The Bliss of Self-Deprivation

The first time my friend Shane mentioned he wanted me to fast for two days with him, I hoped he would forget about the idea if I never brought it up again. But he persisted, and with a groan I caved in.

Fasting sounded like the least fun thing I could do for the weekend. No food? No snacks? No drinks apart from water and the occasional tea? Obviously I wouldn’t have the energy to go to parties or do any reliable amount of homework. I resigned myself to a weekend of misery.

Here’s the best way I can describe the hunger pangs: It’s like when the electricity is out and you keep walking around the house trying to flip the light switches on. And when you’re bored you think, “Well, because the power is out, I can’t do too much. I could go get online! Oh, wait, I can’t.” When fasting, you go about your day thinking, “Man, when I’m done doing this I can eat some spaghetti. … Oh, nope. Can’t do that.”

For a while, my head just buzzed with, “I want chocolate. I want pizza.” I became irritable at the thought of how much longer I would have to subsist without the satisfaction of getting a meal in my stomach. After a while, though, my growling stomach became a profound and lucid teacher. After I accepted my hunger, it eventually faded into the background, becoming just another bodily function, like a heartbeat. A pure, crystallized peace covered my heart and mind. I had moments of complete clarity where thoughts stopped their typical disconnected meanderings and were completely synced to what I was doing in every moment. Meditation became effortless when fasting, like water running smoothly over rocks. As I detached from food, I more easily detached from the many other trivial worries occupying my mind every day. I felt a peace and stillness rising within me that kept me coming back for more.

Food is such a primal need. We know we must eat three times a day to sustain ourselves, but sometimes we eat to fill voids. Lonely? Munch on brownies. Bored? Bag of chips. Procrastinating? Make a sandwich. Denying yourself food snatches away this safety blanket from beneath your feet, exposing you to everything you’ve been hiding from by constantly eating – possibly the reason Gandhi said, “What eyes are for the outer world, fasts are for the inner.” As I repeatedly denied myself food throughout the day, my reasons for compulsively eating became strikingly apparent. Often, I eat when I’m not even hungry. I take bites to distract myself from homework or to assuage boredom.

Many religious traditions know the power of conscious self-restraint. Yogis have practiced fasting and silence for ages, and Christians commonly practice giving something up for Lent. Pythagoras wouldn’t let his pupils learn his highest teachings unless they underwent a 40-day fast (though I wouldn’t recommend it).

Restraint is a powerful way to expose your weaknesses and cultivate an inner strength of stillness. We all have somewhat unnecessary pleasures we think we could never let go of – snacks, shopping, Facebook, alcohol, sex, television. I find that if one of these habits starts to compulsively control me, then I need to stop for a while. A few weeks ago, I gave up processed sugar for almost a week. After the first two days I stopped craving it, and then I felt liberated. I no longer had to buy sugary snacks to fulfill my cravings. I didn’t have to struggle with whether to indulge. I ate only healthy food, with deep satisfaction. Although I eventually caved in when Easter came around and I ate my entire chocolate bunny in one day, I was still empowered, now knowing the heightened power of my will and self-control.

An occasional day of silence is supposedly another very powerful tool, especially if you talk incessantly or use words venomously. One woman who suffered from a desire to compulsively lie wrote in Stephen Cope’s “The Wisdom of Yoga,” “It’s like a whole new inner world has opened up. As I quiet down the external chatter of my mind, the internal world of chatter comes into focus.” I promise you, there are a thousand reasons why you do the things you know you shouldn’t, and consciously fasting from them brings those lurking demons to light and exposes them for the falsehoods they really are.

If you try this, expect a hard but worthwhile journey. But try not to hate every moment of your hardship. Instead, accept your suffering. Watch it. Watch the thoughts that sprout around it. See where it takes you. Try not to find alternative compulsions to fill the void – like distracting yourself with friends or movies so you don’t have to face your own darkness. Getting a group to fast together provides much needed moral support and inspiration.

Shane and I felt that fasting was so powerful that we now get groups together about once a semester to share the experience through meditations and community. Last weekend, we were on our fourth group fast.

I leave you with the words of Gandhi: “A genuine fast cleanses the body, mind and soul. It crucifies the flesh and to that extent sets the soul free.”

Loss of the Feminine Divine

If you met a goddess-worshipper, would you see her (or him) as odd? I probably would look twice.

