Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Sri Lanka's Long History of Fasting

If you follow Sri Lankan politics then you will have heard or read about National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa's fast in prison last week in protest over the High Court rejection of his bail application.  Unfortunately he had to be transferred to hospital after only three days. But I suppose that outcome was expected given the reasons behind his prison fast. What interests me is not the politics behind Wimal Weerawansa's fast, but the historic precedence of fasting in Sri Lanka and why it still has significant importance (maybe now more than ever) from a medical, spiritual, and philosophical perspective.

By definition, fasting is a voluntary or willing abstinence or reduction from some or all food, drink, or both, for a period of time. It has been practiced for thousands of years. In fact, many religions including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism have all practiced fasting in one form or another. In ancient yoga, fasting has been used as a method of natural healing. And even the ancient philosophers, such as Hippocrates, Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle praised the benefits of fasting. Philippus Paracelsus, one of the three fathers of Western medicine was quoted as saying "fasting is the greatest remedy - the physician within".

Modern Society and Fasting

Our society still holds a fascination with fasting for a variety of reasons. Here are a few examples:

There's an 82-year old Indian yogi, Prahlad Jani, who claims to have not had anything to eat or drink for the past 70 years and has remained perfectly healthy. In fact, yogis are known to fast as a means to prolong or sustain their samadhi or blissful absorption.

Steve Jobs, the American entrepreneur, inventor and founder of Apple, was a strict vegetarian who adhered to fasts for most of his life. Apparently he would just eat fruits or carrot salads for days and then just stop eating for a period of time.

Marina Abramovic, the performance artist from the former Yugoslavia has a history of fasting in some of her performance works. Nightsea Crossing, performed with Ulay, involved fasting for seven hours a day while they sat opposite each other across a table in silence without movement, and 12 days of continuous fasting while she performed The House With the Ocean View while she spent time in three connected units that were her bathroom, living room and bedroom.

David Blaine, a magician and illusionist, spent 44 days in a suspended box above the Thames in London and subjected himself to a prolonged fasting experiment.

Beyonce, the American singer, songwriter and actress, made headlines when she revealed that she fasted by doing the Master Cleanse in preparation for her role in Dreamgirls.

One of my friend's worked for a top CEO of a leading global multinational mining company for a number of years and he shared his surprise in learning some of the secrets behind the success of this top executive. Apparently the top CEO is a vegan who doesn't drink alcohol and would regularly fast during the working day. Interestingly, many top executives are known to fast, but they rarely publicly speak about it.

I watched a BBC documentary featuring Michael Mosely titled "Eat, Fast and Live Longer" which highlighted an interesting fact that during the Great Depression, a time of great economic hardship and high unemployment and people had less to eat, the life expectancy in the US increased by 6.2 years. Have listen to The Great Depression Increased Life Expectancy and read about one of the research studies.

Reasons for fasting

So, why do people fast given that fasting goes against the modern eating convention of three full meals a day and snacks in-between? For a number of reasons ranging from detox, healing and improved health, purification, weight loss, overcoming disease, increasing performance, balancing energies, strengthening the mind-body connection, faith or spirituality, penance, samadhi or meditative concentration, overcoming greed and more.

At a philosophical level the heart of fasting comes down to consuming less rather than more. This is at odds with the modern society's unending drive to consume and have more. If you look at fasting in terms of the physical body as a finely-tuned engine, what you expect over time and with ageing is that the body accumulates grime and deposits and will therefore require a tune-up. Fasting in this context could be viewed as being such a tune-up.

Western science has also started to adopt fasting into its fold. There are many modern diets that incorporate fasting including the 5:2 diet; juicing fasting diet; calorie restriction; and numerous detox and cleansing diets.

The physical experience of fasting usually begins with an initially feeling of sickness but then after pushing through mental and physical pain, there is some kind of energetic transformation and then you begin to feel physically lighter and mentally clearer.

The Sri Lankan Context

In Sri Lanka, fasting is actually part of the way of life for many Sri Lankans. It may surprise you to read this, but it's true.

