On Fasting

The first time I did a 36-hour fast I didn’t mean to. I was driving my ’93 Dodge Van back from California to Washington and intending to fast for 24-hours. Twenty four hour fasts are easy. You get up, you don’t eat, but you know in the back of your head that at some point that day, if you just hold it together, you’ll get to eat. But 36 hours is a whole different ballgame. Thirty six hours is hardcore because when you wake up you think to yourself: I’m not going to eat today. Not breakfast, not lunch, not dinner, not at any point. I’ll spend the entire day not eating, and then at bedtime I’ll simply go to bed, still not having eaten. Mental strength is much more important for 36 hour fasts. If you can accept the fact that you’re not going to eat when you wake up, you’ll be OK. But as soon as you start making excuses, or thinking, “Well, maybe I’ll let myself eat when I accomplish this,” or, “Is fasting even healthy?” you’re done.

The reason I fasted for 36 hours in California/Oregon is because I couldn’t find food. To complete my 24 hour fast I couldn’t eat till 10pm, but I was also looking for a tranquil place to pull my sketchy white van over so I could sleep in peace. By the time I found a suitable place I was in the middle of nowhere, somewhere in Southwest Oregon, a beautiful place but also a place you never want to be, because let’s face it, it’s Oregon, it’s like a slightly crappier version of Washington State or a slightly crappier version of California, it has an identity crisis, it can’t decide what it is, is it rainy or is it arid? And so rather than look for food and drive more in the dark I decided to just pull over and go to sleep.  I got out of my car to pee. The stars were brilliant, gleaming points of light in the pitch black sky. I listened to the sounds of the crickets and wondered if I might be able to catch one and eat it.  I marveled at how beautiful nature can be, how beautiful night can be, how beautiful silence can be. And then I went to bed. At some point in the night a car drove by and I jolted upright, sweating, ready to fight. I assumed it was two guys named Cliff and Gerald whose past times were to drive into the hills and drink whiskey and murder people, but when I realized it was just a passing car I sank back into the futon on top of a wooden platform that was my bed in the back of the van and went to sleep.

The next day I felt like I’d been sucking on a revolver. My body was in ketosis. Ketosis is a normal metabolic process in which your body starts burning fat reserves instead of glucose (Medicalnewstoday.com). Many people, myself included, feel they think more clearly when they’re in ketosis. It’s hard to tell if this has anything to do with the actual ketosis, or if it’s just because your body is desperate for food and your brain reels trying to think of ways to get it. Either way, I beelined it for Safeway, where I bought the first non-organic banana I could find.

Before this I’d done smaller fasts, usually 24 hours. My first 24 hour fast came when I was in Finland with my friend Bo. We decided to fast for a day and then do a raw food diet as long as we could stand it. Fasting is much easier when done with someone else. It’s nice to have someone to not eat with. At 10pm when we finally broke the fast we gathered a smorgasbord of Finland’s finest fruits: strawberries, cantaloupe, and honeydew. I still remember biting into the honeydew, it’s richness and aroma. It was like biting into a baseball, only if a baseball were succulent and green in color.

After this first fast in Finland I started fasting every Wednesday and would usually break the fast with a homemade Italian pizza which one of the directors of the program, a girl named Francesca from (I think) Florence, had taught me to make. Francesca and i were not dating. Instead I was dating a girl named Natalia from the Czech Republic, and our loved blossomed one night when Bo and I made cheeseburgers for everyone on a little island in a lake. Was it my ability to provide for the group that drew Natalia to me? The way I toasted people’s buns? It certainly wasn’t my ability to fast. Most people who heard of our fasts thought we were weird. But weirdness, we decided, was an acceptable price to pay to not be dominated by our desires. As Aristotle said, “Eat to live, don’t live to eat.” Being a glutton, I’ve had problems with this. Sometimes I plan my days around food. Sometimes the most exciting part of my day is a chocolate bar, which I remove lovingly from its wrapper like a mother caressing a baby fresh out of the NICU. I place the chocolate in my mouth and feel it as it dissolves upon my waiting taste buds. And then I open another chocolate bar, and another, and another, until I teeter on the edge of consciousness and reason.

