Psychological reasons to encourage you to give up food more than just once a year.
Over the years, I have written about the spiritual and physical benefits of fasting, whether it be uniting with His suffering or improving our capacity for endurance activities. In fact, some evidence even suggests that fasting can reduce the risk of cancer and dementia, and improve longevity. Yet like many good habits, I had fallen away from the practice.
While fasting is most popular around Lent and other religious days, it doesn’t have to be restricted to these occasions alone. Regular periods of fasting, either with no food or in some cases minimal food, has psychological benefits as well as spiritual ones.
For starters, as I was going through one particular 24-hour period without food, I was reminded of the psychological promise that comes with leaving the utensils alone. One of the first things that we know about fasting is that it promotes self-control, which is associated with about every positive outcome that we would want as youth and adults. Research has shown that when we engage in activities that reinforce self-discipline, it doesn’t just benefit us in this particular area, but also in other domains, too. So when we are fasting, we are also teaching ourselves how to abstain from other activities, like checking our phone or watching television. The purpose is not to discipline for discipline’s sake, but rather to create opportunities to engage in activities that are more meaningful and important, and learning to be happy when we forego either a blessing or a vice for something more.
I say a blessing or a vice because although some people fast from unhealthy activities, fasting from food means we are letting go of a blessing that is necessary to remain alive. In doing so, what I noticed this past week is that I found myself thankful for food that is so widely available. I was reminded that it really is a gift (something I routinely take for granted) that I live in a time and place where I can get any type or quantity without question, which is unheard of for most of human history. Even the simple experience of gratitude itself is a psychological gift, as mountains of research indicate that thankfulness can help us feel better, decrease substance abuse, and reduce distress.
Now, I must be honest. The first couple of hours of a fast are usually the biggest challenge. I have to 1) remind myself that I will be fine, and won’t die from starvation or develop a serious medical condition, and 2) focus on the primary reason I am doing it: to seek out God more than even what I consume to keep myself alive. But once I settle into a fast, it is interesting how a comfort develops with what I am doing. It is hard to articulate this idea as I feel it, but there is just a sense that gradually builds, in that the sacrifice I am making runs deeper than I can know. In some ways, it is similar to how I feel when I find my way to send a meaningful message or swim early morning laps in an already busy day. It just creates the feeling that no matter what else happens, I have turned my free will in the direction I think He would want. And that makes me happy.
It is said that Ghandi underwent 17 fasts during India’s freedom movement, the longest of which lasted 21 days. Although these fasts were no doubt intended to bring about political change and spiritual growth, I wonder what he learned about himself in the process. Having never even fasted for even 48 hours, I can’t imagine the tremendous challenge that would come with doing it for three weeks straight. Yet there is little doubt that each day brought a certain psychological awareness — maybe an awareness of who we perceive ourselves to be when our needs are taken care of is not who we are when all is stripped away.
It’s hard to know. But what I do know is that I am looking forward to the fasting cycle to come. It is empowering to experience the gift of a body that can go without food, and survive the day just fine. It is reminder that others don’t have the luxury to end their fast, and I have a responsibility to them. And it is a blessing to feel what fills my soul when it is not carbs or protein. For all of you out there who have never tried it, I welcome you to join me in this pursuit. Like any new endeavor, I encourage you to start small, and work your way up prudently to where you feel called. Hopefully in the end, it may turn out to be feast, not a fast, after all.