I just completed an eight day fast, cleanse, or detox — depending on which term you prefer. People likely use different words based upon their underlying intention. Any of the terms work for what I am about to share because my intention was all three, and then some.
What did it look like?
I did not eat any chewable food for a week.
Instead I drank green juices, tea, and a cup of blended vegetable soup once a day. I gave my body a rest from ingesting, chewing, digesting, and eliminating food.
For two reasons.
Firstly I have found this type of yearly respite to be extremely beneficial for my body’s health, vitality, and longevity — thus the appropriate use of the terms detox, cleanse, and fast.
Second, I find fasting — the term I will use from here on — to be a fabulous spiritual practice.
Let me say a bit more about this second reason.
First let’s define *spiritual* and then define *practice*.
These terms have become used so generally and generously that their meaning has become diluted. The effects of this have left many seekers disoriented and thwarted in progressing on their path.
When it comes to the great work of developing ourselves — or healing ourselves or aligning ourselves with some higher purpose or power — it’s important to inquire into any particular teacher, method, or lineage as to what their overall orientation is (in other words, what does spiritual mean to them?) and what their strategies and tactics are in assisting people to become more spiritually developed (in other words, what are their practices?).
Selfistry is my orientation to a spiritually developed life and includes the practices I encourage in order to achieve what I call Artistry of the Self. It is within the Selfistry context that I will explain how fasting is a spiritual practice.
A little background …
When I was in retreat for ten years, I would regularly engage in water fasting. In a given week, I would only drink water for 36 to 72 hours, and then periodically for a three to five day stretch. These fasts were anything but good for my physical health. At the time, my body was not in a position to reap the health benefits from a respite to my digestion without being nourished in the process (what green drinks do) because I was already in a chronic fatigue pattern due to a childhood bout with rheumatic fever that culminated in a prescription of antibiotics every day for the subsequent ten years of my life. You read that correctly. Antibiotics every day. Ten years. I stopped taking them when I was 18 of my own volition — the doctors would have kept me on them for life — but never felt quite right. Ever.
While in retreat during my thirties, my body had not yet healed or regenerated from the illness and the treatment of the illness. It was running on a very low battery. A water fast always pushed it even lower. Nonetheless, I persevered, precisely because **perseverance was the goal**. I was not fasting as a health practice detox cleanse in those days. It was an austerity practice to assist me in disidentifying from the body and mind so that I might rest my attention on what I call Source. Feel free to substitute for Source the word God, Higher Power, Great Spirit, Allah, or any other name of your liking.
Many ascetics throughout history fasted as a mode of penance or supplication, longing to be closer to their version of God. I was doing the same thing.
And it worked.
What fasting did for me in those days, maybe because it was so hard for me, was to bring me closer to Source. Sam, my fellow monk, had a much sturdier constitution than I and fasting for him was mostly a breeze. I envied him. But I also felt that, because I suffered more than him, I was more likely to achieve my goal. Likely untrue as a general rule, but it helped me persevere nonetheless.
The internal challenge of taking a stand and saying no to my body and mind ultimately strengthened the Witness in me. The Witness is what I call the consciousness inside of us that has the capacity to step back and dispassionately observe with wonder and curiosity, without judgement or agenda. Not just the world outside, but more importantly, our interior landscape. Because I made a commitment, and exercised my will to not break it, each moment was an exercise in saying no to the pleas of my many other selves.
In Selfistry we call each individual thought and feeling pattern a story and highlight their agenda — the what and the how of their existence. This can help us disentangle our sense of an integrated self and open us to the multifaceted nature of our personality or ego structure. By breaking down the self into parts, which we call selves, we are more able to begin to coordinate them into a more coherent and healthy orientation to the living out of our unique lives.
Over time, it felt really good to fend off my internal cries to quit and eat — even though I physically felt like shit. The tradeoff was that psychologically I became strong and spacious. I was able to mentally step back from the habitual drives of the selves inside of me — the ones who always got their way when it came to eating. With them at the helm there was never enough room for me to peek through and see the underpinnings of my desires and the habitual patterns — physical and emotional — that go into eating. Without stopping to investigate, I felt out of control — I felt food had a grip on me more than I had a handle on it.
Maybe you can relate.
It seems fairly common for most people in our comparatively wealthy western society to eat what we want, when we want, and how much we want. We don’t stop to inquire about our motivations or if our choices are really good for us. We are too busy to stop and reflect. Or we simply don’t care to investigate. It is definitely a Pandora box. So we pretty much eat what we were raised to eat, what we learned from our friends, or what the multi-billion-dollar advertisement industry thrusts in our faces at every turn. Even those of us who break away from what we deem unhealthy eating habits often find ourselves slipping back into the familiar way we ate as a child or reaching for the comfort foods we have come to prefer as adults.
What fasting can do — if we orient this way — is help us to know ourselves.
