Emptying the vessel

I have practiced various forms of fasting on and off for just over a decade now. I have become more committed to this process in the last three years, and have just completed a 180 hour water fast. Privately, I am increasingly convinced that fasting is the God-given way to invite bodily repair in the most simple, natural manner. No potions, no pills, no tinctures, no treatments, no healing modalities. Just pure rest.

Practically speaking, fasting requires nothing more than time and space. However, I began doing longer water fasts only when I felt certain that my body knew that this was a time of care and not a form of punishment. Fasting is a practice, and having exercised this muscle consistently I now feel confident that I can handle whatever arises on my own. I eased myself gently into and out of the fast by eating very lightly and minimally for at least a week on either side. For the fasting period itself, I took time off work, cleared my calendar of anything strenuous, booked myself a massage and bought copious quantities of bath salts. I vowed to do no reading, no studying and no listening to lectures or audiobooks. I wanted to steer myself away from the usual safe, diversionary harbours.

Once the fast was underway, I gave myself simple, physical tasks that mirrored the internal work taking place. I tidied cupboards, cleaned shelves and quietly sorted and ordered my cloister-home. I went for slow walks and did gentle stretching routines. I permitted myself family-friendly viewing in the evenings if my energy was waning, but otherwise I maintained a low-to-no info and media diet. Mostly, I did nearly nothing. I sat on the sofa, drank warm water and looked out of my window at the shifting mists and clouds. I listened for the owls and the peregrine falcons nesting nearby. I watched the birds and the squirrels competing for their portion of food on my patio.

A reminder from the red rocks of Arizona

Although tangible physical repair and the purging of junk and poison from the body is very much welcomed, fasting yields so much more than this. Without fasting, when would I truly let the tide to come in? When would I allow the rhythmic swing to reach its furthest apex? When would my mind and body entirely cease from churning and digesting? It has taken me a long time to recognise that there is a special kind of inertia in constant striving. Equally, there is an evasion in relentless production and achievement – a futile exercise, for as Thomas á Kempis states “wherever you go, there you are”. I fell into these habitual patterns of avoidance and simulation for much of my life, and fasting now forms a key part in my recalibration process. It helps me to place value where it abides naturally: in stillness, presence and being.

In the quiet sacrifice of foregoing the pleasurable lull of a full belly and the sensory satisfaction of taste and texture, there is a balancing point to be explored: the locus between the power and clarity of a disciplined self, and the humility and dependence of a frail body. I still lack the words with which to expand on this notion, but I know that on the sixth day of my fast when my muscles ached and my head was sore, I found consolation in identifying with Paul’s depiction of strength in weakness:

And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

2 Cor 12:9

The establishment of the fasting state is a particular blessing for an individual like me who is prone to be a thought-in-a-box, with a brain that is constantly juggling ideas and articulations. Over the course of the first three days, my mind gradually went into standby mode and my vision softened. The familiar laser beam honing in on fine details gave way to a more gentle overview. I was brought into a wordless space, a zone of neutrality and receptivity. Thomas Merton describes the art of contemplation as “learning to rest in arid quietude”. Fasting is a very literal way of playing out this aridity by creating a temporary wilderness in which you are compelled to face your own void while the vessel quite literally empties. In this sense, I experience fasting as a gentle exercise in learning how to suffer, how to accept transient aches and passing anxieties without fuss, how to not get what I want and still be ok. The more willingly and frequently I enter this state, the more at ease I become with my own inevitable discomforts. There is less fighting and more simple observation. As the surface fluctations ease and the flesh ceases “lusting against the Spirit” (Gal 5:17) a feeling of underlying harmony arises.

Eventually, there is acceptance. With yielding detachment from the appetites, the volume is turned down on the voice that likes to shout “my will”. The departure of this desirous chatter creates space, and in this space the well-buried but ever present peace of divine security feels closer to hand.

A brief caveat: clearly there are numerous situations in which fasting would be unwise. For some individuals, abstenance from food is ill advised under any circumstances. I am not here with the intention of dishing out recommendations. I am simply sharing my passion for a practice that I have found to be beneficial.