Welcome back to our series on the spiritual disciplines, which explores exercises that can be used to train the soul. The purposes and practices of these disciplines are approached in such a way that they can be adapted across belief systems.
“By overloading the body with food you strangle the soul and render it less active.” —Seneca
In our last installment of this series, we explored the spiritual discipline of simplicity, defining its essence as having a clear purpose in life, and then prioritizing the spending of time and resources in accordance with it. While we listed several ways of keeping one’s priorities in their proper places, today we discuss one of the best — a practice that also constitutes a spiritual discipline of its own: fasting.
The discipline of fasting dates to ancient times, is common to nearly every religion in the world (as well as philosophical systems like Stoicism), and is mentioned in the Bible more times than baptism. There’s a reason for this prevalence and universality.
Fasting is the most concrete and viscerally embodied of the spiritual disciplines, and its intersection of the physical and the metaphysical produces uniquely potent, perceptible, senses-arousing effects that bridge the often too-wide gap between body and soul.
In recent times, fasting has become popular for its health effects alone, but when also practiced as a spiritual discipline, it can unlock far more possibilities than can be read on a scale.
Today, we’ll dive into how to get the most out of fasting — using it as a vital tune up not only for the health of the body, but the fitness of the spirit.
What Is Fasting?
Fasting is voluntarily abstaining from something for a limited amount of time; it’s not fasting if you plan on giving up the thing for good, though at the end of a fast, you may decide not to reincorporate it back into your life. Depending on what is being fasted from, fasts can last from days to weeks.
Some people will fast from all solid food, but allow themselves to drink juice. Others will fast from certain kinds of food; Eastern Orthodox Christians, for example, fast each Wednesday and Friday from meat, fish, dairy, olive oil, and wine.
You can also fast from non-nutritive things, like technology or certain behavioral habits.
Most basically and traditionally, however, fasting involves abstaining from all food and caloric drink (sometimes water as well). And while we will touch on non-dietary-related fasting below, this is the form that serves as the focus of this piece.
What Are the Purposes of the Spiritual Discipline of Fasting?
Fasting has gotten a lot of attention in recent years for the advantages it offers to physical health. While research on the subject is still relatively new, fasting may help you lose weight, normalize insulin levels, boost the immune system, increase human growth hormone, spur cell regeneration, and extend longevity. In giving your body a break from processing food, fat stores are fed upon and cells get a chance to go into repair mode — old and damaged ones are destroyed and new cells are generated. As Fr. Thomas Ryan puts it in The Sacred Art of Fasting: abstaining from food “gives the body a chance to renew itself. It is a time in which the body burns its rubbish. It’s like house-cleaning day.”
By sort of “taking out the trash,” fasting seems to have a vitalizing, balancing effect on the body’s hormonal and metabolic systems, and practitioners have reported a sharpening in mental functions as well.
While the spiritual discipline of fasting isn’t practiced primarily for reasons of physical health, these benefits shouldn’t be entirely separated from its purpose either. As Ryan explains, the discipline integrates benefits to both body and soul:
“It doesn’t have to be either/or . . . It can and should be both, because we are not just bodies and we are not just spirits. We are embodied spirits. Enspirited flesh. What is good for me physically is good for me. And what is good for me spiritually is good for me. There’s only one ‘me’ to which it all comes back.”
That being said, it’s important to understand that in practicing fasting as a spiritual discipline, the physical is secondary, and serves as a vehicle to the spiritual; as Ryan puts it, “We manipulate the physical to gain access to the spiritual”; fasting “provides physical sensations that point to spiritual realities.” The hunger of stomach is designed to put us in touch with the hunger of soul.
What’s interesting, in fact, is the way the physical benefits of fasting symbolically mirror its spiritual ones; in the same way that fasting balances the body’s hormones and renews its cells, it recalibrates the soul’s priorities and repairs places in one’s character that have become damaged and diseased. In fasting, you both purify the body, and clarify the soul.
Fasting ultimately doesn’t rise to the level of a spiritual discipline unless you intentionally approach it as such. If you fast with spiritual aims, you’ll still automatically garner the physical benefits; but if you fast without spiritual intentions, the effects will extend only to the body, without significantly touching the soul.
