Slightly random thoughts on the Baha’i Fast

Today marks exactly the middle of the Baha’i Fast, which runs from March 2nd through 20th each year. Without boring you with useless details about what I’ve been eating for breakfast, here are some slightly random thoughts on this special time of year, in no particular order:

– It took me a while to figure out that the fast was a largely symbolic, spiritual gesture, and not an exercise in not eating. When I was a teenager, I would either 1) eat obscene amounts of food in the morning and evening in hope of staving off hunger as long as I could, or 2) sleep through as much of the day as possible. As I got older, I kinda realized that there’s nothing virtuous about, for instance, rushing to eat an entire box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch in one’s pajamas as the sun comes up.

– One of the most beautiful and telling passages from the Baha’i Writings about the Fast is this one below, from ‘Abdu’l-Baha:

The material fasting is abstaining from food or drink, that is, from the appetites of the body. But spiritual, ideal fasting is this, that man abstain from selfish passions, from negligence and from satanic animal traits. Therefore, material fasting is a token of the spiritual fasting. That is: `O God! As I am fasting from the appetites of the body and not occupied with eating and drinking, even so purify and make holy my heart and my life from aught else save Thy Love, and protect and preserve my soul from self-passions… Thus may the spirit associate with the Fragrances of Holiness and fast from everything else save Thy mention.’ (Star of the West, v.3, p. 305)

– In my slightly-less-naive current state, I think I’m getting the hang of the spiritual part. Prayer helps, in the morning when the sun comes up and in the afternoon when it sets. This year my wife, even though she’s pregnant and thus not fasting, has helped me a lot simply by settling down the house, corralling our two year old, and sitting down everyone around the dinner table to say a short prayer before sunset. That’s made a big difference in the feel and mood of the whole period. And it’s not an easy task to get everything still even for that brief moment, mostly because our toddler has the energy and table manners of a rabid chimpanzee.

– Over time I’ve been trying to be more cognizant of those “selfish passions” and “satanic animal traits” that ‘Abdu’l-Baha mentions above with a special sense of purpose during the Fast. But the big challenge is to do this with low blood sugar, which sometimes makes me irritable. Again, kudos to the wife on this one.

– With that said, I have felt for a long while that not eating is not at all the hardest part of the Fast. If you eat a hearty breakfast (protein and fiber are important, I’ve found) it helps a lot, and one’s body tends to adjust after a few days. The hardest thing is the spiritual stuff mentioned above. But purely from a physical perspective, lack of water and lack of sleep are much more of a challenge, particularly the latter. Because of the nature of my job and my commute, I’ve basically gotta wake up two hours before the sun rises to eat breakfast and be out the door in time for work, which has been a major downer.

– We Baha’is are fortunate to belong to a faith that respects the findings of science and, in this case, modern medicine. There is no reckless endangerment of one’s health for the purpose of carrying out a ritual. For that reason, Baha’is who are pregnant, nursing, menstruating, too young, too old, or otherwise not physically capable of fasting are exempt from this responsibility. Though it’s unsafe for some people to go without food and water for hours at a time, everyone can “fast”, by ‘Abdu’l-Baha’is definition above, because everyone can make a special effort to be spiritually upright during this time period.

– I recently saw a special on the Buddha on PBS which was excellent, and caused me to think about fasting. Until that point I had known virtually nothing about the Buddha’s life, even after being taught the basics as a Baha’i kid in Sunday school. What struck me most were the stories of the Buddha’s search as a young man for a spiritual technique to deliver enlightenment, and how unsatisfied he became with the prevailing practices of the time, including that of extreme physical austerity and starvation. It is the emotional attachment to our physical world, Buddha ultimately concluded, that brings about our suffering, not simply taking part in it. Thus, simply depriving oneself of something is not a complete spiritual strategy. That I think is the message of Baha’i fasting (and maybe the whole Faith, for that matter), which asks us to make a small sacrifice as a token and a reminder of what’s important, but still leaves us physically healthy enough to do the hard work of repairing and nurturing the world around us.

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