I used to hate fasting. In fact, when I fasted I got so miserable and self-righteous that my spiritual director told me to stop. “No more fasting for you,” he said. Thank God. He was right.
Then something changed.
I learned the brain science of fasting. I learned how skillful fasting can take your physical health and spiritual energy to the next level.
First, fasting wakes us up our heart’s deepest desires. Authentically good things like lattes and pizza help numb pain and suffering. The problem? This also numbs out other, super important and sacred desires for love, fulfillment, adventure…and, well, God. Fasting is sort of like throwing a grenade into our hearts’ desires. What starts as a re-awakened desire for food wakes up even deeper and wilder desires for a passionate life. This is probably why every major religious tradition encourages a season of fasting at least once per year.
Second, fasting brings freedom by interrupting a process called “hedonic adaptation”. Over time our brains need more stimulation (i.e., coffee, food, alcohol, TV, etc.) to get the same pleasure. Lent is a great time to identify and surrender in these areas of overconsumption.
Third, fasting is just flat out great for our brain and body. Research has shown that skillful fasting improves our immune system and increases important brain hormones while lowering blood pressure, cholesterol, insulin sensitivity and our risk of cancer.
So, how should we fast? Here are some skillful and healthy possibilities:
- Food or drink
- Fast from time-wasting TV, games or social media that numb our brain for some spiritual input, like a good marriage podcast. My personal favorite is Relationship Alive.
- Reduce time spent on our phone or computer. I use a free app to block distracting websites when I’m committed to praying or working.
- People and the media
- Fast from gossip. Say only positive things about others.
- Eliminate the news. Since the election I’ve traded NPR and talk radio for podcasts and it has been the single best happiness booster of the past five years for me.
It’s time to take a Lenten adventure that will bring fun, adventure and joy. Let’s start with some strategic fasting to wake up our deepest desires and heal our body in the process.