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.