As winter sets in each year, generally around November, I begin to feel a longing for the time of fasting. Perhaps more accurately, for the feeling of having finished the Baha’i Fast, a 19-day period where Baha’is don’t eat or drink between sunrise and sunset every day. This year the Baha’i Fast takes place between March 1 and 19 — I don’t do any extra fasting ahead of time. But there is an undeniable feeling of the spirit I get from this time of year, a satisfied feeling of clarity and detachment, of accomplishment and health, a feeling that defies complete description in words.
The facts of the Baha’i Fast are pretty straightforward, and only Baha’is aged 15-70 who are in good health are obliged to participate. In the 10th paragraph of the the Kitab-i-Aqdas, what Baha’is call the “Most Holy Book”, Baha’u’llah, the prophet founder of the Baha’i Faith, says:
We have commanded you to pray and fast from the beginning of maturity; this is ordained by God, your Lord and the Lord of your forefathers. He hath exempted from this those who are weak from illness or age, as a bounty from His Presence, and He is the Forgiving, the Generous.
Later, in paragraph 17 of the Kitab-i-Aqdas, Baha’u’llah explains why we should embrace the Fast:
These are the ordinances of God that have been set down in the Books and Tablets by His Most Exalted Pen. Hold ye fast unto His statutes and commandments, and be not of those who, following their idle fancies and vain imaginings, have clung to the standards fixed by their own selves, and cast behind their backs the standards laid down by God. Abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sundown, and beware lest desire deprive you of this grace that is appointed in the Book.
The act of fasting is mysterious, like many activities, but not necessarily in a mystical way. Just like your first time at a gym, it is probably impossible to comprehend fasting when you first embrace it, as it is full of new experiences. It can be hard. Your brain, looking out for your body, will try to convince you it is the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever tried.
Every year, your brain will deftly try to talk you out of fasting: You’ll have to climb three flights of stairs in the parking garage today, maybe just one granola bar to fight off a headache later? Are you feeling a cold coming on? You should have some tea and take a break from fasting to keep from getting worse.
Your friends might try to talk you out of it: Hey, not drinking water all day, that can’t be healthy. I couldn’t do that. Wait, why aren’t you eating again? Are you like, super-religious? Aren’t you hungry?
Fasting is a spiritual exercise but a physical activity. It puts to test our willingness to back up our beliefs with actions, in a way that runs counter to our senses. It is a commandment for our mind to rule our bodies for 19 days. Not our brains, but our mind — that force of volition within us that acts on conscious knowledge. It is an annual trip to the spiritual gym, and by spiritual I do not mean something intangible and mystical. I mean willpower.
The Baha’i Writings tell us:
Ye had written of the fasting month. Fortunate are ye to have obeyed the commandment of God, and kept this fast during the holy season. For this material fast is an outer token of the spiritual fast; it is a symbol of self-restraint, the withholding of oneself from all appetites of the self, taking on the characteristics of the spirit, being carried away by the breathings of heaven and catching fire from the love of God. – Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha
There are elements of fasting which are directly experienced, such as hunger — I enjoy the sweet taste of coffee after the sun sets. And there are elements of fasting which you may not feel right away, but which are undoubtedly affecting you.
Like an exercise program, after the first few days the fast becomes harder. Your body complains with hunger after it burns up its energy reserves. Also like an exercise program, after a couple of weeks of fasting your body responds with a metabolic shift. It is interesting to read reports on research around the health benefits of fasting, on the improved immune system response and improvements to the health of the digestive system. The question is worth asking yourself: Are these reasons you should fast?
Many people have great fasting traditions in their family. Everyone gets up before dawn to prepare a hearty breakfast, perhaps music or chanting is played. Some families make a special Ceylon tea or incorporate Baha’i New Year traditions into the Fast, which makes the event wonderfully nostalgic. There is a great sense of togetherness while everyone is enduring this self-imposed hardship. Others relish the quiet and solitude of the morning and look forward to this time of year in which the Fast forces them awake in the dark, and they can hear the birds awaken with them in their excitement for dawn, singing as day springs like their lives depended on making as much noise as possible. Are these reasons you should fast?
I am grateful to have fasted each year of my adult life. Some years I have broken the fast for illness, other times I have broken the Fast when I am under intense physical activity. Some years I have fallen ill but not broken the Fast until sunset, and other times I have performed great physical trials while fasting. I have fasted as part of a vibrant family and in solitude. I have had the good fortune of visiting Baha’is in other communities during the Fast and sharing in a common experience with fellow believers.
Looking back over those experiences, I have made new friends and many sweet memories. I also have the intense personal satisfaction that has come from the mastery of self. That feeling of accomplishment that could only come from completing a long, difficult ordeal. And yet, are these reasons you should fast?
Baha’u’llah is the prophet of God for today, the Mouthpiece of our Creator. Because my mind has recognized this, since Baha’u’llah has decreed that we fast for one month out of the year, I must obey, if I am able. To me, this is the reason to fast: I must put my mind in control of my mouth for 19 days, and back up my beliefs with action.