Fasting Essentials: Purity of Mind and Heart

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OPENHEAD   Fasting Essentials

 “Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” Rend your heart and not your garments. [Joel 2:12-13 (NIV)].

We often strive to attain lofty spiritual states by physical and intellectual efforts. Being accustomed to the cause and effect models of material existence, we assume this methodology extends into the spiritual realm. We think we can accumulate piety by adorning ourselves with spiritual costumes, attending religious ceremonies and quoting a few passages of scripture — or by fasting.happy-fasting2

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]

When we neglect to sublimate our intentions or fail to purify our thoughts, fasting offers minimal spiritual benefits. Striving for lofty states of awareness to satisfy base physical desires is incompatible with Divine service. Such efforts may have material value, but they do not enhance spiritual purity or divine consciousness.

Not nakedness, not platted hair, not dirt, not fasting, or lying on the earth, not rubbing with dust, not sitting motionless, can purify a mortal who has not overcome desires. [Dhammapada 10.141].

Ritual Fasting

Fasting can become an empty ritual devoid of piety and sincerity. Negative thoughts, self-righteousness, anger and pride can all infect our mind and our heart.

Often, we don’t realize the type of person we have become. The image we hold of ourselves may be so misleading that if someone were to hold a mirror before us, we wouldn’t recognize the person.

Selfish desire is found in the senses, mind, and intellect, misleading them and burying wisdom in delusion. Fight with all your strength, Arjuna! Controlling your senses, conquer your enemy, the destroyer of knowledge and realization. [Bhagavad Gita 3:40-41].

Human beings can corrupt almost anything, no matter how good or sacred may be its origin or purpose. We can easily pervert charity, kindness and mercy into acts of hypocritical selfishness, exploiting them for personal gain or recognition. And, so it is with fasting.

The Fast of the … [spiritually elevated] means fasting of the heart from unworthy concerns and worldly thoughts, in total disregard of everything but God, Great and Glorious is He. This kind of Fast is broken by thinking of worldly matters, except for those conducive to religious ends, since these constitute BK-BACKD BLIND$ DREAMER EYES2 OPENHEAD THRNSTEP TV-DUDEprovision for the Hereafter and are not of this lower world. [Imam al-Ghazali, The Mysteries of Fasting the Month of Ramadan].

Pride in Fasting

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of fasting is that it can become a personal ambition, a mental objective to be attained for selfish desires. In other words, a person who initially fasts for pious, spiritual reasons may become so gratified with abstaining from food that the act, itself, develops into a goal. The physical accomplishment of not eating replaces the spiritual goal of seeking God-consciousness.monks-eating

Abba Isidore said, “If you fast regularly, do not be inflated with pride; if you think highly of yourself because of it, then you had better eat meat. It is better for a man to eat meat than to be inflated with pride and glorify himself” [Desert Fathers].

We cultivate our spirit by pulling out the weeds of desire growing near our soul. Lust for wealth, power, fame and glory often go deeper than we realize. We must root them out and quell the uncontrollable hunger they arouse.

The false self is deeply entrenched. You can change your name and address, religion, country, and clothes. But as long as you don’t ask it to change, the false self simply adjusts to the new environment. For example, instead of drinking your friends under the table as a significant sign of self-worth and esteem, if you enter a monastery, as I did, fasting the other monks under the table could become your new path to glory.  In that case, what would have changed? Nothing. [Keating, Thomas, The Human Condition: Contemplation and Transformation].

This is the common danger that runs through all spiritual practices. We see it in persons who pray or give in charity merely to be seen and admired. We see it in spiritual leaders who haughtily exult in their religious knowledge or their position over a congregation. We become proud and arrogant, and lose all that we might have gained.Qpreacher

Be on your guard when you begin to mortify your body by abstinence and fasting, lest you imagine yourself to be perfect and a saint; for perfection does not consist in this virtue. It [fasting] is only a help; a disposition; a means though a fitting one, for the attainment of true perfection [St. Jerome].

Secret Fasting

The economic and social rituals of our secular work and play seek shortcuts that bypass our heart. We buy into ads and media scripts, and then find ourselves mere caricatures in a technologically infused culture. The Divine Reality is nowhere to be seen.

Such debilitating results occur when we reduce the purpose of the fast to worldly ends. We may experience many physical and material benefits from fasting. But, fasting is never an end in itself.

