From Monday morning through Wednesday evening this week, all that entered my mouth was water.
Mom, Dad (and Hillary Feder), before you reach for the phone or get in the car to come save me, hear me out, I haven’t gone off the deep end. I promise.
For various reasons, many historical figures have fasted since biblical times.
On Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, Jews fast for 25 hours (without even water!) in order to fulfill a Torah-mandated Mitzvah (commandment) to “afflict” themselves in honor of the holiday, which is intended as a day for Jews to fully atone for their sins. According to Rabbi Mendy Hecht, they take afflict to mean, “de-emphasizing the body’s needs in five areas: bathing; using creams, oils, perfumes or other skin accessories; wearing leather shoes; sexual relations; and eating and drinking.” Hecht explains that in order to more fully focus on God and spirituality, Jews must put their “bodily cravings on the back burner” and rely on God in an expression of pure faith, that he will “obliterate hunger, starvation, need and blight from mankind. On Yom Kippur, … we divorce ourselves from our needs for physical maintenance and rely on G-d.”
In a similar manner of faith and selflessness, Jesus also fasted in order to be alone and focus on God with no worldly interruption. For 40 days in the desert Jesus’ fast marked the time before the start of his public ministry which also “corresponded as a type of Moses’ fasting [for] 40 days on Mt. Sinai before receiving the Law (Ex. 34:27f),” according to W. Frank Walton. He continues, “Jesus taught that fasting was not done to impress or prompt anyone else, but it was a matter of personal resolve and individual liberty before God (Matt. 6:16-18).”
Another man famous for fasting is Gandhi. In an effort to achieve Satyagraha, or nonviolent revolution, Gandhi fasted as a means of personal resolve to evoke moral conviction of his oppressor (in his case, British government), famously saying, “And through our pain we will make them see their injustice.” In 1932, Gandhi vowed to fast “until death” as a method to nonviolently protest the British government’s treatment of the “untouchables,” those considered to be in the lowest Indian caste. And, after 6 days of fasting, the government negotiated a pact to improve the status of these people. Though Gandhi cites numerous reasons to fast, Charles R. DiSalvo explains one main reason in his essay on Gandhi’s efforts and success with nonviolent revolution. “The historical Gandhi believed that, ‘suffering is not valued for its own sake, but is held to promote non-attachment from the insistent claims of the body, to emphasize the spirit as superior to the material and physical.'”
But, I know what you’re thinking. I am not comparing myself to Moses, Jesus or Gandhi. In fact, on Wednesday I woke up feeling like garbage, so I ate a carrot. (Ok, two carrots.)
I could continue with many interesting and enlightening examples of fasts throughout history. What I have learned from these examples, though, is that while there are many reasons to fast, there are a few themes shared by each. The ideas of freedom from distraction, spirituality, and a heightened sense of awareness are always present.
In fact, these days you have to be pretty self determined to do a fast since NO ONE agrees on the topic (or at least from what I saw on the Internet.) WebMD advises against it saying, “there is no evidence that fasting detoxifies your body, or that your body even needs to be detoxified.” And, “Your body needs a variety of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients from food to stay healthy. Not getting enough of these nutrients during fasting diets can lead to symptoms such as fatigue, dizziness, constipation, dehydration, gallstones and cold intolerance. It is possible to die if you fast too long.” So that’s that. But, if you click one page down on your google search, you can read this, “‘Fasting is, without any doubt, the most effective biological method of treatment… it is the ‘operation without surgery’…it is a cure involving exudation, reattunement, redirection, loosening up and purified relaxation,’ said Otto Buchinger, Sr., M.D., Germany’s great self-described ‘fasting therapist.'” Benjamin Franklin said, “The best of all medicines is resting and fasting,” and, Dr. Mark DeMeao, the assistant professor of medicine and associate director of nutrition at Loyola University Medical Center said, “I don’t know of any positive effects of fasting. I don’t recommend it.”
Sooo, Benjamin Franklin, or Mark DeMeao?
My fast was more of an educational experiment in order to answer some questions, so I decided to put the good/bad, right/wrong controversy aside and just go for it. I wanted to know: What impact does eating have on my life? What does it mean to be hungry? Is there a difference between true hunger and when we shout “I’m so hungry!”? What am I even hungry for? I wanted to explore, as much as I could while still attending classes and doing homework, the physical, sensory, psychological, and spiritual ideas that are related to eating, or not eating.
