Greater in battle than the man who would conquer a thousand-thousand men, is he who would conquer just one — himself. Better to conquer yourself than others. When you've trained yourself, living in constant self-control, neither a deva nor gandhabba, nor a Mara banded with Brahmas, could turn that triumph back into defeat. ― Buddha
Lifestyle and dietary modifications are approaches one takes to better ones overall health. One such approach that has been gaining popularity is fasting. Fasting has been an integral part of most religions since ancient times.
Myriad religions and ancient practices incorporated fasting. So, why is this something so foreign people today? Fasting isn’t easy, it isn’t supposed to be. It is a shock to the mind and body that is intended to elicit positive results when concluded. Mental clarity is obtained when the mind is clear, when the mind is clear, one can absorb experience. Like the mind, so to is bodily health attained through an empty stomach. Nothing makes feel more in the moment that absolute hunger. Not many people today have experienced this feeling. So, not too many people have truly done what it takes to be healthy.
Fasting tends to be from food, drink, smoking, and acts that give pleasure such as sexual intercourse and drugs - and while the reasons might appear to vary between religions, it is largely to focus the minds of those observing their fasts on their faith.
Muslims: The Muslim fasting month of Ramadan lasts a month and the fasting aspect is acknowledged during daylight hours. Unlike many other religions, fasting during Ramadan is a requirement of all Muslims who have reached puberty and those whose health permits them to fast – it is one of the five pillars of Islam and therefore compulsory. During the holy month, Muslims believe that they are cleansing their bodies to get closer to God. It is believed in Islam that food, drink and other desires stand in the way of connecting with their faith – in short, they believe these work as a distraction.
Ramadan is also a philosophical time of the year during which many believe they learn to be more patient and increase their self-control - feeling less inclined to take part in gossip and other negative thought processes - which they believe make them better people. Some Muslims also choose to fast voluntarily on special Islamic days throughout the year, such as the Day of Arafat, the day before the major Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha.
Catholics: For 40 days (excluding Sundays) from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday, Christians observe Lent. Like Ramadan this is a time of repentance, but it also serves as a preparation for Easter. The belief is that the 40 days fasting reflects the time Jesus spent fasting in the desert. But unlike Ramadan, does not involve a complete abstinence from food for any particular time. Instead, those of various denominations of Christianity, including Catholicism, might eat more sparingly – but it is more common for an individual to give up a particular food or habit.
For many, it is a time for self-discipline with some quitting smoking, or avoiding the television or eating sweets. Some might say they have given up gossip or lying. But unlike Ramadan, there is not the same obligation to observe this event. Theoretically, Lent is meant to be a time to be humble and of self-constraint. It is not uncommon for people to discuss what they plan to give up for Lent in the form of a personal challenge, which they might share with others.
Judaism: Jews fast for six days in the year – although only two of these days are deemed to be so important that all must observe, except for those whose health would be negatively impaired. The most important day of the year in the Jewish calendar is Yom Kippur and fasting is expected of every Jewish man and woman above the age of puberty (bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah). So important is the fast on this day that those who need to eat are encouraged to consume as little as possible – without endangering their health.
The second most important day of fasting is called Tisha B’Av, which marks a number of anniversaries in the Jewish faith and traditionally ends a three week mourning period, during which Jews reflect on the various tragedies that their people have suffered, including the Holocaust. There are four other days of fasting through the year, although these are not deemed to be as important and are not compulsory.
Hinduism: Fasting is a more personal decision for Hindus – depending on their own individual beliefs and customs. But it remains an important part of Hinduism. The days that people fast vary a great deal, but they tend to involve certain religious days of the month and week. For instance, in southern and northwestern India it is common to fast on a Tuesday - which is dedicated to their goddess Mariamman. This particular fast last between sunrise and sunset, but followers may drink liquids during this time.
Likewise Thursdays are a common day for fasting among Hindus living in northern India. The fast started with a story. People will traditionally wear yellow clothes, and eat meals that are yellow. As with the days, the methods of fasting also vary depending on the culture and personal beliefs. That said, strict fasting, will mean the individual does not consume any food or drink during the fasting time. It can also mean people limiting themselves to one meal during the day, or restricting themselves to a certain food, or alternatively abstaining.
