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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.
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.
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