For millions of people, fasting is an obligatory practice during the holy month of Ramadan. Ramadan is an annual spiritual event that impressively embraces the entire Muslim family as one. But it is not just Islam that advocates fasting as a tool to spiritual upliftment.
The vast majority of faith traditions: Christianity, Baha’i, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Jainism, Mormonism, Taoism, and more, advocate a period of abstinence either from all food and drink of certain types, mainly meat, eggs and dairy products, as well as smoking and the consumption of alcohol and other intoxicants.
The purpose of fasting (for religious reasons) is not to suffer but to guard against gluttony as well as lying, cheating, outbursts of uncontrolled lusts and desires, and impure and indecent thoughts, words and deeds. Fasting also fosters humility as one experiences a life that others who are less fortunate have to endure on a daily basis.Some faiths encourage, that money saved from fasting, be donated in some form of charity, for to reach out in love to others is part and parcel of true fasting.
The physical benefits of a period of fasting are believed to be many: mainly it is said to detoxify the body and improve overall health. However, a deeper and more significant aspect is the spiritual accomplishment.
There are fasts of different kinds. In Buddhism, monks and nuns following Vinaya rules commonly do not eat each day after the noon meal. This is not considered a fast but rather a disciplined regimen aiding meditation and good health. The same can be applied to the mind. Creating a regime on a daily basis of fasting from excessive and negative thoughts would certainly enhance your meditation experience.
For a Muslim, fasting is both an obligation and an act of love for Allah, through which he/she gains taqwaa, cleansing and purification of the heart and soul. It engenders self-control and discipline, and a sense of unity. Certainly the pursuit of fasting is more than just abstinence, it is recognized as a path to a higher consciousness.
The Bible sets aside a whole day a year for fasting: the Day of Atonement. “Everyone must go without eating from the evening of the ninth to the evening of the tenth on the seventh month which is the Day of Atonement.”
For all Catholics fasting is an important spiritual discipline. It highlights the synergy between the body and the soul. Orthodox Christians do not see a dichotomy between soul and body but rather consider them as a united whole and they believe what happens to one affects the other – the psychosomatic union. Saint Gregory Palamas argued that man’s body is not an enemy but a partner and collaborator with the soul.
Fasting is a very integral part of the Hindu religion. One may fast for almost any reason; a birth, a death, to find a good husband, for prosperity, to honor a particular deity, to celebrate the full moon and fasting during religious festivals is also very common. Interestingly Hindus also fast for a whole month during Shraavan mas, the Hindu holy month.
It is no coincidence that the fast is not just purely for a few minutes or hours but in most cases for weeks or even a month or more. Perhaps a sign that it takes time to realize, appreciate and sustain changes at a deep-rooted level.
During any fast, in any faith, the intention behind any deed should be positive, for the intention is as important as the act. To check intention implies checking one’s heart. Is my heart pure and clean enough to fill with the presence of the Divine? When I am generous and kind is there a subtle expectation of a return, of recognition, that will dilute this good deed, this seed?
We are travelling through a time of great upheaval and the eruptions of the vices are becoming uncontrollable causing mayhem and chaos inside, and bomb blasts outside! This is that pivotal period, that Ramadan, or Lent or Shraavan mas in which humanity needs to fast from the vices and add a few drops of peace and calm to the whole world scenario. The only way to eradicate the vices is to not give them power by not putting them to use.
As we fast, these quiet times of peace and harmony allow us to reflect on the general quality of our lives: Am I truly living my purpose and meaning? It is an auspicious and appropriate time to check my compass and confirm my own direction. But more importantly, it is a time to celebrate the journey and our family, those with whom we are traveling the path of life. Without periods of ‘fasting’, we would not truly be able to strengthen the mind and body or take a breath to appreciate all the goodness that we are surrounded by.
Fasting is not a penance, but a tried and proven way of teaching us that nothing in life comes easily but that with effort and sacrifice we can become masters of ourselves.
It’s Time… to step back from the palate and give the organs a bit of a break. Take the time you save from cooking and cleaning to reflect on your inner compass of life – are you on the right path? Check the intentions behind your deeds – are they clean and generous. And when it is time to “break the fast”, do so mindfully being aware to feed the mind as well as the body by resuming a diet of positive, peaceful, and beneficial thoughts, words and deeds.
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‘It’s Time…’ by Aruna Ladva, BK Publications London