A nearly universal feature of spiritual traditions around the world, fasting plays a role in Christianity, Judiasm, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and countless other religions.
But with the exception of some pagan reconstructionists, fasting isn’t something emphasized in modern witchcraft or neopaganism in general.
The lack of information about fasting as a pagan or occult practitioner lead me to experiment with it from that perspective.
Before we go into exactly what motivated my personal experiment with fasting, let’s go over what didn’t:
1. I did not fast to lose weight. I did, of course, lose weight. And to the extent that I feel transformed physically by the inner revolution of the experience, I suppose weight loss contributes to the sense of “rebirth” into a new body. But weight loss was not the primary goal. Also, I never left a healthy weight range, although I was on the higher end of that range before the fast, and I am on the lower end now.
2. I did not fast to debate about the health benefits/dangers of fasting. All kinds of claims loom around the internet about fasting and its benefits to health. Some of them are pretty plausible (fasting increases insulin sensitivity) and some of them are downright dangerous (fasting cures cancer). I’m not here to make any claim about the health risks or benefits. That’s not what I was out to do. I’ll let people far more qualified than I deal with those issues.
I ask you not to confuse this article with an endorsement of fasting in general, but simply consider it an account of my experience with the practice. It really isn’t for everyone.
Fasting powerfully effected both my mind and my body. I entered this journey with a lot of respect for what I was about to do, and I set limits. The most important for me:
1. I planned to stop immediately if fasting interfered with my work, or my ability to care for my child.
2. I planned to stop immediately if I dropped below a healthy weight.
3. I planned to stop immediately if I felt fasting seriously effected my emotional or physical health.
3. I did not fast to support a spell. But I think that would be interesting. This fast was not part of a spell or ritual, but I think fasting in place of an offering to add power to spell work or ritual is an interesting idea. I may try it.
Please note: Mine was not an absolute fast, or a water fast. I ate about 500-600 calories once a day, which was enough of a challenge for me. I don’t know that the exact nature of the diet itself matters, but I tried to stick to simple, humble meals. Mostly plain vegetables and rice.
Here’s why I did want to fast:
1. To enhance the mind/body connection. I tried short water fasts of 2-3 days before this experiment. Very quickly, I experienced how sharply and directly fasting connects the mind to the body. I wanted to know if a longer fast might deepen this connection.
2. To promote mental clarity. In particular, Buddhism and Hinduism have rich traditions of fasting to aid meditation. Experienced fasters often claim enhanced abilities to visualize, more vivid dreaming and longer attention spans. As someone with lots of interests and a notorious tendency to jump from one task to another, the idea of heightened concentration really intrigued me.
3. To promote and deepen compassion for others. Please do not misunderstand me. As an otherwise well-fed person living in the first world, I obviously recognize that a voluntary period of fasting for personal spiritual growth bears no comparison to the hunger experienced by those living in starvation around the world.
However, I think at least exploring the sensation of deep physical hunger opens a sense of greater compassion for those who live without the luxury of daily bread.
Gandhi’s fasts especially inspired me to try fasting as an act of reverence. Reading about his life during this time enriched my fast.
4. To strengthen self-discipline. Self-discipline behaves much like a muscle—the harder you work it out, the stronger it becomes. I didn’t believe in the beginning that I could really do this for 40 days. I was wrong. And being wrong about that makes me wonder what else about my own limitations I’m wrong about.
5. To change my relationship with food from one of impulsivity and thoughtlessness to one of mindfulness and respect. Fasting forced me, in a very direct way, to confront the hang-ups about food my culture and upbringing impose on me.
In that way, I found it nothing short of life-changing.
Fasting taught me a lot, and almost all of it surprised me. Here’s what I learned.
Fasting intensified my sense of mind/body awareness powerfully. Just becoming aware of the sensation of physical hunger verses “mental” hunger is a revelation in a world where many of us go weeks without ever hearing our stomachs growl.
Even though this wasn’t a true water fast, I think this fast required more discipline than the short water fasts I’d done before. Whereas in a true water fast, your hunger eventually subsides and stays that way for a very long time, eating once a day means triggering the metabolism and appetite.
Resisting it in that period after a meal really tested me, especially if I was in a setting that encouraged feasting, where well-meaning friends and family pushed food in my direction. That none of them knew about the fast probably exacerbated it—-but I don’t know.
Knowing may also have made some of them more insistent.
By the way: people are really, really weird about fasting. While the acceptance of fasting as a practice varies widely in different cultures, in the United States, people seem particularly unsettled by it. It’s almost taboo. If you go around telling people you’ve dropped down to 500-600 calories a day, they usually:
1. Think you have an eating disorder. Particularly if you fall on the lower end of your weight range.
2. Believe that abstaining from regular meals is inherently unhealthy.
3. Question your mental health or think you are involved in a cult (if you tell them it’s for spiritual reasons).
4. Do, think or say something equally ridiculous.
For all these reasons, and also because I think silence intensifies acts of reverence, I only told my husband about my fast.
Surprisingly, no one else seemed to notice.
To the annoyance of servers all over town, I ordered a lot of tea and water at restaurants, but I still went out with friends and family. I continued to teach two yoga classes and two belly dance classes a week. I chased after my toddler with plenty of energy. I ran my handmade website without any extraordinary difficulty.
