Fasting is largely misunderstood. Food is so necessary to our existence. Why would we want to punish ourselves by not eating? How can abstaining in any way be beneficial?
Yet fasting is a part of almost every religious tradition. The greatest spiritual leaders in history all refer to going through a time of fasting in their quest for truth and enlightenment.
Physically, our digestive systems benefit from having a break. Fasting is often used as part of the process of detoxifying our bodies. It also naturally helps us to manage our weight. And some studies show that fasting can actually slow the aging process.
While there are many kinds of fasting, I recently rediscovered the beauty of living on nothing but water for an entire day. While I had made this a weekly practice in my 20s, I had drifted away from it for nearly 30 years. I had forgotten how wonderful it felt. My digestive system thanked me for the break. And coming off my fast, food tasted even more wonderful.
In addition, I had forgotten how powerful fasting is. When we’re faced with challenges outside our control, we can do nothing but determine our own response. This is what Gandhi demonstrated through his hunger strikes. While these actions were certainly more extreme than the usual fasting practices of Gandhi and his followers, they were effective. Hunger strikes have since become a powerful form of political protest around the world.
As a young person, I felt relatively powerless in my opposition to the nuclear arms buildup during the Cold War. Peace activists and leaders like Pope John Paul II told me to fast and pray. As I watched the growth of the Solidarity Movement in Poland and the rise of opposition throughout Eastern Europe, I became aware that I was a part of something much bigger than myself. We really were making a difference and history has proved that this was no mere illusion.
While many of us naively believed that global conflict would end with the Cold War, we see that the struggle for the future of our planet continues. As acts of violence and racism grab the news headlines, many groups work quietly around the world in peaceful resistance. It has become clear to me that members of any religion, from Christian to Muslim to Hindu, and every religion and non-religion in between, call for the use of fasting to bring peace within ourselves and thus to our world. In the age of the Internet, many groups give us the opportunity to share our stories and to donate what we save on food to just causes.
I honestly don’t know why fasting works. I do know, however, that it makes me feel purified in body, mind and spirit, and links me in solidarity with good people all around the world.
Fasting on water is not for everyone. Many have health concerns that only allow them to abstain from certain foods. A different religion may have their own rules and guidelines when it comes to fasting, as do different schools of health. What seems to be of greatest importance, however, is one’s desire to be an agent for peace.
As we look at the seemingly insurmountable problems in the world, the words of Helen Keller ring truer than ever: “I am only one, but I am still one. I cannot do everything, but I can still do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.
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