While the specific spiritual aims of fasting vary by one’s faith tradition, there are many purposes that cut across schools of belief and philosophy:
Teaches That Discomfort ≠ Bad
Fasting is arguably the most countercultural of the spiritual disciplines. In a time of unprecedented conveniences — when every atmosphere is climate-controlled, food can be ordered with the press of a button, entertainment can be perfectly curated to personal taste, and we feel entitled to satisfy every desire immediately — anything uncomfortable seems like a wholly unnecessary annoyance. We expect to be ever full, ever satiated.
Yet fullness isn’t always good, and emptiness isn’t always bad. The constant craving for pleasure can be detrimental, and occasional discomfort can be exactly what we need.
Richard Foster writes of coming to this insight in The Celebration of Discipline:
“The first truth that was revealed to me in my early experiences in fasting was my lust for good feelings. It is certainly not a bad thing to feel good, but we must be able to bring that feeling to an easy place where it does not control us.”
Culturally, we have come to an understanding that the pain of exercise is necessary if we want to improve our physical health. But we rarely carry this acceptance into other areas of life, where it is just as true. Sometimes, almost always in fact, you have to make yourself uncomfortable in order to get better.
Sometimes you have to empty yourself to be filled.
Strengthens the Will
“More than any other Discipline fasting reveals the things that control us.” —Lynne M. Baab, Fasting
The will of the spirit is a muscle very much like those of the body; the more it is exercised, the stronger it gets. And fasting gives our willpower muscle an incomparable workout that not only builds its strength concerning what we consume, but in all areas of life.
This is where fasting ties into simplicity. To live the simple life, one must keep his purpose-driven priorities — his loves — in order. The challenge is that baser desires constantly seek to assert themselves over nobler ideals.
Fasting provides concrete, visceral practice in choosing higher principles over lower appetites. In feeling physical hunger, but disregarding its pull, you teach yourself that you’re the boss of your body — that you don’t take marching orders from your belly. You teach yourself that you’re the master of your appetites, rather than their slave.
In fasting, we have to face down our appetite for food, but this hunger stands in for all our other gnawing appetites. In overcoming what seems like an insatiable desire to eat, we come to realize that other desires that seemingly demand to be answered now, can in fact be postponed. We come to realize we can do without. We can control the things that seek to control us.
The self-restraint built by fasting from food becomes an aid in keeping all our priorities straight, helping us get a better grip on the constant battle between short-term pleasures and long-term goals. It’s a concrete practice that helps develop that nebulous thing called character.
“In every culture and religion in history, fasting has been an instinctive and essential language in our communication with the Divine.” —Fr. Thomas Ryan
While this purpose for fasting obviously only applies to theists, it’s quite central for those who do believe in God; in religious scriptures, whenever fasting is mentioned, it’s almost always connected with prayer.
Fasting intersects with and intensifies prayer in several ways.
First, accompanying prayer with fasting shows sincere intention. As Lynne M. Baab puts it, “The fast is somehow a declaration: This thing I’m praying for is so important that I’m willing to set aside my every life — including food — to focus on praying for it.”
Second, spiritual fasters will often choose a particular purpose for their fast (a question in need of guidance; a loved one in need of healing) and then use the hunger pangs induced by fasting as a reminder to pray for it; whenever they notice the gnaw of their appetite, they offer up a supplication. Baab compares this practice to “tying a ribbon around your finger to remember God.” In this way, fasting increases the number of times you pray throughout the day.
Physical hunger also intensifies the urgency of one’s prayers. If fasting “provides physical sensations that point to spiritual realities,” the desire for food heightens the desire to make known one’s deeper needs. Petitioning becomes pleading.
Finally, because fasting removes the need to eat, the time one would have used for meals can be used for prayers, which further amplifies their frequency and focus.
What effect do these fasting-produced intensifications have on the efficacy of prayer? The answer to that depends on your theology.
Some would say that the sacrifice of fasting can “release” a blessing or answer that otherwise wouldn’t have been granted — that, as in Jesus’ parable of the woman and the unjust judge, God will listen to those who show persistent effort. Others will say that you cannot, as Baab puts it, “manipulate God into doing what we want.” The petitioner is blessed instead in simply receiving guidance in how to pray, and finding a deeper connection to God through deeper prayer.
Whether or not fasting-strengthened prayer changes God’s receptivity to supplications, both sides agree that it changes the receptivity of the supplicator to God’s guidance. The physical emptiness of fasting clears the channels of communication so that spiritual intuitions can more readily be discerned. As Ryan puts it, fasting is “an action that renews contact with God, like removing the rust and corrosion from a car battery to enable the current to flow more freely.”
