Thursday, October 9, 2008

Happy to Fast

Today is the day of atonement: Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is one of the holiest days of the Jewish year, following ten days after Rosh Hashana, the new year. Although the significance of Yom Kippur is to be a day of reflection, a day to think about those you have wronged, a day of the culmination of forgiveness and humility, if you ask me what about Yom Kippur stands out the most, I'd say the fast. This is primarily a blog about food, but I thought I would spend today's piece discussing intentional abstinence from food.

I didn't fast for some time- not for one of my four years in Oberlin. But when I moved to San Francisco, I began my own research into the significances of Judaism and Jewish holidays, and developed my own interpretations. I still don't know where I stand, exactly, in relation to my Judaism, but I've at least made some personal progress.

Part of this is my new outlook towards Yom Kippur. I now embrace the day's fast with open arms, proud to be part of a religion that reflects my interest in holistic health, including fasting in its tradition.

I know a day of fasting can seem to progress rather slowly, but the term FAST actually comes from the effects, or goals, of a fast; the idea is to cleanse your body quickly. Fast.

For me, fasting generates lots of thoughts, not just about bodily purification. It also enlightens me as to how many times during the day I eat, just because I am bored. The truth is, I'm not even that hungry right now, at 4:43 pm, only another three hours to go. But I keep feeling tempted to eat. The commercial world is filled with cues telling us to EAT EAT EAT! How many times a day do I eat something not because I'm hungry, but because I'm bored, and responding to cues in my environment? It's definitely worth thinking about.

Fasting also promotes mental purification. I believe I am in an altered mental state right now, not having eaten since last night's early evening meal. That altered state is probably what Buddhist monastics are going for. Consider this: some Buddhist monastics (at least those in the Theravadan tradition) do not eat food after noon every day. They eat morning meals, and in the afternoon and evening may consume perhaps some tea or soup, but no solid food. Does this promote a more ideal atmosphere for meditation?

Also, Sakyamuni Buddha didn't eat for many days before he reached enlightenment. This is not to say he did not need food; legend has it Sujata brought him milk rice to eat. Had it not been for this meal, he may not have attained enlightenment. But was it all that meditating without food that brought him closer to it? Paul Pitchford's Healing with Whole Foods suggests that absolute fasting, that is, a complete fast, "is the fast which best encourages concentration on the ultimate and absolute nature of reality" (p. 279). With this I agree. I also like the imagery that Pitchford puts forth by referring to fasting as sustaining yourself on only "air and light". There are other types of fasts; fasts that prescribe eating only one type of fruit or vegetable for a series of days, or fasts during which you only drink a certain liquid. These are fasts I am willing to try but have never given a shot.

I believe the best way to end an absolute fast is by drinking water or tea, and eating fruits and vegetables- basic foods. However, I do admit that at my break fast tonight, where I know there will be all sorts of Jewish foods, from bagels and lox to noodle kugel, I will have a hard time restraining myself. Guess we'll just have to see what happens!

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