Baha’is believe in the power of prayer and you’ll find Baha’is and their friends, throughout the world, getting together to pray. This is often referred to as a ‘devotional gathering’ or ‘devotional meeting’, and they happen in diverse settings, whether in cities or villages.
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.
The Fast: A Simulated “Mini-Crisis” for Testing and Building Resilience
Recently I’ve been further wondering what spiritual effects we can expect when we refrain from food. Abdu’l-Baha tells us:
But mere abstention from food has no effect on the spirit. It is only a symbol, a reminder. Otherwise it is of no importance. 1
The Baha’i Teachings say food or illness do not touch the soul. So why do we fast and how does it enhance our spiritual experience? In this article, I’ll explore some main themes addressing the symbolic nature of abstaining from food, followed by some reflection questions you may find useful. These thoughts are based on my understanding of the Writings, my personal experiences, and my work as a holistic healthcare practitioner (and if you’d like to read more you may wish to check out my book, The Supreme Remedy).
What will you do with your free time?
When we refrain from food and drink sunrise to sunset, we can be surprised by how much time we put into food! Time during our day is freed up to focus on other things. It was said that when the Bab revealed verses, He would take in little food over a period of days. 2 My experience of love is the wish to imitate and yearn to draw nearer to our Beloved by focusing our mind intensely on our spirit and seeking divine confirmations and attractions. I believe that when we Fast, we can experience a state of intense longing and connection to God. We can dedicate the freed-up time in our day to draw nearer to our Beloved. With this in mind, you might find it helpful to ask yourself: How does this longing feel for you? Where in your body do you feel it the most? When your body is light, can you receive spiritual guidance and feelings easier?
The Fast provides us with a simulated “mini-crisis”
Baha’u’llah says the Fast is the Supreme Remedy for self and passion. 3 During tests and difficulties, the body (the animal part of us, or our lower nature) can become reactive because animals run on emotion and instinct. Our egos might be easily offended, usually judging everything and everyone involved, demanding what it wants. During crises we suffer, our hearts become sensitive and open. We become more empathetic to the sufferings of others. I think one of the ways the Fast is the supreme remedy for self is that it makes us transparent! It’s easier to see our faults and therefore easier to begin training ourselves to overcome them. I often tell clients one good reason to be thankful during difficulties; it brings up our ego and animal traits quite visibly. When life is going well, we can forget God and reduce our lives to autopilot programming, going about our days. The days of the Fast don’t allow us to run on autopilot, thus the mini-crisis, because animals resist change. Here are some questions to ponder: What thoughts have you generated from the “heat of the Fast” so far? What sensations did your body feel during the day? How are you managing your inner dialog to reflect the spirit?
The symbol of “refraining” is vital to understanding the Fast
What do we do now that we see the animal/ego so clearly? What does training ourselves to refrain from appetites and selfishness that are not aligned with the spirit look like? At times we can be blindsided because our egos create amazing justifications for our behaviors and thoughts. During the Fast, we have time to reflect on our relationships to the world and within ourselves; taking time to recognize what our selfish desires are is paramount to preparing for the new year and making those necessary adjustments in our attitudes, behaviors and “dwelling” thought patterns. In my book, The Supreme Remedy, there are many suggestions for dealing with emotions and ego. In thinking about training ourselves and exerting spiritual disciple, we can ask ourselves: What has to happen in order to train parts of you to be quieter? What am I regularly exposing myself to that interferes with the relationship to my soul? What types of people am I relating to, and what types of conversations am I drawn to? Do I have regular thoughts of doubt, sorrow, or negativity?
As Abdu’l-Baha said:
O God, I am fasting from the appetites of the body and not occupied with eating and drinking, even so purify and make holy my heart and my life from aught else save Thy Love, and protect and preserve my soul from self-passions and animal traits. Thus may the spirit associate with the Fragrances of Holiness and fast from everything else save Thy mention. 2
Refraining from food gives us time to spiritually rejuvenate
Think of how a nice warm bath feels when you’re exhausted. Likewise, imagine bathing your entire being in the warm radiance of the spirit during the Fast. The Fast infuses “every hour” with a “special virtue.” 4 Many of us live scheduled lives, which could seem to give little importance or time for things of the spirit. In a letter from Shoghi Effendi, he states,
It is essentially a period of meditation and prayer, of spiritual recuperation, during which the believer must strive to make the necessary readjustments in his inner life, and to refresh and reinvigorate the spiritual forces latent in his soul. Its significance and purpose are, therefore, fundamentally spiritual in character. 5
I find most people report they spend the least amount of time vacationing, doing creative endeavors like music or the arts, spending time in nature, and focusing on their spiritual development. I’ve observed we’ve got the “doing” down, but the “being” is lacking. The Fast can provide us with time to immerse ourselves in our spirituality, to explore the latent forces within us—to become magnetized so we can draw in divine confirmations. During this time of year, we can achieve a state of being through laughter, beauty, nature, breathing, or meditation. Quiet moments and real connection is required. Simply sitting, and feeling loved by Divinity is like sunbathing and being illumined. What allows you to feel connected to your spirit, to the next world? What recharges you, giving you the feeling of steadfastness? What causes you to feel utter joy?
I encourage you to use these days of the Fast, or “mini-crisis,” to clearly see how your body and ego are contributing to the quality of your life. You can reflect on how spiritually trained you are to silence these voices — there is always room to work to refrain from bad thinking, the mind has no shame! Find out what prevents you from spiritually connecting and allowing your spirit to flow into this world. Now is the time to connect and ensure a maintenance program of connection throughout the year. Even if you cannot refrain from food, then I recommend considering the benefits of refraining from anything that interferes with your connection to the spirit of the Fast.
I hope your fasting days are blessed and that you receive mystic knowledge that causes your heart to throb. May this year be radiant, and your heart cleansed of the dross that sat upon it but not so many days ago!
Footnotes & Citations
Abdu’l-Baha, as reported in Esselmont, Baha’u’llah and the New Era, p. 171[↩]
Abdul-Baha as reported by Corinne True, Table Talks, reprinted in Star of the West, vol. IV, no. 18, p. 305, partially reprinted in Lights of Guidance, no. 779, p. 234[↩][↩]
Deborah Walters is a holistic healthcare practitioner and she runs a private practice specializing in spiritual, mental and physical healing. She is the author of 'The Supreme Remedy: Reflections on Applying Natural Healing Arts to the Baha'i Fast'. For more information, please visit http://deborahshealingarts.com/