Ten (10) Psychological Qualities of Fasting
And whoever does more good than he is bound to do does good unto himself thereby; for to fast is to do good unto yourselves — if you but knew it. [Quran 2:184].
Our personality consists of traits and qualities that define our character, direct our actions and molds our attitude. Fasting is a complex mental state involving beliefs, feelings and values. It produces an inclination to act in ways incompatible with common social amenities or with fashionable materialistic customs.
To fast is to reject the attitude that physical pleasure and worldly possessions constitute the greatest good and highest value in life. When we fast, we are not conforming to current styles or trends. Our thoughts are not stylish. We have adopted a tradition as ancient as religion itself. As a result, our personality can be radically altered.
Fasting is to reaffirm to oneself what Jesus answered Satan when he tempted him at the end of his 40 days of fasting in the wilderness: “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4). [Pope John Paul II].
Fasting generates an attitude of reverence. It synchronizes our spirit with our intellect and physicality to bridge the gap between the abstract and the tangible. It provides a platform for adoration and devotion to God by facilitating the submission of our personal will to the will of God.
Fasting certainly bring benefits to physical well-being, but for believers, it is, in the first place, a “therapy” to heal all that prevents them from conformity to the will of God. [Pope Benedict XVI].
Prayer is the one hand with which we grasp the invisible; fasting, the other, with which we let loose and cast away the visible. [Andrew Murray, With Christ in the School of Prayer, Lesson 13].
Narrated Abu Huraira: Allah’s Apostle (PBUH) said, “Allah said, ‘All the deeds of Adam’s sons (people) are for them, except fasting which is for Me, and I will give the reward for it.'” [Bukhari, Volume 3, Book 31, Number 128].
Our cognitive attitude treats the world or some part of it as being a certain way. Fasting objectively manifests the attitude that our faith is more than just superficial emotions.
In a private yet demonstrable way, our fast evidences a commitment to the Divine Reality we have accepted as true.
The right practice of abstinence is needful not only to the mortification of the flesh but also to the purification of the mind. For the mind then only keeps holy and spiritual fast when it rejects the food of error and the poison of falsehood. [St. Leo the Great].
Let them, therefore, with fasting and with prayer make their adjurations, and not with the elegant and well-arranged and fitly-ordered words of learning, but as men who have received the gift of healing from God, confidently, to the glory of God. [Pope Clement I, Two Epistles on Virginity, Ch. XII].
Fast of the highest class. These people keep fast of mind. In other words, they don’t think of anything else except God and the next world. They think only of the world with the intention of the next world as it is the seed ground for the future . . . This kind of fast is kept after sacrificing oneself and his thoughts fully to God [Imam al-Ghazali, Ihya Ulum-id-Din (The Book of Religious Learning)].
3. Gnosis/Spiritual Insight
Fasting is a psychological response to our yearning for spiritual reasoning and understanding. It prepares us mentally and equips us physically for our journey toward mystical awareness.
By limiting secular influences, fasting allows our soul to investigate the higher consciousness that transcends our common thoughts.
Penitential fasting is obviously something very different from a therapeutic diet, but in its own way it can be considered therapy for the soul. In fact practiced as a sign of conversion, it helps one in the interior effort of listening to God. [Pope John Paul II].
On Yom Kippur, the Torah commands us to “afflict ourselves” by not eating. To not eat is to suffer. G-d gives us this day to try and wake us up, to shake us out of our slumber, to sensitize us to the truth of reality, to the deeper places within ourselves, to our need for Him. [Rabbi Ilan Weinberg].
As bodily food fattens the body, so fasting strengthens the soul. Imparting it an easy flight, it makes it able to ascend on high, to contemplate lofty things, and to put the heavenly higher than the pleasant and pleasurable things of life. [St. John Chrysostom].
Fasting displays an attitude of self-control and discipline. Whether we fast for spiritual or therapeutic reasons, the absence of nutrients in our body sends us into a uniquely disciplined state.
Our abstinence is a natural agent for neutralizing and counteracting lust. When we fast we are documenting our ability to restrain desires and patiently persevere for the pleasure of God.
A man who eats too much cannot strive against laziness, while a gluttonous and idle man will never be able to contend with sexual lust. Therefore, according to all moral teachings, the effort towards self-control commences with a struggle against the lust of gluttony—commences with fasting … Fasting is an indispensable condition of a good life, whereas gluttony is, and always has been, the first sign of the opposite—a bad life. Unfortunately, this vice is in the highest degree characteristic of the life of the majority of the men of our time. [Leo Tolstoy, The First Step, The Works of Leo Tolstoy].
He who lives looking for pleasures only, his senses uncontrolled, immoderate in his food, idle, and weak, Mara (the Tempter) will certainly overthrow him, as the wind throws down a weak tree. He who lives without looking for pleasures, his senses well controlled, moderate in his food, faithful and strong, him Mara will certainly not overthrow, any more than the wind throws down a strong mountain. [Dhammapada V. 7-8].
If you are able to fast, you will do well to observe some days beyond what are ordered by the Church, for besides the ordinary effect of fasting in raising the mind, subduing the flesh, confirming goodness, and obtaining a heavenly reward, it is also a great matter to be able to control greediness, and to keep the sensual appetites and the whole body subject to the law of the Spirit … [St. Francis of Sales. (1567-1622) Introduction to the Devout Life. Ch. 23 On The Practice of Bodily Mortification].
To be well oriented means to have knowledge of one’s own temporal, social, and practical circumstances in life. Fasting helps us become and remain aware of the objective world in relation to our self.
Our abstinence is an integral part of the larger set of attitudes and beliefs that define our lifestyle. It interrupts the regular course of physical activities to punctuate our commitment to a Divine Reality.
There is no satisfying lusts, even by a shower of gold pieces; he who knows that lusts have a short taste and cause pain, he is wise; even in the [supernal] pleasures [of the devas], he finds no satisfaction; the disciple who is fully awakened delights only in the destruction of all desires [The Dhammapada 14:186-7].
In order to preserve the mind and body in a perfect condition, abstinence from food is not alone sufficient: unless the other virtues of the mind as well are joined to it . . . And so humility must first be learned . . . anger should be controlled . . . vainglory should be despised, the disdainfulness of pride trampled under foot, and the shifting and wandering thoughts of the mind restrained by continual recollection of God. [John Cassian, The Training of a Monk and the Eight Deadly Sins, Of the Spirit of Gluttony. (The Book of Fasts and Abstinence) Chapter X]
… spiritual fasting is … to abandon all that is disharmonious, inwardly as well as outwardly. The slightest breach of that intention breaks the fast. Religious fasting is limited by time, while spiritual fasting is forever and lasts throughout one’s temporal and eternal life. This is true fasting. [Shaykh Abdul Qadir Jilani, Spiritual Fasting, Ch. 17].