The Spirituality Behind Fasting
The Soul is nourished by fire and air, and the body by water and earth.
We recently made an article discussing the science behind fasting, which you can read about here. Not only are we now discovering just how tremendously healing fasting can be on the body, it has also been a key spiritual practice across many world spiritualities for thousands of years. This is not a practice that is exclusive to any single world faith, but is found to be a very significant role in Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Taoism, and many, many more.
Fasting is a multi-faceted healing tool. It affects an individual on all levels, be it physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Physically, fasting allows the body to rapidly remove toxins and heal all manner of diseases. Mentally and emotionally, fasting allows the mind to rid itself of worries, anxieties, and other stresses. It even has been shown to get rid of certain addictions.
All of these attributes compound when we look at the spiritual benefits of fasting, and for each person, their spiritual experience will be unique to them during their fasts. Generally across the board however, fasting is observed as tremendously beneficial to open up a deeper connection with our soul, and in turn – with God. By focusing our attention on the eternal within, we become significantly more in tune with all of the energy in the universe, and the fact that this energy is constantly moving through us.
By disconnecting from this physical aspect of life, specifically through the consumption of food, it allows our awareness to feel more subtle sensations in our bodies that we otherwise might not have noticed before. The new clarity of mind, body, and emotions then allows the spirit to come through more fully, and we realize all kinds of things about ourselves, our lives, and the world around us.
Fasting in Christianity
In Christianity, Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness after being baptized by John in the Jordan River. These two events together were how he began his ministry as Christ. In the book of Exodus, Moses was also said to have done a 40 day dry fast. In Christianity, the purpose of fasting is to take our eyes off of the things of the world, and focus on God, as a way to demonstrate to God and ourselves that we are serious about our connection to this great and infinite All, and to selflessly give up our attachments to our physical desires.
It is through our commitment to God and our own spirituality, that we free ourselves of the various holds which Satan has over us, and opens our hearts to spiritual revival. It is said that spiritual fasting – when done in this way will bring us closer in understanding with the Divine, brings incredible miracles into your life, increase spiritual abilities, and sharpen our spiritual sense of awareness.
Fasting in Buddhism
In Buddhism, it is said that the Buddha practiced extreme levels of fasting prior to his enlightenment. He believed this would allow him to reach enlightenment, and it is written that he became so extreme in his practice that his eyes sunk deep into his skull and he became very weak. It was only after he was offered a bowl of milk porridge which he accepted and was nourished, that he sat in meditation until he realized enlightenment.
In the various Buddhist traditions, fasting is observed as a very powerful background role – as a way to reach a state where the mind is at peace despite the body’s discomforts, and even bring peace to the body in its uncomfortable state. They describe the importance of “the middle path”, moderation of food, but not rejection of it nor eating to excess. Thus, the length of a fast is flexible and depends entirely on the spiritual will of each individual. When the length of the fast is complete, you will know inside.
Fasting in Islam
In Islam, it is said that Muhammad began a practice fasting quite regularly, and initiated a type of fasting which today we call intermittent fasting. He would abstain from eating and drinking from sunrise to sunset, and do so as a form of prayer to Allah. In Islam, this has become a particularly predominant practice during the month of Ramadan. For Muslims, they practice this fast together as a community for a month each year, and some continue this practice regularly throughout the rest of the year as well.
To the Muslim faith, fasting develops self-restraint, self-discipline, and improves manners. Fasting thus becomes a spiritual shield, which protects an individual from lustful desires and sinful behavior – producing a semblance of divine quality of “freedom from want” (called samadiyyah) in a human being. This releases the human spirit from the clutches of desire, and allows moderation to prevail in the carnal self.
Fasting in Jainism
Fasting is very common in Jainism, which is an eastern faith very similar to Buddhism. They believe fasting purifies the body and mind, and reminds the individual on this path of renunciation and asceticism. This comes from their leader – the Mahavira – who spent a great deal of time fasting. In this faith, they believe that they must also stop wanting to eat, for if they continue their desire for food, the fast becomes pointless.
