting is a way to bring awareness to what we do. Many of us eat for emotional comfort. It becomes an automatic impulse.
Fasting helps us pay attention, and when we do, our relationship to things changes. We see more and see more deeply. We are present to the moment.
Fasting helps us return to a balance in our lives. How easily we let the nonessential take precedence. How quickly we crave things we do not need.
Fasting is a time to write in a journal, pray, meditate, walk. These are all ways of being receptive to grace.
When fasting, it is helpful to keep daily concerns and distractions to a minimum. I do not watch television when I fast. Instead of relying on stimuli from the outside, it’s best to try living with yourself. Let yourself be directed from within.
When fasting, do whatever does your body good. If you are tired, sleep. If you like physical activity, exercise. Do things that please you: read, dance, or listen to music.
When you fast, it is helpful to reflect each day. Ask yourself:
- What was hardest about today’s fast? What was easiest?
- What surprised me about fasting today?
- In what ways did I become aware of the deeper hunger of my soul today?
- What were the inner demons I encountered today on this fast?
- What special grace did I experience today?
You may give your fast a focus. Some people are mindful that two-thirds of the world go hungry every day. They fast as an act of concern and identification. The money saved from this experience goes toward hunger. I know of one person who was so struck by an insight into himself during a therapy session that he spontaneously observed a twenty-four-hour fast to help him remember and deepen that insight.
Beginning and ending a fast is important. Gathering with others to observe a fast’s initiation and again to break the fast can be helpful. In one breaking-fast ritual I have participated in, we each brought a reading, a poem, or a passage that spoke to us during the fast. We also brought a piece of fruit. Silently, one by one, we approached the table and prepared our piece of fruit, placing the pieces on china plates, one for each person. One of us would slowly cut a banana and distribute slices to the plates. Another person would peel and divide the sections of an orange, and so on.
When we all had gone forward in silence and prepared our fruit, we were left with a plate for each of us with an array of fruit. It was a wondrous offering of food. Slowly, mindfully, and with great intention, we broke the fast by tasting the fruit before us. And always after the silence of our meditation, there was laughter as we ate together. It was good.
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For list of all weekly practices: "Practices of the Week Index