Fasting as an invitation to emptyMar 16, 2021
Fasting as a spiritual discipline deepens our commitment for spiritual awakening, helps us to see what we truly value, and seeks to restore a sense of intimacy with the Divine. Fasting is more than just skipping a few meals. It is a dynamic, spiritual practice that helps us embody a sense of self-emptying and release. It is an intentional decision to turn away from the frenetic and busy world with all of its distractions to allow ourselves to be drawn into a relationship with what is sacred. Our world today has the highest levels of consumption and convenience ever known. And while our economic development has brought us discoveries like penicillin and electricity, it has also led to interpreting every discomfort as unacceptable and cultivated an appetite to have every desire satisfied. Despite the many wonders we now live with, so many lives seem marked by craving instead of satisfaction. Everyone who has committed to exercising understands that sometimes discomfort is necessary if we want to experience better health. In a similar way, fasting helps us understand that sometimes discomfort is necessary if we want to experience spiritual growth. The decision to willingly choose hunger places us in a countercultural position to the voracious appetite for material consumption and status swirling around us. And this willingness to explore self-denial, to quiet our own desires, gives us an opportunity to hear what is moving through us, to hear what we are called to do with this precious life. The process of self-emptying creates room and allows us to be filled by the Divine.
The desire to cleanse
I fasted for the first time when I was twenty-one. A friend had invited me to spend three days in the woods to fast in silence. At the time, I did not have much experience with contemplative practice and I remember the silence as the more difficult discipline. There was no real spiritual container. No purpose other than exploration. No goal in mind. In many ways, it was a simpler curiosity than I have today. Now that my spiritual life has a more defined belief system and I have more “knowledge” and I live with greater spiritual aspirations, it is harder for me to enter into silence or fasting with the wonder of a beginner’s mind. With experience comes wisdom and this allows me to explore the nuance and subtly of the sacred encounter, but that first trip into the literal wilderness remains precious to me for the sheer newness of it all.
A few years later, I tried fasting again. First, I experimented with the lemon-cayenne, 7-day detox, which was popular at the time. Within a year I tried another one of the juice fasts, but this one left me with acid reflux for a month. I didn’t need to lose weight. It wasn’t part of any religious ritual. I just felt the need to cleanse. Cleanse what? I couldn’t actually tell you. But I probably would have repeated lines I’d picked up from conversations with friends about “flushing toxins” out of my body. The nature of these toxins? Again, I would have been hard-pressed to say if they were chemical or spiritual; by-products of a processed food economy or a consumeristic religious culture.
Fasting as exchange
Today I see this type of fasting as commercial, as a form of exchange. That is, there is a desire to get something from the discipline; in my case, a cleansed body. The sacrifice was attached to a desired outcome. And my sense of satisfaction with the experience was connected to the success of the outcome. And honestly, I didn’t feel very satisfied. I suppose because I didn’t know what I was really hungering for. But it wasn’t a cleansed body.
Still, the desire to cleanse was real. But given humanity’s history with fasting and its acceptance as a practice across cultures, there seems to be something instinctive about the discipline. Somehow we understand that using our bodies as an instrument to experience an emptying is needed for us to make a transition. I just didn’t know what I wanted the transition to be.
A growing hunger for God
Somewhere along the way, my interest in juice fasts designed to realign the bacteria in my gut waned and my interest in fasting to draw me closer to God and humanity grew. My fasts began to take on a larger vision and context. My understanding of the body expanded. I started to see it not as an isolated entity limited by my epidermis, but as integrated with the very life force of Being. My fasting took on a sense of solidarity with others. I fasted for immigrants and immigration reform, for those being detained in Guantanamo, and for the homeless. Much of this was done privately, but for about 6 months a couple of years ago I led a small fasting group on Zoom. The people who joined this group came for a variety of reasons, but, personally, I always fasted for those living with food insecurity in the United States. Each week I learned anew how hard it is to concentrate when you are hungry and every afternoon I prayed for all the children in school who found themselves failing or in trouble simply because they were underfed.
