Here’s what I’ve learned after a few years of intentional fasting practices:
Part One — Why Fasting Might Be Necessary
There is a correlated relationship between progress and comfort.
The human machine has been an evolution of pursuing ease — working to make survival easier and easier. Through new technologies to social development to physiological changes, an easier life has been seen as a better life.
And a better life has involved being as comfortable as possible.
The issue is when the comfort becomes normal—even assumed or expected—and how that might actually put you at a psychological, emotional, or even physiological disadvantage. From obesity and immune system failure because of how we eat and how we control our climates, to the social and cognitive lack of development because of technology and entertainment, to both depression or loneliness or the lack of fulfillment that our comfortable lives have created.
It might be that our access to unmitigated comfort is actually hurting us.
Over time, human beings have pursued this ease and somewhere in the modern era of science, enlightenment, & industrialism, we saw the fruition of a default state that could be understood as a state of complacency. How many individuals just seem like they show up, get through the day, go to bed and do it all over again? It’s as if much of our life is spent simply waiting to die because we have created a lifestyle that doesn’t have to do much in order to live.
We’ve stopped becoming.
We’ve stopped evolving towards healthier versions of humanity.
And our engrained way of life, with its systematized ease and control, might be at fault.
Part Two — The Ancient Traditions Might Have It Right: The Wisdom of Fasting is Old
Awareness of this societal norm might allow us to become aware of a seemingly ingrained value in so many traditions that might be called ‘the art of fasting.’
Cultures, for centuries, have built in a mechanism of intentional discomfort as a way to reset your perspective and train your body — from the perspective of what we now know is called “ketosis” (where the Keto Diet comes from) and how desperation can literally and mentally wake the body up and give a newfound clarity to how our modern consumption is like an addiction itself that needs broken — fasting has been a way to contrast our evolutionary backslide.
As your brain craves patterns that we then become dependent on, especially when it involves surges in dopamine, the feel-good chemical of the brain that comes from our pleasures in food, technology, and comfort — fasting is a means to counteract what might be impeding our health. Fasting:
Exposes an awareness to potentially unhealthy patterns,
Gives us a means to become more independent from them, and
Allows us to take back control from a dopamine driven, destructively comfortable, & rhythmic pattern that puts you on a conveyor belt of living.
Because of that, people throughout history have seen the advantages of forcing our bodies and our lives to endure and go without certain components that have become normal and how, through various forms of fasting, we can improve our health physically, mentally, socially, ecologically, and even emotionally. Many traditions use fasting as a function to become more selfless and foster empathy by giving up or letting go of pleasure, comfort, and “normal” lifestyles to draw out interdependence and gain a perspective beyond the self. Other traditions communicate the benefits of fasting in “training the self” which has become more pronounced recently as a depth of evidence has emerged that we are actually reversing our human evolution through constant comfort.
But it is the Stoics, one of the most intentional and ardent groups when it comes to fasting, that have seen fasting as the means by which we become better human beings and become more prepared to navigate the world so that we all flourish in a more virtuous and healthy way.
This is why the Stoics referred to fasting as “mild self-deprivation”.
From these traditions and, especially, the Stoics, here are a few components to help us understand why we should fast, how we should fast, and what might happen when we do.
Part Three — 8 Observations to Get Your Fast On
1 — Fasting should be seen as pursuing the direst, scantiest, & minimal way of living.
It should be uncomfortable — because the discomfort builds resilience and forces you to develop in ways that you might not if you just continued on the conveyor belt of life that is fluently protected by comfort. Discomfort might be what actually protects us. Adversity might be what promotes life, not diminishes it. Because evolutionary progress, biologically, mentally, emotionally, & anthropologically, has reached a point of comfort that progress is less likely.
Fasting, then, is an intentional way to put yourself through the process of transformation. Like metamorphic rocks, we are most prone to change when we undergo stress, pressure, and difficulty.
You see, we want to have things be easy — our evolutionary survival instinct drifts to this as a natural state. But we have reached an age where this instinct is beginning to backfire and only by being intentionally and mildly self-deprived will we move towards our goals. We don’t drift towards progress — we drift towards comfort. We have become consumers desiring entertainment.
Fasting forces us to become creators of our best selves. The discomfort of dire minimalism, of taking away what might be preferred, hardens your soul to endure what your comfort might be setting up for failure.
2 — Fasting trains us in our good fortune.
While things are going well, we should fortify ourselves against when they might not. You train yourself before the crisis comes. You rehearse the worst case scenario so that you won’t recoil if the potential suffering becomes reality.
Ask yourself what condition or situation you fear the most — then do it while you are in control.
3 — Fasting is a form of testing yourself.
What are you capable of enduring?
In our everyday patterns & routines, we don’t put ourselves in a position to find this out. Just like a workout, it only happens (and, therefore, produces a benefit) if we intentionally set out to do it.
Fasting is like training your identity — it brings out the potential of what you are capable of by putting yourself in situations that test your limits and, therefore, expands them.
You will become different, stronger, & better by putting yourself in these intentional situations. Even if you don’t have to face in reality what you test through fasting, the preparation rounds out your soul; it shows that you are capable of something that you might not have even considered and this weathers your identity to be assured of your actual potential.
4 — Fasting reveals that your peace of mind isn’t dependent on your circumstances.
You realize that you can live happily with something as well as without it — the objects, situations, and preferences that you assumed were just a natural part of your life no longer possess you.
You can claim independence from things that you may have thought you needed — but only by putting yourself in a position where you can prove those things are additions, not dependents. When you can experience life in adverse conditions, you are less likely to be impeded by any condition that is perceived as unideal.
