First of all, the title is not click-bait. If you stay tuned I guarantee you’ll learn something amazing that could change your life.
Quick update on my fasting life. Last Tuesday and Wednesday I fasted, and this week I’m fasting again. My boyfriend was ready to jump on board and fast with me again, so we’ve turned this into a couple’s activity! (Yes, we’re THIS fun and will show up at your party if you invite us.) It’s currently Wednesday morning at 8 am and I haven’t eaten since Monday evening at 6 pm. Hunger level: 2/10 and I’m drinking a black coffee. I definitely would enjoy eating breakfast if I could, but I feel that my monkey mind is pretty calm. No shit-throwing tantrums on the horizon! There was a shit-throwing internal tantrum for me yesterday – keep reading.
For me, the greatest benefit of fasting is not the super-fast weight-loss, and it’s mostly water anyways. It’s not about muscles definition after my glycogen stores are depleted and my dermis has thinned out. The greatest benefit is not even cancer prevention, anti-aging, or autophagy. (BTW, you can read more about those benefits in last week’s post.) Rather, the greatest benefit of fasting has to do with the mind.
There are a lot of fasting folks out there touting the benefits of fasting for weight loss, to regain insulin sensitivity, balance hormones, kickstart a diet, etc. This conversation on Youtube, WordPress, Facebook, and Instagram is fantastic and there’s a lot of good stories and information making the rounds to help us in the first world cure the diseases of food over-consumption; shout out to my paleo, keto, intermittent fasting, water fasting friends – we’re all kicking the sugar habit.
But what has really been missed is how to achieve equal mental benefits and transformations from fasting. It has not been talked about nearly enough in comparison to physical benefits. I think it’s because the fasting protocols, lecturing doctors, TED Talks and vlogs and blogs are generally focused on describing the physical journey of fasting. Maybe there is some discussion of mental struggle on the periphery, but that is not the focus. Even when people talk about the mental journey, it’s about the struggle and the desire to escape bad feelings, low-self esteem, to punish oneself or gain willpower or whatever. It might just be my Youtube suggestions steering me to the wrong videos, but I tend to see broken people at the end of “X days of Fasting” vlogs. If you’re fasting correctly, your mind should come out looking like this:
Fasting can actually be a pleasant mental experience. Every time I fast, without exception, I achieve some new depth of self-knowledge. I learn about myself and discover some unpleasant truth, or have my positive self-image challenged. Despite this, I come out of the fast feeling at ease with myself and with greater self-love. Coming up: Diary from yesterday, followed by some fasting techniques for your best brain!
My boyfriend gets up for work and leaves me lying in bed, but since I have schoolwork to do, I might as well get up. To be honest, at this point I was not looking forward to fasting nor to writing a reading response on a cloudy brain. The first few hours of a fast for me, I’d say 12-18 hours are really the worst for focus, since the body is in a state of gradually running out of stored glycogen and moving through gluco-neogenesis, by which glucose is created from amino-acids in the liver. YMMV, since if you’re keto adapted and have little glycogen it happens quickly, but for the Standard American Diet (SAD) it might take you two days for this your body to use up all the glycogen and old proteins hanging around. I’m not prepared, but I get out of bed anyways and fire up my laptop, grabbing a black instant coffee – less time spend in the kitchen, the better!
I’ve written a reading response after trying to find inspiration from Youtube lectures on the topic. The theme for this week’s lectures is whether or not it’s wrong to believe statements for which we have insufficient evidence, but the authors keep talking about God, Christianity and religion. I’m not really into this topic at the moment. At this point, I’m feeling these self-doubting and negative thoughts creeping in:
“You didn’t really understand the arguments, and that’s why you’re not inspired. This is an interesting topic and it’s your fault that you’re not into it.”
“This class is too advanced for you – you don’t belong there.”
“You’re not a philosopher. You’re an imposter.”
