Fasting and the Mind
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 Book of Fasts and Abstinence. Chapter X]
The primary purpose of our fasting is to enhance awareness of the Divine Reality. For our fasting to be truly effective, we must also extend our abstinence into our social, professional and intellectual activities. All must be in harmony with our ultimate goal of spiritual consciousness.
News headlines were non-stop throughout 2016. The unrelenting flood of stories included not just the Presidential election but also Syria, refugees, Brexit, Zika, terror attacks, celebrity deaths, and tense relations between police and communities.
Americans responded by watching, listening to and reading more news – a lot more news. Our tally of increased usage across national and local TV, radio and digital sources shows a 2016 increase of 11.3 billion minutes of news consumption per week, compared to 2015. [The Nielsen Total Audience Report: Q4 2016].
The daily media we ingest is easily and quickly absorbed into our mind; but, is not easily eliminated. We digest it, but it remains imbedded in our thinking process — just a casual thought away from our worship.
… the fast of images is indispensable for everyone. We are living in a culture of images: photomagazines, cinema, television, internet…. No food, says Scripture, is impure in itself; many images are. They are the privileged vehicle of the anti-Gospel: sensuality, violence, immorality. They are the special troops of the god Mammon. The slogan “man is what he eats” is attributed to Feuerbach. Today we should say: “man is what he looks at.” The image has an incredible power to mould and to condition the inner world of those who look at it. We are influenced by what we let enter through our eyes. [Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M. Cap].
In our hectic high-tech existence, we have few moments for natural tranquility. The ever-intrusive media steals what little time we may store away for reflection and profound thinking. We become more attentive to commercial pastimes, entertainers and media than to the word of God.
There are many in formation [spiritual training] who have an inordinate desire to use the electronic media for relaxation and recreation. They feed themselves with electronic data while they cannot be satiated. This may be adjoined to a passive lifestyle, lacking moderation in food or drink. This is indeed a new portrait of gluttony. [Sister Prudence Allen, Formation in an Electronic Age].
Remembrance of the Divine shields us from whimsical fads imposed upon us by media marketers and promoters. When we turn our attention solely to the sacred, we activate a spiritual immunity that protects us from craving temporal trinkets. With our appetites quieted, secular ads have no access to our spiritual privacy.
If we don’t feel strong desires for the manifestation of the glory of God, it is not because we have drunk deeply and are satisfied. It is because we have nibbled so long at the table of the world. Our soul is stuffed with small things, and there is no room for the great. If we are full of what the world offers, then perhaps a fast might express, or even increase, our soul’s appetite for God. Between the dangers of self-denial and self-indulgence is the path of pleasant pain called fasting. [John Piper, A Hunger for God: Desiring God Through Fasting and Prayer].
Addiction to Electronic Reality
Daily, we face hundreds, if not thousands, of choices. Consciously and subconsciously, our thoughts focus on ideas, events, products and worries presented to us by life — but also by people selling us something.
Often, they gain direct access to our most intimate psychological states. We allow them to excite and arouse, dampen and diffuse our emotions. Unwittingly, we give them control over a large portion of our life.
Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation. To make matters worse, the prefrontal cortex has a novelty bias, meaning that its attention can be easily hijacked by something new – the proverbial shiny objects we use to entice infants, puppies, and kittens. [Daniel J. Levitin. “Why the Modern World Is Bad for Your Brain.” The Guardian 18 Jan. 2015 ].
It is as difficult to remove electronic influences from our mind as it is to abstain from food and drink. The advertising media can command our attention, even when we are not thinking. Hurrying, without delay, taking advantage of limited-time offers, standing in line for discounts, we casually consume time, while neglecting our worship and ignoring our devotions.
Spiritual fasting tames media arousal and minimizes its interference with single-minded piety. Electronic gadgets offer many benefits which are now integral components of our daily life. Nevertheless, during our fasting, we should limit all unnecessary media use.
Would you judge of the lawfulness or the unlawfulness of pleasure? [Use this simple rule:] Whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, or takes off your relish of spiritual things … that thing is sin to you, however innocent it may be in itself. [Susannah Wesley ].
Worship is incompatible with multitasking. Our attention should not be diverted away from the Divine Reality. Fragments of commercial enticements can remain wedged in our subconscious, distracting us as we pray, study, or meditate.
If you want to have a spiritual life you must unify your life. A life is either all spiritual or not spiritual at all. No man can serve two masters. Your life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire.
To unify your life, unify your desires. To spiritualize your life, spiritualize your desires. To spiritualize your desires, desire to be without desire. [Thomas Merton, Thoughts In Solitude, p. 49].
We can select our state of mind as we choose a program or an application. With our choice come changes to our attitude and our desires. As with picking the entertainment we prefer, we can select what spiritual state to cultivate. Fasting can help in discerning what to allow into our head, and in what direction to point our mind.
Fasting involves choosing a sober life, which does not waste, which does not “discard.” Fasting helps us to train the heart to essentiality and sharing. It is a sign of awareness and responsibility in the face of injustices, abuses, especially towards the poor and the little ones, and is a sign of our trust in God and His providence. [Pope Francis].
Our commitment to our faith is a choice. We can focus on maintaining our connection to God, or opt for self immersion in our personal world of electronic reality. By turning our thoughts to God, fasting helps us to choose wisely, and to affirm our preference for the Divine.
ALLURING unto man is the enjoyment of worldly desires they covet: Women and sons; heaped-up hoards of gold and silver; horses branded (for blood and excellence); and (wealth of) cattle and well-tilled land. Such are the possessions of this world’s life; but in nearness to God is the best of the goals (To return to). [Quran 3:14].