While taking a break from eating altogether, we have the opportunity to peek into and tease apart all of the different selves who are engaged in the eating process. For me, there’s one who wants comfort and one who simply wants fuel — calories. There’s one who couldn’t care less about food altogether and would prefer to never eat at all. There’s one who prefers salad over ice cream. And then, of course, the one who prefers ice cream over salad. And on and on. By breaking these preferences into different selves, I am able to sort them and see more clearly the history of their motivations. I am also able to make room for other selves who have been hiding in the background waiting to come forward. Over the years, there has been one who is interested in food as medicine, the one who loves to grow food, the one who is interested in plant medicine and herbs, the one who wants to learn how to cook, and the one who is fascinated by different cultures and their food.
All of my selves now contribute to a very rich relationship with food — for pleasure and for good health. But more importantly, I recognize that this whole process has unfolded due the strength of my inner Witness and its contribution to sorting and developing the Realm of the Self.
While fasting, each time I say no to eating, regardless of the immediate circumstance such as feeling hungry, sick, scared, agitated, anxious, or depressed — the Witness is strengthened. For it is the Witness that carries the will to simply stay with what is, to notice and inquire, to allow for everything that is arising in the Self without acting on any of it.
Meditation, when practiced in this way, also strengthens the Witness.
By saying no to the pestering thoughts or seductive emotions that incessantly inhabit our interior landscape, we can begin to rest our attention in the center of the Witness and allow our thoughts and emotions to fade into the background of our awareness. In this space, opportunities open. We see more. We have a broader perspective, like a bird’s eye view, of the selves. Plus we can easily see/hear/feel/sense/intuit Source.
In other words, by suspending our fixation on all things self-related, we become available to tend to our relationship with Source. These results can also be achieved through any practice where we are stopping some activity or behavior for a prolonged period and staying with the discomfort or boredom that ensues.
As for the sorting of the selves who come into view while fasting, those I attend to after the fast. I might make some notes and flag spontaneous insights that arise while fasting, but mostly my energy is consumed with Witnessing and tuning into Source. When I return to eating, I then have the opportunity to engage in any number of explorations to court the selves into right relationship with eating in a way that proves highly beneficial for the entire Sarah system.
In other words, I often experiment with which specific foods, diet, exercise regime, supplements, etc., are the ones that help my body stay healthy and my mind at ease. I listen to my body for that guidance more than my mind, while taking into consideration the emotional relationship I have with food as well. Everything in moderation is generally my stance. That said, I do have a fairly strict boundary on processed or nonorganic foods, having learned over and over again that my body simply does not like them.
Here is an example of how I might play with my eating on the other side of a fast. I eliminate a food from my diet for three months and see how I feel. I have done this with sugar and meat, two foods that I have wondered whether my body really needed in order to run well. I did not ingest any alcohol or caffeine during my decade of retreat, so those are no longer vices for me. I know how to ingest them in moderation and enjoy them when I do. For each of us, these sorts of specifics will vary.
What I noticed this time physically and spiritually …
This fast was hard. The first two days I had a wicked headache. It was a perfect opportunity to call upon the Witness and to be curious about the experience, to explore the sensation without pushing it away, making it wrong, or trying to fix it. I suspected that something was leaving my body as part of the detox and my headache was a consequence of that process. The retreat place we go to will do everything in their power to make their clients as comfortable as possible, short of giving them food. So, we tried electrolytes, more water, a detox bath, and liquid minerals. Nothing touched it. So, I stayed with the sensation of being okay with not feeling okay.
This is the sweet spot that the Witness allows: teaching us that even when it’s not fun, life can remain wondrous and filled with awe. Please note, however, that at some point the pressure or harm done to the body or the psyche in order to grow the Witness can cross an edge and no longer be ideal. This will be a judgment call for each individual as their life of practice develops over time. It’s all a learning, so don’t be afraid to mess up. You can’t.
On day three I chose to take two ibuprofen to release the headache and that did the trick.
Every time I fast the experience is different, because every time I and my body are different — older, for certain, and contending with all that aging brings. Plus all that gathers in the body and psyche due to stress, which is dependent on not only my interior weather, but also on what the year has brought into my life and into the world.
I try to do this type of cleanse once per year as a sort of tune-up of the entire system.
On a high note …
I often hit a sweet spot where my mind feels so clear and spacious and my body feels so present and alive that I wish I could stay in that state forever. Never eat again. But that feeling eventually fades as the days go on and there is a longing to bite into a fresh peach again. This example is reflective of my overall time in retreat — where the benefit of being away from civilization brought incredible clarity and spaciousness in my being, but was never destined to stay that way forever, even though I wanted it to. Or I should say a certain self wanted it to. She did not get what she wanted. **It was inevitable that I would come to realize that my life was about integrating the retreat into life, just like bringing the insight and health benefits from my fasts into eating.**
If you’re wondering …
Every time right before I enter a fast, I feel resistance. I allow for the resistance, but do not yield to it. Just as I do not yield to the selves clamoring for me to eat while I am engaged in the fast. How? Through willpower and self-discipline, surely. But more, I have clarity on my intentions and know what I know is good for me. I don’t have to iron fist my way through because I have enough selves on board who know the benefits will accrue for us all. My strength comes from a posse of selves inside along with the Witness — not from one bully self who feels I should do something that somebody spiritual told her to do or some health expert told her to do. My selves have learned over the decades of engaging in fasting that there is a perfect recipe for me. I am devoted to that recipe, even as it changes over time, because it brings me closer to Source and closer to life. This applies equally to my relationship with relationships, work, and sex. With each of these domains I take periods of rest to reflect and reorient. My desire is that they all serve to keep me connected to Source while allowing for a rich and meaningful life.
