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Spiritual Fasting: How To Appreciate Life Through Temporary Deprivation

by Tim Witting Aug 13, 2007
The aim of Ramadan is to experience suffering, and to understand that we are no better than anyone else.

During the ninth month of the Muslim calender, falling between mid September to mid October, Ramadan is a time where Muslim followers around the world abstain from all food and drink (including water) each day while the sun is up, for an entire month.

As I understand, Ramadan is about focusing less on the daily rigors of everyday life, and more on what matters the most: God.

It is about the realization that we are all on this planet together, with some more fortunate than others. The aim of Ramadan is to experience suffering, like so many people are forced to live through, and to understand that we are no better than anyone else. All of us are same in God’s eyes.

While in Shenzen, China, I fasted with the some Muslim friends for one full day, but the idea stayed with me longer than the 24 hours. It was something I wanted to do again in the future, when the time was right.

As it turns out, being stuck in the middle of Hanoi, Vietnam with just a few dollars in your pocket is just such a time.

My fasting guidelines were basic: for one full week, I would not consume any means of nourishment, with the exclusion of water, until after sunset, at which time I would have a moderate dinner.

The motivation behind my decision to fast was quite different from that of Ramadan: not religious, but spiritual – of a practical, hell, even selfish nature, rooted in self-development and obtaining a greater appreciation for life and all that comes with it.

The River Or The Cork

To understand this link between fasting, or any form of self-deprivation, with a heightened sense of appreciation of life, I first must give the reader a little background.

Most of us have this idea that we are separate and distinct beings independent from our surroundings. This view is inherently and deeply flawed.

Pretend for a moment that you are the ‘average’ Westerner, and I showed you a photograph of yourself when you were five years old. I then ask you who the person is in the photo, and you respond “Oh, that’s me.”

But, how could that small child be the same person as the adult that I am showing the picture to? And surely you behave and think differently from that child as well, right? You respond, “Yes, but that was me.”

Most of us have this idea that we are separate and distinct beings independent from our surroundings. Even the word ‘Self’ literally means other.

We think in terms of I’s and You’s and We’s like we are static creatures in an ever moving and changing world, like a cork floating down a river of time. Our surroundings might be continually changing, you say, but there is something distinct and unwaivering about who you are that remains the same.

This view that most of us hold, that of a static ‘self’, is inherently and deeply flawed.

Think about it for a moment. From a purely physical standpoint, we are changing every nanosecond, with old cells dying and new ones being reborn; our physical composition, much like our surroundings, is in a continual state of flux.

In addition to our dynamic chemical and physical make-up, our beliefs about the world, our thoughts and perceptions, are also always changing.

Surely you don’t have the exact same mentality and views as you had when you where a child, but you also don’t have the exact same mentality and views as you had last year, or even a few moments ago before reading this article.

The Limitations of Language

Instead of the flawed view of the ‘self’ as static beings, I prefer to think of people as dynamic, in a constant state of flux. A person at any point in time is the product of a complex function of different variables interacting, some of which are constantly changing, thereby creating a new ‘you’ every moment.

The function is essentially just the interplay between our genetic code, which is fixed, and our experiences, which is changing by the moment. Since one of the variables making up our ‘self’ is in a constant state of change, our ‘self’ must also be constantly changing.

As such, whenever I refer to ‘myself’ or someone ‘else’, I mentally put quotations around the ‘I’ or ‘you’ or ‘we’, because by defining ourselves through language, we convey a distorted view of reality.

In addition to our dynamic nature, we can also see that we are fooling ourselves into thinking that we are separate and independent entities from the rest of the world.

Since who we are at any point in time is largely predicated by our experiences and surroundings, we only exist in relation to all the other constantly changing things in the world.

Going back to our cork in the river analogy, we can see how this is flawed because we are also constantly changing and interconnected with the river. Rather, we are the river.

On Cultivating Compassion

This view of the world I find to be extremely powerful and intellectually satisfying. Since we are constantly changing, there is no need to have regrets-only learn from them.

Since people are the product of their past experiences, as well as other factors out of their control, it teaches us compassion towards our fellow humans.

If we think of ourselves as the cork, we are prisoners, but as the river we are free to go any way we please.

If every moment that passes us is an experience, and every experience is an opportunity towards self-development and improvement, what’s the point of doing anything that isn’t advantageous to our environment and ourselves (i.e. watching mindless television, unnecessary complaining, creating negative energy etc.), and thereby towards our future ‘me’?

Since we have control of our future experiences, but not of our past ones, what’s the point of not focusing on this very moment?

This perspective on life teaches us that we are the masters of our destiny. When we think of ourselves as ‘static beings’ we are in bondage, slaves to our pasts; but as ‘dynamic beings’ we know that we create the future, and our potential effect on this jumbled-mess-of-a-world is in fact infinite.

If we think of ourselves as the cork, we are prisoners, but as the river we are free to go any way we please. Free to be.

And, importantly, since we understand that we are just part of this whole constantly changing flux, we can realize that nothing is permanent. Holding on to anything, any form of attachment, is the source of much of our angst.

Letting Go Of Attachment

We conceptualize things as being static instead of what they are, transitory, and thereby we are pained when we inevitably lose what we like, what we love, and run away from those things which we don’t like or fear.

But if we accept that all of Life is evanescent, then we can truly appreciate those emotions we like, and at the same time understand those emotions we don’t care for are only temporary. We deal with them.

Tying all this in with the idea that self-deprivation can be beneficial to one’s being, we can see how the suffering we endure is transitory and an opportunity for potential growth.

By saturating our inner-most being with our emotions instead of running away from them, we understand each one of those emotions that much better. When we feel hunger, we also really feel the satisfaction on the other end of the spectrum when we experience nourishment.

The Verdict

With each meal during my fasting, all of my senses were heightened.

The slow savoring of every delectable bite of even the most basic dishes, the aroma from the dish entering my body, the breeze from the fan above me, the dancing bright bright red rose at my table, the splitter spat sound from the fountain behind me and the chattering of the Vietnamese couple at the table at the other end of the otherwise deserted restaurant.

Fasting brought me complete and unadulterated Nirvana over the course of the meal, an inability to think of anything else but all that was around me at that very moment-reveling in the moment.

I truly believe that temporary self-inflicted-deprivation of some kind is the panacea that many people stuck in our over-consumptive society really need. Many of us Westerners live a life in which everything is handed to us on a silver spoon, an existence devoid of struggle.

We are pleasure seekers who run from the first hint of discomfort and that which we fear. But by doing so, by not experiencing all these emotions which we think of as suffering, we deaden our senses and take much of the great material life we have right in front of us for granted.

Through temporary deprivation, we learn to fully appreciate our existence.

Tim Witting details his wanderings around the world on his blog Tim’s Nomad Diaries.

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