Paul's Internet Landfill/ demons/ On Fasting

On Fasting

Gluttony has long been one of my favourite deadly sins, and I have the belly to prove it. I am too frightened of smoking, drinking and coffee to engage in those pasttimes, and I gave up NetHack a few years ago, so when I am feeling depressed or angry or insecure, I turn to food. I turn to food when I am feeling okay as well, of course; I don't need emotional crises to stuff my face.

I eat frequently, and I eat a lot, and it gets me into trouble. When others offer me food at parties or dinners or while volunteering, I have a hard time resisting. That would be okay if I could restrain myself; instead I take more than my fair share of the food, and I go back for seconds and thirds and fourths. It's not polite, and I get a lot of funny looks, but I do it anyways. Like a silly sheep who is presented with more food than he can possibly stomach, I will eat and eat and eat until I could explode. It's a good thing I don't have much of a social life, I guess.

I try to justify my gluttony in various ways. My favourite excuse these days is that I am a vegetarian, and my arbitrary dietary habits mean that I am allowed to eat more than my fair share. This rationalization is based on the idea that although meat is usually a more inefficient food source than grains or vegetables, a pound of meat has more energy and satiety value than a pound of vegetarian food. There is probably some truth to this claim, but at the same time I know lots of vegetarians who eat normal-sized meals. Many of them engage in more physical exercise than I do, so the fact that I walk a lot -- my second-favourite excuse -- does not justify my eating either.

The reality is that I have no self control. I sleep too much, I daydream too much, I read too much, I surf the Internet too much, I waste too much of my life, I worry too much, and I eat too much. Controlling my impulses so that I can function in society has always been hard for me, and I will probably continue to struggle with my impulsive nature until the day I die.

Last month, I decided to conduct a little experiment to see whether I could control my eating habits at all. I decided to follow the cues of Islam and fast for the month of Ramadan. I committed myself to fasting from sunup to sundown, which for me meant refraining from food between the hours of 5:00am to 5:00pm. During my fast I would not eat any food or drink any water. However, after 5:00pm I would let myself eat as much as I wanted.

I actually missed Ramadan by a few days: I started fasting on November 8 instead of November 6, and to compensate I stopped fasting December 9. To my surprise, I managed to last the entire month with only a few transgressions. Early on in the fast I was I was cooking dinner for later in the day, and I thoughtlessly popped a floret of cauliflower in my mouth. A few times I did not finish breakfast before 5:00am. Overall, however, I stuck to my rules (which I do not claim correspond to the rules of Islamic fasting) and carried the experiment through to completion.

I learned a lot. My first lesson was that in order to eat breakfast I had to be up early in the morning, or I had to go to bed late at night. In this sense I cheated a lot; I tended to be awake during those hours when I could eat, and I tended to be asleep during the day. Nonetheless, being awake for 4:00am each day proved challenging. Sometimes I would miss my morning deadline, and I would be without food for sixteen or eighteen hours. A few times my stomach punished me mercilessly for missing breakfast, but often I lasted the day with no major problems, and on at least one occasion I went for twenty hours without noticing I was hungry.

My second lesson was that hunger is a function of both time and occupation: when I was busy I tended to be less hungry, but when I was at home alone I really noticed my hunger. Sunday afternoons proved to be the hardest fasting days; I would spend all day at home not working on my thesis, and as I sat in front of my computer my stomach would rumble and grumble and tell me that it wanted food. The last few hours before the evening would stretch out; I would remind myself how hungry I was at least once a minute, if not more.

On the other hand, Wednesday afternoons usually proved to be the easiest fasting days, because I would be busy volunteering from noon until 8pm. Sometimes I would feel a little woozy -- I don't think I would have been able to fast in the summer without water -- but for the most part my mind and body would be occupied with other things, and my stomach would not bother me too much. I still felt hungry, but I did not agonize over my hunger.

My third lesson was that food tastes really good when you are hungry. I have rarely felt hunger in my life. I have participated in 24 hour famines for charity in the past. I have been hungry non-voluntarily once or twice -- I would be in the midst of an hour-long walk home, and my stomach would rumble all the way home. Certainly, I have not felt hunger as people all over the world feel hunger; I have never been without food for two days, never mind being without food for a month. Furthermore, my hunger was First-World hunger; I knew that I would be able to break my fast. I can only imagine how much more frightening hunger must be when you don't have that assurance.

All the same, I caught glimpses of what it means to be hungry every day, and I caught glimpses of the joy of breaking a fast. After thinking of my hunger for two straight hours, I found those first few bites of food immensely satisfying -- even if the food was as simple as bread and margarine. I wish I could say that I extended that satisfaction to every bite of food I took that month, but I didn't. All too often I would fall back into my old habits and wolf down as much food as my stomach could hold. I wouldn't chew my food thirty times; I would not savor the flavour of the expensive spices I put into my food; I would not reflect on where my food came from or why it was so affordable. I would just plunk myself in front of my computer and gulp down my meal. I cannot deny that initial satisfaction, however.

My fourth lesson was in restraint. All month, people would pass around Timbits or goodies, and I would have to resist the mouthwatering goodies. Sometimes I felt really bitter about turning passing on some good looking cookies. I would lament the loss of those treats for hours afterwards. This lesson suggests that I should either spend more of my own money on treats, or that I should learn to control my sweet tooth.

My fifth lesson surprised me very much: I learned that I do not need to overeat. I am capable of functioning quite well on two stomachfuls of food a day. Usually I would eat at 6pm, and then again sometime in the early morning. This always proved to be enough food for me. I did not faint from hunger even once.

