Having lived as an expat in four different predominantly Muslim countries, I’ve been fortunate enough to have moved many times through the experience of the month of Ramadan. With Ramadan being the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, and the divinely appointed time for all Muslims to move inwardly and put aside the glamours of the physical world, it is the month in which fasting takes place from dawn until dusk every day for 29-30 days, with neither food nor any type of fluid being consumed until the sun sets. It is a time when observant Muslims are fully focussed on God, when an individual’s own attitudes and behaviours are examined, and one’s level of connection to others in terms of empathy and kindness are questioned. My own observations note Ramadan as a time when people allow their hearts to open and to display a vulnerabilty that brings out the the more positive qualities in human nature.
Not being Muslims ourselves, but deeply in tune with the spiritual requirement for quiet in the human mind, my husband and I frequently observed the fasting periods, plunging into the austerities of going without food or liquids until sunset, for the duration of the holy month. It was always a challenging experience, one which no matter how many consecutive years I participated in the fasting rituals, never got easier. Rigid fasting forced me into a place of stillness in which I became aware of an often neglected connection to God. I am not at all a religious person, and feel no affinity to any particular religion, but I am always mindful of a power far greater than myself. To my mind, this power that many call God is a part of who I am, and I recognize that the purpose of my journey through the human experience is to fully reconnect with that greater, wiser, omnipotent aspect of myself. My sojourn into the Muslim culture of fasting brought to me a means by which that deeply spiritual re-connection could begin to be felt.
For Muslims, fasting is one of the Five Pillars of Islam and applies to other activities such as TV watching, playing on computers, going to the cinema. It is a time for inner contemplation and cleansing which cannot take place when the mind is busy with worldly activities. During the fasting periods, I try not to read, talk too much or allow myself to be entertained by the usual media outlets. Without the customary distractions, something more profound is allowed to occur.
Over time, the process of fasting caused me to realize the body to be a complete reflection of the mind. An over-stocked warehouse of ideas, the mind is a hive of activity, this incessant hustle and bustle energized by the food that we eat. When the body is deprived of food in the fasting process, all corporal activity slows down. I experience a lethargy in the body as well as the mind as my usual supply of energy is depleted. I find myself sleeping more during the fasting periods, and a lot slower to action in the waking periods. In the days that I fasted in Muslim countries, I was grateful for the greatly reduced work hours of the Ramadan month.
Around about the third week of fasting, as my mind stops resisting the food deprivation with excuses as to why I should resume my normal eating patterns, a ‘strange’ thing happens. When my daily activities are stopped, I am at rest, and my usually over-active searching, probing mind is less enthusiastic about asserting itself, I find myself in a state where I am totally alert and expanded. In this space, where my mind is forced to take a backseat, I realize the greater part of myself that extends beyond the body into infinity. It is from this place that I am able to acknowledge the ideas that limit me; I become the observer of the contents of my mind. Here, it is clear that my ideas about life and the resulting stream of thoughts that influence events and my emotions are actually separate from me. My ideas, I discovered, are not who I am. They have no power unless I give it to them, and they can be challenged. In discovering this state of being, I discovered my true identity. I am the self that is no different from anyone else, for during the fast, the mind with its ideas has no power to place a veil of deception over my thinking processes. In this state I am not confined to the body; it is merely a vehicle through which I am experiencing life. Not only am I connected to all things, but I AM all things. Fasting, being only one of a myriad means to accessing this greater self, is a liberating experience.
Fasting opened my eyes to many things hitherto unexplored. Food, I discovered, as well as being a vital source of energy, holds great symbolic significance. It occurred to me that our individual choices of food is intricately linked to the mind’s unconscious thought processes. The food that we crave matches our attitudes towards ourselves, towards others and mirrors our own perception of our individual place in the world. I’ve observed this phenomenon in myself and those close to me. Over many years, as I’ve expanded my spiritual awareness and dropped beliefs that hurt both myself and others, my sense of self-esteem has grown considerably. When I look back I find that my dietary choices changed in tandem with my shifting belief systems. In my younger days, at a time when I was full of deep insecurities, plagued by obsessive-compulsive behaviours and in possession of a generally poor view of myself, I lived on a diet of over-cooked, heavily spiced cuisine, junk food, sugary sodas and sweets. As I evolved emotionally and spiritually, a new world of healthy eating opened up to me. Fasting gave me the gift of reflection in that it helped me to identify my food addictions and therefore isolate my addictive thought processes. Not eating for long periods of time focuses the mind in on what it is not getting and sends signals in the way of intense cravings to the body. Whatever food I was addicted to, my mind cried out for. In searching for the addictive thoughts lurking in the symbolism of the food itself, a lot of my suffering was relieved. These days, just when I think I am beyond reproach when it comes to my dietary regime, I find new ways to look at what I eat and in doing so, find ideas that need challenging.
Fasting is not for everyone, and the insights that I received are accessible through other means. For the people of the Muslim faith and other religions who use this method to purify themselves, fasting offers untold gifts of the spirit. In the midst of the crazy but necessary journey of our lives, it is a joy to turn inward, listen to the silence and know God. That is the most sublime gift of the holy fast.