Mid-morning and I really want to put something flavorful in my mouth to stop these inner-voices. My mind tells me that “A cold Zevia cola (my favorite!) would really put out the flames, right?” To be honest, I have had these thoughts before but I thought I’d already dealt with them. After 18 hours without food, they are back. I sit with them and close my eyes to feel these uncomfortable feelings; I realize they come from a place of social conditioning that “I am allowed to value myself for my intellectual abilities,” and have a fear of being nothing, useless, garbage, if I am not intellectually excelling. I think a lot of women are taught that it’s shallow to value yourself for your looks – fair enough – and it’s healthier to encourage girls to value themselves for their brains. It occurs to me that we ought to just straight-up value ourselves for being one-of-a-kind humans. I say to myself:
“I’m ok, exactly as I am. I’m just a human being doing human being stuff. There is no perfect and I don’t need to try to be perfect. Who made that rule anyways?” The negative voices go away.
And then, comes boredom.
Normally I do some kind of intermittent fasting til noon or 1 pm, then eat. Today there’s nothing for lunch. I went out to have a manicure and pedicure to get ready for my vacation to Hong Kong and Tokyo on Thursday. The boredom brings out the worst inner dialogue. When I’ve got no food, no cooking, no media, no reading, then I start to feel like a useless human being again. Isn’t it strange how we tie our self-worth to how many hours we spend at work, or the number on the paycheck? Right now I’m freelancing, working a couple part-time jobs, and taking a course at UBC. I’m not destitute but the writing business isn’t booming yet. Deep inside I somehow feel like my boyfriend will dump me for not being productive today. WTF? And where do those thoughts come from? Who thinks like that? Apparently, according to some Buddhist thought, this is my ego is trying to figure out ways she can make me feel inadequate, so that she can justify her existence and make me consume. I don’t challenge these ridiculous thoughts this time. I just watch the the thought become some ugly scenario and feel the inadequacy and dread inside, touching and observing them just as I do my bodily sensation of hunger.
“It’s just ego.”
I’m also waiting for the Vietnamese manicurist to finish eating her absolutely heavenly smelling lunch. Annoyance arises and I catch myself:
“Wait, I thought I was a compassionate person! Am I really annoyed that someone is eating their lunch because it’s lunch hour and they’re hungry?”
There it is – another realization that maybe I’m not who I like to think of myself as. Who am I, really? I start breathing mindfully with compassion and chill out while she eats.
My nails look fabulous. My boyfriend is at work and I call him to ask if he ate lunch. He hadn’t. Part of me was hoping that he ate, tacitly giving me consent to nibble on something at home. I tell him to go to McDonald’s and he laughs! Not temped at all.
All afternoon I bargain with myself. I feel like I’m back in Shanghai in the markets:
Shanghai Saleswoman: “You want to buy? Just look. Ni kan kan. I show you – you like pink colour?”
Fasting brain: “You want to eat? Just go take a look in the fridge, it won’t hurt. Just see what’s there – looking’s ok.”
Shanghai Saleswomen: “You no like? My friend shop close by. What you want to buy? Watch, bag, shoe? I can get for you, no problem!”
Fasting brain: “Hmm, nothing there tempting enough? Just think about how close the grocery store is… isn’t there something there you want to eat? Chicken, chocolate, okra chips, nuts. No biggie, we can go get it right now!”
I sit cross-legged under a blanket in the living room and wonder how is it that we work against ourselves like this? I thought I was in control of myself, but why am I fighting myself when I don’t physically need to eat? I don’t feel the mental energy to do reading or writing, but I have the urge to do something and eating would cure it.
Fasting brain: “You know, it’s your boyfriend’s fault that you’re fasting today. He remembered that you agreed to it. Since he’s gone, you could just go have a little snack and he would never know. What’s so wrong with eating? Nothing’s wrong with eating, just have a little!”
There’s blame. You know in the TV show Survivor when the people in the show start to get really catty and suspicious of each other? They undermine each other, lay blame, and get cliquey? I feel like that’s happening inside my head. My brain is an island inhabited by Emily’s and only one can survive. Am I telling myself that the fast is really about my boyfriend? I didn’t expect that sneaky move, Emily.
At this point I admit to physically feeling very hungry. I watched the clock, I moved around and fidgeted, I bargained more with myself. My boyfriend came home and we lie on the living room floor discussing our day and what insights we gained about ourselves from fasting.
And now, the goods…
Why does fasting promote mental healing?
