A friend asked the other day what I had given up for Lent. Was she mad? This is 2021 and I appear to have given up most of my life over the last twelve months – what is left to give up? Hope? Self-pity? Anger? But the question reminded me of the days when many of us gave up something for Lent – as children it was invariably sweets – and later in life either alcohol or chocolate. Why? What is it about the human psyche that makes us feel that depriving ourselves of something we really like is good for us?
And for many the idea that we are doing good for body, mind and spirit lingers on in various ways. In the developed world we know that we over-indulge, which is how obesity, any number of diseases, allergies, dependencies and psychological problems can develop. Hence the treatment for many such cases often begins with removing some foodstuff from a diet, cutting down on different habits and in many cases cutting stuff out completely. After a particularly indulgent break, holiday or party we often put ourselves on strict rations – not quite bread and water – but no fats, booze or sugary stuffs – for a few days. A particular example is the dry January phenomenon where alcohol is eschewed for the full month after the Christmas binge.
There is nothing new about fasting, it is as old as time when holy men and hermits headed for the desert to fast and pray. It has a role in the rituals of most belief systems from the Jewish Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, through to the holy month of Ramadan in the Islamic calendar through to the Christian Lent and to the practice of Buddhist monks to refrain from eating after noon. All devoted to the one purpose of freeing the body so that the mind could focus on prayer, meditation etc. Hence somewhere in the deepest recesses of our muscle memory we must have learned that our mind can be more alert when not consumed with the idea of food.
Medical practices in later years added to the efficacy of depriving the body of food when we were asked to fast before surgery or other medical procedures…and gradually as our knowledge and understanding of the body grew it was thought that some food abstinence might occasionally do us some good.
Which is how in parts of some of the most advanced countries in the world the concept of fasting acquired a new and fashionable aspect – when it was adopted and adapted as part of wellbeing programmes. It began, slowly and gingerly, with one day fasts in the middle of detox programmes at some of the approved medical spas throughout the world, before stepping out into the do-it-yourself method. Weekend detoxes with accompanying herbal teas and all sorts of broths became the A-lister way to improve body, mind and spirit until Intermittent Fasting roared onto the scene with books, magazine and newspaper serialisations, apps and even TV shows.
Intermittent Fasting means you restrict the intake of food for a number of hours a day – the most popular choice being to leave 12 hours between meals. Easily done and easily followed should you opt to finish your last meal of one day late evening, forsake breakfast and not eat again until lunchtime the next.
Another and more popular version is to eat whatever you need within an eight hour period, say between lunch and dinner…and fast until the next lunchtime. Devotees claim that not only do they lose weight or maintain a weightloss but that it also helps clears the mind.
Indeed one of the acknowledged benefits of fasting (once you learn to ignore stomach rumblings), is that it helps focus the mind, which is why all those holymen, hermits and sadhus were able to pray and meditate for hours, days and months on end. And while many recognised this liaison between body and mind during the fasting process it wasn’t until Dr Otto Buchinger, a German medic, visionary and scientist, researched the emotional and self-healing powers of fasting via his own experience, that the full effects of therapeutic fasting was recognised. To this day his findings, merged with elements of integrative medicine are used in the clinics bearing his name in both Germany and Spain. Scientists, poets, artists and corporate chieftains head for the Buchinger cure for today’s ailments of body, mind and spirit where the body is cared for, the mind relaxed and the spirit refreshed following the Buchinger mantra – ‘during fasting, the body thrives, but the soul hungers’.