On Fasting

Jonah and the Whale — Pieter Lastman (1621)

For those who find the repetition of the days numbing their senses, a fast can serve as a simulated famine, stimulating the mind and triggering thoughts and perceptions that may have stayed dormant otherwise. We lucky ones in the first world live in an age of regularity, with 2,000+ calories / 3+ meals a day, very far removed from the feast and famine conditions of our ancestors. When it takes for granted the delivery of a meal, the subconscious is lured into a false sense of security and thus can lose it’s edge. In order to function at our peak, we need a hunger that cannot be experienced in conditions of plenty. A stressor is required.

The salaried office drone is one who sits at the same desk and drives the same rush hour commute every day. Over the years as the paycheck is deposited into his account every two weeks, he starts to take it for granted that this situation will continue. His vision, once widely distributed in the broad education of his collegiate days, starts to narrow. He starts watching a lot of football and playing a lot of golf. One day he may find that his professional skills have reached an obsolescence as rendered by a new software platform or a disruptive entrant to his industry. It is only in the resulting fallout that he can learn his true worth — adversity both builds and reveals character.

Most major religions have a form of periodic fasting built into their practice. Whether to serve as a tool for mourning, meditation, or as preparation for a feast, the religious fast is a central part of several forms of worship. Some cultures have even developed a kind of reverse fast, a period of excessive indulgence as a precursor to a more somber environment, the Fat Tuesday in preparation for the Ash Wednesday.

A musician who is looking for a heightened way to experience a composition should consider a performance mid-fast. The pianist Nicolas Horvath is known for entering periods of extended fast prior to marathon recitals, in some cases abstaining from food and water for 3 full days to prepare for a 10 hour concert.

Metamorphosis by Philip Glass

The fast is a way to build contrast into our lives. As anyone who has lost a loved one knows, through the lows of mourning we fully come to appreciate the highs, and may learn more about love as a result than we would have known otherwise. The fast is an artificial kind of mourning, by abstaining from our needs, we can experience a pale version of this loss. In proximity to darker shades of black the whites are crisper and more pronounced.

But the single best reason to fast is simple. The first meal to follow really tastes very good.


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