The Benefits of Fasting
by Paul Martin
Sister Jane Marie Luecke is professor of English at Oklahoma State University, Stillwater. Mr. Martin is owner of a marketing/public relations firm in the Chicago suburb of Riverside. This article appeared in the Christian Century March 30, 1977, p. 298.
In the spring of 1957 I was managing the airport in Point Barrow, Alaska, the main supply site and a scene of heavy air traffic during the construction of the Distant Early Warning Line radar stations along Alaska’s northern coast. Working 50 to 60 hours a week, I hadn’t taken a day off for nearly a year and was scraping the bottom of the energy barrel. Overweight, irritable, tired all the time and feeling much older than my 34 years, I decided that a vacation was a necessity. Not just any vacation, however. I went to a health resort near Escondido, California, and fasted for two weeks under the direction of a physician. I drank as much water as needed but ate nothing at all for 14 days.
Before this I had tried a few short fasts of three or four days on my own but had never gone longer than that with only water. James McEachen had supervised many fasts and understood what to look for. He told me to take no exercise but simply to rest and sunbathe during the day and to drink water whenever I was thirsty. About the fifth day without food I developed a sore throat, my back began to ache and my teeth hurt. Dr. McEachen explained that this was a healing crisis: my body was cleansing itself of toxic substances. About the tenth day these symptoms cleared up.
With McEachen’s guidance I broke the fast on the 14th day. This was a crucial point. A fast has to be ended properly and carefully or there can be painful and dangerous complications. I was given small amounts of orange juice every three hours for two days and then allowed to eat whole fruit for another two days. After this I was given more substantial food on a regular meal time schedule. I stayed there for a week after I resumed eating and then returned to my job in Point Barrow feeling 1,000 per cent better than when I left.
I experienced a number of specific benefits from the two weeks without food. My energy was greater than it had been since I was 20. I fell asleep immediately at night, slept soundly and awoke refreshed and alert. The job of managing the Point Barrow airport was hectic at times, but after the fast it was easy to remain calm and unflustered no matter how much pressure the work generated. I lost 25 pounds during the two weeks without food, which put me a little below my best weight, but I gradually regained the needed pounds. The benefits from the fast far outweighed what one would expect to experience from taking a three-week vacation.
I have fasted many times since the stay in Escondido in 1957, for periods of a few days up to 40. In every instance the fasts have provided such benefits as increased energy, calmness, improved concentration and a feeling of well-being. In the past five years I’ve visited David Stry’s health resort near Cuernavaca, Mexico, five times and fasted there from four to eight days.
Last year my 54th birthday arrived. Friends my own age who used to joke about my dedication to diet and exercise have been creaking and puffing around for some years now. They’ve quit laughing and started asking what they might do to repair the damage that careless living has wreaked on their bodies. Probably the best place to begin is with a fast to clean out the system and give it a new start.
Many people begin fasting because of sickness. As one who has always had good health, I approached the fast as a possible way to make good health even better. It has. Physical conditioning through fasting -- as well as exercise -- is essential to effective functioning in my life. And without exception, fasting also has enabled me to pray and meditate better.
Meditation became a part of my life in 1949 -- long before the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi arrived in the United States with his mystical talent for gathering immense quantities of publicity and money for TM. the mantra that a TM initiate buys for $125 is simply a basis for meditation. Anyone can select a mantra of one’s own and achieve the same results through persistent practice. A word or a phrase will do it, and it doesn’t cost a penny. In fact, the thought of selling this kind of knowledge is repugnant to many.
Short fasts of a day or two, by quieting the mind and the body, improve mediation and contact with God, and liberate a vitality for change. Prayer, meditation and fasting are extremely useful vehicles for anyone traveling the spiritual path. Fasting purges the emotions and drains away hostility and uneasiness. It provides a sounder base for sitting quietly and listening for the voice of God.
An experience I’ve always found with fasting is that time moves more slowly. Obsession with the past or future begins to disappear. Hurry seems stupid. Perspective is restored, and priorities can be examined. An easy joy in the present replaces the relentless compulsion to get and to have.
