The Spirituality and Mindfulness of Fasting

Posted by : Dr. Roshani Sanghani, 03 Jul 2014 02:34 PM
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I was lucky to have had a global upbringing so I’ve known many relatives, friends, and colleagues who fast as part of their various spiritual practices. Personally, I’ve only fasted out of scientific curiosity when a debate came up at my workplace about intermittent fasting.

My fasting experience was more of a mindful eating experience than a spiritual one. I noticed that I was more concerned about hunger before the fast even started. Once I was in the flow of my day and mentally occupied, hunger took care of itself. Physically, I was surprised to find myself feeling more energized despite less food and my workout performance was actually better! My taste buds were ready and much more appreciative of the flavors of the next meal. Yet because I had put deliberate effort into tuning into my body, I was able to respect my stomach’s need for the right amount of food to feel good. I enjoyed the meal without overeating or guilt.

Having always been passionate about mind-body medicine and recently discovering spirituality myself, I have a deepened respect for the wisdom of ancient spiritual practices. As an Endocrinologist in India, I also have many patients who will fast for Ramzaan so I wanted to explore a bit about the spiritual practice of fasting.

To be clear, this blog post is not an in-depth study of fasting. It is not a statement about the health benefits or risks of fasting. It is not an attempt to compare and contrast different religious practices. It is not an opinion about whether people should fast or not, as that is clearly a personal choice. It is simply my humble attempt to share what I learned about spiritual fasting.

Spiritual fasting takes many forms, with variables such as which foods or meals are given up; how many hours or days; and how often. Ramzaan is the annual Islamic holy month of fasting, where practicing Muslims refrain from intake of any food or drink from sunrise to sunset. Mindful speech, thought, and action are also expected. There are many other examples of fasting in religious practices; here are just a few examples:

In Judaism, fasting is total abstinence from (or a significantly reduced intake of) food and drink on six designated days of the year. Catholics may give up certain foods during the month of Lent. In Hinduism, certain foods may be given up for certain days of the week or during holy periods. In Buddhism, monks and nuns do not eat after the noon meal as a form of daily discipline. In Jainism there are variations in how much to give up during the annual 8 holy days or by stopping all intake daily after sunset.

It is believed that there are many potential spiritual benefits of fasting:

By diverting focus from the distractions of the outside world, one can train the mind to satisfy its appetite through increased prayer and contemplation of God

Fasting intensifies spiritual experiences and meditative practices.

Food cravings and hunger pangs may be experienced as impermanent, earthly, and even irrelevant, similar to other thoughts and emotions that will come and go.

Fasting provides a clearer appreciation of the mind and body.

Bodily and worldly needs take a backseat to the care of the soul and spirit.

In some faiths, fasting is a form of non-violence due to vegetarianism.

Attention is focused on one’s connection to God and on prayer to strengthen that connection.

Hunger reminds one of their dependence and rekindles gratitude for ones blessings.

Breaking the fast is a celebration of the abundance in life.

Sharing food at the end of the fast helps promote compassion, unity, humility, and generosity.

To me, it appears that spiritual fasting, like eating mindfully, may help align body, mind and spirit, and develop a sense of gratitude, humility and fellowship.

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