If you’re struggling with making a decision, rather than just praying about it, try accompanying those prayers with a fast.
Establishes Rhythms Between Absence and Abundance
In many religions, feasts are supposed to be preceded by fasts: Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians are asked to fast on Good Friday before the celebration of Easter; Jews are to fast for 25 hours for Yom Kippur before ending the holy day with a large, festive meal. And the converse is true; Christians may feast on “Fat Tuesday” (aka Mardi Gras) before the fasting of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, and Jews feast the afternoon before the fast of Yom Kippur begins.
While devout adherents of these religions continue to keep up these practices today, rather than participating in a rhythmic cycle of fasting and feasting, most modern people stay in constant feast mode. We stay pretty stuffed year round, and then on holidays, try to get really stuffed.
There’s no rhythm in this undeviating, linear state of satiation — no texture to our days, no ying and yang to our schedules, no real anticipation of our holidays.
As a result, our feasts lose much of their satisfaction.
You’ve probably heard of the “hedonic treadmill” — the idea that while new things give us a lot of enjoyment, we quickly adapt to them, and their pleasure diminishes. The only way to get the old “high” back is to run after more and more. But of course the cycle just repeats itself, and we end up stuck in an endless, unsatisfying wheel of desire.
Fasting interrupts and re-sets the hedonic treadmill. It restores an anticipation for eating that has long grown dull. In abstention, our normally saturated senses get a chance to recalibrate, so that when we eat again, the food has a bit of its “newness” back, and tastes better than ever. As the old saying goes, “hunger is the best spice.”
This Thanksgiving, instead of sitting down to dinner already slightly full, and then eating until you’re buttons-bursting full, try not eating for 24 hours before the meal. Fast before a feast, and you’ll discover a rhythm that makes special occasions actually feel special.
Fosters Gratitude and Humility
“drawing from the teachings of great men, I shall give you also a lesson: Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest of fare . . . that it may be a test of yourself instead of a mere hobby. Then, I assure you, my dear Lucilius, you will leap for joy when filled with a pennyworth of food.” —Seneca
Speaking of Thanksgiving, fasting can not only increase your pleasure in eating, but also makes you more grateful for your food. Go without it for a time, and you’re less likely to take it for granted.
Fasting fosters humility in other ways as well. It’s a good chance to reflect on your mortality and finitude — your weakness, neediness, and brokenness. You’re a fragile creature that relies on the constant intake of external sustenance to function. Go for several weeks without it, and you’re dead. You’re not all-powerful. You’re not completely self-sustaining.
For a theist, this feeling of fasting-induced humility can extend to reflecting on their dependence on God as the ultimate source of life. For this reason, religions have often connected fasting with repentance — it’s an outward sign of inner abasement.
Gets You Out of a Rut and Re-Asserts Your Humanity
Despite how sophisticated, complex, interesting, and intellectual we typically consider ourselves to be, our behaviors can be awfully Pavlovian sometimes. Hear someone pop open a can of soda and we want one. Smell something cooking and we’re suddenly hungry. Like clockwork, our stomachs start growling at noon, because that’s when we always eat lunch.
And those are just our habits around food. Then there’s our smartphones, which can make us feel like rats in a lab who learn to press a lever to get their treats. Hear a notification, check your phone, hear a notification, check your phone. Press the lever, press the lever, press the lever. Even when our phone isn’t pinging, when we see it on our dresser, we’ll automatically make a detour to check the screen.
Even when our behaviors aren’t driven by reptilian instinct, we can still get stuck in some pretty fixed, and not always advantageous, routines.
Buddhist “Forest Monks” consider fasting to be one of the “dhutanga” austerities — a group of 13 ascetic practices. Dhutanga means “invigorate” or “shake up” and that’s exactly what fasting (whether from food or technology) can do to the de-humanizing ruts you fall into. It disrupts your routine in a life-affirming way.
You feel a hunger pang, and you ignore it. You always eat at noon, but today you’re not going to eat at all. You hear your phone ping, and you disregard it. You see your phone on your dresser, and you walk on by. As Baab writes, “fasting communicates a profound freedom. I don’t have to do things the same way, day after day. I am not a slave to my habits. I can change things around, I can try new things.”
Humans are the only creatures able to decide to shut down a lower instinct to reach for a higher purpose.
So fast to remember you’re a man, not a mouse.
