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Beyond Food: The Real Purpose of the Baha’i Fast

Margaret Tash | Mar 17, 2018

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Margaret Tash | Mar 17, 2018

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

After 40 years as a Baha’i, I’m still learning to unravel the mystery of the nineteen-day Baha’i Fast.

This annual spiritual practice, which Baha’is around the world began in early March every year, involves abstaining from food and drink from sunrise to sunset. While appearing simple on the surface, the Fast contains great depth and complexity. The Baha’i writings say:

There are various stages and stations for the Fast and innumerable effects and benefits are concealed therein. Well is it with those who have attained unto them. – Baha’u’llah, quoted in The Importance of Obligatory Prayer and Fasting.

This physical fast is a symbol of the spiritual fast. This Fast leadeth to the cleansing of the soul from all selfish desires, the acquisition of spiritual attributes, attraction to the breezes of the All-Merciful, and enkindlement with the fire of divine love. – Abdu’l-Baha, Ibid.

I know the true purpose of fasting is to obtain these intangible spiritual benefits, and yet I often catch myself placing too much emphasis on its physical aspects. I typically approach it with a mixture of anticipation and anxiety—anticipation because I know it is an enormous blessing, and anxiety from thinking I won’t be able to observe it completely or perfectly. If I slip even one little bit, I’ll then add guilt to the mix.

I’m learning that at the root of these emotions is a habit of thought that traps many of us: a “false dichotomy” or “all-or-nothing thinking.” It can manifest as “you’re either fasting … or you’re not,” or “you’ve either succeeded at fasting all day, or you’ve failed.” 

Do the Baha’i teachings encourage this kind of thinking? Certainly not. In fact, they encourage us to avoid false dichotomies. So much of this Faith is about sincere intention—simply striving our best to put into action what God asks of us.

So, in my view, the more compassionate we are with ourselves, simply doing the best we can, the more we will be able to direct our attention to what really matters—not the food, but partaking of the Fast’s spiritual benefits.

Here are a few loving and gentle actions that I’m learning can help us stay focused on the spiritual dimension of the Fast.

Preparing To Fast

First, make sure it is wise for you to fast physically. Since the Fast’s fundamental purpose is spiritual, there is no sense in injuring your health. Those who are younger than 15, age 70 or older, pregnant, nursing, traveling, or sick are not required to fast—along with those whose medical conditions or work that requires heavy physical labor would make it injurious. If you have any doubt about whether it is wise for you to Fast, please consult a competent physician before attempting to Fast.

If you are able to fast, a little advance preparation will make its physical aspects more manageable. After all, we are human beings with bodies that need to be fed. A change in routine causes our brains to get anxious and our blood sugar levels to bounce around. Each of us is different, to be sure, so find a routine that works best for you. If you wish to join us in observing the Fast, please reach out to Baha’is in your area for more information and to learn some preparation tips.

Persevere—and Focus on the Positive

The Fast isn’t supposed to be easy—at least in the physical sense. However, the spiritual benefits and rewards are powerful, so be compassionate with yourself and focus on the positive: what you are gaining. As Baha’u’llah wrote:

Even though outwardly the Fast is difficult and toilsome, yet inwardly it is bounty and tranquillity. – Baha’u’llah, Ibid.

I’ve learned another useful concept during the Fast: some new habits challenge us not because they’re inherently difficult, but simply because they’re new. Over time, our observance of spiritual laws such as the Fast becomes easier and we see more and more benefits.

Fast—and Pray

Since the Fast is fundamentally spiritual in character, prayer will help you get the most out of it.

In prayer, we can ask God for assistance with any difficulties. This spiritual preparation helps us tackle the challenges which will almost certainly arise. Praying early in the morning—before or after our pre-sunrise breakfast—is a unique and wonderful experience. Many who cannot fast physically still wake up to pray at dawn, to take advantage of this special opportunity to commune with God during the earliest hours of the day. The Baha’i writings contain beautiful prayers specifically written for the Fast. Here’s an excerpt from one:  

What refuge is there beside Thee, O my Lord, to which I can flee, and where is there a haven to which I can hasten? … No protector is there but Thee, no place to flee to except Thee, no refuge to seek save Thee. Cause me to taste, O my Lord, the divine sweetness of Thy remembrance and praise. – Baha’u’llah, Baha’i Prayers, p. 256.

If that nourishes your spirit, you can read more prayers for fasting at www.bahaiprayers.org.

Build Community

Rather than navigate through our fasting struggles alone, we can explore them with friends in heartfelt and honest conversations. This prompts reflection on our actions, which can help us grow. The Fast gives us an opportunity to practice a principle which lies at the core of spiritual community building efforts: “accompaniment,” which means supporting each other in our efforts to serve God and humanity and to live a spiritual life:

This evolution in collective consciousness is discernible in the growing frequency with which the word “accompany” appears in conversations … It signals the significant strengthening of a culture in which learning is the mode of operation, a mode that fosters the informed participation of more and more people in a united effort to apply Baha’u’llah’s teachings to the construction of a divine civilization. – The Universal House of Justice, April, 2010, to the Baha’is of the world.

The Fast is a natural occasion for teaming up in pairs, to check in with each other, study and reflect together, and support each other in whatever way necessary. When a more experienced person is paired with someone newer to the Fast, learning can be maximized—both can learn valuable lessons from the other.

Do Your Best, One Step at a Time

While we benefit from mutual support and learning, the Fast is also a deeply personal and intimate experience, and how it is observed is ultimately between the individual and God. The Baha’i writings simply ask us to do our best, and to let our hearts be strengthened and our spirits be refreshed by observing this spiritual law. As we take each faltering, not-so-perfect step, we can support each other in our efforts, and of course we know God is there too, waiting to take our hand and lead us the rest of the way. 

