Spiritual Fasting: Being near the Divine
“There’s hidden sweetness in the stomach’s emptiness.
We are lutes, no more, no less.
If the soundbox is stuffed full of anything, no music.
If the brain and belly are burning clean with fasting,
every moment a new song comes out of the fire.”
In Sanskrit, fasting is called upavasa. Upa means “near” and vasa means “to stay.” This “staying near” refers to attaining closeness with the Divine. In Hebrew, a fast is tsom, literally meaning, “to not eat.” In Greek, the term is nesteia, meaning “no food.” A basic definition of fasting is the voluntary abstinence from food. This abstinence means ingesting no (or minimal amounts of) food and caloric beverages for periods that typically range from twelve hours to several weeks. In a larger context, fasting means to abstain from that which is toxic to mind, body, and soul.
When spiritual fasting, we deliberately let go of that which binds us to the material world (food) in order to receive sustenance from the more subtle and spiritual world. We make the choice that for a period of time we will detach from our physical cravings in order to focus on spiritual ones. We feed our soul with the same enthusiasm with which we normally feed our bodies.
For, as the great Persian poet Al-Ghazali wrote: “He who buries his head deep in a nosebag full of food cannot hope to see the invisible world.”
Fasting, practiced as an essential discipline for the revelation of true knowledge, has a place in the traditions of most world religions. Muslims fast from dawn to dusk during the holy month of Ramadan while Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus fast on designated days of the week or at special times of the year.
Socrates and Plato practiced 10-day fasts in order to purify the soul to better perceive the Truth. Pythagoras did 40-day fasts and required the same of his disciples before he would initiate them. He believed that only in this way would they be pure enough to understand the profundity of the teachings.
In addition to its spiritualizing effects, fasting is also profoundly healing for the physical body. In fact, it is probably the oldest known healing method. Great physicians such as Hippocrates, Paracelsus, and Galen prescribed it. When we fast, the body is focused on the removal of toxins and the regeneration of damaged tissue. The eliminative systems (skin, lungs, kidneys, bowels, and liver) become more active. Because the body is not spending energy digesting and eliminating new toxins, it is able to direct all its energy toward the elimination of accumulated toxins and waste products. Fasting has a normalizing effect on the biochemical and mineral balance in the tissues and tones the nervous system, encouraging an overall state of well-being.
The practice of fasting is mentioned in the Bible, Judaism’s Tanakh, the Qur’an, the Mahabharata, and the Upanishads. It is used for many purposes, including as penance, in preparation for initiations and marriage, in the process of mourning, for the development of special powers (siddhis), to quiet the mind, to reconnect with nature, to deprive the senses, and, for purification, health, and spiritual development.
The holiest day of the year for Jewish people is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Its central themes are penance and repentance, and it is observed by a day of fasting and prayer.
There are many biblical stories of fasting, and the act of fasting often precedes very important moments in history. In Exodus 34:28, it states that Moses fasted for 40 days, during which time he wrote the Ten Commandments on the tablets. Nehemiah lamented over the destruction of Jerusalem, and by his fasting and supplication he obtained favor with God and was able to rebuild the walls of the eternal city (Nehemiah 1:4). Another time, Queen Esther was able to help save Jerusalem from annihilation by encouraging all the Jews to fast for three days (Esther 4:16).
The Essenes, an ascetic Jewish community that flourished from the second century B.C. to the first century A.D., used fasting to purify their bodies and enhance their communion with God. The most devout among them fasted for 40 days each year. Their beautiful text The Essene Gospel of Peace makes many references to fasting, including the following tale of Jesus addressing a group of infirm people: “Jesus departed, saying: ‘I will come again to all who persist in prayer and fasting until the seventh day. Peace be with you.’ And it was by the bed of a stream many sick fasted and prayed with God’s angels for seven days and seven nights. And great was their reward, because they followed Jesus’ words. And with the passing of the seventh day, all their pains left them. And when the sun rose over the Earth’s rim, they saw Jesus coming towards them from the mountain, with the brightness of the rising sun about his head.”
After Jesus’s baptism his first act was a 40-day fast in the desert in order to become liberated from worldly desires, making it possible for him to merge fully with the Divine (Luke 4:2).
Fasting during the holy month of Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam and honors the month in which the Qu’ran was revealed. Following this tradition is so important in Islam that Muhammad once said: “There is a gate in Paradise called Ar-Raiyan, and those who observe fasts will enter through it on the Day of Resurrection and none except them will enter through it. It will be said, ‘Where are those who used to observe fasts?’ They will get up, and none except them will enter through it. After their entry the gate will be closed and nobody will enter through it.”
Fasting is also an important tradition in Hinduism, and most Hindus fast weekly or during special annual festivals. In Hinduism, fasting is seen as a method to attain control over our desires and our senses for the sake of spiritual transformation. They believe that fasting creates a transparency to the Absolute by establishing a harmonious relationship between the body and soul. As it is not easy to unceasingly bring our daily lives into spirituality, they believe that we must strive to impose restraints on ourselves in order to focus the mind. One form of restraint is fasting.