It interfered much less with my day-to-day living than I expected. Actually:
Fasting definitely sharpened my focus. In the beginning, it really interfered with my thinking. A constant state of hunger distracts even someone with laser concentration. Personally, I’m kind of flighty as it is. So I struggled. A lot.
I fought my impulses very hard at first. I doubted myself. I rationalized. I bargained.
But eventually, the hunger goes away. It’s bizarre.
After about a week, the hunger started to fade. I read about this phenomenon, but I doubted it completely until it happened to me.
After two weeks, as my stomach began to tighten up and even small amounts of food left me feeling very full, it became almost more difficult to eat than not to. At first, I found it a little alarming. It’s so counter-intuitive.
However, once it happened, a fog seemed to lift, and suddenly, my sense of focus and awareness opened up a lot.
Reading, writing, meditation and creative pursuits held my attention much longer. I often got “lost” in my tasks in a way that more shallow concentration simply doesn’t accommodate.
Prolonged fasting demanded much more from my mind than my body. Before the fast, I expected to experience a near-debilitating toll on my body. In fact, I felt energized most days.
Generally, I don’t engage in high-impact exercise. My regimen mostly consists of low-impact dance, long, brisk nature walks and yoga. But my active life continued mostly uninterrupted.
In fact, I was able to go deeper into more challenging yoga poses, relax more fully in them and hold them longer.
But mentally, fasting completely reworked my wiring. I never realized how impulsive my relationship with food was until I spent a month constantly reminding myself: don’t lick the spoon, don’t taste-test the spaghetti sauce, don’t take the chocolate mint on the dinner check, don’t accept the free sample at the grocery store, and yes, a stick of gum counts.
For strength, I left offerings of bread or food on . . . pretty much any altar that welcomed them. Certain Hindu and Buddhist temples in particular encourage food offerings, although you must be careful to look up the specific customs of what offerings are appropriate (meat almost never is, but in some cases, neither is garlic or mushrooms).
Sometimes, I just went on a walk with dog or baby and left offerings of handmade bread in the woods. I found this really cleared my mind and kept me centered.
I carried also wore or carried tiger’s eye to remind me of my own inner strength, and I left the 5 of Pentacles tarot card on my altar.
The Five of Pentacles is sometimes called “The Poverty Card” and symbolizes humility. It seemed appropriate.
All of these things comforted me as I struggled through the more challenging hours and days of my fast.
On the upside, my one pauper’s meal a day tasted amazing.
An old English proverb goes something like this: “Hunger is the best spice.”
Even if it was just brown rice and raw vegetables with no sauce or butter, every flavor exploded on my tongue. I noticed a heightened sensitivity to spices and salt.
I also found myself much more consciously grateful for food, much more respectful of how I used it, and more aware of when and how I ate it.
I went to the farmer’s market get the freshest possible ingredients. I rubbed green beans between my fingers and gently squeezed cucumbers, fully appreciating them with all my senses when I made selections. I prepared almost everything from scratch.
And I took my time eating. I took pleasure in it. It took much less to feel satisfied.
One benefit of my fast did not occur to me until I checked my bank statement: Fasting saved me a lot of money.
Our food bill often creeps pretty high—not because we eat a lot, but because we eat well. I try to feed myself and my family whole foods, avoid fast food, processed food and mostly either make my own or get it from a trusted source. This benefits my health, but it doesn’t benefit the purse strings.
I set aside this extra savings. Initially, I thought about using the money to buy canned goods for a food bank. But local food banks proved surprisingly difficult to find!
So I plan to donate the money directly to a charity yet-to-be-determined, preferably one that benefits world hunger.
(ETA: I donated to the organization Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition.)
Now, a few reality checks.
While this proved to be a mostly positive experience for me, I want to avoid downplaying the intense and sometimes unpleasant side effects.
I was often irritable. I noticed some pretty sharp mood swings during my fast. Nothing super dramatic, but I sometimes felt “blue,” or unable to tolerate minor inconvenience. This usually passed quickly.
I was cold all the time. As my resting metabolic rate started to drop, so did my body temperature. Even on warm spring days, I wore sweatshirts and socks. I think this type of prolonged fast would be much more uncomfortable during the colder winter months.
I had a hard time sleeping. Fasting undeniably interfered with my sleep cycles. Particularly once I entered deeper ketosis, I went at least 48 hours without sleep several times. However, I experienced sharp mental clarity and the lack of sleep didn’t seem to impact my performance on any level I was aware of or made aware of.
Simply put, I struggle to sleep deeply, but I also didn’t seem to need as much sleep.
In general, fasting was really, really hard for me. Like most people, I fought a lifetime of conditioning to maintain a strong fast.
Although I fasted without any serious impact to my daily life, my inner world rocked completely.
To give you a point of reference, I lived under the burden of a pack-a-day smoking habit for more than a decade before I quit 6 years ago. This 40-day fast tested my will at least as much as the first 40 days I quit smoking.
Having said all that, I definitely want to do it again.
Feel free to leave any questions in the comment section, or share your own fasting experience.