Mahatma Gandhi was an ardent advocate of fasting as a way to change character. He declared that “hurry and overwork are always sins.” If we define sin as anything that separates us from God, we can see the truth of his assertion. A great deal of hurry and overwork may be generated by the kind of hyperactivity that characterizes that popular national phenomenon, the work addict. Perpetually on the move, the work addict uses activity to avoid facing the self. Often the work addict is employed in one of the “helping professions.” He or she may be a minister, social worker, physician, psychologist or psychiatrist. When questioned about the constant work, perpetual meetings and limited family time, a work addict has the finest answer of all: “I’ve got to do this because these people need me. They depend on my help.”
Fasts of a day or two can be used without danger and generally turn off that kind of hard-driving activity. “I find that short fasts are extremely helpful in slowing me down,” said Richard Dunn of Hankins, New York. “I began experimenting with fasting about six years ago. I generally use it in any of three circumstances: (1) If I’ve been overeating; (2) if I’m having severe problems with anger, resentment or frustration; or (3) for a spiritual discipline. The longest I’ve fasted is four days. My results have generally been similar. There’s a physical purging that is reflected in increased clarity, reduced hostility. It knocks out worry and self-concern. The fasting improves my Yoga practice, and that in turn helps my meditation.”
Dick Dunn’s wife, Cathy, is another advocate of fasting as a way to better mental, physical and spiritual health. “I fasted one day a week for a year, and one of the things fasting did was to give me a much clearer awareness of my relationship to food -- of why I eat, for example. Often it’s not simply to satisfy my hunger but because I’m bored or feel I’m owed some pleasure. Four days has been my maximum fast. I was surprised to learn that I could serve food without hunger problems. Fasting makes me feel lighter, cleaner. It creates an easiness in living and helps my meditation.”
An attractive couple in their middle 30s, the Dunns have two children. They moved to New York from Chicago five years ago. Dick Dunn still speaks with some awe of what fasting accomplished for Dick Gregory. Dunn was an associate producer on the staff of WMAQ-TV in Chicago, and Gregory appeared on a TV program Dunn produced.
“Dick Gregory seemed to be completely free from hostility and anger of any kind,” exclaimed Dunn. “He was relaxed and stressed the need for love and understanding in improving our society. He was totally different from the man who had been so violently angry in his civil rights participation. Gregory said that he had been able to find freedom from anger and hate through fasting and adopting a vegetarian diet. He said that fasting cleanses the body, and as the poisons are thrown off there is a release from hatred and other sick emotions. He was a powerful witness for his ideas.”
Matthew 17:21 asserts the need for “prayer and fasting.” From a limitless number of round clergymen and equally pudgy church members this verse has never stirred much response. Both the Old and New Testaments proclaim the importance of fasting. Fasting played a key role in the spiritual journeys of Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad and Moses. Plato and Socrates recommended fasting for increasing mental and physical effectiveness. Such ancient physicians as Avicenna, Paracelsus and Hippocrates advocated fasting for treating a varied range of illnesses.
For thousands of years surprisingly diverse groups have fasted. Some fasted for spiritual initiation. The Zulus have a saying: “The continually stuffed body cannot see secret things.” Pythagoras fasted 40 days for enlightenment. The Cure of Ars fasted continually and demonstrated remarkable sanctity.
Yoga texts single out fasting as an important discipline for spiritual growth. Twenty-four-hour fasts on new-moon and full-moon days are usually suggested. Fasting is used as a means to develop detachment. Historically, Yoga philosophy views the body as the vehicle a person occupies on the journey through life. The individual is the traveler using the body to live out necessary experience, but is not the same as the body. This is a fundamental and crucial difference. Yoga texts say that we have forgotten our true identity. We have lost ourselves in a maze of desire destined to bring us only ignorance and misery. Yoga offers breathing exercises, meditation and such physical disciplines as postures and fasting. These build a road to higher levels of consciousness that rip away the blinding shrouds of ignorance.
These practices echo a view found in some Christian circles that we can find freedom only through persistent training and discipline. For example, many scholars believe that the familiar quotation “The meek shall inherit the earth” is the result of inaccurate translation. In their view, the Greek word praos, which was translated “meek,” should have been rendered as “trained” or “disciplined.” This alteration gives an entirely different meaning to the phrase.
Proponents of fasting stress the need to view the human being as a mental, physical and spiritual unity. Everything is connected to everything else. They also believe that in many instances a sick body will heal itself if given the opportunity through fasting. This theory is diametrically opposed to the view that a sick person must eat to keep one’s strength up. Animals, who have an instinctive understanding of self-healing, will usually not eat when sick.
