Fasting is the largest trend in physical health and fitness.
There’s Nobel-Prize-winning evidence that fasting triggers detoxification and healing through autophagy. Fasting has been around for a long, long time. The health benefits have always been there, but its purpose has been spiritual throughout history.
I recently completed the Bahai Fast; a period of 19 days when followers of the Bahai Faith refrain from eating and drinking from sunrise to sunset. This culminates in the Bahai New Year; a spiritual cleansing and preparation for the year to come.
The Bahai Fast’s primary purpose is spiritual, but there are health benefits. The Fast should also not affect the body negatively. If you’re old, sick, pregnant, menstruating, or doing heavy labor, you’re exempt. To attain spiritual benefits, we have to ensure the body supports the soul.
What are fasting’s spiritual benefits?
Baha’u’llah, the Bahai Faith’s founder said, “There are various stages and stations for the Fast, and innumerable effects and benefits are concealed therein.”
Some of these include:
1. Drawing Us Closer to the Divine.
The fundamental benefit of spiritually-intentioned fasting is that it draws us closer to the Divine. You might call that God, Brahman, the Tao, or the One. Whatever you call it, fasting helps us move further toward It. From Sadhus covered in ashes to monks dressed in robes, this has been their primary motivation for thousands of years.
2. How does fasting do this?
The monk and the sadhu live a life of renunciation and simplicity. Fasting is part of that life. When we fast, we’re renouncing one of the most basic things in our lives: our physical sustenance. Removing focus from our next meal creates space to practice mindfulness and contemplate life’s deeper meaning.
Conversely, fasting can make us fixate on food. This certainly happened to me. With time, we let go of fixation and give ourselves to the experience of being with the spirit rather than food.
3. Power and Powerlessness.
Fasting also helps us experience our power and powerlessness. When I first started 20 years ago, I was petrified that I would faint, that my body wouldn’t be strong enough to endure without food. I learned I was stronger than I knew. After all, the human body can go without food for over a month; look at the show Alone where contestants go without food for days.
As we realize our power, we also realize our dependence on something bigger than ourselves. We can go without food for 40 days, but can’t survive more than three days without water or three minutes without air. Our physical existence is fragile and can be taken away at any moment.
Awareness of our mortality can be confronting, but also liberating. When we face our powerlessness, we have a chance to see the power that sustains us. Regardless of whether we see that power as a divine being or the physical universe, we’re servants to something greater than ourselves. Something beyond our control we’ll surrender to in the end.
4. Fasting helps us attain spiritual attributes, such as love and joy.
When we go without food, we rely on the non-physical to sustain us. We rely on prayer, meditation, mindfulness, and intention. It’s not easy. Fasting can make us moody and grumpy. We can find ourselves getting worked up about things we normally wouldn’t.
If we approach these upheavals with awareness, we can shine light into the shadows of our lives. We can embody the loving, caring, and understanding facets of compassion. We can be joyful and happy when there doesn’t seem to be anything special to delight in. Fasting can strip away life’s distractions so we’re able to approach life with good intention. But we have to make the effort to use it that way.
5. Fasting helps us gain control of our destructive desires.
We all have desires. Some are good, some bad. The not-so-good desires are the ones that stand in the way of actualizing our true selves. We might desire health and fitness but our desire for junk food and cigarettes might stand in the way. Even though our desire for wellbeing is strong, we succumb to other desires and self-sabotage our deepest yearnings.
As physical beings, physical nourishment is one of our deepest drives. Even toddlers search for food instinctively as the need arises. When we fast, we restrain ourselves from pursuing a basic drive that’s written our DNA for eons. That’s pretty powerful. We can choose to ignore a drive that’s programmed into our bodies. Our capacity for self-control is greater than we think. If we can choose to go without food for a period of time, we can let go of other things too.
6. Fasting helps us to become aware of those living in extreme poverty.
This might not seem spiritual, but it isn’t just mental awareness either. We’re aware people around the world live in extreme poverty. This is common knowledge, but it’s a superficial knowing that doesn’t penetrate our being. We don’t feel it. Going without food gives us a taste of what it’s like to be in their shoes. Just a taste. We experience the hunger pangs they go through on a daily basis. Of course, we know that our next meal is waiting for us in the fridge, but we now have experiential empathy. This can result in a greater sense of gratitude for our privilege and generosity. After fasting, we might decide to donate to charities that fight hunger. Get a free copy of Peter Singer’s new book to help you do that.
These are just some of the spiritual benefits of fasting. I’m sure there are many more. Fasting is not easy. I struggle each year I do the Bahai Fast. I don’t necessarily experience the spiritual benefits immediately. Over time I do think it helps me grow spiritually. The more years I do it, the more I learn from it.