Approaching the Fast in this spirit, we are far more likely to attain its various stations and stages, and to perhaps unravel some of its mysteries, during this unique and wonderful time. As Baha’u’llah wrote in one of his prayers for fasting:

Thou hast endowed every hour of these days with a special virtue. – Prayers and Meditations of Baha’u’llah, p. 143.

If you’d like to learn more about the Baha’i Fast, please visit  www.bahai.org

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Comments

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  • David Perkins
    Mar 9, 2019
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    Interesting that there is about a 7 hour discrepancy on average between the southern hemisphere fast and the northern. The final day of the fast is before the equinox. The southern hemisphere leads to it from longer days, while the northers hemisphere leads to it from shorter days. Interesting that the equinox wasn't the central day.
  • Sue Khavari
    Mar 8, 2019
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    Let’s do the math: there are 55 periods of the Fast between the ages of 15 and 70. Fifty-five times that you can be obedient to this law, barring the times of exceptions, such as illness, etc. When I became a Baha’i many years ago, I said to myself that maybe I could not always be kind, generous, and all those wonderful virtues that we should be, but by golly, I could fast and say my daily obligatory prayer. This I could do. Now I am 80 and long past being able to fast. However, there is a deep ...satisfaction in my soul that I can look back on my life and feel that stiffening of the backbone, that obedience, has greatly enhanced and blessed my whole life. Just do it this very difficult thing and be glad the rest of your life that you did!
    Read more...
    • Margaret Tash
      Mar 8, 2019
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      Thanks for your insightful comments, Sue! If we remember that obligatory prayer and fasting are for our benefit - not God's. - that can sustain our efforts. Sincere intentions and perseverance are our guiding light. For those who cannot fast for health reasons, the benefits of the Fast are still achievable, since Shoghi Effendi wrote that it is essentially a time of 'spiritual recuperation.' I can easily measure my physical fast but struggle to perceive if I've made any spiritual gains. :) Thanks again for sharing your thoughts during this sacred time ...of year!
      Read more...
  • Peter Gyulay
    Feb 17, 2019
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    Thanks for the article Margaret! It's a good reminder that in all aspects of Bahai life, fasting included, we have to do our best but have self-compassion as well!
    • Margaret Tash
      Feb 18, 2019
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      Thanks, Peter! The idea of self-compassion is so true. We need to trust in God's love rather than think we'll be punished if we're not perfect. If we are doing our best ... don't we think God knows that? I'm pretty sure my fasting efforts over these years have given Him some good laughs! :)
  • Linda Eckert Sawka
    Mar 19, 2018
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    Wonderful article, Margaret! Thank you!
    • Margaret Tash
      Mar 19, 2018
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      Thanks, Linda! :)
  • Mar 18, 2018
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    Mahalo for this! I am a diabetic but am still able to observe the Fast. Pretty amazing how cooperative the body can be when the soul and mind are determined to obey ??❤️??
    • Margaret Tash
      Mar 18, 2018
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      Dear Liz, Thank you for your kind words. I'm impressed with your ability to physically keep the Fast!! Some friends 'modify' the Fast because of medical conditions. Their hearts yearn to obey but it may not always be possible physically. I hope that those who cannot fast physically are encouraged to see the Fast in its spiritual perspective, of which we can all partake. Wishing you joy during these last fleeting days of the Fast!
  • K'omolo Elvis Otieno Lorry
    Mar 18, 2018
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    Could I get someone to elaborate for me how Bahai's celebrate the end of 19 days fast
    • Margaret Tash
      Mar 19, 2018
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      Dear K'omolo, Thank you for your very thoughtful question! The 19-day Baha'i Fast ends with the vernal (spring) equinox in the northern hemisphere, usually March 20 or 21. We then celebrate our new year, which is 'Naw-Ruz' (Persian for 'new day'). I feel sure there will be an article in a few days about Naw-Ruz but, for now, here is an article from last year which I'm sure you'll enjoy reading!
      http://bahaiteachings.org/time-celebrate-renewal-world
  • Pauline Mwila
    Mar 17, 2018
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    Thank you for sharing ma,Happy fasting.
    • Margaret Tash
      Mar 17, 2018
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      Thank you so much, Pauline!
  • Paul LaDue
    Mar 17, 2018
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    Margaret thank you for the wonderful article you wrote about your experience with the Bahai Fast!
    • Margaret Tash
      Mar 18, 2018
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      Thank you so much, Paul. :)
  • Tommy Beers
    Mar 17, 2018
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    Thanks Margaret for sharing your thoughts. I got so interested I just kept on reading the older posts too. Who knew?
    • Margaret Tash
      Mar 17, 2018
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      Awww ... thanks, Tommy!! :) Hopefully, I'll be writing some new articles about sustainability in the not-too-distant future.
  • Paul Bellefeuille
    Mar 17, 2018
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    Margaret , Thank you for this reminder. I have a dietary condition whereby I can't fast. I've tried and my blood sugar becomes affected to the point where clarity of thought becomes a struggle., and so I eat. Prayer and meditation..being of service and assistance to others is something that try to practice on a daily basis, and even more so during the Fast if possible.
    • Margaret Tash
      Mar 17, 2018
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      Dear Paul ... Thank you for writing! Most definitely, the physical fast is not for those with a condition that jeopardizes their health. Your integration of the spiritual elements - prayer, reflection, and service to others - is exactly what we strive for during the Fast, heightening our awareness throughout the rest of the year.
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