Not so Fast

Photograph of a young girl listening to the ra...
This is me listening to This American Life. This is when I was stretching after I was done on the treadmill. (Image via Wikipedia)

Tonight on the treadmill, I listened to the This American Life episode entitled “Promised Land,” in which David Rakoff goes on a three-week fast and chronicles his experience on the radio show. Knowing that people throughout history have used fasting as a way to experience a spiritual awakening, Rakoff is curious to see what he’ll feel after three weeks without solid food.

As I was running, I considered the potential value of fasting to my project. I’ve planned some dietary changes, but fasting hadn’t entered my awareness, possibly because I’m nursing, and fasting isn’t a great plan while lactating. But the fact that it’s not really an option for me at this point didn’t stop me from considering the possibility of fasting as part of a path to increased happiness.

At the end of three weeks, Rakoff was disappointed to find that he felt much the same as he had before fasting. I’ve read enough about Buddhism to be fairly convinced that fasting isn’t going to bring a person enlightenment. Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha himself, fasted like crazy but didn’t find enlightenment until he’d adopted the Middle Way. And if one is seeking enlightenment through fasting, they’re certainly not going to find it, because enlightenment is tricky that way; it eludes you if you’re looking for it. Like my car keys. While I wouldn’t expect to achieve enlightenment through fasting, that doesn’t eliminate the possibility of spiritual growth short of enlightenment.

I realize that I’m operating under the assumption that spiritual growth would bring one happiness. Is that necessarily true? What exactly is spiritual growth? I guess I define it as an increased awareness in something that can’t be defined in physical terms. In my experience, increased awareness does seem to lead, eventually, to happiness, but I suppose that might not always be the case. I think it’s possible that, sometimes, ignorance is bliss.

I admit that, for me, the most compelling argument for fasting came when Rakoff mentioned that he had lost 14 pounds in three weeks (he didn’t mention how long it took to gain it back). I don’t really need to lose that much weight, but it must be ingrained in me that a quick way to lose weight is something to be sought after. The reasonable part of my mind recognizes that fasting likely isn’t a recipe for lasting, healthy weight-loss. The fact that some of his friends who didn’t know he was fasting thought Rakoff had cancer or something sort of argues in favor of that perception.

Would fasting be part of a Happiness Project for me post-nursing? Maybe. I could see myself trying it out just to see what would come of it. But if it worked, would the effects be lasting, or would they only last as long as I was fasting? I try to make my resolutions practices that I can do daily, life changes rather than actions that I do for a short time and then stop when I reach a goal, and fasting isn’t something I could continue indefinitely. Exercise seems to be bringing me a great deal of happiness (or is it pleasure?); would I be able to keep exercising while fasting?

When I’m avoiding judgment, I can argue myself into and out of something indefinitely. I was similarly stymied after listening to the This American Life show “Superpowers,” in which John Hodgman asks which you would choose if you could have only one superpower, flight or invisibility. I’ve been mulling that one over for weeks and still haven’t reached a conclusion.

6 Replies to “Not so Fast”

  1. flight… all the way. as for fasting, I’ve only ever done juice fasts to lose weight & I was not enlightened, only hungry.


  2. I like Tony Jones’ description of fasting in his book The Sacred Way. He does talk about spiritual enlightenment but also about fasting as a way of clearing space, practicing gratitude, and developing self-discipline. And you’ve already experimented with fasting: while we most commonly link fasting with food, we can fast from anything that distracts us from our goals or draws us into unhealthful patterns. Say, for example, Facebook. Or in my case, Cheezburger Network.


    1. Oh, yes! I forgot about non-food fasting! I clearly didn’t grow up observing Lent. I’ll need to reconsider my idea of fasting as I move through my project.


  3. I like Isaiah 58 on fasting “to loosen the chains of injustice.” If it’s just about me–lightening my load, heh heh, or even gaining enlightenment–I sense I will have missed the mark.


    1. Paul – I just read Isaiah 58. That was beautiful, and really a different take on fasting than I’d considered. Thank you for sharing it. Food for thought, so to speak.


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