Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Reflections on fasting

Since March 2015, I've been following a weekly 24 hour liquid and social media fast. The first question most people ask is, "why?".

There are many reasons.  There's the sentimental reason that for many Indian households, Tuesday is a holy day, similar to the Sabbath in some ways. Fasting on Tuesdays is an ancient tradition, and following this tradition makes me feel connected in some small way to my ancestors.

Typically, they would pick a food group to avoid once a week-- onions, garlic, salt, sugar. I chose to abstain from solid food from dinner Monday night until breaking the fast with dinner Tuesday night. Instead, I have liquids only-- a green smoothie and a large tumbler of ginger-lemon-cayenne pepper water that I prep on Monday nights.

I do it because it's tough. It's definitely not easy. But as the months go on, it becomes something I look forward to doing.

In the beginning, I was having a power-packed smoothie of berries, greens, coconut oil, almond butter, turmeric, cocoa powder and black pepper. I soon found out that the berries were making my blood sugar, and consequently my mental acuity, fluctuate beginning by 10 am. I would get home ravenous, starving. My hunger pains were excruciating, and any piece of mind fasting could bring was eclipsed by the urgent need to eat.

Once I eliminated the berries-- I use a banana instead-- my mental acuity remained unaffected. I would get home pleased at the smoothness of the fast, and not be frantic to end it. Eliminating the almond butter and coconut oil-- caloric bombs-- and substituting with peanut protein powder or hemp seeds-- also helped reduce the... sluggish.. gut.

In September 2015, the Dalai Lama was admitted to the Mayo Clinic for check ups. He was forced to cancel his US appearances for October. Concerned about his health and well-being, I decided that the discipline of fasting could be channeled like a prayer for his long life. It has been this Fourteenth Dalai Lama more than anyone else alive today who is responsible for guiding me through my life work in caring for the seriously ill, dying and bereaved. Fasting has now become my weekly offering of gratitude and health for this great being.

There are other observations. In the first two months of fasting, I became aware that my satiety signal was getting much stronger. I was eating less than before all week, and feeling quite content and nourished. I also became aware though of areas in my life where excess still reigned, especially on fasting days. For me, this was in the realm of social media. I would check social media several times a day, often just to avoid feeling hungry. This seemed to contradict everything I try and do, and recommend, through the mindfulness practice, to move into areas of discomfort and difficulty and breathe into them, not distract myself from them.

So, I decided to add social media to the list of fasting options. No Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. None of it. Just an occasional retweet for my employer's tweets, which they have asked me to do. But no other checking or posting.

The result? A gradual overall reduction in my participation in social media. Fewer tweets and Facebook updates, but less frivolous ones. They seem to be more relevant, and hopefully, more helpful.

So the results so far, after nearly 9 months of fasting on liquids only once a week?

It's tough. But the world can be an unpredictable place, and life can be disrupted by suffering any day. We need self-discipline to make healthy choices and to withstand the inherent and inevitable discomfort of life. As a psychologist at a cancer center, I am exposed every day to people experiencing the extremes of human existence-- death, grief and rebirth. I need to have all of my resources accessible, and to be as healthy as I can be. That requires discipline and mindfulness. Compassion requires discipline and mindfulness. Fasting is a great way to do that, and as a bonus you can dedicate the merits of your self-discipline for the health and welfare of those who inspire you.