What Fasting for 18 Years Taught Me
Every year, roughly 1.8 billion Muslims all around the world abstain from eating and drinking for 30 days. While this might sound impossible to some, for many, Ramadan, or the Islamic month of fasting, is the highlight of the year. It’s a chance to reset the mind, body, and soul, and refocus on the things that truly matter. It is also a time of togetherness, community, love, gratitude, and charity.
For many people, the idea of voluntarily depriving oneself of food and drink may seem crazy. Reactions I’ve gotten over my 18 years of fasting have ranged from shock (“You can’t even drink water??”) to admiration (“Wow, I could never do that”), even optimism (“Well that’s one way to lose weight!”) What most people don’t realize is that fasting is about much more than just skipping a few meals.
With Ramadan around the corner, I always like to spend the days leading up to it reflecting and mentally preparing myself for the challenge ahead. For me, Ramadan is a time to focus on myself, instill good habits, and become the best version of myself to carry forward through life. As a child raised in a Muslim household, I used to fast because I had to. As an adult, I now fast because I want to. With the right mindset, there is much to be gained in these 30 days. If you’re wondering why anyone chooses to fast, the following reasons may shed some light into what is really happening on the inside.
Fasting Builds Disciplines.
Some people seem to think that fasting for 30 days implies not eating or drinking at all for 30 days straight, so let’s clear that up right off the bat – fasting takes place from sunrise to sunset. In fact, it is even encouraged to wake up before sunrise to eat a hearty meal to help you get through the day. Imagine waking up before the crack of dawn and racing against the clock to eat your breakfast before the sun comes up. In the summer months especially, when sunrise can be as early as 3:15am and sunset as late as 9:30pm, that takes some serious discipline! Many people also use Ramadan as a time to kick bad habits and form good ones. It takes 30 days to build a habit, which makes this the perfect time to work on whatever goals you set for yourself. Some people resolve to quit smoking, while others choose to focus on personal reflection and growth. Whatever it may be, without the distraction of food and drink, fasting provides a clean slate of mental energy to spend on the things that matter most to you.
Fasting Teaches Mindfulness.
You know how they say you don’t know what you have until it’s gone? The same holds true when you take away the routine of eating and drinking. I say routine because it really is just that – a routine. So much so that we sometimes revolve our lives around it! It’s not until you remove the routine that you realize just how much mental energy we spend thinking about and seeking out food (or maybe it’s just me…) For example, how many times have you been at home, sitting around, only to find yourself wandering over to the fridge to get a snack? Chances are, you probably aren’t really hungry – you’re just bored. Eating is an activity as much as it is a necessity, and like any activity, it’s easy to engage in mindlessly. With a free lunch hour and no snacking breaks, you become aware of how much time you really have. At the end of the day when the fast is finally broken, you also have an enhanced appreciation for that first bite of food and sip of water. Mindfulness is all about appreciating what you have in the moment, and there is no better way to practice it then by taking away what we are so used to having readily available.
Fasting Facilitates Reflection.
This one goes hand in hand with mindfulness, and involves putting our egos in the spotlight to find the areas we can improve on. Many of the traditions of Ramadan involve some form of practicing gratitude, introspection, and reevaluating our own place in this world and in the universe. Since eating only takes place at night, breaking fast together with friends and family is one commonly held tradition and an opportunity to reconnect and reflect on life with loved ones. Engaging in self-reflection and even withdrawing from the world to meditate or spend time in prayer for days at a time is not unheard of. In fact, it is this very distancing from the world that allows authentic reflection to take place. Disconnecting from worldly distractions ultimately allows us to retreat and explore our own inner worlds for a change.
Fasting Strengthens the Mind.
If you’ve ever heard the term “hangry”, fasting is also an opportunity to closely examine our emotions. For many of us who fast, it is not uncommon to feel irritable, fatigued, or angry as we deprive our body of its basic needs. However, in feeling irritable, it is also possible to become aware of this emotion, and consequently regulate it. Just because you are irritable doesn’t mean you should take out that emotion or frustration on anyone else. With fasting, it is especially easy to get in touch with these more difficult emotions, and learn how to manage them in healthy ways. It’s not just about fasting from food – it’s about intentionally creating a deliberately positive internal state within our mind, body, and soul. In this way, we control our emotions instead of letting our emotions control and dictate our behavior. It’s all about mind over matter, and realizing that it is in fact possible to survive without water on a hot summer day, no matter how difficult it may seem. It is a powerful lesson that the mind really is the one in charge, and ultimately, we get to control just how much influence it has over our lives.
Every year, I look forward to fasting for these reasons, and don’t consider Ramadan to be a personal success for me unless I have come out of it a better person than I was upon entering. Whether or not you’ve ever fasted, discipline, mindfulness, reflection, and a strong mind are crucial skills that we could all afford to develop and improve on. If you’ve never tried it, I would highly recommend stepping out of your comfort zone for a change and challenging not just your physical body, but your mind, heart, and soul as well. Who knows, you may just end up liking it after all!