If you don’t know your sickness, it will be difficult to treat it. Imagine you went to the doctor complaining of a swollen, painful belly. In the absence of anything obvious, it could be constipation, infection, nutrient deficiency, liver failure, etc. The doctor feels it, runs blood tests, and might even ask you to track your pain frequency, type, and intensity. A doctor wouldn’t treat you until he knew what the problem is. Carrying the analogy one step further, even if he prescribes a painkiller to make you more comfortable you’d still want to know what the illness is. And to know that you’d need to be able to tell him if the pain is stabbing, shooting, aching, and how often and when it comes, and how much it hurts on a scale of 1 to 10.
To reach your peak mental ability and health, you need to have the same understanding of your mental state. And here is they key: Self-knowledge is the most valuable benefit you can gain from fasting. Who are you and what emotions do you feel? Where do the emotions come from, and what activities prompt them? How intense are they?
My rundown of yesterday describes some mental chatter that arises
- in response to a vacuum of time
- in response to an uncomfortable physical sensation.
When we cut out a certain activity and put nothing else in its place, there’s room everything that’s been suppressed to bubble up and be confronted. Food plays such a big role in our lives; it can be used to enhance our lives, but is just as often used to Hide, Avoid, Distract, or Lash Out. (Thanks to Kara Loewentheil for summarizing those behaviours).
Fasting creates a vacuum that exposes your true mental activity. Ask yourself if you are trying to Hide, Avoid, or Distract from emptiness, loneliness, hunger, pain, low self-esteem, negative thoughts, a job we hate, relationships that aren’t working, emotions that we don’t want to feel, anger at our lover or children. Writing a journal is a great way to look back see what is going on underneath, and it’s one of the greatest tools for self-knowledge.
Fasting exposes your Lashing Out behavior. As you can see from what I wrote above, I have frustration, anger, and blame for myself and others. Everyone does, but we try to do this as surreptitiously as possible in order to avoid chastisement from society. Frustration is uncomfortable; blame makes it easier. Fasting can help you figure out what really makes you frustrated and angry because you don’t have food to pacify yourself. When hungry or angry, a simple mantra is this:
Hunger (in short fasts) is just a feeling. It will not harm you, it will not kill you. It will go away without a trace if you let it be. Hunger does not actually require any action. You can concentrate on it and experience it, but that does not even make it more dangerous. You can even love it! Hunger is a kitten, not a lion.
Frustration/Anger is just a feeling. It will not harm you, it will not kill you. It will go away without a trace if you let it be. Anger does not require any action. You can concentrate on it and experience it, but that does not make it more dangerous. You can even love it, because it is natural part of your life as a human being. Anger is a kitten, not a lion.
The Keys to Fasting for Mental Benefits
To know yourself, you will need to minimize distractions and safe-havens in the hunger storm. That means
- Minimize talking and texting. It takes you out of your own head and into other people’s heads.
- Shun social media and forums. Don’t put more garbage in until you’ve got the garbage out.
- Drugs and alcohol are out. I think this goes without explanation.
- Perfumes, jewelry, watches, fashion. Channel Steve Jobs and keep it simple so that you can get the mental work done.
- Shopping. Consuming and flexing your economic muscles makes you feel powerful but directly fills that vacuum that fasting creates. Who are you, without your money?
- Music and TV. Did you know that music tricks your brain into thinking that time is passing more quickly? Since we experience music physically as well as mentally, it’s a powerful distracter. And TV is about other people’s emotions – fasting day is about yours.
If you’re already fasting, I hope you’ll enhance your physical fasts by adding in some of my recommendations. You can try one, or all, depending on your experience. You can try them for a full day or half, or maybe just a few hours at a time.
I highly advise combining them with journaling and simple mindful breathing when things start to mentally feel quite uncomfortable, as it inevitably will. Mindful breathing just requires closing your eyes, sitting comfortably, and watching the “breathing in, breathing out” as it happens.
Ah-ha! Hopefully you by now realize that my title was not click-bait. So, if you try any of my fasting suggestions, I’d love to hear your comments on how they worked for you. If you disagree and hated it, I want to hear that too! Sharing is caring.
Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor and this advice is not meant to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease known or unknown. YMMV, pay attention to your body, and do your own research before following medical advice. This blog is for entertainment purposes only.