By Ted Glick
Although fasting is part of the traditions of Indigenous peoples and some religions in the Americas, most people in the United States have never been on a fast of any duration. Probably the most extensive use of fasting as a method to educate and raise consciousness has been within the prison system by prisoners undertaking hunger strikes to press demands for basic human rights. Since the early ‘90s, however, there have been a growing number of people who have fasted outside of prisons around a variety of different causes, including the movement in opposition to “Columbus Day.”
Fasting is a simple yet profound way of combining the spiritual and the political. Mahatma Gandhi, the most famous nonviolent revolutionary of the 20th century, called it “the sincerest form of prayer.” It communicates seriousness and urgency without violence, thereby making it easier for those who hear about a fast to think about the issues of the fast; it focuses peoples’ attention.
Cesar Chavez, leader of the farmworkers’ movement, explained why he fasted in these words: “This fast is first and foremost personal. It is something that I feel compelled to do. It is directed at myself. It is a fast for the purification of my own body, mind and soul. The fast is also the heartfelt prayer for purification and strengthening for all of us, for myself, and for all those who work beside me in the farmworkers’ movement. It is a fervent prayer that together we will confront and resist, with all our strength, the scourge of poisons that threatens our people, our land and our food.”
Fasting is a way of connecting, of remembering, of feeling the pain of those who “fast” involuntarily. Pax Christi leader Marie Dennis, who fasted for 42 days in 1992, spoke in a statement of those who “cannot choose to stop when it gets overwhelming; rather, theirs is the daily, grinding hunger of simply being too poor to find enough food; it is a hunger that is ever-present and gnawing, that consumes their children slowly or quickly; it is a hunger for a more than minimal existence—for education and health care and housing.”
Fasting brings you face to face with yourself and what is really important to you, what you believe and how deeply you believe it. You cannot help but think about the WHY of your not eating, WHAT it is that is most important to you and HOW you can be more consistent so that your beliefs and your actions are one on a daily basis. It is a way to stay centered and focused and clearer, which in turn makes the cause about which one is fasting more understandable and of greater significance to others.
There are essentially three kinds of fasts: a total fast (no food or drink), a liquid fast (drinking fruit and vegetable juices and soups/broths—no coffee or caffeinated tea) and a water-only fast. The People’s Fast for Justice does not advocate a total fast. Our members fast either on liquids or on water only.
Liquid fasts are more nourishing than water-only fasts and in some sense are “easier.” They are also better for people who need to work at a stressful or difficult job while fasting because of the extra nourishment.
Whether liquid or water-only, it is critical that a faster drink often, at least eight cups a day, and more is better. The longer the fast the more essential this is. It is highly recommended that the juices be of good quality (i.e., organic) and that the water be of good quality. It is also essential to take salt with the liquids; without salt the water will not be fully retained by the body and dehydration is possible. You should take upwards of a full teaspoon of salt a day. Other vitamins that are recommended are vitamin C, potassium and calcium, crushed up so that they are not hard on the stomach. Dick Gregory and others who have fasted for long periods of time recommend honey and lemon in warm water as another way ingesting needed nutrients.
It is a good idea to transition into the fast. Three-four or so days before the fast you should begin to cut back on oils, stimulants (alcohol, sugar, coffee), meat, fish, cheese, nuts, beans and grains, in that order. This will make it easier for the body to adjust to the new routine of no food.
The Physical Benefits
Fasting, done properly, can be physically valuable to the body. In the words of Gary Null, it can: “Cleanse the body of toxins from pesticides and other sources; Reduce weight; Give the digestive organs a much-needed rest; Promote self-healing, especially with diseases related to obesity including those of the heart and liver, hypertension, arthritis, renal and gall bladder infections and varicose veins; Improve mental attitude; Increase energy levels; Relieve or eliminate pain; Extend the life span; Be an important component of a total program of good health.”
Fasting, if done for a long-enough period of time (dependent upon one’s weight and eating habits), cleans out of the body the toxins, chemicals and poisons that it is hard to avoid eating in a modern diet. This is particularly true for a water-only diet. Once food is no longer being ingested, the body first turns to the toxins and poisons for nourishment, then to the fats. Only after those have been metabolized does the body begin to feed on muscle, beginning with muscles in the legs and arms. This only happens if a person is on a very long fast with little caloric intake; i.e., water-only.
Some Final Thoughts
The hardest part of a fast is the beginning. Your body, your appetite, your mind are all craving food, and in addition, the toxins and poisons being eliminated may make themselves felt through headaches or other symptoms. Indeed, you can find out how healthy your normal diet is by how difficult the first few days are. After 3-4 days, in general, the body has adjusted, the cravings diminish and the fast becomes easier.
Keeping a daily diary while on a fast is helpful, recording how one is feeling and thinking, helping to keep focused on the “why” of the fast. Leisurely walks and meditation are also valuable.
It is very important how you COME OFF a fast if it is more than a few days. In many ways this is the most critical part of it. If done wrong the digestive system can be damaged. You need to begin with foods that are easily digested; fruits and vegetables (with the exception of cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli) that are steamed soft are good. The last foods to eat are grains, beans, fish, meat, oils, caffeine and sugar, in that order. You should plan one day of a “coming off” diet for every two days that you’ve fasted.
Finally, if you’ve never fasted and are concerned about possible negative effects, you should consult a doctor, preferably one who does not have a prejudice against alternative forms of healing.
Ted Glick has been on four long fasts of 18, 34, 40 and 42 days and twelve fasts of 12 days. He can be reached at 973-338-5398, P.O. Box 1132, Bloomfield, N.J. 07003, firstname.lastname@example.org.