Legal Disclaimer: In this article I mention physical fasting as a metaphor for restraint from excess in life. This is not in any way shape or form an endorsement of therapeutic fasting or going without food for any length of time. No one should ever engage in food fasting… at all, ever… without consulting several medical professionals, including your family doctor. Controlled fasting is neither risk free nor healthy for every person, and thus must be practiced only when it is a medically recommended or approved activity based on your individual medical/physiological needs. Thus, no one should view the following as medical or physiological advice, and I am not 100% NOT responsible for any/all injury that occurs from any individual foolishly deciding to implement or act on the following post in terms of going without food or regular nourishment.
While living in various Shingon and Zen temples in Japan or South Korea in the late 90s, it was common for me to eat very small, vegetarian meals several hours apart, sometimes only two a day if I was enthusiastically engaged in chant or a particular meditation session. As daily chores are also part of a Zen novice’s day, the end result was that I was essentially engaged in what is known outside of the temple as therapeutic fasting: the controlled, medicinal use of food, rather than “eating”, or “having a meal”. I call it Zen fasting, as it was what you might call “inadvertent fasting” through being engaged in Zen activities that didn’t involve food. It is also known in non-Zen circles as therapeutic fasting, which has many supporters and detractors.
“Zen fasting”, as I physically practice it, is basically going without food for specific amounts of time while always drinking water and taking the various pills (vitamins, minerals, and/or medicines) necessary for daily health. It is not designed for weight loss, or starving oneself. Rather, it is the strictly controlled timing of eating and not eating, for carefully considered, medically sound health and emotional reasons. I have developed an approach to this form of not eating (that I still practice to this day) that is specifically tailored to my family and personal health history, weight, height, lifestyle, career, personality, spirituality, and general psychology. It is not just “not eating” but rather a very measured, carefully implemented part of my lifestyle, carefully monitored and measured at every stage. The reason I do it is because it is so carefully constructed and designed, by myself and my musician, doctor, psychiatrist, monk, and artist friends who also have their own methods of Zen fasting, which we discuss and share with each other. No two Zen fast regimens are alike and thus we all learn from each other as to what is safe and what we all should avoid.
After consulting with my judo coach, several doctors, a couple of psychiatrists, multiple nurses, and a few Son and Soto Zen monks, I found a process of “not eating for certain amounts of time” that has provided health benefits. And the beauty of my lifestyle is that it is flexible, and so very practical. “Fasting” just means not having food, so everyone “fasts” at least a couple of times a day (the spaces between meals). If I have lunch at noon then supper at 5, I have “fasted” for several hours. So the human body is used to periods of digestion and metabolic activity (converting food into fuel) wherein food is not being consumed. Thus, when a person decides to use “not eating” in a controlled, therapeutic way, the body is already used to the idea. Athletes eat in controlled ways to maximize power, stamina, and rejuvenation. One can also not eat for health benefits: better gastrointestinal health, lower blood sugar, reduction of the effects of chronic diseases, more robust immune system, stress reduction, fewer headaches, and so on. These are all possibilities, especially since fasting while drinking water allows the body to get rid of the various chemicals in processed foods that hinder our maximum health. Zen fasting is also not a magical fix that will cure disease or give you extraordinary physical/mental powers. And anyone that sells incessant fasting as such is a liar and fraud who should be ignored and, in many cases, jailed for promoting such unhealthy, physiologically dangerous (potentially lethal) nonsense, e.g. the various forms of Breatharianism.
The key to my style of Zen fasting, once it was proven and approved of as a safe method of living for me, was its (slow) development as a lifestyle, that I developed slowwwwwwly over time into a Zen faster. Studying nutrition, psychology, medicine, and such intensively for a long period helped me transform my entire being into one suitable for Zen fasting. This is neither an overnight process, nor an easy-fix fad that I tried in order to gain some magical benefit without hard work. Like one trains to be a judo athlete, I trained my mind and body to be prepared for such a lifestyle before I even began any fasting of any length. Living in Japan, for example, means extreme heat in the summers. Thus, it would be extremely stupid to just start fasting without taking into consideration my physical needs during the extended (often weeks long) periods of 100°F heat. Thus, judo training and hydration concerns were first and foremost, while my temple stays required nutrition adjustments and similar hydration concerns.
But as I slowwwwwly got used to a more vegetarian diet and higher levels of necessary hydration, I discovered safe methods of living and working that maximized the nutritional meals of my meals while reducing portion sizes. The key was making every spoonful or chopstick-ful count, maximizing vitamin/mineral content and reducing empty calorie content. So if I ate anything, I had carefully considered exactly how even a single mouthful of food was going to impact my existence. This careful “going without” eventually seeped into my artistic and social behaviour; spending time refreshing my sensibilities through various types of emotional and spiritual fasts (silence, meditation, neuro-linguistic approaches to being more positive, etc., which I will discuss later.