The cleanse I sought ceased to have anything to do with the food I was putting in my body and more to do with how I was being formed by the world around me. I was fasting to cleanse a sin that was both mine and not mine. The sins of neglect, of greed, of selfishness, of gluttony, of racism, of alienation, of hatred, were not created by this body but they had penetrated this body. They existed within this Being. I wasn’t trying to atone for a particular sin of my own, but for the sin that lived through me as someone woven into the fabric of this life. The sin of the world called out to me. Sometimes it felt so large and so overwhelming. Other times I wondered if I was fooling myself, fabricating any spiritual significance the act might actually have. But I continued because, instinctively, I knew there was wisdom in the practice.
Fasting as solidarity
Sin is a loaded term. One that feels simultaneously overused and underused at that same time. And while I personally don’t believe in Augustine’s Original Sin, I understand why people do. Even the most superficial of investigations into human activity reveals a wealth of wickedness and cruelty. But nor am I a fan of the clergy who seem to have made an industry of sin either. There is within human beings this impulse to cleanse, to empty, and some of these clerics have taken advantage of this impulse. Some even prey on it. The wickedness of the world seems almost like an obsession and despite how much they rebuke it, slay it, denounce it, there is always more sin to find. It is almost like they love this sin. And one wonders if they would even know who they were without this sin.
In those days, I fasted more as a witness. There was a social dimension of solidarity. I don’t think there is necessarily anything wrong with this type of fasting. Done appropriately, I believe it can heighten our awareness of the destitute world. Still, I tried to be cautious to never confuse the hunger I felt with the hunger of someone who had no actual recourse to get food. And there is a potential entanglement in this type of fasting where we confuse the decision to sacrifice with another sort of exchange. Instead of seeking a cleansed body, there is a danger of seeking a sort of spiritual advantage or even favor with God. There is a potential danger of saying “Look at how righteous I am.” But I don’t deride this type of fasting either. I believe we would live in a much more compassionate society if our bodies held the experience of hunger, even in a controlled environment.
An invitation to empty
At some point, a third shift emerged and I longed to fast simply to fast. I began to see how I was creating a dualism or separation with the social fasting. I was fasting as a witness to a reality that was still “out there.” But the hunger began to take on an embodied expression of the spiritual hunger I had for union. There wasn’t any insight to attain. There wasn’t any truth to be gained. There was only the emptying in order to make room for God. Even the word God became troublesome as it felt like it was still occupying some space and, like Eckhart, I prayed for God to rid me of God.
Similar to the sensitivity to the Spirit nurtured in silent contemplation, the discipline of fasting helps reflect how much I fill my life, almost compulsively, with every sort of distraction; a gluttony of shiny objects that fills my to-do lists. The cleanse I longed for in those early experiments with fasting had little to do with the food I was putting in my body or the impacts of culture on my identity. In the end, I longed to be cleansed of my own fabrications. It was me who was filling me, who was gorging on me.
The discipline of fasting offers an experience of interiority where the whole body enters into a form of prayer. It ceases to be about deprivation and begins to appear as an invitation. Fasting as emptying clears away of the egoic tendencies to gain or cause some spiritual transformation. Fasting as emptying allows me to be receptive to a more intimate spiritual relationship. It asks for trust as I shed a sense of autonomy that we call the “self.” Emptying as invitation helps me to explore how truly dependent I am on all of Being. The “I” normally attached to this body has the opportunity to be embodied by Creation. For me, this is one expression of grace.
When I fast, I feel sleepy and hungry. I can feel confused and weak. All of these are present and there is discomfort. Some of this discomfort, however, is created by my mind and the fast allows me to explore the nature of this discomfort and even be confronted by it. Fasting can appear as hard, but it is also a unique form of prayer that helps me touch the thin places where I am able to release the clinging I feel for my individuality and I am once again knit back into the sacred cloth of Creation.