Here’s what I learned:
1. The first day was the only day I really felt “hungry.” Weird, huh? Breakfast time came and went, then lunch time came and I listened (along with all my classmates) to my stomach growling only 5 hours in. By the time I made it to 9 pm, my stomach had lost its voice and my mind had settled. Since I’d convinced myself (and proven it after one day) that I wouldn’t be eating for three days, “hunger” went away and occasional impatience and temptation took its place. My friends asked me Tuesday night and Wednesday morning how hungry I was, and I had a hard time explaining that I felt more just, empty (for a lack of a better word), than actually hungry. It was hard to explain.
2. As I walked down State Street on Tuesday afternoon, the smells overwhelmed and entertained me. I was so sensitive to smells throughout the three days. Each food has such a unique smell that brought pleasant memories (sometimes temptations) of eating. Apples. French fries. Gyros. Cilantro. Was it possible to enjoy a whole meal just by the smells alone? Could I ever enjoy just smelling french fries as much as eating them (but without the feelings of guilt and disgust that inevitably follow)? On Tuesday I think I’ve come as close to this as I ever have (and ever will?).
3. I weighed in the second day at 5 pounds less than the first. Oops, I guess I needed to drink more water. (I did a much better job at this the second day, don’t worry.) But water! Wow! What a wonderful, pure, thirst-quenching, miracle substance! Ok, maybe these words are strong. I had just read a book (Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What To Do About It, by Robert Glennon) that talks about American’s views on water, so I was just really loving and appreciating it. But I am now convinced that all those diet experts who suggest drinking water as a method of appetite control are on to something. Water is good.
4. In my journal I reflected, “I don’t really wish I could go eat right now, but I know I’ll be constantly reminded of wanting to eat because I never do homework without some type of food or non-water drink. So, I’m more concerned, I think, with the idea of eating than fulfilling or recognizing (or attributing, even) a sense of hunger… Although there have been times today where I felt “hungry” (=I want food), I think more so, it’s been “empty” (=I have not eaten).”
5. Although I used to criticize religious fasts saying that not eating is more of a distraction than to eat, I now disagree. When I get home, I usually drop my bag and head for the kitchen or spend time in class thinking about what to make for lunch. This week, I found myself with more time and more concentration on what was happening at the moment. I did miss the food community though. I felt like an outsider, or like I seemed “holier than thou” when I went to my friends’ apartment and sat (smelling) while they ate. Food is definitely an exceptional source of community and fasting made me realize it should always be so.
6. Day three I woke up feeling shaky, weak, dizzy and my heart was beating really fast. I thought it would pass after I showered, but it didn’t (Enter: carrots.) The rest of the day was much easier, in fact, it was the easiest day. I also noticed I’d had the hiccups a lot more. (Is that related? or just a funny coincidence?)
7. On eating: Breaking the fast was both exciting and disappointing. While I know I learned a lot, there are things I would do differently. First, I wish I had made a larger spiritual effort during my fast to see it as those who I cited above were able to. It felt like there was something missing since I’d learned so much about the spirituality of fasting. Second, I think longer fasts are the ones that bring about the most profound realizations and a completely changed view of food that I wondered if I would get. I don’t plan to do it again (especially not for any longer amount of time), but I was a little disappointed that when I ate my first bite of salad… it tasted like salad. Despite all my reading and thinking, I still chowed down my salad and soup in a usually expedient manner. In fact, I didn’t even think any of my “profound food thoughts” until I put down my fork and wished I could start all over again. So yeah, definitely not Gandhi.
Since that meal though, I’ve been more careful. Eating slower, appreciating flavors, making better, more wholesome choices. Are french fries really better? Or is the wholesome, fresh taste of a boiled potato enough? What flavors are in this marinara sauce? Can I taste the tomato as I do in its original form? The olive oil, bay leaf, garlic? So, although I was disappointed in my break-fast, I know I have come away with some valuable insights from this experience. I hope I can look back to this [WAY too long] post and remember to keep these changes and ideas in mind as I continue in my eating education. I know there are a lot of question marks here, but they are question marks I don’t know that I would have thought to ask before.
This morning I went for a truly delightful run along the Mendota Lakeshore Path and enjoyed the colors of the trees, the crisp weather and my legs’ capability to carry me while my mind strayed from the fact that I was actually running – “working.” Was this relaxed, calm energy and clear conscious a result of my fasting “detox”?
I guess I have no idea, but I’m glad I did it. It’s been a good week.