Hungry Ghosts: Ruminations on Fasting

by Dan Stone


Fasting is a notion that I never found especially appetizing. In one of my previous lives (current incarnation) as a fundamentalist minister's son, it was high on the list of recommended activities, as were daily prayer, Holy Communion, speaking in tongues, and washing the saints' feet. None were exactly at the top of my teenage To Do list. And contrary to the 1970's TV ad-monition, when I tried 'em, I didn't particularly like 'em. Now, of course, servicing feet has a whole other con-notation--but that's another story.


According to Bahá'í writings (published by the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Warwick) fasting 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. In his Art of the Inner Meal (HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), Donald Altman makes clear that Christians neither originated nor patented the practice. In addition--and even prior--to the Jewish Yom Kippur and the Islamic Ramadan, Native American tribes used fasting as part of a ceremonial rite of purification in preparation for marriages or vision quests. For Hindus and Buddhists it's more than an annual or occasional observance--it's a matter of ethics and the continual practice of self-discipline. Buddhists who follow the Theravadan tradition fast approximately every eight days to maintain a connection to the rhythms of nature and the moon. Altman lets the Hindu mystic Shankara speak for himself:


Fasting is not something fundamentalist Christians do according to a calendar. In fact, the religious calendar is scarcely a factor in the daily lives of most modern conservative Christians. I was in high school before I knew that Lent meant something other than dryer waste. We had few scheduled feasts aside from those at Morrison's Cafeteria after church on Sundays; fasting, like salvation, was less a tradition and more a decision. Nonetheless, it was widely promoted as a pit stop on the fast track to God. It was supposed to provoke spiritual as well as physical hunger pains. It was supposed to make me aware of my connection to God in some profound new way.


The two or three times I fasted in my late teens and twenties, however, failed to produce the desired effect. It just made me grouchy. In all fairness, my fervent prayers to cure a raging hormonal response to the high school quarterback's behind also failed. And after years of unsuccessful efforts--including fasts--to receive the promised relief from a pesky attraction to my own gender, the church and I parted ways. I shook off the old dogma and everything I associated with it like so much dust off my loafers.


At that point fasting was the furthest thing from my mind. Most dictionaries define fast to mean abstaining from eating all or certain foods. But it's not too much of a stretch to expand the definition to include purposeful abstinence from any or all physical pleasures, including, of course, sex. By the time I came out in my late twenties, I was ready to feast--and I don't mean on food. Years of appetite suppressants--daily doses of scripture and supplication--had left me a hungry man. Like most people coming off a strict diet, I binged. I satisfied any and most every craving and experimented with new taste treats. It didn't seem excessive. I'd denied my natural appetite--my most basic sexual needs--needlessly for years. I had a right to make up for lost time and all the reasons for abstaining were silenced about as easily as pushing the mute button on the remote.


Truthfully, abstinence has never been an easy word to stomach--whether it's abstaining from ice cream or intercourse. Isn't coming out at least in part about finally freeing oneself from all the internal and external restrictions and prohibitions? Isn't it the single greatest Yes! in the lives of those of us who are born into a world that still more often than not looks at us and shouts No!? Obviously I thought so. I rarely said no, and I didn't discriminate. I devoured nearly everything in sight. The more I consumed, the more I wanted--to the point that I no longer seemed to care so much about the quality of what I was consuming, much less its potential effects on my health.


Junkie is probably too strong a word for what I started to become, but junk food is not too far off as a descriptor of what had become my steady diet. In fact the only thing I was abstaining from religiously was religion--or anything that reminded me of it. It was surprisingly easy. I quit church cold turkey without so much as a withdrawal pang. I cut prayer out of my life as easily as you'd dump spoiled milk down the drain. I don't think even a passing thought about fasting bubbled up for more than a decade.


Altman says a fast can help us realize how dependent we are on food and the Earth that provides us with sustenance. It humbles us with the realization of what hunger feels like . . . It makes us more aware of our own hungry ghosts . . . At some point after gorging myself for almost as many years as I'd nearly starved, I started to realize that I was losing my sense of taste. I didn't seem to enjoy pigging out as much anymore. I also realized that I was spending an awful lot of time looking for my next meal. And worse--I was starting to feel hungry, but not for any of the fare on which I was regularly feeding.


It felt then--and sounds today--like too much of a puritanical cliché to say that the temporal pleasures of the flesh finally started to fade. For me it was more palatable to conceptualize it as a matter of physics--of systems striving for equilibrium. In any case it provoked a new set of questions about my own hungry ghosts.

Fasting has been touted for any number of benefits--as preparation for service to or union with God, as a means to achieve self control or balance, as a cleansing of the body and spirit, as a lesson in learning to value the needs of both the spiritual and the physical bodies, etc. More recently I've come to suspect that the ultimate challenge of fasting may be in the way it seems to require us to face our own emptiness--that void we encounter when we stop filling our bellies and try finding our beliefs. Maybe the real question it raises is about what it is we're giving ourselves, and what we're giving ourselves to.


Fasting demands a bit more of us than most other spiritual practices common today. For a long time I was satisfied to eat whatever I wanted whenever I wanted it--and to celebrate that state as a culmination, a triumph over oppression and dogma. Only when being full no longer meant necessarily feeling satisfied did I start to wonder if I was truly content with my answers about fasting and all the other practices I'd abandoned--or if perhaps I was just nervous about asking the hard questions. I don't know. I haven't donned sackcloth and ashes. I haven't even skipped a meal unless you count working through lunch. But these days when my stomach growls, I wonder.


Honeyed Breakfast Soufflé


Fasting, Altman claims, "can reduce even a thunderous appetite to a drizzle." You be the judge. But if you've taken a turn down the desert path of the ascetic and you're looking for the equivalent of a light morning shower to "break fast," this simple, easy-to-prepare soufflé from Beaver Lake Bed & Breakfast in Eureka Springs, AK, is a honey:


4 eggs, beaten

1 Cup flour

1/2 Cup honey

3/4 tsp salt

2 1/2 Cups milk

4 T. butter, divided


Place four individual casserole dishes (2 cup sizes) into a 425 degree oven. Combine eggs, flour, honey and salt. Then stir in the milk. When the dishes are hot, add 1 tablespoon butter to each and tip to coat the sides with melted butter. Divide batter evenly into the dishes and carefully place them into the oven. Bake for 20 minutes or until fluffy and brown. Serve with peaches and sausage.


Dan Stone's poetry and fiction have appeared in Bay Windows, Mostly Maine, Chiron Review, Queer Poets Journal, and more. He's a recovering fundamentalist Christian and part-time freelance writer who lives in Washington DC.