I’m trying something new: fasting one day a week. I share this information with you not as recommendation to you, but because it involves a bit of an epiphany about the Human Body and different modes of experience.
Ode to an Earlier Rhythm
The Body was not made for the stress that the economic and social systems of our modern lifestyles place upon it. In this way, fasting is a kind of ode to the Body’s more ancient rhythms of eating. In our earlier incarnations as a species, we often knew hunger. In most of our climates of origin, our Bodies grew accustomed to periods of feast followed by periods of famine, or at least periods of severely restricted calorie consumption. This millions of years of genetic programming is what enables us to go without food for periods of time.
The difference between those earlier days and our modern existence centers primarily on the caloric abundance afforded to us by petrochemically-subsidized food production and distribution. While we still face devilishly persistent problems still with poverty and food distribution systems that still ignore large portions of the human populace, most residents of developed countries exist in a kind of artificial ecosystem, swollen ripe with calories. Conveniently packaged food, adorned to attract with brightly-colored coverings is easily accessible to us at any time of our choosing. Modern brand marketing and the vibrant, attention-grabbing packaging of food is not all that different, in this sense, from the bright colors and enticing shapes that natural fruits use to disseminate their seed and secure their continued line of heredity.
As if that visual seduction weren’t enough, our modern systems for caloric sustenance enhance their chances of continued existence by building chemical dependencies with their hosts. Our most processed foods are nearly all laced with ingredients designed to create various forms of addiction, be it to salt, sugar or fat. In our former natural environs, access to these ingredients of attention was rare enough that they served as a powerful — and reasonable — encouragement to our ongoing search for nourishment. Today, these ingredients permeate our foodstuffs, leaving us saturated with doses that are not what our Bodies truly need.
Our Bodies have very suddenly (from an evolutionary perspective) been thrust into a new ecosystem-cum-economy that is putting them into regular states of shock, which, in turn, contribute to frequently occurring states of sickness, suffering and pain. Our Bodies need a break from the bounty that surrounds them. One way of doing that, it seems to me, is periodic fasting.
In addition to helping me lose a little weight then, one of my reasons for deciding to fast one day a week is that it just might be good for my Body. While some research shows signs that this kind of Intermittent Fasting may be beneficial, I’m neither a doctor or a nutritionist, and I want to be clear that this isn’t a recommendation for anyone else other than myself. Maybe someday, once I’ve dug more deeply into the health effects of fasting, I will have something more to say from that perspective.
Feeling Our Bodies
There are two other reasons I’m fasting that are worth sharing.
The first is that when you fast you really feel what it’s like to be a Human Body. You feel hunger pangs that are as real as it gets when it comes to feeling your Body. Hunger is housed deep with the Body; an ache powerful enough to motivate us to strive for Life! As such, it has to be a strong and persistent reminder of our ties to physicality, our roots into the planet. Go without food for a few hours and you start to feel your stomach rumble; a bit longer and you start to feel the gnawing absence. Like vigorous exercise or sex, hunger is the kind of force that commands attention; it strips away the otherwise interminable chatter of our Minds, burning the focus of attention into our experience of reality.
To feel hunger is to put ourselves in touch, once again, with the powerful language of the Body. It helps us when we tune into a strong sensation, when we feel it with the visceral certainty of our animal selves. To feel the Body at this level is to learn to listen to the Body, to know it.¹
Hunger and Ego
The Human psyche evolved from an earlier animal existence. As an extension of underlying bodily and an earlier emotional drives, our psyche echoes many of our more ancient behaviors. In this sense, Desire is an outgrowth of Hunger. You could say that Hunger is one of the sources of Human Desire and that Desire is a mental abstraction of this very powerful physiological drive.
It’s no mistake then that our relationship with Desire is the subject of so much attention in Buddhism and other spiritual practices.
Desire, in its most essential form, however, is the drive for Life. It is the drive — the motivation — to strive. As such, Desire was a very useful gift to our animal selves. At one level, when we lose Desire, we can lose our Love for Life. On that level of reality, it is critical that we develop and maintain a healthy relationship with Desire.
Where things can go awry is when Desire turns in upon itself, echoing into waves of greed and obsession. When Desire reverberates at this level, it becomes a powerful component of the ego’s structure. It begins to drive our behavior in ways in which we are not fully conscious. This is desire as fuel for egoic expansion and it often leads to sorrow and solitude.
Because Hunger is an ancestor to Desire, it holds the power to be a powerful teacher for understanding aspects of the ego. When we learn to feel the burning of physical Hunger, we experience Desire in its rawest, most primitive form. That can be an important exercise in learning to recognize Desire. When we learn to recognize our Desire for what it is, we begin the process of accepting it as an Essential aspect of what it means to be Human, and in so doing we learn to unleash its hold over us.
Making It Work
As someone who is honoring the Householder path, I am attuning my fasts to fit within norms of my family. I started a few months ago with mini-fasts on Saturday mornings, fitting them in before we head out to our regularly (really) late family ‘brunches’ together. Now, as I extend the length of these fasts, I’m moving them to a weekday. I plan to start the fast after dinner, ending it the next day at dinner time. That way, I still am able to join my family for meals. Most of the impact of the fast is isolated to me.
To be clear, I’m still just figuring this out as I go. Now, it’s time to go eat.
¹ I am speaking here, of course, of voluntary fasting — and not the suffering that comes through the lack of choice of poverty, cruelty and social upheaval.