Know Thyself: Lessons from a Six-Day Fast
by Nancy B. Loughlin
Published in News Press on April 11, 2016
Eating is a mundane fixation.
Until I committed to fast for six days, drinking only water, I never realized how much the act of eating devoured my mental energy.
When am I going to eat again? Where am I going to eat? What am I going to eat? Do I need to stop at the store? Who is going to join me?
As the first of the stomach rumbles hit late on day one, I knew pondering meals would be torturous, like planning the final stretch of a 26.2-mile marathon before the race even starts.
My gut learned immediately I would not heed its temblors. Six days was a long way off, so I had to think about something else.
The mental detoxification was the real ride.
I’m not surprised fasting is a staple of many spiritual traditions. Within 24 hours, my glucose was depleted, and my body began to burn fat and all that implies. Tapas, essential in the yogic ethical framework, is about the necessity to burn off impurities so we can be free to live our purpose and to pursue our individual dharma.
Yes, the fast incinerated my body’s physical garbage. A cold sore blossomed on my lip, my chin erupted in acne, my tongue resembled a white angora sweater and I wiped sweat from my chest, back and forehead. I lost a total of eight pounds.
But, it was worse when my entire life’s catalogue of humiliations, disappointments, false moves and poor judgment danced in my face.
I wrapped myself in a blanket, and I sat outside under the stars. To silence the taunts of the past, I retreated into Brahmari Pranayama: bee breath. I closed my ears with the tips of my thumbs. I inhaled, and then exhaled through pressed lips, humming the sound of a bee. The vibration soothed my mind’s anxiety.
When I was calm, with my right hand, I reached out to the hovering memories, poised for their next brutal attack on my hungry self. I thanked them for making me who I was, and I swept them aside.
When attempting the intimidating, get support.
I knew if I tried an extended fast on my own, it would never happen. At home, I always fizzled after 24 hours.
This time, I traveled to a Hindu-Jain retreat in Texas, and I was surrounded by monks, nuns and likeminded, supportive people.
As I walked my many daily miles, and as I sat, quiet and contemplative, my fellow seekers clapped me on the back, smiled at me, and reminded me transformation was nigh.
People would prefer if I stayed the same.
On day four, I sat at one of the main house dining tables, sipping a mug of hot water. I was watching a new friend standing among yellow wildflowers just outside the window. Every element of the entire scene, like a Cezanne still life, was equally focused and ensconced in my vision’s frame: my mug, the table, the carpet, the pictures around the window, my friend, the flowers and the horizon.
Not a single element stepped forward from the scene and claimed supremacy, and everything fit.
I shifted my gaze, and the same deep focus boxed the nun washing the dishes, the bowl of sugar on the counter, the fruit in the basket, the silver teapot and the white cabinets behind her.
Instead of flying to Texas, I chose to drive. I knew I would want the 20 hours of solitude to process the week.
My six days, fourteen hours and 22 minutes yielded the prized mental clarity promised to all fasters. From Texas to Louisiana to Mississippi to Alabama to Florida, I studied the outlines of friends close and near, those with neat and narrow expectations and requirements of me. I saw the tasks, jobs and fixations; the gear, clutter and mess; the cravings, addictions and obsessions.
I heard the people who liked me just as I was.
None of it fit in my dharma’s frame.
In my mind, I reached out with my right hand, and I thanked it all, this stuff, for making me who I am today. Then, I swept it all aside.
And I continued driving.