The Buddha fasted. Jesus fasted. Shamans and Mormons fast. In June, Muslims observed the month-long, daylight fast of Ramadan, a test of faith in northern latitudes. Along with ritual, adherence to core beliefs and values, and reflective practices such as prayer or meditation, most religions advise periods of abstinence from food. Naturalistic Paganism offers no specific direction on fasting. However, fasting is a powerful spiritual practice that Pagans may wish to adopt for several reasons. Here are six of them:
- Fasting prepares us for ritual, ceremony, and celebration. This is the same wise principle as the grandmotherly admonition, “Don’t snack or you’ll spoil your dinner.” First Nations people fast before entering sweat lodges. Various Christian traditions recommend limiting one’s intake in Advent and Lent as preparation for Christmas and Easter. For Pagans, fasting prior to festivals at equinoxes, solstices, and cross quarters can heighten our appreciation of feast foods and the joy of fellowship. After fasting, eating a bowl of sun-ripened blueberries becomes a mid-summer celebration of gratitude for fertile soil, blueberry bushes, pollinating insects, rain showers, and sunshine.
- Fasting is a spiritual catalyst. When we fast, we are reminded viscerally of our dependence on the earth’s generosity and our inter-dependence with other beings. Our senses sharpen, our minds become more alert, and we may feel euphoric and energized. Some of us turn inward in meditation or reflection; others feel deeply connected with the natural environment. Among First Nations people, fasting is customary during solitary vision quests. Monastics find that forgoing food enhances vigil and prayer. Fasting wakes us up. Because so many of our ancestors fasted for either spiritual reasons or (so often) involuntarily, fasting can connect us to our ancestors.
- Fasting develops self-discipline. This is especially true for people like me who have the appetite of a starving Labrador retriever. The rule is a simple, don’t eat! As the hours pass, we navigate emotions such as craving, jealousy, fear, emptiness, boredom, and self-righteousness and the unfamiliar physical sensation of raw hunger. Yet we persevere. As we complete the goal and break our fast we are rewarded with greater confidence in ourselves and deeper trust in the universe to hold us in times of trial. We train our inner Labrador in the lesson of self-control.
- Fasting is cheap. You don’t need to buy anything.
- Fasting is flexible and can be tailored to one’s lifestyle. The dictionary definition of fasting is to abstain from food and drink other than water but fasting is defined less strictly in many traditions. For example, the trendy, evangelical Christian “Daniel Fast” is basically a vegan diet undertaken for ten to twenty-one days. Science-based, intermittent fasts may be incorporated into one’s weekly schedule and can take various patterns such as alternate day fasting, or fasting two days a week such as Monday and Thursday, or leaving a sixteen-hour gap between the last meal of the day and he first meal of the next. Juice fasts are an approachable compromise for beginning fasters.
Furthermore, fasting can add rigour to a solitary retreat, or spiritual depth to daily life. We can undertake arduous, multi-day challenges or forego food for a single meal. As Pagans, we can design our own fasting regimen according to the state of our health, the demands of family, career, and community, and our spiritual goals.
- Prudent fasting is healthy. Fasting is an ancient practice. When undertaken with common sense and care, fasting enhances wellness.
However, certain people should fast under medical supervision or avoid fasting altogether. For instance, if you are sick or malnourished or you have kidney or liver problems, fasting can wait until you are well again. People with diabetes should pay close attention to their blood glucose levels and eat as necessary. Pregnant and nursing women have high nutritional demands and require regular meals. For people with eating disorders, fasting can be harmful. If you are unsure if fasting is safe for you, please consult with a registered dietician, nurse practitioner, or physician before beginning a fast.
Mark Mattson, chief of the Laboratory of Neurosciences at the National Institute of Aging and professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins is studying the effects of fasting on health and he advocates intermittent fasting. Mattson’s research suggests that fasting reduces our chances of developing neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. When we fast, we deplete our glycogen stores and our bodies burn fat and produce ketones. Our brains suffer less oxidative damage when neurons use ketones instead of glucose for energy (Sugarman, 2016).
In addition, in times of caloric restriction, the brain produces a protein called “brain derived neurotrophic factor” (BDNF) that promotes neurogenesis and strengthens synaptic connections. Higher levels of BDNF are linked to better mood, and increased motivation, learning capacity, and memory (Sugarman, 2016).
Other studies link fasting to improved regulation of blood glucose levels, greater responsiveness to insulin, and lower risk of diabetes. In addition, people who fast have lower blood levels of low density lipoproteins (bad cholesterol) and triglycerides and lower rates of heart disease even when caloric intake is equal overall to people who do not fast (Hensrud, n.d.). Other studies suggest that fasting reduces inflammation, the risk of chronic disease related to inflammation, and auto-immune immune disorders (Peart, 2015). Fasting is a sacred health practice of benefit to our physical, emotional, and spiritual wellness.
In early August, many Pagans will celebrate Lammas or Lughnasadh. As I type these words, raspberries are ripening on canes, sweet peas rest in their pods, the first tomatoes are blushing, and bees are buzzing in the lavender. There is so much goodness in our gardens, orchards, and farms. Fasting is a time-tested, spiritual practice that can help Pagans to receive these summer gifts in health, joy, appreciation, and thanks.
Renee Lehnen is a registered nurse and recent empty nester living in Stratford, Ontario, Canada. With her new found free time, she enjoys outdoor sports, working on local environmental projects, and gazing at the sky wondering, “What does all of this mean?”