I would like to think I could have continued fasting indefinitely with no ill effects, given my success at eating normally. My fasting experience was not really a fair test, however. I intentionally prepared meals that I knew were filling. I ate a lot of curried chick peas and rice that month, for example. I suspect that I would still manage fine fasting when my diet contained more watery vegetables, but I cannot say for sure.

Mind you, I have not taken this lesson to heart. After I stopped fasting I started overeating again. In fact, I am feeling bloated even as I write this: I have been loading up on soup and cake all day.

My sixth lesson was that I connive way too much. I learned that I was not as hungry when I slept, so I tended to sleep more during the day. I learned that I would get very hungry after emptying my bowels, so I tended to go to the bathroom in the afternoon. My body learned tricks to cope with my situation, which I found both reassuring and depressing -- reassuring because I have hope that my body will be able to respond to difficult situations in the future, and depressing because these sneaky tricks undermined some of the purpose of this exercise.

My seventh lesson was one of humility and privilege. From relating my experiences I learned that fasting is no big deal, and that lots of people fast -- often involuntarily. Several people reminded me that unlike their fasts, I had the choice of eating whenever I wanted. I was thankful for these reminders. They prevented my head from swelling too much, and they helped me put my little experiment in context.

My eighth lesson was that food affects my moods. The first two weeks of the fast proved to be rough emotionally. No doubt some of my frustrations were related to outside factors, but I found that I became far more irritable when hungry, to the point where I lost my temper on a few occasions. This frightened me. I used to lose my temper a lot, doing a lot of damage to myself, my possessions, and those around me. In recent years I have mellowed -- or so I thought. But it appears that my bad old habits are only an empty stomach away.

I learned my ninth lesson after finishing my fast. This lesson was that I am externally motivated. I think that scheduling my fast around Ramadan made it a lot easier to keep. That way, I could treat my fast as a contest. Could I keep up with the competition? Could I last the entire month? Would I be able to adhere to the rules of fasting between sunup and sundown? It's funny -- I don't like organized sports because I find them too competitive. On the other hand, I love taking externally-motivated personal challenges -- the Terry Fox Run, regular blood donations, and this fast.

Once the external motivation for the fast disappeared, so did my willpower. I gave some thought to continuing my fast beyond December 9, but I soon gave into the temptation of sweet food. Giving blood a few days later, I could not resist the free cookies. Since then I have had little motivation to take up my fast again.

Nine lessons ought to be enough for any experiment, but I have one more to offer. My tenth lesson might be the most important one I learned: these temporary experiences in self-deprivation are worthwhile. This fast taught me so much about my capabilities and the way my mind works, and it helped me empathise with other hungry people just a little bit more. I did little permanent damage to my body, and I did not even inconvenience myself that much to carry out the fast. In what way was this experience not worthwhile?

There is an influential school of thought that recoils at the thought of voluntary self-deprivation. The argument goes like this: we live in a world of plenty, and if we have the resources such that can satisfy our needs, it's wrong to deprive ourselves of anything. Followers of this school dislike the idea of fasting, or doing without possessions we can afford, or tracking the amount of garbage we produce each day. (They uniformly seem to support tracking our spending and earning, however.) I can see their point: suffering for the sake of suffering seems silly. Why not rejoice in our prosperity instead?

My response to this is simple: it's about self knowledge, and about learning empathy for those who do not share our good fortunes. It's even about learning to appreciate the prosperity that we have. I would argue that we take a lot of our technological blessings for granted. Would I have learned to appreciate food as much as I have without being hungry? Maybe. Probably not. Swimming in our luxury, we forget that the things we enjoy every day -- plentiful food, computers, even indoor plumbing -- are indeed luxuries. I suspect this makes us arrogant. It makes it easier for us to ignore the suffering of those around us in favour of our distractions and entertainments. That idea makes me really mad. I am not saying that we should give up every luxury we have to look after the poor; I am not even sure that would help. What I am saying is that we aren't even really aware that a problem exists. On an abstract level, we know that hunger and poverty exist, but we don't feel that these are problems in our hearts.

Phrased in a more sinister way, I question why people would want to deny themselves the education of self-knowledge. Why should we be ignorant of our capabilities? Why are we so afraid of learning about our habits and consumption? Why are we so afraid of sympathising with those who are not as fortunate as us?

The caveat to this, of course, is that we would like self-deprivation to be meaningful. For me, deprivation spurred on by shame does not work very well; I end up feeling depressed, and then I give into whatever it was that I was depriving myself of. However, taken in the right frame of mind, with a desire to learn and take on a challenge and improve oneself, I think that experiments such as mine make a lot of sense. There are lots of potentially-harmful experiments I would not want to try -- smoking crack, or dropping LSD, or engaging in promiscuous unprotected sexual relationships -- but I think there is a lot to be said for simple, relatively harmless experiences such as fasting. They can help us grow.

Going beyond the boring sermonizing of my tenth lesson, I am happy that I decided to carry out this fast. If nothing else, I hope to fast during the Ramadan season next year. Before that, I am trying to incorporate some of the lessons I learned into my own life -- restraining myself when offered free food, and staying away from the fridge whenever I am bored or depressed. It's proving to be difficult, though.

Beyond fasting, I would like to continue improving myself by taking on new challenges. I want to cut down my Internet consumption, but I am finding that very hard. Also, I want to improve my sleeping habits and be more productive when I am awake. None of these challenges will be easy for me, but if I don't try then how will I learn to overcome them?