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The Hunger Project Bolen Report
Ohm Society
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History of Fasting Print E-mail
by Ron Kennedy, M.D., Santa Rosa, CA

Dr. Kennedy Fasting is the voluntary abstinence from solid food over any period of time out of the ordinary. The practice of fasting has its origins in religion dating to the beginning of recorded history. The purpose of the religious fast is purification of the soul and preparation to receive atonement of sins. Fasting is practiced to this day amongst Roman Catholics, Orthodox Catholics, Jews and several Protestant sects, notably Episcopalians and Lutherans, as well as Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists and American Indians. Fasting even has a political history, highlighted by the use of the fast unto death's door by Mohandas Gandhi to pressure and/or inspire his followers to observe his principles of nonviolence during India's struggle for freedom from their English overlords.

The early Christian church saw fasting as associated with penitence and purification, a voluntary method to prepare to receive Holy Communion and baptism. Indeed, Christ is said to have fasted voluntarily alone in the desert east of Jerusalem for a full forty days and forty nights, at the end of which he encountered the temptations of Satan.

Fasting traditionally has been associated with a period of quiescence during which most physical activities are suspended, perhaps denoting a symbolic association with the state awaiting birth. In very ancient times, fasts were traditional at the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, and were believed to increase fertility of both the land (through God's grace) and of the human body for reproduction. Fasts were used by American Indians to avert disasters (earthquake, flood, drought, war, etc.) and as penance for sin.

Unless we take a smug, modern, pseudo-scientific point of view that the ancients were simply too stupid to know better than to fast, we are forced to ask ourselves what is in fasting which is so good as to deserve all this attention. Modern medicine does take this smug, modern, pseudo-scientific point of view and has bastardized the fast into its cousin, the diet, a technique for losing weight. Losing weight and keeping it off is one of the few things which the ancients never claimed for the fast and, as many people who have dieted to lose weight can tell you, dieting does not work to take weight off and keep it off. There is more to weight loss than calorie counting.

The religious association with fasting makes it difficult for us to access the value of fasting, living as we do in a generally anti-religious, anti-spiritual society devoted to the promise of science ultimately to deliver understanding of all things.

Finally, what stands between you and contacting the value of fasting is fear of hunger. This fear of hunger comes from the addiction for quantity of food in our culture. Even if you are eating a pure, healthy diet, you still can be addicted to quantity of food. The thought of decreased quantity of food — not to mention no food — over an extended period of time, is enough to strike terror into the hearts of many people. To the person addicted to quantity of food, an invitation to fast sounds like an invitation to die.

So, why should modern people fast? What is in it for us? Can there be a scientific validity to this ancient custom? Can it be that so many cultures have been mistaken in their practice of fasting, or is there some seriously positive benefit, which we also can reap? Can it be that a person who fasts on a regular basis can achieve a decidedly superior state of health? What about the spiritual benefits? Given that so many people have fasted through the ages for spiritual purposes, can it be possible that there is some spiritual value still available in the practice? We think of fasting as painful, but does it have to be painful?

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The information in this article is not meant to be medical advice.�Treatment for a medical condition should come at the recommendation of your personal physician.

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