Earlier this month I went on a silent retreat in the country on a lake. Usually, I do a solo inner adventure, but this year, I was joined by a good friend who wanted to do the retreat, as a transition point to turning 65.
We both were seeking spacious periods of silence and decided to add a fasting component to the experience. When I’m preparing to fast, which I have done many times over the last 20 years, I consult the book The Fasting Path by Stephen Harrod Buhner, best known as a plant medicine teacher. It’s my fasting bible. He adheres to a wholistic approach to fasting – consideration is given to the spiritual, emotional and physical processes and rewards of fasting.
Fasting’s Effect on Health
In our culture today, we associate fasting with its physical and health benefits. This is a remnant from earlier times when abstaining from food was respected for its curative powers. Some still promote fasting for the many chronic illnesses of our current time. For diabetes, high cholesterol and inflammation, some evidence indicates these conditions respond well to periods of calorie restriction. Buhner’s work is solidly grounded in research.
But in Buhner’s book, the first chapters are devoted to the spiritual tradition of fasting. From his research and personal experience, he promotes fasting as an effective way to break through psychological armouring. His premise and one I share is that we can’t make contact with higher realms of spiritual awareness while clinging to our ego defences. The two are counter-indicative.
The Heart as an Organ of Spiritual Perception
All our psychological defences, in some way, inhibit the authenticity of the heart’s response. In The Fasting Path, Buhner speaks eloquently on the role of the heart in our spiritual development. To live undefended is to dare to follow the path of the heart; to do that we must decipher the heart’s language, but first, we must be willing and open to hearing that inner voice. It always feels so vulnerable. Fasting encourages and supports that emotional/spiritual vulnerability.
A quote from Buhner captures the essence for me: “…fasting has long been considered essential to restoring a strong relationship with the sacred, especially through its activation of the heart as an organ of spiritual perception.”
Add days in silence, in nature to fasting, and it’s a potent recipe to discover what’s most important. At first, it helps me recognize again, the many guises of distraction and diversion that my day-to-day, business-as-usual life, serves up. By mid-day two, I was cooking. I could feel the slow softening, the deeper settling into myself. Later that day, I spontaneously broke through into an amazing heart centred state. What always amazes me when these spontaneous experiences happen, is how nothing on the outside has changed; I’m in the same space, the same body, even operating from the same mindset and yet my experience is so…different. That my perspective of myself and life can so drastically change.
The Pleasure of an Undefended State
For hours, I was suspended in the most delicious, albeit tearful state, of gratitude and wonder. For an extended time, I saw clearly how all the pieces of my life have been perfect, marvelling in the richness and rightness of my life just as it is. Awareness of how this deep connection to truth gave me a direct and visceral recognition of how my defence can so often still be solidly in place. But also, an intense taste of how it can be different – this awareness lingers in me as a touchstone to the deeper reality.
So, you might ask, “What’s this all got to do with pleasure,” the topic of this blog? You have often heard me say pleasure is impossible when the defences are strong. During the retreat, with the help of fasting, I had a direct experience of the pleasure that exists in being undefended.
Fasting and silent retreat are not the only way to reach that undefended state. These spontaneous experiences of awakening need to be grounded in a daily practice of meditation, intentional living, and bringing awareness to the ever-clamouring ego demands.
But periodically it’s helpful to step away, and let go of the day-to-day; to have a taste of emptiness, of silence and fasting, that support opening a doorway our greater selves and our truest potential for pleasure.
The Fasting Path, Stephen Harrod Buhner, Penguin Group, New York. 2003.
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