Fasting, Discipline & Self-control: Willpower over Habits (1/2)

Fasting, Discipline & Willpower

The regular fast, becoming a weekday exercise all year, is for me less an effort than a very agreeable way of life. I practice it with pleasure so appreciating its advantages that I regret its interruptions. [Adalbert de Vogüé, To Love Fasting: the Monastic Experience, p. 116].

Among traditional spiritual exercises, fasting may be the most difficult to perform regularly. Few of us like to go without food, even if it improves our health or prolongs our life.

Eating around the clock has become common. This make abstaining from food for a few hours seem very difficult. eating-round-the-clock

Fasting requires the body to forgo one of its most enjoyable sources of pleasure, eating. However, much of our distaste for fasting comes from misconceptions and imagined fears.

Our mind has more to do with our inability to fast than any real discomfort. It is the cold feet we feel before jumping in that is the problem. Once immerse, we soon begin to enjoy the soothing waves of spiritual awareness that fasting can produce.

Out of our beliefs are born deeds; out of our deeds we form habits; out of our habits grows our character; and on our character we build our destiny. [Henry Hancock].

Ingrained Habits

Fasting breaks many habits and rituals to which we are physically and intellectually attached. It can dislodge the remnants of media messages wedged into our mind, and free us from many technological distractions.

To a large extent, fasting is nothing more than giving up bad eating habits. But, eating is such an ingrained routine that our entire system reacts against the idea. The mere intention to fast creates havoc in our mind. So, we usually find an excuse to postpone, curtail or modify it.

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. [Albert Haase].

baby-eating-junk-foodA baby crying for milk is a natural process that alerts the mother, who immediately  responds. This bond is so profound and intricate that serious emotional problems can result from a perverted relationship.

The adult human continues to cry for nourishment, but in an unnatural process adopted from custom and culture. Often, food continues to represent security, love, maternal affection, etc. To deprive a person of food is more than just a dietary act. It represents a major disruption in the life process.

Oddly enough, people who constantly have every appetite gratified from childhood on become the least capable of gratitude. To become grateful, I must learn that I can handle disappointment and delayed gratification with grace and perseverance. This is why practices such as fasting and simplicity are such powerful tools for transformation. The experience of frustration and disappointment is irreplaceable in the development of a grateful heart. [John Ortberg, Love Beyond Reason].

Willpower Fast

One of the many benefits of fasting is that it strengthens willpower, conditioning us for Dignity-Discipline2future frays against temptations and weak resolve. As a long-distance runner can bring his discipline to other activities, so too can the discipline of fasting be applied in other areas of life.

Beyond the domain which fasting affects directly, an analogous influence is exerted over all the passions. I won’t go into a detailed self-portrait, but it will surprise no one if I confess that I am subject to anxiety and irritation, sadness and nervousness, to say nothing of vanity, touchiness or envy … The habit of fasting effects a profound appeasement of all these instinctive movements. [Adalbert de Vogue, To Love Fasting, p. 10].

As a habitual mental attitude, fasting determines how we interpret and respond to many situations. Self-control, discipline and restraint, the basic characteristics of fasting, persist in coloring our state of mind in normal life, long after we stop fasting.

This exercise of bodily mortification—far removed from any form of stoicism—does not imply a condemnation of the flesh which sons of God deign to assume. On the contrary mortification aims at the “liberation” of man, who often finds himself, because of concupiscence, almost chained by his own senses. Through “corporal fasting” man regains strength and the “wound inflicted on the dignity of our nature by intemperance is cured by the medicine of a salutary abstinence.” [Pope Paul VI, Paenitemini (Apostolic Constitution On Penance) 1966].

Intention to Fast

Nothing continues as usual when fasting begins. From the moment the intention to fast enters our thought process, normal routines end. The thought that our fasting is about to start can trigger a pre-fast binge, a mini Mardi Gras, as the last elements of physical attachment assert themselves.

When thou art wavering, when thou art anxious and doubtful, when arduous and difficult matters arise, do thou instantly fly to God, consult God, and with, all thy heart, with steadfast confidence, commit the whole affair to Him. Trust not to thine own industry, nor to thine own powers, but to the mercy of God; acknowledging thyself to be unable to conduct things rightly. And thus all things will end prosperously. For God will never neglect what thou hast humbly committed to Him; but will arrange, direct, and complete every affair, as He sees best for the good of thyself and others. [Spiritual Works of Louis of Blois].

A scheduled one-day fast can precipitate enough eating to last a week. When we combine this with the feast that usually follows our fast, one has to wonder what exactly have we gained. Nevertheless, just the process of asserting the will for even a relatively short period has lasting benefits.

In short, the cause of perdition for people is their possessive attitude toward the world; and the cause of their eagerness for things worldly lies in both the belly and the genitals; and the cause of the genital’s lust is the lust of the stomach. So in reducing food intake, one finds barriers to all of these entries as they are the gateways to Hell; and in closing them, the gateways of Paradise are opened. He (the Prophet, pbuh) said: “persist in knocking on the gates of Heaven with hunger.” [Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Ihya”Ulum al-Din, pp. 59-60].

While our intention to fast may be discomfiting, it can also bring relief that the long-contemplated process is finally about to start.

And God wants to turn unto you in His mercy, whereas those who follow [only] their own lusts want you to drift far away from the right path. [Quran 4:27].


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One Response to Fasting, Discipline & Self-control: Willpower over Habits (1/2)

  1. Food for the majority, is a drug of high dependency – and woe betide anyone who stands between the addict and his next fix.

    Strikes me that the people afraid to fast are those who have yet to fast, those not open to new experiences, the intellectually incurious and the unimaginative.

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