THE EIGHTFOLD PATH
Part Three: FASTING
by Inanna Arthen ©1989
Vernal Equinox. I walk slowly through a stand of woods in central Massachusetts, avoiding patches of soft snow, my boots soaked with icy water. I have not eaten food or drunk anything but water for almost ten days, and I have walked for several miles so far this day, up and down hill, over brook and stone. It is cold and cloudy, and from time to time a light drizzle falls. Around me Spirit is immanent, and I am keenly aware of it. Everything I see takes my breath away with wonder, and the sound of water, dripping, trickling, bubbling, rushing, fills the air with a constant song. I stop to rest near a stand of trees and they greet me with interest; I chat casually with them, unconscious of any incongruity. Later, I discuss my life problems with a moss-covered rock. Voices call to me from the distance “Come see! Come see!” but I am reluctant to walk too far down hill. Everything around me seems eager to show me marvels, and all that I see is marvelous. Yet my body holds me firmly to the ground. Despite my increasingly slow step and the aches and twinges of my depleted muscles, my spirit soars. By the simple act of fasting for a few days, I have entered a profoundly altered state of consciousness.
From earliest times, fasting has been a traditional means of increasing spiritual awareness. It is one of the ancient methods by which shamans alter their consciousness. It is mentioned repeatedly in the Bible, and is practiced in some form by nearly every mystical discipline. Eastern traditions teach their disciples to fast as a means of purifying their bodies and attaining mastery of physical urges. In Western religions, fasts are observed as a counterpoint to feasts and celebrations, and as a form of penance and self-mortification. Mystics and saints combined intensive fasting with isolation and other practices to achieve ecstatic states in which they believed they attained union with God.
Not all fasting traditions are equally rigorous. A Medieval “fast” for penance could involve merely eating a very simple diet, such as bread and water. Lenten “fasts” required the avoidance of meat and luxuries, but not food altogether. The Islamic Fast of Ramadan requires followers to avoid food, drink and tobacco each day from sunrise to sunset. Non-religious “fasts” may include broth, fruit juice, or even liquid protein supplements. But in its purest sense, a ‘fast” involves complete denial of all solid substance and all liquid except water.
Despite its long antecedents, fasting as a practice has been both secularized and harshly criticized in the modern Western world. Incorporated into fad diets and dubious health regimes, promoted as a health restoring miracle with irrational and questionable claims, fasting as a “diet” practice has been severely condemned by orthodox medicine with some justification. When fasting is practiced by political protesters and anorexics, its symptoms are chronicled with morbid sympathy by the news media and ideological writers. In a society obsessed with eating and food, very little is said about the spiritual implications – far less the magickal ones – of fasting.
Some Witches and Pagans do not believe that fasting should be part of their magickal work. Fasting, they say, belongs to the self-denying, ascetic, patriarchal traditions – traditions that oppress and limit their followers. Paganism and Witchcraft are joyous, fulfilling, life-affirming paths, which honor all physical pleasures as sacred. How can fasting be relevant to them?
Perhaps for some Pagans, those most concerned with the religious or celebratory aspects of their path, fasting is not appropriate. But many of those on magickal paths seek growth and change. In order to grow, we must challenge ourselves, pushing our boundaries outward into new experiences and perceptions. Often, this process involves some discomfort. We face our fears, suffer some pain, confront insecurity. Most of us are not natural trance mediums and psychics; we must take extraordinary measures in order to place ourselves in certain states of consciousness where certain kinds of knowledge and experience are available. By so doing, we seek benefits that far outweigh the discomforts we endure.
