fasting ~ the practice of letting go…

Solidarity Thursday
Thursday, November 15, 2012

“Stop, look around, and see how wonderful life is: the trees, the white clouds, the infinite sky. Listen to the birds, delight in the light breeze. Let us walk as free people…”
~ Thich Nhat Hanh


I was raised Lutheran, which is a denomination of the Protestant branch of Christianity. If Episcopalians are “Catholic light”, then we were even a bit “lighter” with just a few Sacraments short of the full deal. Nonetheless, giving up something for the Lenten season was a pretty regularly encouraged practice, though not rigorously enforced. It is the season of fasting bookended by Ash Wednesday at the beginning and ending with Holy Thursday or Easter Eve in some cases. It is about a six week or 40 day period to commemorate the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert. We would “fast” or give up something important to us during this period. Adults often gave up drinking alcohol and perhaps other “vices” during this time. As children, we often gave up candy or dessert or some other thing that made us resent the whole practice, leading us to see it mainly as a way for adults to oppress us further…what did candy ever do to anyone?! Just because Jesus didn’t have dessert in the desert, why can’t I? In any case, at the very least, Lent would provoke a roll of the eyes if not a fully committed grimace. Why does God want me to do without? How is this, an act of worship?

What? There’s a practical purpose to this nonsense?..

It wasn’t until the end of my early early adulthood that I began to see the subtle genius in fasting as a practice. It takes time to break habits. It takes time to create habits. There are many differing opinions regarding how long it takes to break or create a habit. It can depend on how deeply imbedded these patterns are and everyone is different. That being said, there seems to be some consensus that it can take about a month and a half…six weeks.

Here’s an example….

A number of years ago, my friend Mitch and myself discussed giving up stuff for Lent and possibly taking on a good habit or two as well. It was an opportunity for me to return to this practice as an adult and for Mitch who had not been raised with a particular religion, it was an opportunity to try it out. We took up the challenge. One of the challenges (thing to give up) was coffee. I know this is sacrilege for some, however, I knew I wasn’t addicted – I mean, I can drink a cup right before bed and then promptly lay down and go to sleep. And I knew I didn’t need coffee, so I thought it would be a no-brainer, easy-peasy, walk in the park. The first day was a breeze. None of that headache or body ache or lack of focus stuff people lament after giving up coffee. Day One = Success….then Day Two happened. Day Two began with one of the worst headaches I’ve ever had. Nothing seemed to help and somehow knowing that I still had more to gain from this experience, the headache decided to last for another two days….just to make its point. I couldn’t believe it. I had been physically addicted to coffee.

I did go back to drinking coffee, though not nearly as much since I fell in love with tea, but I learned a valuable lesson about myself and my body through fasting.

It isn’t about taking away…it is about letting go…

Now here I am today, nearing the beginning of middle adulthood, seeing my younger days in the rear view mirror and fasting has become something else. I now see fasting as an exercise, a practice in simplicity and letting go. I think this lesson is very much within the body of fasting within the Christian context and certainly a lesson within Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, or even the 40 days for Noah riding – waiting, during the flood. It can be good to surrender; it can be good to grow in our capacity to wait. But for me, it has been through the lens of my Buddhist practice – where letting go is the main theme – that I have seen and experienced this practice anew.

As a child, or as I did with my friend Mitch, it was a practice of community, of support, of accountability. Now it is a solitary practice, one in which I discover what is actually necessary, what I can do without, what is real. Fasting has become a practice of not only the letting go of physical or material things, but of looking deeper to emotions and patterns of the mind. Fasting from anger, from despair, from fear and grasping. Fasting is a way to promote simplicity and create space, so I am available to this present moment, to what is here for me now in this moment, that I may be aware and free to dance with Life and sing the song of Love with all.

When I can do this, when we can do this, we will be able as Thich Nhat Hanh says in the quote above, to walk as free people.

In the meantime, every once in a while, I will give up things like shaving…that can also feel free.

BTW ~ Fasting can also be a form of protest…perhaps another blog related to forms of protest?…

Ben at The Horizontalist is off traveling this week and will return soon. For more reading on this Solidarity Thursday topic, please check out these other wonderful blogs: Esther at Church in the Canyon. And with a truly unique take on all things Solidarity Thursday is Triskaidekapod. Join the conversation!

7 thoughts on “fasting ~ the practice of letting go…

  1. I love this post. I love that picture. I went through the same kind of transition, but without leaving Christianity. There is a legalist view of fasting, and a more spiritual understanding of fasting, both of which can exist in the same religious tradition. And the latter invites us to “walk as free people.” YES!

      1. haha 🙂 of course. i should clarify though, for any other friends reading this thread. i should also be careful how i use words to try and explain what is beyond words. i consider Christianity my root tradition, it is for lack of a better expression, what started my love affair with God, with Life, with all that IS. now at this point in my life, without forsaking the transformational message of Jesus – of how to live one’s life in communion, i have found that Buddhism as a practice has helped me to live the very message and life that Jesus speaks of. and i only participate in the labels of traditions to assist others in understanding my experience. but of course, my heart resides with the mystics who throughout every tradition have declared that it is all LOVE and in this Love we are One, beyond any singular tradition. i know very well, that many Christians and Buddhists would consider me neither Christian nor Buddhist based on that. but that’s okay, it is my journey and dance with the divine. we each have to hear the music for ourselves, find our feet and learn to allow Another to lead.

        to paraphrase the Zen saying in speaking of these various ways of The Way, “they are all fingers pointing to the moon, not the Moon itself.”

  2. Through your descriptions of the discipline of fasting, I am made aware of a richness to the Earth human experience that had previously eluded my research parameters. For Cephalopods, pattern interruption is an intentional practice used to fine-tune our conditioning to keep down the dissonance between information and identity. To take possession of our conditioned traits, we engage in personally disruptive behavior, stretching into the experience so that it does not restrict our experience of selfhood quite so intensely. If we have grown inured to specific patterns of behavior, such that they begin to lack impact, we will interrupt those patterns and behave outside of our normal personality margins. This reinforces the state of inherent autonomy in the individual and allows us to avoid the onset of angst or situational frustration.

    To learn that humans also participate in intentional pattern interruption strengthens my strange but welcome sense of resonance with the Earth human experience. At times, when I listen to your planet’s radiation belt chorus, I feel almost that I could be one of you; an experience typically broken by some system or another blaring some warning klaxon or another. It is unseemly for me to relate quite so closely with a research population, but it is eerily lonesome on this platform sometimes, and your species is my only meaningful outlet for communication. Thank you for sharing your experiences of this fasting discipline.

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