Fasting

by Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi

English version by Coleman Barks
Original Language Persian/Farsi

There's hidden sweetness in the stomach's emptiness.
We are lutes, no more, no less. If the soundbox
is stuffed full of anything, no music.
If the brain and belly are burning clean
with fasting, every moment a new song comes out of the fire.
The fog clears, and new energy makes you
run up the steps in front of you.
Be emptier and cry like reed instruments cry.
Emptier, write secrets with the reed pen.
When you're full of food and drink, Satan sits
where your spirit should, an ugly metal statue
in place of the Kaaba. When you fast,
good habits gather like friends who want to help.
Fasting is Solomon's ring. Don't give it
to some illusion and lose your power,
but even if you have, if you've lost all will and control,
they come back when you fast, like soldiers appearing
out of the ground, pennants flying above them.
A table descends to your tents,
Jesus' table.
Expect to see it, when you fast, this table
spread with other food, better than the broth of cabbages.

-- from The Illuminated Rumi, Translated by Coleman Barks

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

I featured this poem and commentary a couple of years ago, but I thought it would be appropriate to send it out again today in honor of my Muslim friends who are beginning Ramadan, the holy month of fasting and rededication...

There's hidden sweetness in the stomach's emptiness.
We are lutes, no more, no less. If the soundbox
is stuffed full of anything, no music.


Fasting is something we're not too comfortable with in the affluent West. Even though all religious traditions, including Christianity and Judaism, have rich, ancient traditions of fasting, we often don't have a real sense of what spirituality has to do with food -- or its avoidance. We tend to take a rather intellectual approach to spirituality. Even in modern New Age teachings, we have the notion that all we have to do is change our thinking and transformation occurs. But the results of that approach are often spotty. One reason is that mind is much more than thoughts, and transforming the mind requires deeper work. Thoughts are built on ingrained energetic patterns. For real transformation to occur, we have to get down to those foundational patterns. Very often this requires not merely changing one's thoughts, but tunneling beneath them. This is the purpose of deeper spiritual practice.

Fasting is a simple, universal, and powerful way to clear the mind and confront those more fundamental energies in the awareness.

But why? What does food have to do with any of this? We are not two things, a mind separate from a body, or even a mind that inhabits a body. The mind and body interpenetrate one another. If your body is injured, that physical pain demands attention, affecting the awareness. The state of the body impacts the clarity and focus of the mind. Feeding the body pure, healthy foods in general, and periodically allowing it to rest from the tiring work of digestion can profoundly free up energies for the awareness to tap into.

Here's something else you won't hear much: Food is a drug. Every food is a narcotic. Does that sound bizarre to you? I don't mean that normal foods are literally hallucinogenic. But every single thing you put into your mouth, affects consciousness in some way. We use food to control emotions. We use food to shift moods and change awareness. Think of the instinct to grab a pint of ice cream from the freezer after a terrible breakup. Everything, even a salad, affects consciousness in some way. The resulting psychic shift after eating something can be relatively positive or relatively negative. It can help us to feel solid and grounded or expanded and open. It can tantalize the senses and flood us with feelings of satiation or leave us frustrated. None of this is necessarily bad, but we must understand how profoundly food affects awareness, and utilize food wisely... and sometimes not to consume food at all.

A fascinating thing happens when you fast as part of a spiritual practice: After you ease past the initial psychic tension and your body moves through any initial discomforts -- the mind naturally settles and grows quiet. So much of the agitation of the mind arises from the foods we eat.

Recognizing this, food and fasting become an important part of spiritual practice.

The fog clears, and new energy makes you
run up the steps in front of you.


The first few times I tried to do just a one day fast, I was frankly terrified. I knew intellectually that a healthy human body can go for days without food, no problem. Many times in the past I had forgotten to eat breakfast, and it was no big deal, but on a day when I intentionally decided to fast, I'd be sweating and panicky by mid-morning. It took me a while to understand that fasting, even a mild fast, is a confrontation with death. It is the willingness to temporarily abandon that constant hunt to satisfy every desire by attempting to slough off the fundamental hunger for food. How do you just have a desire and sit with it, without attempting to immediately satisfy it? That's a pretty frightening question, when you really ask it.

With a little practice, you discover that what we often assume is physical hunger is actually mental hunger. For well-fed Westerners, it can take days, literally days, for true physical hunger to arise. The hunger we feel when we miss a couple of meals is really just mental habit, the reflexive desire to use food in order to regulate consciousness and control emotion. Follow that reflex to its root, and we find it originating from the ever-fearful ego, which is endlessly attempting to reinforce its fragile construction of a limited self inside a limited world by keeping the mind perpetually agitated.

Fasting, used carefully, with balance, and as part of a larger spiritual practice, becomes a way to help identify and unseat the despotic ego.

This is why fasting is practiced in all religions. And you don't even have to have a religious "faith." Just try it sometime, for a day, for half a day, wrestle your way through, and see what happens in you.

Be emptier and cry like reed instruments cry.
Emptier, write secrets with the reed pen.



Recommended Books: Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi

Poetry for the Spirit: Poems of Universal Wisdom and Beauty Perfume of the Desert: Inspirations from Sufi Wisdom Music of a Distant Drum: Classical Arabic, Persian, Turkish & Hebrew Poems Open Secret: Versions of Rumi The Way of Passion: A Celebration of Rumi
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Fasting