Fasting has many expressions. It has been used from ancient times to the present day in all cultures. It has many therapeutic implications, and has also been studied in modern societies for its benefits.
Fasting, in Greek “νηστεία” etymologically comes from the words νη- + ἐσθιων (=not) and the verb εσθίω (=to eat). Originally it meant complete abstinence from food, i.e. aphagia.
In our pets, those of us who have pets or have spent some time with our little friends, we have noticed that when the animal is sick, the first thing it does is to stop eating when it feels that something is wrong with the body. A person who is in contact with their body, as soon as they begin to feel ill, they cut off food intake so that the defense mechanism can focus on restoring the system.
Fasting is a natural function of the body which is not designed to take in as much food and as often as we have learned in the modern city lifestyle. By reducing food intake or abstaining from food when needed, the body takes its time to activate some self-healing mechanisms. Or how it is called, “autophagy”.
During autophagy the body’s defense force controls and clears the debris present in the body from either traces of external damaging agents (eg a common cold) or internal damaging agents (eg an inflammation). The body takes the time it needs to focus on the most important thing it has to fix.
There are many types of fasting. When we follow therapeutic fasting with a therapist, they may suggest intermittent fasting within 24 hours, a day or a few days of fasting with only drinking water, or in more extreme cases we talk about drought, i.e. complete avoidance of food and water. In therapeutic fasts we have someone watchingmonitoring us and we discuss the progress as well as the reintroduction of food in a specific order.
In the part of fasting therapy there are also cases of therapeutic crises, and because it is a sensitive subject, anyone following something like this needs advice and guidance from their therapist.
Fasting and the change of seasons
Fasting in larger social groups, as with religious fasts, used to symbolize periods of life and nature. It was done during the winter and spring equinoxes and prepared the body as it symbolized attunement to the changing of the seasons. Through this preparation of the body there was a better understanding of cyclicality and the separation that not everything is for all seasons, as they saw what is the specificity of each season.
In winter the food is rich with more fat, such as meat and nuts, because the body retains what it needs to produce heat and insulation for cells to avoid colds. The food is needs to be warm and more liquid, such as soups, in order to keep our internal temperature at such a level that it opposes the external one.
With the arrival of spring, the body begins to look for less food. This is the practical purpose of the 40-day fast before Easter. This fast comes from very primordial roots, from traditions related to the observation of nature. It prepares the body for a warmer environment, and nature begins to produce more vegetables and fruits. The earth starts to have more colors and so does our food.
Nature itself leads us to the food of summer, where we are now talking about mainly raw fruits and vegetables that cool down the body with their juices. Nature generously offers us what we need to face the summer heat. In summer, the food is even less, and most fruits and vegetables result in easy movement of body juices. With the colors and aromas of summer fruits we are talking about the peak of energy, the fiery element (fire).
Towards the end of the summer after the fifteenth of August, with the yearly winds, the weather changes again and prepares the body for the coming of autumn where the colors of the earth and food change again. There the cycle of the warmer foods begins again. There again at the autumnal equinox there is another great fast, because there follows a season of more food, the winter.
Essentially, the purpose of these long periods of fasting is a massive preparation for the change of weather, and thus of the internal conditions of the body. They help us in our inner connection for harmonious movement of energy in and out of the body.
Fasting as a personal bet
A fast can become a completely personal affair so that the purpose is to focus on spiritual upliftment.
My definition of fasting is conscious abstinence from our attachments. The opportunity to unhook from patterns/habits/behaviors/beliefs/emotions that are now dysfunctional.
Fasting has an extension of the senses from incoming stimuli, as well as speech fasting. Fasting the senses is letting our senses rest. In the modern lifestyle in the city we are talking about exposure to visual and audio noise. So we can do something like this by reducing our exposure hours on mobile, computer, television by creating a more peaceful environment, like the calm atmosphere in some relaxation area. Either by closing our eyes and letting them rest, or by going out into an open environment and letting the gaze wander to the horizon. We all know the acoustic noise of the city very well, that is why it is important to be quiet and stop receiving audio information even for an hour during the day.
At more advanced levels, one can experience days of absence of receiving any stimulus, usually on long trips or retreats that have a specific goal.
Speech fasting is equally important and powerful as it brings about mental cleansing. It confronts us with the chattering mind, and the inner turmoil, as I like to refer to the noise within us. Speech fasting is a practice where all verbal communication is avoided and if one needs to speak can do so in a very soft voice, almost in a whisper.
Fasting as it confronts us with deprivation, leads us to deep inner connection. It teaches us how to appreciate living with less but without feeling “insufficient” or that “we are not enough”. To appreciate the abundance of simplicity and austerity.
An artificial deprivation that brings us into connection with the inner voice and the observation that if deprived of my “weakness” I break out somewhere else. E.g. I abstain from chocolate/sugar/sweets. Does my drinking break out? shopping? is it disconnecting me? what does it create for me?
The period of general fasting is a very good opportunity for introspection and reconnecting with the cycles of nature. To be able to take a step back from modern life at such a fast pace that it either passes in front of us and we remain in inactivity or we lose the ability to observe through the constant action. Let’s take the opportunity to redefine our personal balance, for what everyone has as their own need in the here and now.