As a predominantly Buddhist country, fasting has historic precedence in Buddhism. About 2,600 years ago, Gautama Buddha set forth Vinaya rules for monks and nuns to refrain from consuming meals after midday, with the exception of medicines. In the Kitagiti Sutta, he tells the monks:
"I abstain from the night-time meal. As I am abstaining from the night-time meal, I sense next-to-no illness, next-to-no affliction, lightness, strength, & a comfortable abiding. Come now. You too abstain from the night-time meal. As you are abstaining from the night-time meal, you, too, will sense next-to-no illness, next-to-no affliction, lightness, strength, & a comfortable abiding."

Fasting is also practiced by some lay Buddhists in Sri Lanka on Uposatha days (which occurs weekly) and while on meditation retreats (which can extend from one day to a few months) when they undertake to observe the eight precepts, which includes refraining from meals after midday until the following morning. This form of fasting is meant to aid spiritual development on the Noble Eightfold Path, particularly renunciation and the development of the mind towards wisdom. There are monks and nuns practicing in Sri Lanka who go a step further by doing juice fasts from time-to-time. Apparently, this helps with their meditation practice and overall well-being.

The Buddha encouraged people to eat in moderation. He specifically gave this advice in the Donapaka Sutta to King Pasenadi who was bloated with labored breathing having just eaten a large lunch before coming to visit the Buddha,
"When a person is mindful and thus knows moderation in eating, his ailments diminish, he ages gently and he protects his life."

Muslims in Sri Lanka also fast from sunrise to sunset during the period of Ramadan, which lasts 30 days. It is one of the fundamental religious duties of Islam and a time for self-examination and increased religious devotion. And the Catholic community in Sri Lanka will often undertake fasting, prayer, repentance and pilgrimage during Lent, to remember and honor Jesus' 40 days of prayer and fasting in the desert. And on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Catholics will also abstain from consuming meat.

Fasting is also part of Ayurveda, the ancient holistic healing system practiced in Sri Lanka. And there are a variety of cleansing processes known as vireka that are used to detox the body, such as laya vireka and bada vireka.

My handyman, a fifty year old slim-built Sri Lankan man who comes to do odd jobs around my house, is a prime example of someone who regularly fasts. I usually provide food and drink when he undertakes work for me. He eats very little throughout the day while he is working and has his largest meal in the evening.  On a typical day he would normally only eat two malu paan or fish buns for lunch and nothing else, but would drink plenty of sugary tea throughout the course of the day. When I asked him about the lack of food, he told me he feels more energized by consuming less food as the food slows him down and makes him feel lethargic.

One of my friends believes that Sri Lankan children also use fasting as a means to control their parents. I questioned whether this was true or if it was because they didn't want to eat, which is often the case with children in Sri Lanka and so parents regularly engage in some form of force-feeding. But my friend was adamant that some Sri Lankan children do use fasting to get their way, as they've clued in to the fact that it greatly disturbs their parents when they don't eat.

Benefits of Fasting

In Ayurveda, short term or intermittent fasting is favored as means to enable the body's digestive system an opportunity to have some relief. The idea is that under normal circumstances we place our digestion and metabolism under a great deal of stress or strain by overeating, skipping meals, stress, eating bad food combinations, eating food that is difficult to digest, eating too late at night, eating before we have digested our previous meal and more.

Over time, this results in heavy, sticky, toxic waste accumulating in the digestive tract that can eventually overflow into channels and tissues, hampering cellular nutrition and waste disposal. This can precipitate into the manifestation of diseases. Regular cleanses or fasts are the perfect antidote to this problem.

Western science has become more interested in calorie restriction and intermittent fasting as a way to overcome and prevent a variety of modern diseases, as well as improve a person's overall health and life span. The following is a list of benefits of fasting based on their research and findings?

There is so much scientific and medical research in support of fasting that it's surprising that more people around the globe aren't adopting some form of fasting into their lifestyle.

I'm heartened to know that fasting is still actively practiced in Sri Lanka. Given the fast adoption of new fads and ideas that come from abroad, it's an important reminder to not be so quick to abandon something that has a historic precedence in Sri Lanka and with so many health benefits.

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