Modern Spiritual Fasting
Fasting as a modern spiritual practice is a choice to consciously shift our focus from material things to an intense concentration on the Self, seeking a deeper experience of our Real Nature.
Fasting directs our hunger toward God. It clears the mind and body of earthly attentions and brings us closer to who we really are, helping us “stay near” the Divine. As spiritual and mental clarity is amplified while fasting, we hear the voice of Truth more clearly.
Many yogis and other spiritual practitioners choose to have a weekly fasting day. As the effects of fasting are amplified when the duration of the fast increases, annual spiritual fasts of 3-10 days are recommended.
Spiritual fasting is best performed in close connection to nature, and it may involve some degree of social isolation and distance from worldly responsibilities. While fasting, it is useful to have a consistent daily spiritual practice that includes Hridaya Meditation. Other practices that support fasting include formal or informal Self-Inquiry, Hridaya Hatha Yoga, pranayama, walking meditation, sitting meditation, prayer, chanting, contemplation, mauna, reading sacred texts (svadhyaya), and listening to spiritual lectures and music. At the physical level, enemas, saunas, sunbaths, massage, and skin brushing are also very helpful and are recommended.
Fasts are more effective and easier when done in a supportive group setting. A community that fasts together at a moment synchronized with a religious holiday or astronomical occurrence (the phases of the moon, the equinox, the solstice, etc.) is a multidimensional being communicating on several energetic levels. By fasting together, the community goes through a deep transformation and opens to the infinite light of consciousness. Profound healing at the level of the individual, the community, and accordingly, the whole universe can result. Often, synchronicities, karmic purifications, spiritual insights, and, even, miracles may occur after a few days of spiritual fasting.
Steps of a Successful Spiritual Fast
The intention with which you begin and conduct your fast will largely determine your success. The following steps can make fasting more meaningful and spiritually rewarding.
- Set the purity of intention: Become clear about your motivations for fasting. Is it for healing, for guidance, for purification, to ask for grace to handle a difficult situation, or for some other goal? No matter what your personal purpose might be, understand that ultimately the cause of any purification and inner transformation is the transparency to the Spiritual Heart. Therefore, try to clarify your objectives and, first of all, set the purity of your intentions. Start by consecrating the efforts and the consequences of the fast to the Divine Consciousness that you essentially are. Begin your time of spiritual fasting and contemplation with an expectant heart.
- Take your tapas: Decide how long you will fast, what foods and beverages you will restrict (in case it is not a water-only fast), what physical and social activities you will avoid, and what your spiritual sadhana will be. Making these commitments ahead of time will help you sustain your fast when disturbances (or “temptations,” as some religions dramatically used to name them) arise.
- Prepare yourself physically: Consult your physician if necessary. Prepare your body by eating smaller meals and avoiding high-fat and sugary foods. Ideally, you should eat only raw fruits and vegetables for two days before starting a multi-day fast. To prepare for a 7-10 day fast, it is recommended to eat a vegan diet for two weeks prior to beginning the fast.
- Put yourself on a schedule: For profound spiritual transformation, dedicate longer periods of time in solitude (and, if possible, some time together with a spiritual group) for meditation and contemplation. The more awareness and time you consecrate to the Spiritual Heart, the more meaningful your fast will be.
- End your fast gradually: This is the most significant and hardest part of a fast! If you do not break the fast with discipline, the effects of the fast are greatly compromised. As a general rule, allow one day of breaking the fast for every three days spent fasting. It may take 3-4 days for the digestive fire to be fully activated. You should remember not to overeat and to chew food slowly and extremely well. After fasting, the body absorbs an estimated 85% of the food consumed, compared to the normal absorption rate of 35%. The overarching principles of coming off of a fast are moderation and common sense.
Fasting, Patience, and Presence
In Hermann Hesse’s novel Siddhartha, the main character is asked by a businessman to name his skills. He responds: “I can think. I can wait. I can fast.”
Surprised, the businessman asks: “And what’s the use of that? For example, the fasting—what is it good for?”
Siddhartha responds: “It is very good, sir. When a person has nothing to eat, fasting is the smartest thing he could do. When, for example, Siddhartha hadn’t learned to fast, he would have to accept any kind of service before this day is up, whether it may be with you or wherever, because hunger would force him to do so. But like this, Siddhartha can wait calmly, he knows no impatience, he knows no emergency, for a long time he can allow hunger to besiege him and can laugh about it. This, sir, is what fasting is good for.”
As Siddhartha suggests, regular fasting, and the mastery it gives us over our cravings and desires, allows us to remain patient and present despite challenges that arise in daily life.
“Fasting is one of the great ways of approaching God: it releases the life force from enslavement to food, showing you that it is God who really sustains the life in your body.”