Fasting is one of the most primal of the challenges we can set to ourselves, one which accomplishes several different objectives. It sharply outlines the limitations of our own self-control, and demonstrates to us the degree to which we are slaves to our own appetites and unconscious of our eating habits. It draws our awareness toward the polarity between life and death – for, unlike most of the other methods on The Eightfold Path, to begin to fast is to take the first step on a road that will lead inexorably to certain death if we fail to leave it. To fast is to recognize the fragility of our life. Fasting deepens our appreciation of food as a privilege, a pleasure, and a gift. It demonstrates our dependency on arbitrary structures such as mealtimes for functioning on a daily basis. And finally, fasting very quickly produces an altered state of consciousness through physical stress, thereby following a pattern common in shamanic practices. By physically changing our bodies, fasting alters our spirits, opening us to journeys in other realms and to radically different forms of perception.
The controversial claims made for fasting as a health practice or diet regime – whether it purifies the body of toxins, rejuvenates the tissues, cleanses the aura or rests the major organs – need not be debated here. There are a number of undisputed medical facts about the effects of fasting however, which are valuable to know. An average man of normal weight can survive without food for approximately sixty days. Obese people will last far longer – in some documented cases, over a year. When the body is deprived of food, it responds by making radical changes, consuming itself in ordered stages to keep the cells of the brain (primarily) and vital organs (secondarily) alive.
In order to feed the brain and other tissues, the body breaks down fat and proteins into glucose (a form of sugar) and ketonic acids, which the brain uses at the rate of a quarter-pound per day. The liver goes into overdrive to metabolize these substances; by the third day of a fast, it is producing four ounces of ketonic acids and two ounces of glucose per day, all from the breakdown of body tissues (mostly fat). To lessen the stress on the liver and other organs, the overall metabolism drops slowly to a bare maintenance level, about two-thirds the normal rate, over a period of thirty days. The blood pressure also drops fairly quickly as a fast progresses.
Although it is commonly claimed by detractors of fad diets that fasting causes “mostly protein loss,” studies of persons on political hunger strikes have established that fat and water account for most of the body weight lost during a fast. The altered state of consciousness experienced by some fasters like the “natural high” known to runners, has a biochemical basis. Ketonic acids in the bloodstream act like alcohol, intoxicating the faster and lending a sense of lightness and euphoria.
There are a number of physical symptoms created by fasting aside from the obvious ones (decreased energy and weight loss). Lowering of blood pressure can cause dizziness – even fainting – when one changes position quickly, as in standing up. Fasters may initially experience diarrhea, muscle cramps, nausea or stomach pain, along with bad breath and a “fuzzy mouth.” They may be depressed and fatigued, or experience insomnia and hyperactivity. Some of the negative symptoms associated with fasting, however, are actually the result of dehydration and loss of important minerals, and may be alleviated by drinking water and taking mineral supplements.
There is no doubt that fasting can be dangerous. The choice to observe a fast must be made on the grounds that the benefits outweigh the risks. Many of the most transcendent experiences known to shamans and mystics result from doing risky things. It can be dangerous to participate in a sweat lodge, to retreat alone to the wilderness, to chemically alter one’s own consciousness, to dance oneself into exhaustion. For some of us, that danger is part of the experience itself – a direct confrontation with mortality, not from foolhardiness but from an acknowledgement that we dance with death every moment of our lives.
There is a significant difference in the attitude of a magickal person approaching fasting as opposed to those who fast from political or health motives. A magickal person fasts not in order to deny herself, but in order to use Will to create changes – the definition of Magick itself. At every stage in the fasting process, a magickal faster is forced to confront a series of adversaries – psychological dependencies, bodily weakness, anger, fear, neediness. Fasting becomes a process of self-discovery and a doorway to self-transformation. Our earliest and most primal fears and traumas surrounding nourishment, dependency on caretakers, withdrawal of love, and unmet needs are thrown into sharp relief by fasting. We suddenly discover where we had issues about food (even if we believed we had none) and start to understand where they come from. When we transcend these emotions, we have crossed a profound inner barrier.
