I recently took up fasting. (Can you spot the general progression here? From omnivore to vegetarian to ethereal being that lives on air! Nah, not really – not unless air tastes like ratatouille.) Though I’ve heard and read abundantly about the long-term benefits of regular fasting, I’m not intending to sing odes to the practice of ridding yourself of food upwards of 24 hours here. Rather, I’d like to share with you a sensation whose purpose only dawned on me during my fourth fast, last Friday, and which presents itself as a nagging obsession with anything edible.
Now, unless you’ve ever fasted, you have no idea what it’s like to be obsessed with food. Not if you’ve been hungry before, not if you’ve been famished, absolutely starving. When you fast, you see, nobody is preventing you from eating, and food is amply available. You have the choice, at any given moment, to reach out for that shiny apple and devour several mouthfuls of its succulent pulp. Those of you that have never fasted might be surprised to learn that physical hunger is not an issue during a fast: a tummy that would normally rumble up a storm retreats into quiet repose (no doubt enjoying the time off from having to process all those goodies you keep sending it), a pressure that would normally drop and make your head spin like a carousel stays put (albeit you might help it keep its level by drinking plenty of water), and though you might feel weaker than usual and choose to refrain from galloping up flights of stairs, you feel mostly fine. Elated, even. The enemy, I realised, dwells inside the head.
Fasting is much more about controlling the mind than controlling the body. (After all, it is your mind that gives your body the signal to do anything – including snatching that biscuit from the tin and crunching it down like the Cookie Monster.) During a fast, your mind becomes possessed by the sheer idea of food. I have never imagined that a chocolate brownie could be the object of a five-minute fantasy in plain daylight. Nor have I ever dreamed that the idea of a ripe, juicy peach could titillate so many senses. And, in all frankness, I’ve never been as blissful eating cream cheese as I imagined myself during my fast-induced fancies. (Because, in the end, reality neutralises everything: the brownie is a little dry, the peach is a little sour, and cream cheese is just cream cheese – delightful, but not out-of-this-world.)
In other words, fasting is a form of meditation. It is really a formidable exercise of self-control. I’ve always found it amusing how people take precautions when it comes to food: packing ample lunches for short trips and demanding to be fed at the slightest growl of their intestinal juices. As if experiencing hunger, even for a while, was an insufferable event. (I’m also irritated by people who can’t wait to get home after they’ve done their shopping and start eating out of their plastic grocery bags, but that’s just me.) Feeling hungry for a little while won’t kill us. On my part, I like the feeling that, by attempting to calm my mind’s obsession with food while fasting, I’m learning to control my intellectual fixations. We all want to manipulate minds – but can we quieten our own?