5 — Fasting resets the hedonistic treadmill of our culture of comfort.
Once you prove to yourself that you are no longer dependent on these things, they no longer have control over you and they no longer determine the processes you live by.
If you want to step outside of a culture where what is normal might actually be insane…you have to get off the treadmill.
Fasting is the way we jump off the conveyor belt into a better reality.
6 — Fasting builds resilience.
By practicing difficulty, you conquer the fear of losing what has become normal and you prove that you are strong enough to go through whatever that difficult thing is.
Fasting gives you evidence of what you are capable of and actually moves you more into that reality. Want the mindset and ability of greatness? Then you’re going to have to put your body & identity through the process of getting there. This is the “Hero’s Journey” — the primary arc of all storytelling. Endurance leads to growth, change, and development.
Success, improvement, & obtaining your best will not be a romantic process — it will only come through the climax of a story that has been through the hardest realities we can take on. How do you think NAVY SEALS get to their seemingly inhuman capabilities? They test themselves, they expose that the hedonistic treadmill is not definitive, and they build resilience that allows them to take on more than may have been previously assumed by cultural norms.
Honestly, the idea of greatness or accomplishing an amazing feat is only an outlier because most of us haven’t gone through the process of making that possible. It seems inhuman only because the fasting took those folks to a place that most of us don’t care to go. Quite possibly, these levels of attainment might be very human and very normal if we so choose.
7 — Fasting breaks potentially destructive patterns
Our brains crave patterns to the point that they control our rhythms. Every time you do an act, your myelin sheath surrounding the neurons involved gets stronger — an evolutionary benefit to make that process easier the next time.
This is how we form habits.
If we have formed poor habits or habits that are antithetical to our well being, we have to intentionally put ourselves in a place that breaks the habit. Only by intentionally disrupting those patterns can we become independently in control of them.
By stepping outside of the ingrained pattern, you are now able to witness what exactly you have been doing and this awareness makes possible the choice to change the behavior.
8 — Fasting causes desperation
This is where fasting acts as a lifestyle ketosis.
The absence of the normal comforts & patterns forces mental clarity and wakes the body up. It resets our lifestyles, making us more aware of potential unhealth and snapping us out of rehearsed patterns — kind of like a lifestyle ketosis.
Part four — 8 Ways to Get Your Fast On
We commonly think of fasting as something designated for food. But that’s just the common form of fasting and it is not limited to just abstaining from eating.
Fasting is also not limited to “abstaining” from things. Various traditions articulate many forms of fasting and it can include “taking something on” as well as “giving something up”.
So…what should you fast from? Here are a couple suggestions for determining how you might practice the art of fasting:
What do you fear the most? Go and do it for a period of time.
What can you get rid of or take on that would force transformation and make you healthier? Obvious choice — substances. Any addictive substance or activity would fit here. Can you go without alcohol for 30 days? Can you eliminate entertainment for a period of time? What about cell phone use?
Imitate poverty — what is a state of living that you would view as “worse” than your current one. Replicate it. Minimalism is becoming all of the rage these days, but maybe you could go a step further than just getting rid of things (which is certainly good) and attempt to live as if you weren’t capable of having such things.
Imitate previous living conditions — what comforts are new to human biological history? Put yourself in the shoes of someone living before our modes of ease were available and replicate that.
Do you really like your bed? There is a common theme in Stoicism where they would sleep in unideal conditions for a short period of time (1 night to 1 week). It fueled gratefulness, but also showed that they were not dependent on their bed. Be careful with this one as our bodies are not used to sleeping on hard surfaces and could run health risks…so keep it short. Also, sleep is really important to health, so don’t ruin your life by feeling like you shouldn’t be allowed to sleep.
Food — though fasting isn’t limited to food, it is easily one of the most assumed comforts of our lives. This is also one of the most obvious fasting decisions that can improve mental clarity, actually help your physiological conditions, and make you healthier. You can read more of the benefits here. Pick some limitations (not eating for a particular amount of time, eating only certain foods, or eliminating certain foods) and test it for a certain timespan. Eating within a certain budget for a month at a time has been tremendously beneficial for me and goes along with #3 and #4 above.
What entertainment or luxuries have embedded themselves in your routines? Not only would fasting from this give you more options that your current patterns hide, but it will prove independence.
Pro-Social Behaviors — this is an example of something to “take on” via fasting. From limiting the amount you speak in social situations (especially of yourself), to giving of yourself to those in more dire states, to acts of service to your community — you give yourself a requirement that forces you out of your natural state which is usually a self-centered one. The way this promotes empathy & genuine, human interdependence is amazing.
Of course, if you are going to enact any of these you need to set it up properly.
Starting with your goal, creating a tangible & measurable plan, having accountability, and possibly using rewards (which might just mean you get to conclude the fast) are all necessary before you take action if you are actually going to follow through and complete the fast.
Another note of importance, intermittent fasting can be just as beneficial, especially in regards to food. Forty days without food would be badass, but going eighteen hours a day without food can be just as beneficial. Whatever you choose to fast from, consider enforcing an intermittent pattern if complete abstinence is not your intention.
The most important reason to engage with this process, however, is the effects it will have. Eating differently can bring forth a healthier body, a healthier economy, and a healthier earth. Limiting your luxuries can foster healthier relationships and a more pleasant lifestyle. Forcing yourself to practice empathy and give away your time or energy or thoughts or service or resources will not only force you to transcend yourself, but to connect with the very people you share this world with.
If you do this, our world will never be the same, our communities will never the same, and you, certainly, will never be the same again.