A magickal faster acknowledges the feelings and issues raised by her act of fasting, rather than using the avoidance and diversion techniques advocated by diet promoters. Once we admit to ourselves that “yes, this is incredibly difficult, and yes, I’m feeling angry that I can’t eat, and yes, I’m hungry,” we can let those feelings go for the time being and open our altered consciousness in meditation. Magickal fasting is usually practiced as part of a larger project: in preparation for an important ritual, for example, or during a vision quest. Fasting then becomes part of the process that removes us from the everyday world (in which we eat a Snickers bar on our coffee break to keep from getting hungry before dinner) into someplace subtly different, where our emotions are keener and our attachment to the physical slightly less sure. After a fast, our attitude toward ourselves and the natural world that nourishes us is changed. We take our food and our bodies just a little less for granted.
Fasting – both individual fasts and the practice as a whole – is best worked into gradually. Those with diabetes, heart disease, or any diseases of the liver or kidneys should not attempt to fast. The main prerequisites for a magickal fast are a reasonably good state of health, and a clear understanding of your motives. Begin by fasting for one twenty-four hour period and see how it feels to you. Then, if it seems appropriate, try fasting for longer periods. It is best to fast with a partner or “spotter” who can monitor your physical state and provide you with support.
If you plan to fast longer than one day, “wind down” into the full fast by eliminating foods from your diet over time. In general, the order in which foods should be phased out are: alcohol, caffeine, and refined sugar; meats and flesh foods, including eggs; dairy products; breads and cooked grains; cooked vegetables and fruit; raw vegetables; fresh fruit; fruit juice. This may be done over as long a period of time as you wish; two days of “winding down” is sufficient for a three-day fast. I take at least a week to prepare for a longer fast. When you break the fast, you should re-introduce foods in the same order and over the same length of time as the wind down, but in practice this is often hard to do. Compress the time if you must, but do try to stick to the reverse order, beginning with fresh fruit juice. Citrus juice and fruits are not advisable for breaking fasts because their high acid content can upset your stomach. Breaking a fast correctly is as important as the preparation for the fast itself.
While you are fasting, drink as much water as you can and take mineral supplements, especially those containing potassium, iron and calcium, if they do not upset your stomach. Gentle exercise, such as walking and yoga, will be beneficial. Keep a daily journal and note your thoughts, obsessions (even about Snickers bars), emotions and physical states. Be especially aware of your dreams while fasting, since you will be approaching a physical state conducive to spontaneous out-of-body experiences and strong psychic impressions. Record your dreams in your journal.
As you fast, you may experience a great clarity of mind and perception, and be able to reach deep trance states with greater ease than usual. If you are fasting in preparation for an event whose time you cannot select, such as a group ritual, the New Moon, or one of the major Sabbats, you may have to maintain some semblance of your everyday routine. If you can set aside time for the fast itself, however, take full advantage of it. Take a retreat and spend time in the woods or in isolation.
Combine the fast with other techniques such as chanting, drumming, or breathing exercises. You will find that the effectiveness of these techniques is greatly enhanced, that your ability to release yourself mentally and physically is increased. When a fast is broken in combination with magickal surroundings and states of mind, eating can be an almost ecstatic experience. With your heightened awareness you will be vividly conscious of the life force in the food you consume. After the fast has been completed and you are eating normally, take ample time to reflect upon your experiences. Read over your journal entries and meditate upon your dreams. You may find that the fast continues to affect your magickal life long after your fasting is over.
Whether practiced for its own merits or used together with other techniques, fasting is a legitimate part of the Eightfold Path. It separates us from the bustle of the everyday, changes us on physical, spiritual, emotional and mental levels, forces us to confront our own weaknesses, and holds a mirror up to our mortality. By fasting, we push ourselves outside the boundaries of what is conventionally considered “safe,” and invite a closer awareness of a reality beyond that recognized by the mundane world. At the same time that we stretch our consciousness past the consensual and the ordinary, we link spiritual hands with shamans. mystics, Witches and magicians through the ages who have used this technique to open their minds. Approached with wisdom, fasting can be an important tool for the development of our magickal selves.
INANNA ARTHEN is a frequent contributor to FireHeart, who denies that she is an over-zealous faster but would be happy to not have lunch with anyone who would like to discuss it further.