Builds Solidarity With the Suffering, and Within a Community
The worst part about having a friend or loved one who’s going through a hard time is the helplessness and impotence you feel as a bystander to their pain and suffering. Beyond offering words of encouragement, making them a meal, and sending your thoughts and prayers, there’s not a whole lot you can do.
Fasting at least adds a little sincerity and oomph to those ubiquitous thoughts and prayers. By adopting a little voluntary hardship, you also allow yourself to feel a tiny bit of the suffering someone is going through, which makes your empathy a little more visceral and real, and tends to keep the person more at the top of your mind.
Fasting isn’t just something that can help organize one’s personal anxieties into a concrete action; it can also mobilize a community that wishes to help. When someone is in need, groups of loved ones or church congregations will sometimes decide to all fast and pray for the person on the same day. Even if the fast has no metaphysical effect on the condition of the person going through a difficulty, the knowledge that a bunch of folks were willing to move beyond “thoughts and prayers” and actually sacrifice something, sends a powerful message of love and support. At the same time, being united in a purpose, and sharing in a little suffering themselves, brings the community of fasters together as well.
As Baab reports, there was actually a time in this country when fasting was something of a communal, civic duty:
“In 1774, when the British Parliament ordered an embargo on the Port of Boston, the legislative body of the State of Virginia called for a day of public humiliation [humility], prayer, and fasting. George Washington wrote in his journal that he fasted that day. In 1798, when the United States was on the verge of war with France, John Adams proclaimed a day of solemn humiliation, prayer, and fasting. During the War of 1812, the two houses of Congress passed a joint resolution calling for a day of public humiliation, prayer, and fasting.
During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln called three times for a day of national humiliation, prayer, and fasting. Lincoln encouraged fasting and prayer both in places of worship and in homes.”
These national days of fasting were aimed at petitioning for divine protection and guidance, fortifying the character of citizens for the challenge at hand, and creating solidarity amongst them.
Evokes Sympathy (and Charitable Giving) for the Poor
While most of us in the modern Western world have enough — too much — to eat each day, there are still people around the world, and in our own country, who do not.
Fasting fosters a sense of solidarity with these needy and often forgotten folks; by experiencing a little temporary hunger yourself, you may feel more sympathy for those who experience such pangs on a regular basis. The idea is not just to feel sorry for the poor, however, but to let this sympathy move you to action. Indeed, nearly every religion encourages the giving of alms as part of the discipline of fasting.
How Do You Practice the Spiritual Discipline of Fasting?
Most religions have certain guidelines for how “official” fasts of the faith are to be carried out. But most also encourage their adherents to practice personal fasts outside proscribed holy days and other obligatory times.
Whether you’re religious and looking to begin your own fasts, or not religious but want to give the discipline of fasting a try, the following tips will help you make the practice a successful and edifying habit:
Decide the Parameters of Your Fast
These include exactly what you’ll be fasting from, and for how long.
For a traditional fast, you’ll be giving up food and non-caloric beverages. You may also decide to give up water too.
Research indicates that 16 hours seems to be about the minimum you have to fast to get some of the benefits fasting accrues to physical health. So that’s like stopping eating at 8 PM the first day, and then not eating again until noon the next day; you basically just skip breakfast. While this kind of “intermittent fasting” is easy enough to do every day, and good for the body, it’s not strenuous enough to have much of a spiritual effect. It can be a good way to dip your toes into fasting, however, as it will help stabilize your blood sugar so that longer fasts become easier.
Even if you’re a beginner and haven’t had any such practice with fasting, you should be fine jumping into a 24-hour fast in which you give up two meals: stop eating after dinner and start your fast; then skip breakfast and lunch the next day, breaking your fast with your next dinner. Keep in mind that while exercising on a day you’re fasting is possible, it’s going to make your hunger a lot more acute and your fast harder to keep, so you may want to fast on a day that you’ll be less active.
I’d also recommend that the beginner faster continue to drink water and other non-caloric beverages (a necessity if you’re exercising that day). I personally don’t find any added benefit to abstaining from water during a fast; it just makes me feel terrible instead of spiritual, and some caffeine can make it easier to keep from eating. Keep in mind that artificially-sweetened beverages can kick off your salivation for food, however.
I personally do a 24-hour fast about once a week, but even doing one once a month has been shown to produce the health benefits mentioned above.
