Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.[Romans 12:2]
The material world doesn’t taste very good without food. A fast minimizes our mundane and frivolous concerns. It reduces trivial matters we once thought to be momentous to their proper inconsequence. While fasting, we find our mind gravitating toward essential issues and questions of substance that we tend to side step.
Fasting asserts the will against the appetite — the reward being self-mastery and the danger pride: involuntary hunger subjects appetites and will together to the Divine Will, furnishing an occasion for submission and exposing us to the danger of rebellion … Ascetic practices, which in themselves strengthen the will, are only useful in so far as they enable the will to put its own house (the passions) in order, as a preparation for offering the whole man to God. [C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, p. 112].
Our thoughts are vehicles for approaching God. We ride them back and forth from the profane to the sacred, from material striving to spiritual consciousness.
Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. [Colossians 3:2].
In our devotional travels, our thoughts find rest and comfort in remembrance of God, but in worldly affairs we are unable to find contentment. We easily lose our focus on God, and wander around, longing for the Divine Presence.
Wert thou to cleanse the mirror of thy heart from the dust of malice, thou wouldst apprehend the meaning of the symbolic terms revealed by the all-embracing Word of God made manifest in every Dispensation, and wouldst discover the mysteries of divine knowledge. Not, however, until thou consumest with the flame of utter detachment those veils of idle learning, that are current amongst men, canst thou behold the resplendent morn of true knowledge. [Bahá’u’lláh, The Kitáb-i-Íqán, p. 75].
Thoughts Beyond Cognition
Research in cognitive neuroscience has found evidence that states of mind have their corresponding brain mechanisms. This means that physiological conditions of the brain directly correlate with mental states, moods and emotions. They can be physically seen and measured.
… cerebral blood flow increases and decreases were observed in brain regions thought to be involved in reward/motivation, emotion, and arousal, including ventral striatum, midbrain, amygdala, orbitofrontal cortex, and ventral medial prefrontal cortex. These brain structures are known to be active in response to other euphoria-inducing stimuli, such as food, sex, and drugs of abuse. [Anne J. Blood, Robert J. Zatorre, “Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion”].
Several mental conditions correlated to heightened God-consciousness, including fear, insecurity and physical needs. In addition to producing a flight or fight response, they also prompt spiritual attention.
He it is Who enableth you to traverse through land and sea; so that ye even board ships;- they sail with them with a favourable wind, and they rejoice thereat; then comes a stormy wind and the waves come to them from all sides, and they think they are being overwhelmed: they cry unto God, sincerely offering (their) duty unto Him saying, “If thou dost deliver us from this, we shall truly show our gratitude!” [Quran 10:22].
Our thoughts are at a loss when they don’t incorporate spirituality. Permeating our mental processes is the tacit acknowledgment that our physical senses cannot fully perceive the human condition. This inability to encompass our entire reality limits the range of our thinking.
When we ponder the spiritual unknown, we may theorize freely about anything hidden from us, but we cannot enjoy the same certainty that we can achieve in the physical realm.
There is no way to God that bypasses the call to let go. You may have many intellectual doubts, and it is really important to be honest about those, to talk about them and study. However, thinking and studying alone never remove the need to choose. The question of faith is never just an intellectual decision. [John Ortberg, Know Doubt, p. 212].
Filling Our Mind with an Empty Stomach
Our thought process dramatically changes when we fast. We can empirically observe the biological responses. The social consequences are also quite clear. But, most significant are the spiritual benefits proclaimed by all the great religions.
O YOU who have attained to faith! Fasting is ordained for you as it was ordained for those before you, so that you might remain conscious of God … [Quran 2:183].
The state of “not-fasting” complements our normal, material consciousness. It needs little description, but must be placed in proper perspective.
For when I shall have brought them into the land which I sware unto their fathers, flowing with milk and honey, and they shall have eaten and filled themselves, and waxed fat; then will they turn unto other gods, and serve them, and despise me, and break my covenant. [Deuteronomy 31:20].
When the body is indulging, the mind is immersed in worldly thoughts, giving little attention to the sacred. When our body fasts, our mind remembers God, for a fasting mind appreciates Divine contemplation.
How greatly do we differ from the monks who lived in the time of Anthony! They … visited each other in the spirit of charity, received from each other the bread of the soul with such eagerness that, almost forgetful of the nourishment of the body, they passed for the most part the whole day with their bodies fasting, but not with fasting minds … [Rev. John Cumming, Lectures Young Men’s Christian Association, Luther and the Reformation].
Just as a planet can appear to be at the center of a universe, though in reality orbiting around a sun, so too can affluence and material excesses produce illusions of self-importance.
We may speak poetically of the night sky, picturing large expanses of space and time. We may conceptualize the existence of life before birth and after death in metaphysical, scientific or philosophical terms. Yet, in our mind, certainty is absent, knowing that our thoughts are frail and our reasoning is incomplete.
Fasting can be a painful admission that I am not free, that my life is enslaved, obsessed or addicted to external things such as food, drink, codependent relationships, sex, television, privacy and the like. It can be a stern teacher, reminding us that we have severed the most basic of relationships, the one with ourselves. [Albert Haase, Coming Home to Your True Self, 108].
Attuned to Divine Reality
As mathematics helps us calculate physical dimensions, fasting facilitates abstract perspectives which aid the mind in absorbing the Divine domain. Fasting expands our faculties to understand the unseen and become attuned to the spiritual aspect of reality. It provides points of reference for comprehension of the sacred.
… Christians who fast say that it sharpens and sensitizes their spiritual faculties to become more in tune with what God is doing throughout the world. [Bill Bright].
Fasting also leads our thoughts from literal legalism to heightened spiritual consciousness, removing dogmatic vestments of fossilized theologies. A fast can, thereby, open the mind to a panorama of mystical reflection that secular cognition neither contemplates nor appreciates.
Know, O dear readers, that there are three classes of fast. (1) Fast … to restrain oneself from eating and drinking and from sexual passion. This is the lowest kind of fast. (2) … besides the above things one refrains himself from sins of hand, feet, sight and other limbs of body. (3) Fast of the highest class. These people keep fast of mind … they don’t think of anything else except God and the next world … This highest class of people are the Prophets and the near ones of God. This kind of fast is kept when we sacrifice our self and all our thoughts fully to God [Abu Hāmed al-Ghazālī, Ihya Ulum-id-Din (The Book of Religious Learning)].