My mother thinks fasting is silly. “Why don’t you just eat like a normal person?” she says. “But mother,” I say, “I am not a normal person. I am conflicted and have deep desires which can only be satisfied by prolonged caloric deprivation.” At this point she usually nods as if to say, “I understand,” or, “I hope I haven’t raised a psychopath.”

Despite fasting’s relative trendiness today, as seen demonstrated by such health “gurus” as Tim Ferrrrrrrissssssss (The 4-Hour Workweek) and Dave Asprey (Bulletproof Coffee), fasting has been around for a long time. Perhaps the most famous practitioner of fasting was Jesus of Nazareth, whose most famous fast was when he went into the Judean desert for 40 days to chill and think about stuff. During the 40 days the devil apparently tempted him several times with things like hedonism, in this case the temptation to turn rocks into bread. Jesus refused each temptation, the devil ultimately left and Jesus went back to Galilee (Wikipedia).

If this actually happened it’s quite impressive. Forty days is a long time to go without food, and probably significantly harder when being tempted by Satan. The other day while fasting I went to Trader Joe’s because I had to buy a sandwich for my roommate and Satan appeared to me in the form of a Reese’s style peanut butter cup. Then he appeared to me in the form of a Cobb salad. And finally, just when I thought I’d escaped his grasp, he appeared to me in the form of a Tuscan cantaloupe. I was able to resist these temptations but it was hard, and keep in mind I’d only been fasting for 36 hours. Jesus, when he underwent even more difficult tests, had been fasting 25 times as long. If I’d been in the desert for 40 days and had the ability to turn rocks into bread I dare say I’d have done so. I might’ve even turned them into ‘Nilla Wafers.

Another famous faster was Siddhartha from Herman Hesse’s famed book about the original buddha. Siddhartha was proud (though proud is maybe not the best word) of his ability to do three things: To think, to wait, and to fast. When the merchant he told of these abilities asked what good fasting was Siddhartha said, “If a man has nothing to eat, fasting is the most intelligent thing he can do. If, for instance, Siddhartha had not learned to fast, he would have had to seek some kind of work today, either with you, or elsewhere, for hunger would have driven him. But, as it is, Siddhartha can wait calmly. He is not impatient, he is not in need, he can ward off hunger for a long time and laugh at it” (Siddhartha). Someday, I feel like this will be crucial in my life. I’ll be down to my last pennies and rather than do something I don’t want to for money I’ll be able to laugh in the face of hunger. Or at least chuckle.

For a brief period of his life after meeting the merchant Siddhartha succumbed to the temptations of food and the corporal world. He learned the art of lovemaking from the famed courtesan Kamala, and also indulged in wine and fine clothes. He played dice, winning and losing great sums of money. He was beginning to learn to live like “the childlike people,” who in today’s parlance might be called “normal dudes.” The childlike people were constantly caught up in things like jealousy, anger, hunger, love, and lust. At first Siddhartha watched it with a kind of bemused detachment, but then without realizing it began getting caught up in it himself. He grew fat and lazy. Nothing satisfied him. He yelled and cursed and was greedy. He watched YouTube videos all day. And then one day, realizing the wretch he’d become, he left the city, left his money, the possessions he’d accumulated, and went back out into the world where, after not eating for two days, he collapsed next to a river.

And I bet he felt awesome.

Siddhartha realized the hard way — that is, on his own — that happiness could not come from anything external. However, it’s important to note here that during the time he spent with the Samanas (dirty forest dudes at the beginning of the book who would do things like stand in the rain for 10 hours straight) he realized fasting and deprivation were not the way to happiness, either. “What is fasting?” He said to his bro Govinda. “It is fleeing from the self, it is a short escape of the agony of being a self, it is a short numbing of the senses against the pain and the pointlessness of life.” He then went on to compare fasting to the same kind of numbing the ox-cart driver experiences every night when he drinks himself into a stupor with rice wine.

