Tuesday, June 7, 2016

A Spirituality of Fasting

"An Abundance of Emptiness-
- in the desert wilderness -

Muslims all over the world have begun their annual observance of the month of Ramadan, a 30-day period of disciplined fasting – no food or drink from sunrise to sunset throughout the entire month.

My guess is that plenty of people living in America who come from a Western culture have little or no interest in the meaning or purpose of Ramadan – most don’t even know the Ramadan fast is taking place. After all, Muslims are often viewed with a suspicious eye in this country, and besides we all live in a land of abundance. We live in a “food culture” of all-you-can-eat menus and super-sized meals. So the idea of spending an entire month “fasting from food and drink” may seem odd, perhaps a bit esoteric and maybe even a bit suspicious to some people.

Interestingly enough, almost every world-wide spiritual tradition recommends the practice of fasting as an esteemed discipline on the spiritual path. Furthermore, in today's culture where more and more people are focusing on eating healthier foods, lots of mind-body practitioners recommend a regular period of fasting from food and drink as a way to cleanse the body from toxins that build up over time. So fasting is neither odd nor esoteric.

Since I grew up in the Christian tradition, the idea of fasting is not totally unfamiliar to me. When I was a boy and the season of Lent came around, we were expected to “give up” a favorite treat like candy or soda and we abstained from eating meat on Friday. We were told that doing this would be “pleasing in the sight of God.”  But as I look back at it now, to be very honest this kind of fasting seems somewhat trivial to me and I was never quite sure how depriving my body of something I enjoyed eating was going to make God happy.

I have been thinking about the 30-day “fast” observed by Muslins in this month of Ramadan. It is hardly a trivial discipline, it is a deeply spiritual practice, an icon of what fasting is all about on any spiritual path.

From my many conversations with Muslim friends I have learned that Muslims do not embrace this arduous discipline of fasting to somehow “punish” themselves in order to gain favor with God; but rather to “open” themselves to a deeper spiritual experience.  The Ramadan fast is a disciplined act of being physically, emotionally and spiritually “emptied out” so that the soul might be ready to be "filled up" with newer, richer, more abundant life.

I came across a poem-prayer from the Islamic tradition that wonderfully defines the essence of what “fasting” is all about during this month of Ramadan:

There is an unseen sweetness in the stomach’s emptiness.
We are lutes,
and when the sound box is filled, no music can come forth.
When the brain and belly burn from fasting,
a new song rises out of the fire.
The mists clear
and a new vitality springs up within you.

I have learned that the word “Ramadan” comes from the Arabic word for “scorching heat and dryness.” Today the afternoon temperatures are expected to be around 110 degrees out here in the desert where I live, and and at this time of year the wilderness seems even more empty than usual. My guess is that this is exactly why Ramadan is always celebrated at this emptiest and driest season of the year.

In this season of scorching heat and desert dryness, I honor the sacred tradition of fasting in this holy month of Ramadan. I empty my body and soul and mind so that I may ready and available to being filled up with newer and more abundant life, that “ a new song might rise up in me out of the fire.”

The ancient Taoist Lao Tzu puts it this way:

Become totally empty.
Only then will you witness everything unfolding from the emptiness.

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