In the same way, fasting, vigils, scriptural meditation, nakedness and total deprivation do not constitute perfection but are the means to perfection. They are not in themselves the end point of a discipline, but an end is attained to through them [St. John Cassian, Conference One].

The fact that we are seeking God and that fasting heightens our spiritual awareness must remain paramount. Fasting should not become another idol on the altar of the material stage.qrn-reader-window2

[Jesus added,]Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly. [Matthew 6:16-18].

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Fasting for Spiritual Consciousness and Divine Awareness

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Fasting for Spiritual Consciousness and Divine Awareness (2/2)

Divine Lens

The sacred books which the Holy Spirit has dictated are only the beginnings of divine guidance for us. Everything that happens is a continuation of the scriptures, expounding for us what has not been written. Faith explains the one through the other, in which souls can discover the key to all its mysteries…. How delightful the peace one enjoys when one has learned by faith to see God in this way: through all creatures as through a transparent veil. [Jean Pierre de Caussade, quoted in Conversion: The Spiritual Journey of a Twentieth Century Pilgrim, by Malcolm Muggeridge].

Spiritual consciousness translates material existence into spiritual reality. It renders ineffable mysteries capable of being expressed, and provides a Divine lens through which we comprehend life.

Daily immersion in worldly activities produces the illusion that physical reality is the source of all pleasure and pain. Our common tendency is to relate our state of being to actions and experiences that are observable and comprehensible.fasting bowl

For most of us, the Divine is not actively involved in our mundane efforts to exist. Our hectic lifestyle makes it difficult to keep thoughts of God constantly within reach. Petty distractions overwhelm us, often saturating our mind with anxiety and confusion.

Faith, which is trust, and fear are opposite poles. If a man has the one, he can scarcely have the other in vigorous operation. He that has his trust set upon God does not need to dread anything except the weakening or the paralyzing of that trust. [Alexander MacLaren].

We often formulate spiritual consciousness from knowledge of sacred texts. They provide Divine guidance for us. However, this canonical consciousness must extend into our daily activities. Our mind must stay immersed in Divine thoughts, bringing sanctity into experiences of everyday life.

. . . Fasting is useful as atoning for and preventing sin, and as raising the mind to spiritual things. And everyone is bound by the natural dictate of reason to practice fasting as far as it is necessary for these purposes. [Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica].

Deflating the Ego

Fasting helps us discard arrogance and self-love. Unwittingly, we are constantly accumulating vanity, conceit and other misconceptions of ourselves that inflate our ego. Self-examination is useless because we are too immersed in worldly desires to see ourselves clearly. Our pride conceals the illusions clogging our consciousness.

. . . God-consciousness is the one impelling cause of those moral struggles, sacrifices and purifications, those costing and heroic activities, to which all greatly spiritual souls find themselves drawn. We note that these souls experience it even when it conflicts with their philosophy: for a real religious intuition is always accepted by the self that has it as taking priority of thought, and carrying with it so to speak its own guarantees. [Evelyn Underhill, Life of the Spirit and the Life of To-day].

When we fast, we become aware of the heaps of spiritual imperfections accumulated by our soul. We feel their weight pressing against our depleted senses. Our awaken conscience recognizes them, and we begin the journey toward repentance.

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].

Spiritual consciousness is stimulated by a contrite heart. Shallow pleasures lose their appeal. Serious thoughts prevail. Spiritually sober, we abandon our excesses, discard our comforts, and come rushing back to the Forgiver, the Merciful.purification water

O mankind! Behold, We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him. Behold, God is all-knowing, all-aware. [Quran 49:13].

Piecemeal Reality

Our thoughts cannot accurately measure the Divine Reality. We underestimate the all-inclusive nature of Divinity, and overestimate of the scope of human cognition.

Our hectic material existence clutters our thinking. Constantly interrupted by recurring worldly desires, our mind can consider only blurred fragments of reality.

… God-consciousness is the necessary presupposition and condition of morality, and the character and degree of the morality is consequently also conditioned on the character and degree of the God-consciousness … Hence true morality is only there possible where there is a true God-consciousness, that is, where God is not conceived of as in some manner limited, but as the infinite Spirit in the fullest sense of the word. [Adolf Wuttke, Christian Ethics. Volume II.—Pure Ethics, LXXI].

Our limited sensory perception requires that we focus on small pieces reality at a timwoman-drinking - bowl2e. We need tools that take us beyond our intellect, tools that can tell us who we are and direct us to an ultimate destination.

