In almost all spiritual traditions there are three primary practices that stand out: prayer, fasting, and giving of alms. The universality of these three spiritual practices means that they have to be considered in any exploration of spirituality. This post is the second in a series of three about these central spiritual practices—and how they need to evolve if they are to be useful in an evolving, evolutionary spirituality.
I entered the Christian ministry just as I turned twenty one. After a year I hit a crisis when I saw that the reality of ministry was nothing like my dreams and expectations. I needed a way to process the growing stress I was experiencing, so I chose to embark on an extended fast. I reduced my food intake over a couple of days, cutting out meat, then eating just fruit, and finally drinking only water. I was hoping the hunger would draw me into a deeper sense of reflection and prayer so that I could receive divine wisdom. I’m not sure that happened, but I did come to a decision about my future. Against all the rules I broke the fast with an eating binge that included pizza, a schwarma, and ice cream! Fortunately I survived my foolishness.
I have since thought more deeply about fasting, especially in the context of an evolving, evolutionary faith. Many practitioners seem to believe that God listens more if we add fasting to our prayers, that somehow God is more able to be bent to our will if we demonstrate that we’re serious enough to stop eating. Such thinking is clearly problematic with regard to both God and prayer. If not a way to manipulate an interventionist God to intervene, how are we to approach fasting?
In her book Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose (affiliate link), psychologist Deidre Barrett describes how creatures in our world—including human beings—often respond more to things that are false and unsatisfying than what is real, simply because the false thing is presented in an extreme form. For example, song birds have been known to ignore their real eggs, which are fairly small, and light blue with grey speckles, in favour of sitting on false eggs that are painted bright blue, with black polka dots, and so large that the birds keep slipping off!
In human beings this evolutionary quirk can lead us to become unhealthily obsessed with almost anything. If we are to avoid the fate of the songbirds we will need to learn to keep our “primal urges” from locking on to all the supernormal stimuli our society presents. Our world offers no shortage of things to inspire extreme attraction in us, but we all know that satisfying every desire does not lead to a rich, fulfilling life.
FASTING FOR A HEALTHY EVOLUTION
Of all the spiritual disciplines, fasting is the one that can best train us to resist supernormal stimuli. We usually connect fasting with not eating food. But it is more helpful to connect it with whatever is most likely to tempt us. For some of us that could be food. For others it could be power, or the quest for the perfect body, or technology, or the need to be right, or any of a million other possibilities.
To fast mindfully requires us to do the work of identifying our particular addictive tendencies and then make a habit of regularly stepping away from those things in order to keep them from controlling us. In this way, we become intentional in our own evolution, refusing to give supernormal stimuli the power to lead us away from what is authentic and life-giving into what is fake and useless.
It may sound counterintuitive, but if we are to become compassionate, contributing people who experience life at its most meaningful and fulfilling, then regular fasting can be a very effective practice. Why not give it a try?
- What is your response to this view of fasting?
- What supernormal stimuli can you identify in our society?
- How can you be more intentional to use fasting to resist your own particular addictive tendencies?
Perhaps you have a personal experience of fasting to share, or questions about how you can incorporate fasting into your spiritual practice? Why not leave a comment below, and let’s have a conversation.
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