If there is any religion that could respond to the needs of modern science, it would be Buddhism. ― Albert Einstein
Strictly speaking, Buddhist monks and nuns don’t fast, but they do abstain from food after the midday meal which is aimed at aiding meditation and good health. Indeed many health professionals do suggest that eating in the morning is healthier than the more common approach of having the main meal of the day in the evening. Buddhists will fast during times of intense meditation and abstain from over indulgence.
In Buddhism, there are a variety of attitudes towards different forms of Fasting. The Buddha is known to have practiced extreme forms of fasting which led to his emaciation and to have famously abandoned it before his great awakening.
Traditionally, Buddhist monastics follow the prātimokṣa rules outlined in the various Vinayas (texts outlining the monastic discipline) all which specify that one must not eat after the noon meal. Instead, Buddhist texts mention that this is a period which should be used for meditation or sutra chanting. Breaking this rule is considered a pācittika offense which needs to be confessed. This is not considered a kind of fasting, but a simple and moderate way of eating which is said to aid one’s meditation and health. Devout lay persons will also follow this rule during special days of religious observance (uposatha).
The Buddha’s Middle Path refers to avoiding extremes of indulgence on the one hand and self-mortification on the other. According to the Early Buddhist Texts, prior to attaining nirvana, Shakyamuni practiced a regime of strict austerity and fasting which was common among the sramana religions of the day (limited to just a few drops of bean soup a day). These austerities with five other ascetics did not lead to spiritual progress but did cause him to become so emaciated that he could barely stand. It was only after he gave up the practice of harsh asceticism, including extreme fasting, and instead focused on the practice of meditation and jhana, that he attained awakening. Because of this experience, the Buddha criticized the fasting practiced by Indian ascetics of his day, such as that practiced by Jains, who believed that fasting burned off bad karma. According to Bhikkhu Analayo:
the Buddha noted that ascetics who underwent periods of fasting, but subsequently resumed eating to regain their strength, were just gathering together again what they had earlier left behind (MN 36).
Instead, the Buddha focused on practicing mindfulness while eating, a practice he recommended to both monastics and laypersons. According to Analayo, this practice connects the second and third satipatthanas (foundations of mindfulness) , that of mindfulness of hedonic tones (vedana) and mindfulness of the mind (citta) respectively. This allows one to understand how sensual craving arises out of worldly pleasant feelings, and gain insight into the very nature of sensuality (and thus lead to its cessation).
However, the Buddha did end up recommending that monastics not eat anything after noon. This practice could be considered a kind of Intermittent fasting, which is an eating style where you eat within a specific time period, and fast the rest of the time.
One meal a day
In Theravada Buddhist monasticism, there are various optional ascetic practices named dhutaṅga (literally “means of shaking off” or “shaking up”, as in to “invigorate”) which are popular with Thai forest monks, several of them have to do with food. One practice is called “one-sessioner’s practice” (ekāsanikanga) which refers to eating only one meal a day.
Another practice consists of only eating food collected on one’s bowl during the daily almsround (piṇḍapāta) where monks go begging for food. If one happens to receive just a little food or not to receive any at all on one particular day, one would have to fast. Dhutaṅgas are seen as means to deepen one’s spiritual practice, and to develop detachment from material things, including the body.
Some Buddhist laity feel that eating low on the food chain creates merit; eating less luxurious food creates an opportunity to serve the planet and all living beings. In this way the dining table becomes a place of practice.
The Buddha's own experience showed him that fasting per se did not extinguish desire, it only subdued it. As soon as he resumed eating, his desire returned as well. It took concentration and insight to extinguish desire. The Buddha discovered that desire is rooted in the mind and can be transformed in the mind. Fasting can help that process of transforming desire to wisdom by subduing the body's coarse desires. Fasting is an aid to the Way, a supplementary practice that can lead to increased mental awareness of the connection between desire and human existence.
Those who adopt the fasting practice described above do so by and large to purify their bodies and to clarify their thoughts. Fasting allows coarse thoughts to diminish, but strength also diminishes, so there is a trade-off between mental clarity and reduced ability to meditate as long. Some people report that the longer they fast, the more strength they have; so not everybody's experience is the same.
In sum, fasting highlights one's attachments to food and to good flavor; thus it helps the practitioner to distinguish how much of his or her craving for food is need, and therefore normal and necessary, and how much is greed, and therefore a hindrance to liberation. Fasting unlocks ones mind and body from the shackles of food addiction. It might not be the right practice for everyone, but it is hard to argue with millennia of testaments affirming its usefulness.