Religion & Culture | Fasting: its spiritual benefits
It is a practice shrouded in mystery. It is called mourning, a rite of passage practised by the Shouter Baptist faith in Trinidad and Tobago. This period is marked by litany of prayers, chanting and rituals.
The initiate is blindfolded (an optional procedure), and is adorned with a specially prepared headdress. Sequestered, a password intended for protection is given. It is vital, as the initiate is said to travel through the spiritual planes for a given period of time, usually seven days.
Vital, also, is fasting. The initiate, attended by a spiritual nurse during this challenging time, is laid down in a supine position, and consumes only liquids, more so, water.
This gruelling test is unique in the religious world, exceeding Ramadan’s month-long fast (Muslims can eat before sunrise and after sundown), and Judaism’s Yom Kippur’s one-day fast (food is allowed after sundown).
Taking a cue from the Bible, Catholics and evangelicals periodically fast, although there does not exist an overriding code that binds the Christian world.
Many attest to the spiritual benefits of fasting.
The founders of the Great Religions received insight, knowledge, wisdom, fortitude and comfort from protracted periods of fasting. Legend has it that Prophet Muhammad spent hours and days in a mountain called Hira in Mecca, where he was visited by Angel Gabriel.
We learn this from the oldest biography of Prophet Muhammad, penned by Ibn Hisham, who died in 833 BC.
In the Hadith or oral transmission of Al Bukhari, The Prophet himself recalls his spiritual encounter during a period of fasting that eventually unveiled the Quran: “The angel caught me [forcefully] and pressed me so hard that I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read and I replied, ‘I do not know how to read’. So he caught me again and pressed me a second time till I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read but again I replied, ‘I do not know how to read’. So he caught me for the third time and pressed me, and then released me...” (‘One Night in a Cave that Changed History’ quranicstudies.com)
JESUS ALSO PREPARED HIMSELF
Jesus also withdrew, and fasted, as he prepared himself for His Herculean task. We read in Matthew 4: 1-4 that, “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil [and after] fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.”
Later, He was tempted by the tempter to turn stones into bread to satisfy His hunger, to which He responded, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Indeed, fasting was commonplace in the lives of Prophet Mani, Zoroaster, Buddha and the greatest of avatars, sages and saints.
But how do we explain these so-called spiritual messages and insights during this austere period?
First, fasting for spiritual purposes is accompanied by mental preparation and seclusion. If the latter is not possible, the individual reduces his or her of level of social contact.
Conversations on worldly matters are kept to the minimum, if at all. The reason is obvious. The focus shifts from the mundane to the sublime and abstract. The body’s vital energy or qi is not wasted on wasteful indulgence, but is drawn inward to where all knowledge resides. The Kingdom is within, we are reminded, in all scriptures.
SELF-REFLECTION AND INTROSPECTION
Fasting is accompanied by self-reflection and introspection. The individual contemplates on love, kindness, benevolence and generosity. Literature of like themes serves to strengthen the resolve of the individual.
When this is performed over an extended period, the mind becomes clearer, and is able to access ideas, concepts and messages from the Higher Self (called Angels and spirits by religionists). Gone are superfluous stimuli (excessive chatter, clamour, music and work and family-related responsibilities). It is this shift of consciousness from external stimuli to idyllic streams of thoughts that produces a sense of bliss and other-worldliness, thereby igniting sparks of inspiration. This is the way of spiritual asceticism. The only way.
BENEFITS TO THE BRAIN
The benefits of fasting are manifold. Physiologically, fasting combats ageing and diseases. According to Arjun Walia’s article: Neuroscientist Shows What Fasting does To Your Brain And Why Big Pharma Won’t Study It, “Fasting does good things for the brain, and this is evident by all of the beneficial neurochemical changes that happen in the brain when we fast. It improves cognitive function and stress resistance, increases neurotrophic factors, and reduces inflammation.
Fasting is a challenge to your brain, and your brain responds to that challenge by adapting stress response pathways that help your brain cope with stress and disease risk.” (www.consciouslifenews.com December 21, 2015)
PREOCCUPATION WITH FOOD
But fasting today is not without challenges. Food has become an all-consuming preoccupation and a source of comfort in many cases. It is the backbone of social gatherings and informal get-togethers. We live in a society where restaurants, food delivery services and roadside eateries are commonplace.
This has made fasting more and more imposing, a constant struggle that taxes the will.
It is, therefore, advisable that adequate time and preparation be made before such an undertaking. The infirmed, children and the old are prohibited from fasting in some traditions.
The reason for fasting must be noble and the expectations must be clearly delineated. Fasting should also be performed without fanfare. It is a sacred, humbling practice that should be kept private, lest we fall victim of spiritual hubris.
Well understanding this malady that continues to infect today’s church, Jesus warned in Matthew 6:16-18, “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting ... But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”