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.”

The Elusive Present Moment

Every now and then, the present moment slides into my awareness.

The autopilot self is an incessant whirlwind,  
Mechanically distracting itself.

On some level, we (at least I) are afraid of simply being, which would *supposedly* be completely dull and empty.

We live so often in a haze of habitual thought patterns, like a swarming cloud that floats a few feet above our actual existence.  I find I unconsciously divert so much  energy toward escaping from the present moment that I forget, continually, its EVER-refreshing beauty and simplicity. Never fails.

We watch TV. Compulsively socialize. Walk the dog. We even bring the newspaper into the bathroom so we’re not left with alone with ourselves for those precious few minutes.

Why does the idea of emptiness appear so threatening? What harm do we think could possibly come from simply existing, without a train of thought to cling to or a task to complete or a shiny picture to look at? When I truly think about it, emptiness sounds divine.

I’m learning to identify certain thought patterns that cycle endlessly on repeat. Which leads nowhere except the haze. Depending upon my self-image, my possessions, even relationships and ideas…leads only to the haze. Nothing can replace pure consciousness, moment to moment. I’m not saying not to think or have ideas and relationships with people. Just recognize when you’re using them to fill a void.

 Once I settle into the present, I remember how the moment is a sanctuary. There’s no future to dread or anticipate. No past to dwell upon. Nothing can hurt you. Nothing really exists except the Now…might as well experience it to the fullest.

This article from Psychology Today got me started on the present – six steps to living in the moment.