The Baha’i Fast falls during the month of Ala–the last month of the Baha’i calendar. During these 19 days, Baha’is abstain from food and drink between sunrise and sunset. While this abstention from food and drink is a test of one’s will and discipline, the Fast is not just about abstaining from food. The Fast is, primarily, a spiritual practice.
For a number of years I experienced fear and anxiety prior to and during the Fast. This year, I reflected on it and asked myself, “why do I fear the Fast, and why do I associate it with negative emotions?” If I don’t do something about it then the fear will stay with me for my whole life till I turn 70. The Fast is one of the two important pillars of a spiritual life: the other being Obligatory prayers. I always fasted for the love and fear of God, but I have also endured fear and anxiety during the Fast. We are assured that every hour of the Fast is endowed with a special virtue – if all I am feeling is fear and anxiety then how can I make myself receptive to these special gifts?
Primarily, my fear was of not surviving the day. I worried that it was painful for my body to undergo the Fast. Because of this fear of not getting enough nutrition, I would eat more food than my body needed in the morn and eve, hoping that the extra food would help sustain me physically. On the contrary, this would invariably lead me to feeling absolutely miserable during the morning and I would not be able to sleep well in the night. This cycle continued day after day for 19 days. I realize now that I was putting myself into a bad pattern and my choices were borne out of lack of knowledge and understanding of the physical effects of fasting and the science of digestion and the body’s energy requirements. Gaining this knowledge helped me conquer my fear of fasting but it is not critical for a rejuvenating fasting experience. I thought I would share what I learned in case it might assist you if you are struggling as I was.
Our body primarily runs on glucose as a fuel, which is derived from sweet or starchy foods. If these foods are minimally processed such as steel cut or rolled oats, then they provide a steady supply of glucose during the day when eaten for breakfast. Whole foods contain fiber that slows down the release of glucose from these foods in our guts, thus keeping us feeling satisfied longer. If you eat highly processed starchy foods such as sugar and white flour then you will feel hungry within an hour or two because these foods do not contain fiber and as a result the glucose is absorbed into your gut quicker. Irrespective of what kind of starches you eat, your body will run out of the dietary source of glucose within a few hours. What happens next is the key, because that was causing me a lot of anxiety. Firstly, I was afraid that after I ran out of glucose I would be starving from that point on, which is true considering we are not eating anything, but false considering our cells still have enough fuel for the day.
When the dietary glucose is depleted, our body switches to using a different source of energy called glycogen. Glycogen can be visualized as a tree made up of glucose molecules. Every time we eat food, our body stores excess glucose in the form of glycogen inside our muscles and liver. The glycogen stored in muscles lets the muscles continue their activity and there is enough glycogen stored in our liver to last an entire day’s needs. Every time the cells are hungry, they pluck a fruit of glucose from the glycogen tree. This is of course a day of relative ease and comfort without any additional stressors like travel, hard labour, nursing a baby, illness, etc. – all of which are provisions for exemptions from the Fast. However, in good health, when an extra boost of energy is needed, our body uses fat stored in the fat cells in the body to provide energy. Fat in fact is a greater source of energy than glycogen. However, glycogen or glucose are critical for brain function and blood cells, whereas fat is the key for higher bursts of energy during the day.
In other words, the body has been provided with more than enough mechanisms to cope well during fasting, so there is no reason really to be anxious about getting enough nutrition. Despite having sufficient nourishment available during the day, I sometimes still felt discomfort. I know now this was my body detoxifying. My normal eating pattern prior to the Fast was to eat every two hours – basically keep the digestive (anabolism) process going all day, with no room left for catabolism or burning off. Burning off happened only during the night when I was asleep and the detoxification related discomfort that occurs during the catabolism phase happened while I slept. However, during the Fast, detoxification or catabolism happened during the day as well because anabolism was complete within a few hours after breakfast. Now when I feel discomfort during the day, I know my body is detoxifying and accept it as a gift of God. I wonder if this is what Baha’u’llah meant when He said that the Fast is supposed to be outwardly toilsome. Not only do I no longer fear this discomfort but I also support this natural detoxification by eating ample green vegetables and fruits.
God has asked us to Fast and has provided us with the means to cope with it and flourish because of it. One of His Names is the Provider and I feel content and confident knowing that He has provided the means for me to accomplish the Fast. Now I eat little for breakfast (sprinkled with berries and nuts/seeds) and eat a measured dinner – ensuring the food has enough starches (sources of glucose) and whole foods. I ensure not to eat too many sweet foods or too many fatty foods, because these foods make you hungry quicker and make it difficult for the muscles to use sugar as a fuel respectively. I also now eat watery foods such as soup, green salads, and fruits first followed by solid foods such as rice, bread, beans and vegetables. Slowly, I have observed that I do not feel obliged to eat too much anymore and I sleep well. This leaves my body to focus on the spiritual aspects of the Fast such as meditation, study, supplications, and remembering the privations experienced by the Holy Manifestations. I still think of food during the day – yes, once in a while, but not all the time like before and without the fear and anxiety of the past – but now I praise God, the Provider.
Chetan is a Scientist in the West Park Healthcare Centre and an Assistant Professor in University of Toronto and York University. His research focuses on assessing functional deficits and treatment of problems associated with neurological disorders such as stroke and spinal cord injury. Chetan draws his inspiration from the Baha'i teachings, his wife Sunita, and the experience of applying spiritual principles to life.