Once you’ve gotten 24-hour, food-only fasts under your belt, you may want to experiment with longer fasts, or also abstaining from water. Use practical wisdom with your fasts, and of course talk to a doctor about any medical issues that may make fasting non-viable for you.
If you do have a health issue that prevents you from abstaining from all food, consider fasting by abstaining only from certain foods, or take a non-dietary fast.
You can in fact “fast” from anything in your life that’s taking up more space, attention, power, or influence than you’d like, and subsequently disordering your loves; consider fasting from anything that’s detracting from your higher priorities and needs to be rebalanced in your life.
- Any and all devices with screens (television; smartphone)
- Sports or hobbies
- Social media (or the internet altogether)
- Music (altogether, or a certain kind)
During a limited period of abstention you can assess the role the thing you’re fasting from plays in your life. How much do you miss it? How much do you really need it? Is its absence adding to your life?
After this assessment period, you can decide how/if to re-introduce the habit into your life. If you find your life was better off without it, you may decide to give it up for good. Even if you do re-incorporate the habit, regularly fasting from it will help you practice the behavior with greater moderation.
Dedicate Your Fast to a Spiritual Purpose
As we said at the start, you won’t get much spiritual benefit from a fast if you don’t go into it actively seeking such. None of the purposes outlined above will manifest themselves unless you intentionally focus and reflect on them during your fast. It’s like going for a run; it can be a spiritual experience if you want it to be, but if that’s not your intention, it will just be a run; the mindset you bring to the practice matters.
So the first step to a successful fast is knowing your purpose going into it. You can dedicate your fast to one of the general purposes above, like becoming more grateful or strengthening your will. Or your purpose can be more specific, like getting an insight to a question you have or praying for someone who is sick. One reason to fast we haven’t mentioned yet is to express grief — fasting and mourning often went hand-in-hand in ancient times. You can also fast on the anniversary of a loss — it can make the remembrance more visceral and embodied, and it can just feel right to remain physically empty to honor the time someone you loved was taken out of your life.
As you open a fast, take a couple minutes to reflect on the purpose you’ll be dedicating it to. If you pray, tell God of your intentions and ask for guidance, discernment, insight, strength, etc. during your fast. At the end of the fast, bring it to a close with another time of reflection or prayer, contemplating how you felt during the fast and if your learned anything from it.
Follow Strategies That Will Help You Stay the Course and Make Fasting a Cheerful, Even Pleasurable Discipline
You may have tried fasting before, and found that rather than attaining zen, you were just cranky as all get out. Maybe you felt angry and impatient, and threw in the towel early.
Fasting is supposed to be a little difficult and uncomfortable — that’s part of its raison d’etre. But it can also be very doable to stick with, and even pleasurable in its own way. (Kind of like a tough workout hurts so good.)
For help in sticking with fasting, and making it a satisfying experience, employ these strategies:
Every time you feel a hunger pang, reflect and/or pray about your purpose. Let your fast be that ribbon tied around your finger. Every time you feel hungry, instead of reaching for food, use the moment to engage with why you’re fasting.
Stay away from food if you can, and use meal times for spiritual practice. While being around food and turning it down strengthens the will, try not to tempt yourself beyond what you can bear. Hanging out in a kitchen while cookies bake, or sitting down at a table where everyone else is chowing down, is going to make it harder for you to stick with your fast.
If it’s possible, stay away from food-filled situations, and use the time you’ve freed up by skipping meals to practice some other spiritual disciplines — seek solitude, pray, meditate, study, and, of course, reflect on the purpose of your fast.
Expect, and brush off, “clockwork” hunger pains. If you eat around the same times every day, your body will start releasing hunger-inducing hormones as those times approach in anticipation of the expected meal. When you feel these pangs, realize you’re not really that hungry, and that your body is just acting out of instinct. In fact, occasionally disrupting these patterns with a fast is part of what makes fasting healthifying, and remembering that fact can be motivating.
Repeat mantras to yourself when you’re tempted to give in. When hunger seems to be getting the best of you, repeat some mantras like these, that will remind you of your purpose:
- I’m the boss of my body
- I’m not a slave to my stomach
- I don’t take marching orders from my belly
- It’s trash day for my body
- Man does not live by bread alone
Remember that billions of people do this all the time. If you’re new to fasting, it can feel like a big, nearly impossible challenge. Just remember that tons of people do this on a regular basis. Mormons fast once a month. Muslims fast for the entire month of Ramadan.
You can do this.