Long term benefits of fasting …
I am no longer displaced when I don’t feel well — physically or emotionally. I am able to Witness without pushing the experience away or making it wrong or needing to jump in and fix it — especially because it can sometimes be unfixable. There is now more spaciousness inside of me to discern what makes sense to do, not necessarily with the hope to fix or with the compulsion to make my feeling state wrong, rather to move towards more ease and comfort so that my connection to Source remains clear.
Transitioning back to food …
Once I hit the sweet spot in a longer fast, I find the resistance to eating arises. Funny, right? Going into a fast is the resistance to not eat. Coming out of it is the resistance to eat. This is why I always pay attention to resistance and end up bowing to it and moving forward.
When it comes to breaking a fast and eating again, I move slowly.
There’s so much food out there! Historically we are the most consuming and overweight population ever to walk the earth. I feel that our consumption patterns are a disease. We were raised to believe that there are endless resources, choices, and opportunities in life. We are told to never settle and to always go for more. More money, more fame, more likes, more food, more whatever. We are encouraged to advance in our career and never settle or rest — until we retire and then can live the really good life. Most of us will never achieve this illusory dream. Any of it. But we chase it anyway. Like hamsters on a wheel.
Our food consumption is one example of our addiction to endless growth. Fasting helps me see this more clearly. It helps me to stand back from the race and the message and to stop — to inquire into my being: Is this what life really wants? For you to consume it? Is this what the planet wants from you? To consume it and thus destroy it? Or have you gone astray? Have you, like a cancer, become an organism that is killing itself, out of control, habituated to the notion of more, and wholly confused about what is possible if you were to consider and reflect upon this?
This is the inquiry of our times.
For me, fasting creates the opportunity to inquire, while transitioning back to food is where I can implement and act on what I have seen. It is hard to employ for sure, because the selves are now clamoring to eat what they prefer and feel should be eaten first or next. However, the body cannot assimilate much after a long fast, and the physical ideal is to transition slowly with mostly vegetables and some fruit, carefully adding in nuts and grains. Dairy and protein and things like bread, pizza, pasta, and ice cream are weeks out. Selves can get pissed. Annoyed. Agitated. Downright hangry.
But, just like resistance, these emotions can be witnessed and not acted upon, too.
It’s not that I won’t ever eat ice cream again, but I will stretch the benefits of this fast by continuing to hold fast to the Witness and continuing to choose foods ideal for my body, in a healthy cadence of reintroducing them into my body. I know that I physically feel better if I don’t eat ice cream right away. I also know that my taste buds love ice cream and so does a particular self who can be soothed solely by a scoop of mint chocolate chip. So ice cream will come. But there’s no rush.
I know that I am always juggling my internal voices and desires. I know that my intent is not to exile them or make them wrong. I know that I am engaged in a life long process of convincing my selves to align with a larger purpose for this entire organism named Sarah. This is Artistry.
Rest assured …
I will drink wine and mezcal again. I will drink my morning MDWTR and delight in a cannoli. I will eat pizza, pasta, and cheese, and yes, my share of ice cream. But, these will come in moderation, in cadence with a greater symphony unfolding.One where I engage whatever degree of agency I have in walking the middle path, grounded in Source and expressing love through the tapestry of my selfhood.
I will fast again.
When I am fasting, things are uniquely clear. I am not busy with figuring out what to eat, shopping, preparing meals, or fending off the clamoring selves and their desires.
When I fast, I can hear Source more clearly. And in that hearing I can bring those insights into my eating life as well — making sure to listen for the proper choreography for today, where I can relish and celebrate the gift of food while remaining tethered to my intuition and my direct line to Source.
It’s a dance for sure. One that weaves healthy living and spiritual practice both.
As an endnote …
On our drive home from the desert, we stopped for a visit with Steven’s aunt and uncle. Buddy is ninety and Nancy is eighty-six. They live together in a sweet home in the desert that feels more like a cottage and where they have very active and joyful lives — helping in the community and visiting their kids, grandkids, and great grands mostly via FT these days due to covid. They have never had a spiritual practice in the way I speak of it, nor have they done a cleanse. They are beautifully content and at ease with their lives, even as — possibly especially as — they are poignantly aware of their imminent mortality. Buddy says that his philosophy is to enjoy every day. I’d agree.
Point is …
There is no one way or right way to find meaning and purpose in life. There is not one path to God, nor one ideal diet for all bodies. One spiritual practice is not better than another, and one way of fasting is not better than another. There are many paths to the destination of inner peace and an abiding sense of being a miracle of existence alive for a limited period of time.
We learn and grow from one another. We seek and find our truths alone and together.
Here’s to finding your way.
Happy to walk alongside you.