In Jainism, fasting comes as a support to living the 5 great vows, which are: non-violence, non-lying, non-stealing, chastity, and non-possession. Due to the excess toxins in the body being used up, thoughts become wholesome and pure, and the body returns to a clean and natural state of being. They believe that this method of healing is significantly more beneficial than taking medicine or healing herbs.
Fasting in Taoism
In Taoism, fasting is a practice for cleansing the body and mind which allows for a clearer state of being and having a healthier respect towards the foods that we do eat. They believe “garbage in, garbage out”, if we eat food that is junk, or animals and plants that have been mistreated, then we further send our bodies and minds into a state of disarray, and out of sync from our natural state of being.
In the Book of Rites, it is recorded that a fast also assists with communicating with spirits. Fasting is closely associated with chanting scriptures, which is said to reward the individual with boundless fortune by the accumulation of merits and virtues on the soul, including but not limited to putting an end to various poisons in the body, and saving an individual from misfortunes. Finally, it is believed that Fasting, along with very mindful food consumption, can dramatically increase one’s lifespan. However this also comes with the notion of the Taoist philosophy – one does not worry about how long they will live, and live moment to moment. It is in this way, that we live so much longer.
A genuine fast cleanses the body, mind and soul. It crucifies the flesh and to that extent sets the soul free.
As you can see by these 5 examples, fasting and spirituality inherently go hand in hand. We are only touching on the basics of the many different faiths out there which practice fasting, and this list truly is a vast one. Ultimately, the experience that one has while fasting is entirely their own, and whatever level of spirituality one applies to their fast will determine what one gets out of their fast.
Fasting in Meditation
Beyond any specific religion, faith or belief system, fasting has powerful benefits that go hand in hand with meditation; deep breathing and expanding your awareness. When your body isn’t spending energy digesting food, your internal organs can adapt and start producing the essential nutrients you previously were getting from your food. Over time, you can tap into how your physical body feels, and learn to read your body on a deeply connected level.
It allows you to distinguish where certain desires come from, whether they are a product of your ego or a calling from your soul. You become aware of your attachments to food as a distraction or mechanism to feel better. This allows you to take control of your spiritual will and to not be subject to the desires of the physical realm.
There is also an aspect of gaining energy through deep pranic breathing. When doing extended fasts, you may feel lower energy levels in the beginning. Taking the time to breathe energy back into your body is a powerful practice that ultimately transcends the need for physical food to give you strength.
Taking long, deep breaths into your stomach and slowly releasing it back out is a powerful practice that takes the concept of “mind over matter” and applies it to your life. We typically believe that we need food to have energy, but we can actually gain those same levels of energy through building up our prana. The first step in this is believing that it’s possible and keep an uplifting attitude. If you tell yourself you feel bad or tired, that belief system will manifest within you, and so shall it be.
Maintaining a level of deep breathing all throughout your fast takes practice and persistence, but can yield amazing results if you are willing to push through initial waves of lethargy.
Periodic fasting can help clear up the mind and strengthen the body and the spirit.
-Ezra Taft Benson
If your intention behind starting your fast is for physical healing, then physical healing will be received. If you fast for spiritual purposes, then you will experience spiritual benefits. Finally, if you fast for all of the elements – physical, emotional, mental, and spirituality; and devote yourself to the practice, you will experience tremendous levels of clarity, insight, and peace towards the various challenges you face in your life.
Just remember, when beginning your first fast, it’s always best to start small, like a single day water fast, or like that which is practiced in Ramadan, fasting sunrise to sunset. You might also try something like a juice fast, in which you are still receiving nutrients and energy from freshly squeezed fruit and vegetable juice, which is a lot easier to maintain over long periods of time rather than fasting strictly on water. Even more so – by listening to your body and what spirit is telling you, you will know exactly when the time comes to complete your fast, and not to push yourself to extremes. Please exercise caution when practicing a fast, and make sure that you are supervised to some degree to ensure safety – especially when undertaking longer fasts.
The more you do it, the easier and easier it becomes to go for longer. The journey into the Light is a long and beautiful journey, and always remember; it is not about the destination, but the journey itself.