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].

Fasting redirects our secular perspective and points us toward the Divine. It is faith’s preeminent tool for sobering our intellect and promoting spiritual awareness.

O you who have attained to faith! Be conscious of God with all the consciousness that is due to Him, and do not allow death to overtake you ere you have surrendered yourselves unto Him. [Quran 3:102].


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Fasting for Spiritual Consciousness and Divine Awareness (1/2)

Spiritual Consciousness 

… [O]ur normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there … No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. [William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, 388].

When we profess a sincere, firmly held belief, we persevere despite overwhelming challenges. We deprive ourselves of pleasure because a greater benefit or advantage is to be gained. However, who would sacrifice for something they do not respect, admire and love?

It [fasting] is simply a way to make clear that we sufficiently reverence the amazing opportunity to ask help from the everlasting God, the Creator of the universe, to choose to put everything else aside and concentrate on worshiping, asking forgiveness, and making our requests known – considering His help more important than anything we could do ourselves in our own strength and with our own ideas. [Edith Schaeffer].

Spiritual consciousness defines our piety, reverence and fears. It involves worship, obedience, self-restraint and righteous deeds. Essentially, it is a psychological state in which sanctity becomes the primary focus of our attention.dates-water-tasbih

Human motivations are grounded in pleasure and pain. To a believer, the ultimate source of both is God.

We love the pleasure and joy that come from Divine mercy and beneficence, and we fear the consequences of disobeying or displeasing God.

The strongest wish of a vast number of earnest men and women today is for a basis of religious belief which shall rest, not upon tradition or external authority or historical evidence, but upon the ascertainable facts of human experience. The craving for immediacy, which we have seen to be characteristic of all mysticism, now takes the form of a desire to establish the validity of the God-consciousness as a normal part of the healthy inner life. [W. R. Inge, Light, Life, and Love].

The Fast and the Frivolous

Fasting helps us overcome spiritual complacency. Until our consciousness rises above frivolous ambitions and transient hopes, we remain bound to insignificant behavior, idling in the shallows of low expectations.hoarding

Fasting is important, more important perhaps, than many of us have supposed . . . when exercised with a pure heart and a right motive, fasting may provide us with a key to unlock doors where other keys have failed; a window opening up new horizons in the unseen world; a spiritual weapon of God’s provision, mighty, to the pulling down of strongholds. [Arthur Wallis, God’s Chosen Fast].

Fasting prompts the mind toward loftier thoughts, toward acts of devotion and remembrance of God. Together with prayer, they filter out the dregs of impure thoughts, allowing greater Divine awareness to prevail.

And when you have this intention to please God in all your actions, as the happiest and best thing in the world, you will find in you as great an aversion to everything that is vain and impertinent in common life, whether of business or pleasure, as you now have to anything that is profane… [William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, Ch. 2].

Fasting and Cognition

Fasting elevates our spiritual consciousness. As we know, the fasting brain uses an emergency, backup fuel for energy: ketone bodies. When our cognitive processes rely on energy from ketone bodies, we function on a different frequency.monk-carthusian_cell

Normally, our body converts carbohydrates into glucose for energy. However, when we use up our glucose, our body switches to ketonic energy. During periods of food deprivation, our digestive system breaks down stored fatty acids and converts them into ketone bodies. These substitute for glucose as fuel for the brain. It can be argued that since ketone bodies are the only available alternative to glucose for brain’s energy, ketosis was a critical evolutionary development to provision man’s hypertrophied brain while sparing muscle mass. [Richard L. Veech, Ketone Bodies, Potential Therapeutic Uses].

The altered consciousness produced by ketonic energy reflects our weakened condition. We are no longer poised to respond physically to our environment. Bowed by our frailty, unable to depend on physical strength, we turn to spiritual consciousness.

Without the abundance of glucose derived from a normal diet, we generate no rebellious attitude or arrogant demeanor. Our brain now easily adapts to a program of obedience – and obedience is vital to spiritual consciousness.

There is nothing more harmful to the believer’s heart than having too much food, for it brings about two things; hardness of heart and arousal of desires. Hunger is a condiment for believers, nourishment for the spirit, food for the heart, and health for the body. The Holy Prophet said, ‘The son of Adam fills no worse vessel than his belly.’ [Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq, Lantern of the Path, Section 34].

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