Controlling Stress, Anxiety & Depression by Fasting (2/2)

Abstention and Fasting

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].

Abstention and fasting are often associated with food and eating. However, abstention and fasting have much broader applications, including self-denial of pleasures to reduce or eliminate recurring worries, anxieties and doubts.

When we can ignore worldly distractions, and spurn social pastimes for spiritual growth, we have attained a level of faith that evidences purpose and self-control. At the same time, we have emotionally detached ourselves from secular entanglements, personal worries and detrimental habits.

It is necessary to recognize the effects of the media on ourselves as individuals and on society. As with anything that offers great attractions, it is necessary to develop an asceticism that preserves us from the abuse of technology. [Hugh MacDonald, Asceticism and the Electronic Media. Technophilia and Technophobia in the Perspective of Christian Philosophy].D

Documenting our liberation 

Fasting documents our liberation from bondage to the physical world. It allows us to discard the stress and anxiety packaged into secular allurements. When we fast, we abandon unrestrained indulgence and relish trusting the Divine.

Such spiritual commitment wrests control of our soul from instincts, passions and delusions. With a temporary denial of self-gratification, we begin to establish a permanent pattern of disciplined behavior. We barter present inconvenience and discomfort for future self-control and willpower.

Scripturally, Jesus words underscore this condition: “the spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” [Matthew 26:41]. We may indeed be longing for spiritual awareness, but we are weak-willed.correct-mind-life-fall-into-place-Lao-Tzu

For the thoughts of mortal men are miserable, and our devices are but uncertain. For the corruptible body presseth down the soul, and the earthy tabernacle weigheth down the mind that museth upon many things. [The Wisdom of Solomon 9:15].

For self-realization and spiritual balance, we need to reconcile our inner selves, finding harmony in our actions, thoughts and beliefs. Spiritual fasting unites all three components by requiring a concerted effort of bodily restraint, willpower and devotional exercise.

Elusive and unreliable as it is, the wise man straightens out his restless, agitated mind, like a fletcher crafting an arrow. Trying to break out of the Tempter’s control, one’s mind writhes to and fro, like a fish pulled from its watery home onto dry ground. It is good to restrain one’s mind, uncontrollable, fast-moving, and following its own desires as it is. A disciplined mind leads to happiness [Dhammapada 3:33-35].

Fasting for Change

What is there in our daily life that distracts us from God? What obstacles block our path to spiritual development?

Looking at our lifestyle, do we spend our weekdays consumed by work, and squandered our evenings on sports, fiction, sensational news and inconsequential media talk?

With our thoughts immersed in diversions, how can we remember the Divine? When we look at the world through the entertainment media, our screens and monitors become our windows to reality. Fortunately, fasting can prevent these distractions.thorn

The seeds that fell among the thorns represent those who hear the message, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the cares and riches and pleasures of this life. And so they never grow into maturity. [Luke 8:14].

Spiritual Immersion

Our daily pursuits often pose contradictions to our spiritual affirmations. They dangle titillating enticements that are offensive to our true self. We can control, even eliminate them, when we extend our fasting into our lifestyle.

So if a man live in any way of lasciviousness, the more his impure lust prevails, the more sweet and pleasant will it make the sin appear, and so the more will he be disposed and prejudiced to think there is no evil in it. [Jonathan Edwards].

Such fasting is more than simple abstention from food for a few hours. It targets the thoughts that breed anxieties and fears. It calls for immersion in a spiritual lifestyle devoted to obedience and submission to our Creator.

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].

Divine Reality

Our anxieties are products of our expectations, suppositions and conjectures of what will happen or be the case in the future. Subconsciously, we produce our own reality in our head of what will occur, then worry about it.

Worry increases illness, so it is also like an accusation against Divine wisdom and a criticism of Divine mercy and complaint against the Compassionate Creator. [Said Nursi, The Flashes Collection].

By fasting, we elevate our awareness of the sacred. From this heightened spiritual perspective, we can recognize the Divine beneficence, compassion and mercy that surround and embrace us.

And unto everyone who is conscious of God, He [always] grants a way out [of unhappiness], and provides for him in a manner beyond all expectation; and for everyone who places his trust in God He [alone] is enough. Verily, God always attains to His purpose: [and] indeed, unto everything has God appointed its [term and] measure. [Quran 65:2-3].

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Controlling Stress, Anxiety & Depression by Fasting (1/2)

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Controlling Stress, Anxiety & Depression by Fasting (1/2)

Fasting, Abstinence & Lifestyle

The beneficial claims of fasting are supported by experimental research, which has found fasting to be associated with increased brain availability of serotonin, endogenous opioids, and endocannabinoids. Fasting-induced neuroendocrine activation and mild cellular stress response with increased production of neurotrophic factors may also contribute to the mood enhancement of fasting. [Andreas Michalsen, Prolonged fasting as a method of mood enhancement in chronic pain syndromes: a review of clinical evidence and mechanisms].

