Fasting – A Way to Recalibrate Your Center

[Note: This post was originally submitted to a minimalist oriented web site but apparently didn’t make the cut. So I’m posting it here.]

“The most important aspect of fasting is that you feel deep, undirected gratitude when you break the fast.” – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

A life in motion is a life less likely to collect things that imped that motion. This motion can be expressed in many ways – physical activity, a career in the military, an active social life, or a penchant for travel. A rolling stone gathers no moss, is the wisdom from the ages.

The sedentary life is more likely to gain weight without a conscious effort to counteract the effect of bodies at rest. That weight can take many forms – our physical person, gadgets, memories (good and bad), outdated routines, and less than helpful habits. Without any apparent effort, it seems the inanimate stuff of life gathers around us, collectively adding the the gravitational pull for more stuff.

My life has been more a reflection of the latter than the former, often not by choice. A wheelchair bound father, college, and my wife’s ten year battle with cancer required the skills of hunker-down-and-endure and few opportunities for exploring what’s over the horizon. This has left a trail of lessons about living light.

An early and powerful lesson happened while spending time in a Zen monastery. The structured day and simple rules were familiar. The practice of fasting, however, was new. The idea of deliberately abstaining from food was counter to my starving college student mindset. As hungry as I was, fasting revealed just how much junk I was actually eating. As meager as my income was, I vowed then to always find the healthiest food I could afford. That vow has remained unbroken for close to 40 years.

Soon after the time spent in and out of the Zen monastery I began to explore other ways to fast. Over the years several of these have become routine in my life. Some more frequent than others. At the root of each of these fasts is mindfulness and an exploration of intention.

Food

There are many fasting programs that involve food and drink and I won’t recommend any of them here. It is important to exercise care with fasts that involve your physical health. Find a qualified and trusted nutritionist or consult with your physician for what makes sense for you. Then begin small experiments that improve your awareness about your diet and physical health.

Spending

In my early twenties, I had amassed a significant credit card debt, at least in light of my paltry income at the time. I emerged from this debt by undergoing a series of spending fasts. The challenge was how long could I go without spending a single penny. This needed some simple rules. Recurrent living expenses like rent and electricity were excluded. Transportation to and from work was also allowed, but no special trips. It required careful planning so that I would have in stock what I needed for the duration of the fast. These would often last for an entire month with the longest stretch being 72 days. Spending fasts helped me understand the distinction between need and want and the insights gained from them have kept me debt free ever since.

Sound

The way I practice a sound fast isn’t to remove all sound, rather to remove the sounds born from the industrial and information revolutions. If you’ve ever had the experience of an area power outage it becomes apparent how much buzzing, beeping, and chirping fills the background of our lives. This is not without consequence as these signals were intentionally designed to snag our attention. So in addition to “unplugging,” find ways to power down. Then extend your sound fast by performing some task as silently as you can. Unloading the dishwasher is a particularly good challenge.

People

Deliberate seclusion offers an opportunity to evaluate relationships in your life. Have any of your friendships become what psychologists call “rusted?” Are the people at work adding more stress than the value you derive from working there? Does your neighborhood reflect the kind of person you wish to be? Is anyone in your life taking advantage of your time? Who is missing?

Information

Often referred to as “unplugging,” there is more to an information fast than avoiding the e-gadgets in our life. To be sure, turning off the flow of electronic sewage that is often peddled as “news and entertainment” is important and a key element of an information fast. But it gets really interesting when you deliberately move outside your own bubble of what is known. That is, abstain from relying on your own tried and true informational foundation. A good way to start is to list the things that make you fearful or angry. Then ask yourself “What do I need to know and understand so that I am no longer afraid or angry?” In my own life, being a clinically shy introvert and acutely afraid of the world, I began studying the martial art of Aikido. It appealed to my Zen background and it’s focus on defense was a big help. Even so, stepping onto the dojo mat for the first time required that I leave behind all the outdated information about my fears, who I was, and what I’m capable of achieving. I’m a third degree black belt and still learning, but no longer afraid to move about the world.

None of these fasting ideas were my own. I learned about them from others. And I’d like to learn from you. What other ways have you learned the lessons of “more is less” by deliberately taking the path of less?

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