Fasting: a Feast for the Mind

Religious practitioners usher in spring with hunger


In the season of Lent and the approaching season of Ramadan, millions leave behind a piece of their daily food intake and pick up a new intention. Now is the time to develop an understanding of fasting to be more supportive of fasting community members. 

For most, fasting is an antiquated and unfamiliar practice. For others, fasting is a necessary and constructive discipline that adds a sharpness to the senses that’s useful for either prayer or reflection.

The power of a fast is not in the deprivation, it’s in the intention. Before we had cell phones to remind us of our goals for the day, fasting was a kind of early reminder app. Every time the fasting person feels their hunger or craving, that feeling is their reminder of the prayer or meditation they started the fast with.

This technique is a vehicle to experience a oneness in the goals of the mind and the state of the body. Fasting is one of the only modes of prayer one can utilize that ties the spirit with the physical in one mission. Faith is expressed not just with thoughts or words but in one’s daily actions and most basic habits. 

Fasting and prayer are often mentioned side by side in Scripture like they’re one action rather than two separate. One can more fully indulge in positives: prayer, gratefulness, mindfulness, and joy when fasting from anger and grudges, using their hunger as a reminder of their commitment. 

Today, “restriction” comes with negative connotations. Those struggling with disordered eating should not use fasting. Fasting only works for people who need to improve their awareness of their food intake. This applies to people who snack mindlessly or aren’t grateful enough for the food and how it got to them. For people who struggle with constantly thinking about food, such as with an eating disorder, limiting their intake would be moving in the wrong direction.

Not everybody can or should fast; it’s a personal decision. The point of fasting is to make the person stronger, not weaker. There are clear guidelines, across religions, protecting those who fasting could weaken. For Ramadan (starting April 2), children, pregnant or breastfeeding women, travelers, sick or elderly people don’t fast. For Yom Kippur (Oct. 4 to 5), children and anyone incapable do not fast. In Catholicism, as well, people don’t generally observe the Lenten fast until after childhood. Lent started on March 2 for Western Christianity, or March 7 for Eastern.

In East Lyme, many Catholics will refrain from eating meat on Fridays and cut down on snacks and unnecessary foods, along with true fast days, when only one meal and two snacks are permitted. It’s also encouraged to give up something for Lent, like dessert or soda. 

Catholics, especially, give something up to test their self-denial. Before his death, Jesus. fasted in the desert for 40 days, which now are mirrored in the 40 days of Lent. Jesus was tempted by the devil in the desert to break his fast and use his power, so Catholics purposefully give up something that they know will make them feel tempted to break their fast.

Eastern Orthodox fasting rules are stricter, constituting eating vegan on weekdays during and even before lent.  For Protestants, fasting was considered a “work” and therefore organized fasting was mostly discarded during the Reformation, but private fasting is fine. Many Protestant Connecticutians were raised Catholic, so it’s common for them to still give something up. I was raised half-Protestant, half-Protestant, so I, too, create a hybrid Lent that’s both personal and structured to honor both traditions.

Ramadan consists of a pre-dawn meal, and then a fast from all food and drink until night when there is an evening meal. It’s not only food- Muslims also fast from all unnecessary consumption and, strictly, sin. That extra time is to be used on prayer. It’s a time of cleansing and self-discipline. Using less and eating less encourages generosity and giving to the less fortunate, which is a pillar or Islam and at the heart of every major world religion. 

Fasting is a feast for the mind- when done correctly, it encourages heightened awareness and the development of a calm and controlled state of being. Faith communities are strengthened by the efforts of those determined to change themselves for the better during their fast.

Although fasting is increasingly uncommon, be aware of the dates when friends may be fasting, and feel free to participate or show support for their efforts. It’s not necessary, but a greater awareness supports community members, especially minorities, who often go through their fasting seasons alone.