We are subject to complex systems of hormonal and neurological responses to danger. These “fight or flight” responses functions best when activated by natural phenomena. In our modern lifestyles, however, are often activated by stress, anxiety and other fight or flightpsychological stimuli instead of by actual physical danger.

Many activities that we consider entertainment, amusement and recreation may actually be the source of anxieties and worrisome thoughts. Sitting entranced before an electronic gadget exposes us to emotional assaults that can cause serious harm.

Ohio State University researchers found that stress from engaging in a memory task activated the immune system, whereas the stress from passively watching a violent video weakened immunity (as measured by salivary concentration of SIgA, a major immune factor) [Psychophysiology, September-October 2001, in Ohio St.’s OnCampus].

Fasting High

We can be frightened, shocked, thrilled and sexually aroused twenty to thirty times in a couple of  hours of media “entertainment.” These stimuli are comparable to false alarms calling into action internal fire departments, often when we are eating.

And when the body is subjected to multiple stresses . . . it experiences what is called an “allostatic load,” a compounding of effects leading to a breakdown of the immune system. In all these cases, . . . the brain’s normal hormonal stress response can be blunted. The phenomenon can eventually lead to the body’s inability to respond to any stress – the state popularly known as burnout. [Vital Connections, Science of Mind-Body Interactions. A report on the interdisciplinary conference held at NIH March 26-28, 2001].

With work, family and social stressors added, the daily barrage we experience can become overwhelming. Such a continuing flow of emotions and stress can accumulate. Eventually, it envelops our mind and produces suffering and despair, leaving us feeling that we “can’t take anymore.”

Fasting at such times may be the last thing we might consider, but it offers relief supported by both science and religion.

Clinical studies have shown that fasting is effective in lowering blood pressure and treating chronic pain like migraine or arthritis. Neurobiologists at Gottingen University have shown that when patients fast, stress hormones levels go down and serotonin levels rise (which may explain the “fasting high” many patients report). [Stefan Theil, Newsweek. (International ed.). New York: Oct 30, 2006].

Fasting as Catharsis

Generally, catharsis refers to a purifying elimination, an emotional release that relieves and refreshes our spirit. Catharsis can result from the purging of toxins within us, and from preventing new toxins from entering.

Stressful psychological pollutants can stain our sanctity. Our mind easily wanders into toxic thoughts that distress our soul.

O God. Give me the power to be strengthened inwardly and to empty my heart of all vain care and anxiety, so that I may not be drawn away by many desires, whether for precious things or mean ones. Let me look upon everything as passing, and upon myself as soon to pass away with them, because there is nothing lasting under the sun, where all is vanity and affliction of spirit. How wise is he who thinks thus! [Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, Ch. 27].

Fasting gives our body time to discharge, naturally, the accumulated debris of prodigal existence. In addition, it “seals” our mind from new intrusions. It can be a purgation that expels secular impurities within us to purify our soul and reunite us with the Divine.

Cellular decline may be caused by the accumulation of waste products in various tissues, which interferes with nourishment, and oxygenation of the cell … As toxins build up in tissues, a toxic environment is created. It is not uncommon for the symptoms of headache, diarrhea, or depression to occur as the body deals with autotoxicity (self-poisoning). During fasting, the concentration of toxins removed from the body and appearing in the urine can increase ten-fold. [Life Extension].

The catharsis provided by fasting offers relief from self-reproach and guilt feelings. It administers penance, chastisement and punishment in a single spiritual dose. This leads to a sense of purification and reconciliation with your own self.

… a person with a depressed heart and spirit experiences such stress, anxiety, and anguish that no possessions in the world can provide a cure for it. Those who are not awakened to the truth in their souls can never be saved from the spiritual darkness even if they manufacture thousands of yachts and luxurious cars every day. True serenity and happiness is in the God-granted peacefulness of the heart. [Fethullah Gülen].

Fasting  Perspective

Fasting sees temptations from an uncommon perspective that helps restore our emotional spiritual equilibriumequilibrium. An unrestrained mind can become a source of anxiety when it craves what it knows is wrong. Likewise, the rational intellect can desert the soul by rejecting what is spiritually healing.

Fasting exercises our willpower over our material and lower nature. It unshackles our higher impulses, releasing them to soar beyond transient reality. 

 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].

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Controlling Stress, Anxiety & Depression by Fasting (2/2)

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Fasting, Ketone Bodies & Long Life: Aging in a Divine Reality (2/2)

Fasting and Long Life

Restricting an animal’s calorie intake is the most famous intervention known to extend life span. Discovered more than 70 years ago, it is still the only one absolutely proven to work. Most diseases, including cancer, diabetes and even neurodegenerative illnesses, are forestalled. The organism seems to be supercharged for survival. [David A. Sinclair and Lenny Guarente, Unlocking the Secrets of Longevity Genes].