Does this mean that fasting is a worthless endeavor and should be abandoned? Absolutely not. I think it means something more along the lines of, “Be careful with extremes.” After all, Siddhartha spends the rest of his days living with a river ferry captain, learning the ways of the river and of river boat captaining. The two men barely talk to each other and can barely even afford rice. I don’t know what this means. If you can barely afford rice it seems like you’re in dire straits, and that your river ferry business plan needs tinkering. But the point is not, of course, that they were poor; the point is that they stuck to meager fare instead of lavish foods. They ate to live and not vice versa, as Aristotle recommended. They didn’t look for satisfaction in food or material things, and it’s certainly possible to adhere to a lifestyle like this without starving yourself. Fasting can be a spiritual experience, but you don’t have to fast to have a similar experience. You can also just be disciplined and not put crap in your body.

Nowadays fasting has become trendy not so much for spiritual reasons as for health reasons. Caloric restriction has been shown to increase lifespan in rats and primates by as much as 20%. Granted, the rats and monkeys whose food was getting taken away also showed signs of irritability and depression (Tim Ferriss Blog). Which sounds great. Eat very little, and spend most of your days pissed off and depressed. I haven’t personally noticed this with caloric restriction, but I also haven’t done it for prolonged periods of time and I’ve always had the luxury of just being able to go to Chipotle if I got desperate and plunge my face into a carnitas burrito. The monkeys and rats, I imagine, didn’t have this option.

According to Ferriss, however, there is another option, and that option is “intermittent fasting.” In a different study another group of rats and monkeys were able to eat all they wanted on one day, and then nothing the next. In the end they consumed about as much calories as the first group but still received all the benefits of caloric deprivation, i.e. “reduced oxidative stress, made the animals more resistant to acute stress in general…reduced the incidence of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, and improved cognitive ability.” They also experienced the added benefit of increased “brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF),” a substance that apparently increases the growth of new nerve cells in the brain, reduces depression, improves cognitive ability, and allows you to pick shit up just by looking at it (Tim Ferris Blog [except for the last one]).

Another huge proponent of intermittent fasting is Dave Asprey of Bulletproof Coffee and the Bulletproof Diet and anything else bullet-resistant. Dave claims, on his website, that intermittent fasting  “shows tremendous promise for fat loss, preventing cancer, building muscle, and increasing resilience.” I personally find some of Dave’s claims suspect (he says peanuts are the devil because of their supposed “mycotoxins.” This may be true but there’s something humorous about his obsession with mycotoxins. He makes it seem as if everything evil in this world could be traced to the advent of peanut butter), but there seems to be an ample amount of literature supporting the healthy effects of intermittent fasting, and Dave, at tremendous financial cost to himself, seems like he has done his homework. (He’s also a huge grass-fed cow butter proponent. On one of his podcast episodes he brags about feeding grass-fed butter wrapped in smoked salmon to his kids for breakfast. This actually sounds delicious, but strikes me as a funny thing to brag about). It’s one thing for one health guru to support intermittent fasting, but when several do it, and studies demonstrate its benefits, it may be time to examine it as viable component to healthy living.

I don’t need these studies, of course. I just like fasting. I like the way it makes me feel. I like how when I haven’t eaten for 36 hours I feel like I can take on the world, like anything’s possible. After all, if I’m capable of refusing one of my body’s most basic desires, i.e. the desire for food, then doing something like getting a good job or writing an essay seems almost easy by comparison. But I also like the presence it brings me. When I haven’t eaten in awhile my senses are heightened and instead of spending the day preoccupied with whether or not I should get a Chipotle burrito or a frozen yogurt with those little lychee balls covered in powdered sugar, I focus on the here and now. And in the end, that’s what’s most important to me, and what I think Siddhartha and other figures like him were getting at. Happiness is not outside us. It’s within us. So from time to time stop eating for a few hours, maybe even a few days, and see if you can find it.