Fasting and food

Fasting is universal among spiritual traditions and among those who pursue alternative ways of increasing or sustaining health. As with all practices, fasting has its own dharma, its own rules and ways. Fasting is never to be pursued for its own sake, and never out of a psychological motive like self-punishment or depression. Done correctly, fasting is merely the accentuation of a style of eating, a matter of degrees rather than of quantity. Eastern traditions recommend that one stop eating about two-thirds of the way towards fullness, that one chew carefully and thoroughly to be present with the food in order to appreciate how little is needed after all. To many, this practice itself is fasting, but to the sages this practice is a spectrum or continuity.

Though ostensibly an opposition to gluttony and excess, fasting may have originated from necessity. Ancient peoples — and many in the world today — simply had little to eat and reconciled themselves to this poverty. Those who suffer hunger usually do not want to enshrine hunger as a religious practice. But a relationship with one’s environment rather than a relationship with what is stocked in a store is how peoples have always eaten, and one’s environment does not give excess. Excess is a misunderstanding of nature’s cycles. Hence the European saying, “Feast today, famine tomorrow.” Fasting may better be put in terms of enduring hunger when bad times come, not a pursued desire or practice in itself but an inevitable tolerance of life’s vicissitudes.

Gluttony is not the providence of suffering, however. The wealthy — and the relatively wealthy as defined today makes nearly anyone in modern industrial society “wealthy” — pursue gluttony as pleasure, status, or compulsion. The active philosophizing about food as epicurean or gourmet products of art and sensuality is a sophisticated counterpart to the average person’s rhapsody about junk food. The animal instinct of eating when food is available because food might not be available some day, is perverted in human beings who today have food readily at hand. People gorge as if compelled by the instinct-driven animal, but, of course, the motive is not the same.

Furthermore, modern captains of industry recognize gluttony as a market. Producers of food and its junk equivalents manufacture, process, adulterate, and popularize their products in order to take advantage of the breakdown in cultural and ethnic norms of eating, of food as expression of the earth and land, as the bounty of work and harvest. Today, food satisfies both instinct and vice.

The many voices challenging the flippant view of food as pleasure notice the mechanics of food production and object to the dehumanization of industrial production. This exposition is welcome, but insufficient. The root psychology of food is more difficult to define. The popular tastes that elicit instinct, namely sugars, fats, salts, have their psychological counterparts, as the Ayurvedic doshas recognize, and traditional diets of the East refine. Western diets, based on ancestral and environmental factors, have remained place-bound, unmoving, and bound to instinct. Even those who want to make the Western diet healthy merely try to localize it, which is the original justification for such a diet, after all, and does not move the issue forward.

Fasting may break the stronghold of instinct, for it makes eating conscious and addresses instinct and physiology. As religious practice, fasting probably arose as a natural remedy for physical ailment. Fasting only became ritualized within a given culture with the recognition of food’s power over the self. Thus did fasting become a universal method of successfully addressing excess, first of body, then of spirit, for fasting is a physical version of meditation. Fasting selects, apportions, discriminates, empties, and accepts. It is a method finding consensus among all traditions.

Many sages have written about fasting, and the consensus means that the parameters of fasting are understood. Only the varieties of methods are different, depending on the goal and the availability of types of foods, as well as the physiology and ailment addressed, if that is the purpose. Fasting has a therapeutic purpose, even in those who are not physically sick.

The circumstances of locality and environment ought to govern the parameters of eating, but no longer do in a globalized economy, where food from across the world can be bought for as little as food from nearby. Only with a conscious effort can one limit the food eaten to the locality where one lives and type of food that grows there. A correspondence exists between soil, air, water, climate, plants — and one’s physiology. So it was for centuries — centuries that produced sages in fertile regions of the world as well as inhospitable ones: India and China, the Celtic woodlands, the rocky Greek islands, the Middle Eastern deserts, the Northern forests. Perhaps localization would be necessary to ever make the correspondence between food and self truly natural. Perhaps a consciousness of where food comes from, and where we come from, would make eating and fasting an expression of right living.

Making links

The link between the life and behavior of a philosopher, thinker, or creative person and that person’s work is often made, even insisted upon. In The Book of Dead Philosophers, Simon Critchley even makes the manner of death linked to the style of life — though, of course, it does not hold up, and his flippant attempts at humor are not very sympathetic to the whole subject. Usually, a link between life and expression is made to argue that the ideas or beliefs are flawed because of the person’s behavior — or the opposite, that the manner of a person’s life proves the value of the idea.

What an irony — the linkage works both ways! Whether we condemn or praise the ideas, those ideas are made the responsibility of the person. Or, conversely, whether we condemn or praise the person’s behavior, that behavior becomes the basis of the ideas.

So we are trapped having to accept both or none — if we insist on a link.

More likely, and more realistically, there is no absolute link because there is no completely new idea, nor is there any completely new personality or behavior.