The fast, along with rest and sunshine, provides an opportunity for the body to repair itself. Hunger usually disappears within the first two or three days of the fast; the tongue becomes coated, the breath foul. It is time to break the fast when the tongue clears up and hunger returns.
A distinction must be drawn between fasting and starvation. Fasting begins when the body begins to support itself on its reserves. Starvation occurs when abstinence continues past the time the reserves are used up. In practice, a human being has substantial reserves that will sustain life for many weeks. There is no danger of starvation during this period, although there may be healing crises that require the skilled supervision of a practitioner experienced in all aspects of reactions to fasting.
Dave Stry, who has supervised thousands of fasts over three decades, is an astonishingly energetic man of 66. He became converted to fasting at the age of 37 when a 30-day fast restored him to peak health. Stry has seen remarkable results in improved mental and physical condition among guests in his Cuernavaca resort. “Unquestionably,” he says, “fasting sets the stage for improved spiritual discipline. In my experience, a person can generally reverse his health problems through fasting and better living habits. Better health created by fasting will be mirrored by increased calmness and serenity and reduced anger. For a long fast, a person should have supervision throughout, because as the body cleanses itself, it sometimes forces healing crises. It’s also critical to break a long fast carefully.”
Dave Stry and other seasoned observers report the effectiveness of fasting in treating a staggering array of ills. These include heart trouble, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, prostate trouble, migraine, colitis, gallstones, peptic ulcers, allergies, glaucoma, cataracts and Méničre’s disease, to name a few.
Allan Cott, an internationally respected New York psychiatrist, told me that he has found fasting highly effective in treating schizophrenics. He went to Russia in 1970 and studied the work of Yuri Nikolayev, who prescribed fasts for mentally ill patients. Says Cott: “Dr. Nikolayev’s experience extends to more than 6,000 patients treated by fasting in the past 25 years. A study of his statistics showed that 70 per cent achieved such significant improvement that they were restored to functioning.” Cott described this as an “unparalleled achievement” in treating schizophrenics, because these patients had been treatment failures through an extended program of different kinds of therapy. The fasts consisted of complete abstinence from food for 25 to 30 days.
Dr. Cott’s book, Fasting: The Ultimate Diet, has been a runaway best seller since it was issued by Bantam in 1975. Describing the spiritual benefits of fasting, Cott says, “If a person makes fasting part of his life he’ll experience a heightened spiritual awareness. By taking a long fast or two and then fasting one day a week he’ll gradually find a growing peace and personal integration.”
Father John Moriarty, who lives in Guayaquil, Ecuador, is another enthusiastic advocate of fasting. “I’ve tried it for several days and one time for a week,” he said. “The weight loss was welcome, but I also found a noticeable increase in calmness and ability to live in the present. It improves my prayer life. Fasting’s benefits are both subtle and obvious.
Originally from Chicago, Father Moriarty is a Roman Catholic priest who has spent the past nine years in Ecuador. He was my interpreter on two trips to Vilcabamba, the Ecuadorian village famed for the longevity of its residents. In December 1975 Father Moriarty and I talked with Father Luis López in Guayaquil. Famous throughout Latin America, Father López is a staunch believer in fasting’s efficacy. John Moriarty and I talked with a man in Guayaquil who swore that four years ago López cured his mother-in-law of cancer by prescribing a fast. Today, he says, she’s in excellent health at 60.
Some claim that fasting can induce special powers. But men and women who have gotten somewhere in the spiritual life are invariably adamant when they speak of the trap of seeking special gifts and special powers. They point to these as egotistical blind alleys filled with danger for the seeker.
“God is among the pots and pans,” St. Theresa declared. With compelling clarity she stripped away the mystery and confusion in following God’s will. It is simply doing what I’m supposed to do each day, doing my job and other duties honestly and responsibly. Today, in my view, the spiritual life has nothing to do with special powers and everything to do with a growing ability to work effectively where God has put me.
The basic lesson seems to be that I’m free only when I’m willingly doing God’s will -- that the finest prayer is simply “Thy will be done.” Fasting, prayer and meditation blend easily together and improve my ability to pray this prayer with wholehearted commitment. They bring a degree of freedom from obsession with movement and things and help me sit quietly and listen for the voice of God. This concentration is reflected in greater stability, increased energy, absence of hurry and a growing awareness of what’s really important.