As for my particular Zen fasting, I don’t always do it, but when I am feeling like a good psycho-spiritual renewal is in order, I will occasionally fast two days out of a seven day week, or if I have prepared properly, food fast for two days straight before slowly reintroducing soft foods back into my diet. As I have very, very carefully planned and prepared for it, including carefully preparing to break the fast if I need to, I can engage in a two day fast comfortably and joyously, as I anticipate the process. When it is done right (at the right time), it is an uplifting experience, as you are not “starving” your body but rather gently emptying it. A carefully prepared fasting body does not feel shock or denial, but rather the gentle pull of one’s metabolism shifting from burning food to burning fat. Once the body is used to making this switch without pain or distress, it becomes a relatively comfortable process, and any hunger (stomach emptiness) one feels is gentle and manageable. It also retrains the body to eat when it needs nutrition, rather than for psychological reasons like stress relief or emotional eating. Even as I write this I am over 34 hours into a two-day food fast, and feel totally fine, due to the medically sound, closely controlled, and carefully implemented process of how I entered and will exit this 48-hour period. In fact, I am about to eat a very small vegetarian salad this morning to reload on vitamin A and C, as well as make sure I have at least at little dietary fiber and fat in my system as I progress. So as you can see, I am not depriving myself of food, but rather managing my health in a food-restricted manner. I could go without all food for two full days, but it would not serve my best interests, considering my work/travel schedule in the next week. Plus, it send the wrong message if I fasted just to demonstrate some sort of “strength”, like I am doing something that makes me “better” than other people.
Another aspect of Zen fasting is the opportunity it provides for contemplation. A person will naturally increasingly lack energy as they progress, so incorporating this fact into my activities provided the opportunity to reflect on my lifestyle in terms of meditation, flexibility, weight issues, cardiovascular health, and so on. For example, later stage fasting (end of day, or middle to end of second day) is a golden opportunity for me to engage in easy, meditative forms of tai chi and yoga, making sure I do easy, slow motions and breathe deeply during all actions. This also alleviates any hunger I may be feeling. Though yoga can be used in many ways, I find it most helpful as a form of meditation, a way to relax rather than exercise. And when I am without food, it helps put me in the mindset I seek by fasting in the first place: contemplative, mindful behavior as go about my day. It is also why various religions have fasting traditions, as it is hard to be vain when your stomach is empty. Lacking food will also (hopefully) make me feel compassion for those around the world that regularly lack food against their will via poverty, war, sickness, etc.
This ties into my previously mentioned idea in regards to Zen fasting: that it is a great metaphor for emotional and spiritual approaches to our career, emotional life, and so on. Buddhists of all sorts commonly refer to food as “medicine”, like every morsel consumed is an act of healing the body. Physically fasting is good for my body in many ways when done properly and teaches me spiritual compassion (medicine for the soul). Emotionally fasting from negativity is medicine for the mind, while “fasting” from jealousy and envy is medicine for society (due to our reduced negative social behavior).
The ways we humans can emotionally and spiritually fast act like various types of existential medicine.
Taking this concept further, I also fast creatively and technologically, rather than calling it “spending time alone” or “spending a day without technology”. It is the same act, but the mentality and psychology behind calling it a “laptop fast” or a “not writing today” fast I find more uplifting and beneficial. Not eating in a certain manner is like medicine for my particular gastro-intestinal system, and my psychological status. A holiday spent on the beach for me is Zen-fasting, refraining from working too hard: allowing my body to refresh itself with sun and sand and joy. Not listening to music for a couple of days I find to be a great Zen-fast for my ears, which makes me return to analytical listening refreshed and creatively inspired. In fact, the best way to improve one’s saxophone playing and drumming is to practice intensely (and safely) for three weeks, then take an entire week off, not touching the instrument at all. Once I return, I inevitably have improved and play with much better feel and timing, as I have given my mind and body time to absorb and embody the training of he previous weeks.
So as a concept, Zen-fasting is an excellent metaphor for considering how you go about your lifestyle as a writer, musician, or artist: the act of approaching all action and no-action as potentially healing ways: spiritually medicinal ways of Being.
Zen fasting is really just existential fasting: simplicity, release, softness, stillness, patience, moderation, relaxation meditation, and silence…. A life lived free from the poison of excess.