We tend to think of those who worship the feminine divine as pagan witches or New Age kooks who are ever-so-slightly off their rockers.

But as I reflect upon my upbringing in the Christian church, I missed the presence of strong females in the stories I heard on Sunday mornings. The Virgin Mary always seemed sweet, but she never had the sass or intrigue of Jesus, and she definitely didn’t wrestle with any angels.

For hundreds of years, men and women in the Western world haven’t had a healthy, independent female divinity to connect with, and perhaps have started to suffer for it. Athena, Aphrodite and Demeter used to rule alongside men, and historical evidence contends that Hera once was more widely worshipped than Zeus. But Western religion has become increasingly patriarchal as female associations subtly moved aside to make room for the heroic males conquering the pages of our holy texts.

Religions do more than provide us with a set of morals. They give us archetypes and role models. Author Tim Ward explored the loss of the divine feminine in his book, “Savage Breast.” He quoted Carl Jung: “Every man carries within him the eternal image of woman, not the image of this or that particular woman, but a definite feminine image … an imprint or ‘archetype’ of all the ancestral experiences of the female.” If he’s right, consider what this means. Throughout school we absorb chosen relics of society’s mythology, from “The Odyssey” to Noah’s Ark to “Romeo and Juliet.” If we passively soak up all these depictions of men and women, our definitions of gender roles are going to evolve accordingly.

For example, in “Savage Breast,” Ward suggests that the utterly non-sexual purity of the Virgin Mary gives men and women an unrealistic ideal of purity. The Virgin Mary, from what I understand, is worshipped largely for obedience to her god, while God appears in fiery bushes and Jesus knocks over tables while yelling about society’s wrongs. The Virgin Mary just stays put. I don’t think purity and obedience are negative traits, but I wish the writers of our cultural mythology had provided a few strong female figures to balance out her passive nature, like a warrior, prophet or priestess. (There are a few, but no one tells their stories in Sunday school.)

Some, like Ward, suggest many men idealize purity because of the Virgin Mary archetype. I recall a story I read in Russian literature class – a dashing man falls in love with a girl named Liza. He adores her innocent nature but as soon as he takes her virginity he loses interest in her and leaves her. She consequently commits suicide. Sound vaguely familiar?

For all the reverence our largely Christian country pays to Mary, the very word “passive,” a trait traditionally associated with the feminine, implies negativity and weakness in America. We don’t take too kindly to vulnerability in our society, despite the fact that Jesus – our most prevalent religious figure – claimed in Matthew 5:5, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” To illustrate the dominance of the active over the passive, consider this: When was the last time you were making small talk and couldn’t think of anything to say? Maybe your heart beat a tad faster as your mind raced for words. There’s a certain assumption in our society that if we don’t fill every moment with speech – utilizing the active force – we are inept or weak. I always have wondered whether all humans similarly regarded conversational pauses as “awkward silence” or if Americans were especially antsy about it. Apparently, other cultures like the Maori of New Zealand revere silence within conversations. Long pauses signify reflection and appreciation of what was said rather than self-blame. Perhaps it is a pure coincidence that Maori worship includes both male and female deities, but I wonder if that diversity promotes an embrace of passivity – a “feminine” trait.

Passivity – associated with the yin, or the Taoist feminine energy – is an underutilized treasure in Western society. Sure, Americans work hard, we’re efficient and we’re productive. Those things are not exactly evil, because if no one worked to fulfill their dreams we wouldn’t change a thing. But how would we know what to work toward if we never introspected? What’s the use of efficiency if it costs us our gentleness and temper? When everybody wants to talk instead of listening, then what’s the point of conversing? If you’re all Yang – the male energy – and no Yin, then you’re all action but no substance. Most people consider the ideals of “surrendering” and “giving up” as negative values. But sometimes surrender helps you to lose your own agenda and simply experience the divine, which is basically the point of spirituality.

I do not, by any means, intend to subjugate women by reducing them to gendered descriptions like passivity. However, I realize almost every major world religion associates women with earth, darkness, passivity, receptiveness and nurturing. The male energy typically recalls the sky, activity and aggression. Thus, I object that our society represses a whole set of healthy traits because they are associated with femininity. Maybe once we broaden our religious archetypes to make room for the goddess again, we can let everyone bask in the warmth of the “feminine” gentleness and passivity while offering women the cultural legroom to try on some new roles.