x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Fasting for body and mind

A proper fast of any kind is meant to instill a sense of peace and purpose, and no one form of fasting is a viable choice for everyone.

It's easy to be tempted into excess when the fast is broken at iftar during Ramadan.
It's easy to be tempted into excess when the fast is broken at iftar during Ramadan.

Today's first patient is on fire. She storms into the treatment room at the clinic where I've been treating her for a number of maladies since last year. She's upset because she hasn't lost weight in the 10 days since she decided to embark on the Master Cleanse, a detoxification regimen created by Stanley Burroughs in 1941. Downing multiple daily glasses of water mixed with lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne pepper may sound like an ascetic's cocktail hour, but the tonic is palatable enough, and after the second day, hunger is barely noticeable. Unless of course, you're doing it for all the wrong reasons (such as quick weight loss), which I suspect is part of my patient's problem. She is bringing new meaning to the fast and the furious. I send her home with a recipe for roast chicken.

Fasting, in general, may seem upon first impulse to be an act to challenge the body, but the greater devotion lies in the balance; in this case, the balance between body and mind. Spiritual fasting is more ancient than the written word, and no stranger to tradition. Sikhism discourages fasting under the reasoning that it "brings no spiritual benefit to the person". "Fasting, daily rituals and austere self-discipline - those who keep the practice of these are rewarded with less than a shell," reads the Sikh Holy Scripture. But in addition to the Quran, fasting is referenced in the Bible, in Testaments Old and New, the Upanishads, the Mahabharata and is practised during the Bahá'í month of Ala. Many Jews fast on Yom Kippur and Tisha B'Av, and in doing so are even forbidden to brush their teeth. There's Great Lent in eastern Christianity as well as Lent in western Christianity.

Over one billion Muslims worldwide observe Ramadan annually. This year, Ramadan will tentatively run from Aug 21 through Sept 19, lasting 29 or 30 days, depending on the lunar cycle. During this month, observers abstain from food, drink and other sensual pleasures from daybreak until sunset. Some of my fondest - and foggiest - memories are of being roused for suhoor by my mother, cast in shadow and calling out from the door frame of my room. I'd stumble dreamily towards the muted, ghostly sounds of the table being set with silverware. In our pyjamas, we drowsed through hot, savoury leftovers meant to keep us from lapsing into a hypoglycaemic catatonia halfway through the day.

Ramadan is meant to be a time for minimalism, reflection and a renewal of our appreciation for life's immaterial gifts, but it's easy to be tempted into evenings of excess. The tendency to overcompensate under a perceived dichotomy of feast and famine can snag on the hooks of another dichotomous theme in spirituality: reward and punishment. In my family, some of us gained a few pounds during Ramadan, and others of us lost weight. I'll give you a wild guess as to which camp I fell into.

When we broke our fasts at iftar, my parents would warn us to start slowly and to take our time. Just as common sense informs us to never go grocery shopping when we're hungry, dining when famished usually ends in remorse. Indeed, fasting is more than abstaining from food and drink. Some believe that fasting helps them to acquire self-discipline, growth and empowerment through patience, restraint and humility. Many do so in an effort to acquire closeness to God, self-discipline and personal growth through sympathy, supplication, sacrifice, meditation, kindness, reformation and generosity. Yes, it's both physically and spiritually imprudent to overindulge at the table because the fast loses its meaning with gluttony and because the eyes, which grow wide at dinnertime, can be too big for the stomach, which shrinks during the day.

A proper fast of any kind is meant to instil a sense of peace and purpose, and no one form of fasting, however innocuous, is a viable choice for everyone. Any spiritually and physically cleansing benefits to a fast can be easily marginalised if one's health is in jeopardy.