A creative person skirts the edge in forms of expression and what a given society will look like socially or technologically, but that appearance involves historical or accidental elements that simply distinguish one era from another, one culture from another — not necessarily one person from another, or one idea from another. New ideas are not channeled from the dead and morphed upon arrival into some human receptacle that will express the ideas. Rather, old ideas are textured by the atmosphere in which the ideas arrive. Every era is a modernity to the ideas of the past. The genealogy of ideas is traceable because “nothing is new under the sun.” Through the prism of the moment are applied the myriad factors of what is called “the world” and it looks familiar.

But neither does this mean that no linkage between existence and expression can be maintained.

Ideas are the epiphenomena of mental activity, which is in part a physical and physiological foundation for our thoughts. The mind’s complexity will probably never be unraveled. Science will not pursue the issue that far. No only because it cannot. Rather, it explores neuroscience on behalf of others, its funders, its protectors, its front-room desk wardens. Why should science exist at this point except to control our environment, our food, our material conditions, our autonomy, and our thoughts?

Not only must we weigh many factors before judging the thoughts of a person, but the myriad conditionals make no thought autonomous, original, new. Humanity shares the same experiences, whether as instincts still haunting the brain mechanisms, or primordial experiences poured into the pool of collective unconscious.

Psychological trauma or environment or ingested stuff (even food, now contaminated with so many substances) can change the ideas, expressions, and behaviors of people. The epidemic of autism and attention-deficit disorder in young children, suicides among soldiers on prescribed chemical cocktails that enable them to continue their sanctioned behavior, depression among adults — all appear to be very modern insofar as they are linked to modern environmental factors or pharmaceuticals. Behavior in the past was in that since more “rational” and predictable, even if not more benign or violent by extremes. Thousands and thousands of chemical exist today that did not exist in the past, but more to the point is their proliferation and justification.

Thus, when we hear arguments or creative expressions from music to film to fashion to scandal made today as if they are new, we must filter them through the clouded atmosphere of what it means to exist in modern times.

Additionally, we have little experience in what material conditions affected our best-thinking ancestors. Yet we can identify those trains of thought so well. We can even, by methodically subtracting the products of industry and technology, vaguely reproduce their world, though not so well their thoughts. But how can we ever apply this to better our lives today when the material conditions that nurtured our best-thinking ancestors are gone, and when nearly everyone’s identification with modern society is so strong?

This challenge is the prime reason that solitude and silence are essential to our well-being. Despite the many relaxation techniques trumpeted today, they have no ancient context, no continuity other than name and form, if we use them only to postpone value-making decisions, if we use them to allay stress just long enough that we are recovered for the next day’s rat race.

So to with our material lives, wrapped up in technology, petroleum, industry, pollution. So, too, these words, made visible as dancing electrons, are my thoughts, evanescent, doomed to disappear if anything changes in our power grid, or network of dependence. So much thatch.

The link between behavior and ideas is authentic only if we are able to understand the context of the person’s life and times. Thought and art is a combination of a complex of mental interchanges, among which is plain personality, that tightened bundle of heredity, environment, life circumstances. The best art, like the best ideas, are anonymous, and come to us over the centuries as a perennial wisdom, self-effacing and deeply resonant, like a deep still pool of water undisturbed from which any can drink. Such is Jung’s collective unconscious, the waters of which all must drink. Such is the tradition of the self-effacing spirituals who did not write anything, or reputedly did so but probably did not: Buddha, Lao-tzu, Jesus, the mystics whose works are mere ashes of the fire that burned, the poets and painters of antiquity whose reflectiveness enabled them to see into the nature of things. Even the wisdom philosophers who wrote, and wrote a great deal, were only trying to express what they could barely retain.

We can read and study as much as we can, but without changing our environment and behavior, little will be accomplished. We can identify ourselves with the dead and the past, but until we understand the tenuous link between behavior and expression, we are apt to make overstatements on the one hand or on the other hand lack comprehension of or tolerance for the many ignorant of the modern world.

The slender thread that links us to wider reality is more important than anything we think or dream, anything in our environment that impedes us, though we must be scrupulous not to obscure our view of it. Solitude and silence alone will enable us to hear it, to feel it resonating within.

Buñuel’s “Simon”

Simeon Stylites, the famous 5th-century hermit who stood on a pillar in the desert most of his life, is an anomalous figure even among the early Christian desert fathers. Despite many contemporary writers such as Theodoret, Zosimus, John Cassian, and others, Simeon’s life is only barely summarized in a couple of paragraphs of Evagrius’ Ecclesiastical History. No sayings are collected or recorded. We must wait until 13th-century hagiographic compilation, The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, for a richer report.

The modern sentiment on eremitism has been best expressed by the historian Edward Gibbon, who sees hermits in general but Simeon in particular as an exemplar of barbarism worthy of the Enlightenment’s scorn and vituperation. Gibbon has no interest in the hagiographical version of Simeon, dismissing his life as a long “aerial penance.”

