Ramadan reflections: week 1/4

Change your habits before you seek to change the world

Tracing development of conscious habits back through time.

I find myself at Waterloo station following a slow ride from Yeovil Junction, and I’m buckling under the weight of my responsibilities. I’ve returned to London to run an event — entirely of my own organising. I feel stressed, anxious, overwhelmed, not to mention thirsty, light-headed and tired. The combination of the above leads to paralysis. I wander in several directions aimlessly, unable to make a decision and move with purpose. I need to get on the next train. I need to buy some materials for the evening. I need the loo. No, wait, I don’t. How could I? I haven’t drunk anything for twelve hours. If you’ve experienced fasting you’ll know that your body is so used to performing certain functions that the symptoms still appear sometimes without the cause.

My body is rejecting the idea of being productive, of showing up, of performing. I feel as though there is a mule inside my chest, its hooves digging into my rib cage, pushing against my ribs to move itself stubbornly backwards whilst my weakening will tries to move me forwards. The result is no movement. I want nothing more than the reward of stillness, of inactivity.

The first few days of Ramadan were hard this year. I didn’t prepare mentally, emotionally or at all. I feel as though my motivation and my personality have left the building. Internally I’m weighing up short term comfort with long term benefit and I can feel that mule in my chest again, wrestling as hard as he can to swing the balance in favour of the former.

Fasting is an unusual example of conscious habit forming. In some senses you are forming an intense, temporary habit where you’re ‘bingeing’ on new activity which you will leave behind at the end of the month to return to days punctuated by coffees and small joys — which you will barely be grateful for. On the other hand, you are forming a lifelong habit, a yearly rhythm which will see you discipline yourself in a way that many people find unthinkable. We often assume a habit is only a habit if it is daily or weekly, but perhaps it is more about the consistency of the rhythm.

All consciously developed habits need strong underlying motivation. Last year I wrote an article giving the reasons why I think people should fast. These are six things that I ‘get’ through fasting. This year I’m keen to explore a little deeper to the real motivations beneath the rationally explained and presented benefits.

Tracing my motivation back through time reveals how it has shifted and changed. When I was young it was all about conforming to family norms. ‘Mum and Dad do it, therefore I do it’. As a teen at school it became about defiance. Unlike at home fasting certainly wasn’t the norm at school. As I observed how little the school understood or supported my activity that became motivational fuel. ‘The less you support me, the harder I’ll try’. Whilst at university the motivation was uglier, based mainly around a sense of guilt. It was a weak motivation and I would tailor Ramadan to my needs. ‘I won’t fast this weekend because I’m going to a festival’. In the years after that the motivation circled back round to my family. It was a way of staying connected to them as their faith progressed and mine did not. ‘Fasting alongside them means I share something with them’.

Eventually the experience of fasting took on a real life of it’s own for me. The motivation gradually became less extrinsic, more intrinsic. I came to real conviction about the compound benefits that keeping this habit had gradually brought to me. I do it now because I want to, because I would feel less myself if I didn’t, because without this yearly practice I would be diminished. Fasting makes me feel connected to the stronger side of myself, the side I want to see more of.

Which is not to say that the feeling of defiance is completely gone. If you’re White British it breaks a norm to observe Ramadan. This norm breaking has brought me so many fascinating conversations and connections, sparked by the curiosity of others, and I find this one of the most enjoyable aspects of fasting. And on the rare occasions that someone responds to my choice with ignorance or judgement I just let it fuel that defiant voice that says, ‘your disbelief only serves to strengthen my conviction’.

All four Ramadan reflections written during Ramadan 2017.