Aging is a natural process that becomes more difficult when we remove Divine Reality from our thoughts. Without a purpose or an ultimate end, physical aging can add depression and despair to a process with its own inherent pain and anxieties.Tolstoy

hajji-bkTo a significant degree, longevity depends on our psychological and spiritual health to provide relief from the inherent stressors of aging. Studies have consistently shown that no direct relationship exists between the extent of physical brain deterioration and the manifestation of symptoms of age-related illness such as Alzheimer’s disease.

As our body withers, we are still left with ample mental and spiritual reserves to carry on the battles of existence. Certain conditions inhibit cognitive dysfunction, while others advance it. This simply means that there is more to dementia that just physical withering of the brain. Even when our intellect fails, we are still left with a spiritual reality in which to abide.

The abbot Daniel used to say, “Even as the body flourishes, so does the soul become withered: and when the body is withered, then does the soul put forth leaves.” [Sayings of the Desert Fathers].

Anti-Aging Diet

It is scientifically accepted that restricted calorie intake can increase life span. One theory advanced by science is that oxidation, our internal process that reduces food to energy, is a main cause of aging.

Because caloric restriction can markedly prolong the life span, it is being widely studied to determine the mechanisms of aging. An increasing body of evidence suggests that cumulative oxidative damage to macromolecules such as protein, lipids, and DNA has a major role in aging. Caloric restriction attenuates both the degree of oxidative damage and the associated decline in function. We will review evidence that caloric restriction prolongs life in laboratory animals, evokes an array of responses, including a decrease in oxidative stress and damage, and may retard the aging process in humans. [Richard Weindruch, Ph.D. and Rajindar S. Sohal, Ph.D., Caloric Intake and AgingNew England Journal of Medicine. 1997 Oct 2; 337 (14): 986–994]

According to this theory, our life span is an inverse function of our metabolic rate and is proportional to oxygen consumption. In other words, the very essence of physical existence has a built-in decaying process. This leads to the conclusion that the less we eat, the longer we live.woman-dua

Researchers at the National Institute on Aging have observed that mice that fasted every other day, then ate what they wanted on the intervening days, displayed greater resistance to diabetes. They were also resistant to a condition similar to Alzheimer’s disease.  [See: The Amazing Aging 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 Training of a Monk and the Eight Deadly Sins, Of the Spirit of Gluttony, (The Book of Fasts and Abstinence) Chapter X].

Cleansing the Mind

Fasting and monasticism have often joined forces during periods of social degeneration and depravity. The need for protection against secular depravity, excessive affluence and dogmatic ritualism often prompts the forming of communities where faith can be cultivated without distractions, oppression and persecution.

The Jewish Therapeutae and Essenes, and many early Christian Desert Fathers separated themselves into congregations dedicated to spiritual life. In Islam, celibacy and extreme excessive austerities are not permissible. Thus, fasting, contemplation and worldly renunciation [Zuhd] for meditative reflection upon Allah becomes even more prominent. monastic-cell

Fasting causes the mind to be cleansed constantly. It whithers up every evil thought and brings healthy, godly thoughts — holy thoughts that enlighten the mind and kindle it with more zeal and spiritual fervor [Elder Ephraim of Philotheou Mount Athos, “Counsels from the Holy Mountain“].

Monks cultivated piety by engaging in fasting, self-discipline and renunciation. They sought to free the spirit from the body’s claim and to attain an elevated consciousness that enhanced equanimity and sanctity.

Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, and kindles the true light of chastity. Enter again into yourself. [St. Augustine, “On Prayer and Fasting” quoted by St. Thomas Aquinas].

Monks and Long Life

It is said that the doctor should live longer than the patient. If monks are considered the doctors of the early Christian church, they did, in fact, score pretty well.

Is not wisdom found among the aged? Does not long life bring understanding? [Job 12:12 NIV].

Records show that some monks lived very long lives. Many monks lived to be twice the age of their contemporaries. Even by today’s standards, it is somewhat remarkable to see someone living to 100 years.

The first monk, … we know of to decide to run away to the desert and lead a life of contemplation is Saint Anthony of Egypt … He lived from 251 to 356. I have trouble believing this. The sources are pretty good. I have trouble believing that anybody could live to be 105 in the Roman Empire. Or indeed, at any time before ten years ago or so. But there it is. [Professor Paul Freedman, Yale University].

Aging and faith can intertwine to weave lifestyles that promote longevity. Though not totally reliable, historical records show that long life was one of the distinguishing features of early monasticism. Below is a list of monks who, according to tradition, lived to a ripe old age:

Paul of ThebesSymeon the Stylite – 103 yrs
Saint Cyril the Anchorite – 108 yrs.
Alypius the Stylite – 118 yrs.
John the Silent – 104 yrs.
Anthony the Great – 105 yrs.
Theodosius the Great ― 105 yrs.
Paul of Thebes – 113 yrs.
Paul of Komel – 112 yrs.
Macarius of Alexandria – 100 yrs.
Cyril Belozersky – 90 yrs.
Macarius Zheltovodsky – 95 yrs.

(Fast) a certain number of days . . . and that ye fast is better for you if ye did but know. [Quran 2:184].


Further reading:

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