So it is refreshing to discover Simeon anew through the film lens of the Spanish surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel. Despite his reputation as an anticlerical dialectical materialist and atheist (though it was quite the intellectual mode in his heyday), Buñuel is far more judicious than critics and contemporaries wanted him to be. In his film Simon of the Desert (Simón del desierto), the protagonist Simon is a strong-willed and unflinching personality, not merely in moral terms but in character, personality, and in terms of people and circumstances. Simon looks out symbolically over the world from his pillar, from a solitude disengaged from a fallen and irredeemable world. Even among his supposed petitioners, supporters, and fellow Christians, there is vice, envy, lust, cruelty, though he speaks to them, albeit in lofty words. The pillar is a device or extension of what enables Simon to remain steadfast in consciousness and state of mind.

Clearly Buñuel identified with Simon. In an interview (reproduced in a pamphlet accompanying the DVD of the film), Buñuel says:

The character really moves me. I enjoy his sincerity, his lack of interest, his innocence. … [For example,] Simon neither knows nor understands what property is. He is even more innocent than a child because children cling to objects. Simon needs nothing more than air, a little water, and lettuce. He is free and would be free even in a jail cell. By the same token, Robinson Crusoe — and here is the difference between the two — is not free, because he has a desperate need for company.

And Buñuel places Simon in the context of a tradition of solitude and silence.

Solitude can be terrible, but also desirable. I can see this in myself: at times, when I am alone, I want a friend or two to come visit because I get bored looking at the tips of my shoes or watching a buzzing fly. But I also like to be alone with my soul, to daydream, to image the imaginable … and the unimaginable. What sense is there in going out into the street to see nothing but the hoods of cars and to suffer from the noise? Silence is nearly impossible today; it’s something precious that is very difficult to find anywhere. For example, if you went to the North Pole to enjoy the silence, I wouldn’t be surprised if an Eskimo immediately appeared on his sled … with a noisy portable radio. Can you imagine what the silence must have been like in the Middle Ages? Leaving a town or city, within a few steps you could find silence, or natural sounds, which are marvelous: songs of birds, of cicadas, or the murmur of the rain. We have lost this in our time. There is an infernal instrument that really could have been invented by the devil or by an enemy of mankind: the electric guitar. What diabolical times we live in: crowds, smog, promiscuity, radios, etc. I would happily return to the Middle Ages, as long as it was before the Great Plague of the fourteenth century.

Buñuel is always ironic but not a deceiver. Buñuel is not kidding in his admiration for Simon, although Buñuel’s interlocutors goad him towards admitting some salacious purpose or secret joke or ridicule of Simon. Buñuel acknowledges the black humor of some moments in the film, as when the monks confuse various and obscure theological terms, or when a miracle restores a man’s hands only to see him use it to slap his little daughter on the head. But this is just how people are, in every age. The irony is only in the people, not in Simon. Modernist viewers will think that the foibles of the people, the coreligionists, somehow denigrate Simon’s purpose, mock him for absurdity. They do not realize that Simon is not there for them, or for anyone else. As the Marxist critic Robert Sayres has noted, the desert hermits not only fled the world, they also fled the world that was in the Church.

The co-star of the film is, of course, the devil. Here is showcased Buñuel’s originality and genius, for The Golden Legend does not even suggest this intricate relationship, beyond even that of the traditional accounts of hermits beset by demons. And the devil is, not unexpected, a woman, in various disguises of schoolgirl, villager, shepherd boy, temptress. Each time she is foiled by Simon’s steadfastness, until she wearies of the game and announces that she is taking him far away. The film ends in a noisy New York City discotheque, where a shorn, professorial-looking Simon, tugging on a pipe, seated at a table, looks on patiently at the gyrating dancers amid the deafening noise of the rock band. He asks the devil the name of the dance, and she replies “Radioactive Flesh.” “It is the last dance,” she assures him, and Simon merely replies that he wants to go home. And shortly the word “Fin” appears. The story is done. The last dance is over.

Buñuel weakly protests that the abrupt ending was not his intention — the budget fell short, and he had wanted to include other scenes from “The Golden Legend. But it is perfectly apropos. The hell to which Simon has been taken, like the view from the pinnacle of the citadel in the Gospel story, is the world, Buñuel’s contemporary world. Bunuel admits a certain nostalgia. “Culturally, I’m a Christian,” he states. That is bound to have a sensibility for framing his allegory, his symbols, and life’s observations. And when his critics retort that the religious questions Buñuel poses have already been resolved, Buñuel replies that he doesn’t care. “I don’t make thesis films or religious ones or atheist ones.” That no one knows may be his message, but even that message he casts doubts upon.

Simon of the Desert is an exemplary film, an allegory, not merely on the eremitic question but on any universal question one may wish to pose.