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I was fasting as I wrote this, observing Ramadan, one of the five pillars of Islam. During this holy month, fasting is practiced daily from dawn to sunset. The wisdom underlying the choice of this month for this sort of worship is that this was the month in which the Qur'an was revealed. I take this to mean that Ramadan offers an occasion for personal revelation or the courting of inspiration. Something about my sensibility makes this particular observance appealing to me. Perhaps, it has to do with the ascetic ideal as I see it.

A figure transfigured, seated amid implacable calm. Stillness surrounds him, emanates from him, the harvest of a lifetime passed in quiet quest of exalted pursuits. The gaze is steady, of one accustomed to looking from dizzying heights at unfathomable depths--free of ill will, guile, or self-interest. Arms and legs neatly folded, he sits, lost in thought, found in peace. Conversely, the ascetic ideal conjures an image of the desert-ravaged hermit, spewing prophecies and lusting for divine union. The first ideogram is of one who has overcome; the second is of one who has fused.

What is common to both is the suggestion of being transported, or of entering the presence of something unknown and unknowable. How else to justify the existence of intuition, intimation or inspiration other than seize upon the fallen crumbs from that ineffable table? Perhaps such mysticism transcends religion altogether, if religion is understood as an unseeing belief in the written, and mysticism as unwritten faith in the unseen. Yet, this meditative/ecstatic state is one that, I believe, can be accessed through religious practices such as fasting.

"There is only one religion, but there are a hundred versions of it" said George Bernard Shaw, and the same may be said of the practice of fasting. Besides Muslims, Baha'is, Buddhists, Catholics, Copts, Hindus, Jews, Mormons, Pagans, Protestants, and Eastern Orthodox believers all engage in some variation on the theme. The fast may take place anywhere from a day to around half a year, yet it appears to be conducted in differently similar manners, for similarly different reasons. People abstain from food and drink, or solid foods, or meat, dairy products and eggs, or fish (on some days but not others).

The reasons are as free-ranging as the human imagination: spiritual nourishment, spiritual improvement, and/or spiritual warfare. This translates into purification, freeing the mind, freeing the body, compassion, solidarity with the poor, practicing austerity, resisting gluttony, control of carnal desires, tempering the power of habit or the violence of instinctive desire, sharpening the will, enhancing concentration, penance for sins, closeness to God, petition for special requests from God, to advance a political or social-justice agenda (as Gandhi made a way of life and diet) or even as a counterbalance to modern consumer culture (there is a television and entertainment fast). What emerges from this diversity is an innate human balancing system, feasting and fasting along the slippery road to moderation.

The discipline of fasting seems to express a kind of body/spirit antagonism: Fasting, which clearly serves some basic human function, is in effect a punishment of the body. How to feed a god and beast, at once? It's a dilemma of human existence. In this light, fasting acts as an undoing of the body and a dimming of its din. The suggestion being: if you wish to have an out-of-body experience, you must deny the physical body, experience a sort of semi-martyrdom or dying to the flesh in order to feed the spiritual body. It is a reminder of our other-body selves, our spirit-body and the otherworldly food it hungers for. This is perhaps why street magician David Blaine and his ascetic spectacles capture so much attention and speculation.

No stranger to punishing practices, Blaine is a hybrid of showman and fakir, perpetually testing the limits of his powers. One of his feats of endurance (September 2003) involved starving himself in solitary confinement, suspended from a crane by the River Thames in a glass box for 44 days. The illusionist believed that living without food and human contact, he'd experience "a higher spiritual state," which would lead to "the purest state you can be in." At first, the public repaid him for his efforts by pelting him with insults, paint-filled balloons, tomatoes, golf balls, and other forms of violent distraction; i.e. trying to cut off his water supply, and flying a remote controlled helicopter carrying a burger up to his box.

In Franz Kafka's story The Hunger Artist, the protagonist faces the same sort of hostility as Blaine. The parallels are unmistakable: both suffer from the mob's suspicion, nay, outright hostility toward the exceptional. Perhaps people are loath to be reminded of their own neglected human possibilities, but over time the public comes round, demonstrating a less complicated appreciation.

At the end of his six-week spell, witnessed by some 250,000 pilgrims, Blaine emerged from his glass box pronouncing tearfully: "I have learned more in that box than I have learned in years. I have learned how strong we are as human beings." Nevertheless despite the triumphant tone of his parting speech, and "considering the peculiar nature of his performance," as Kafka described it, the uncanny similarities with Kafka's disquieting moral parable linger.

Whatever else The Hunger Artist may be, it is an allegory of spiritual dissatisfaction, opening with the line, "During these last decades the interest in professional fasting has markedly diminished." The strangely affecting, self-dramatizing, contrary narrator proceeds to chart this decline from the morbid curiosity of the marveling crowds and their grotesque merriment, to their eventual revulsion, malice, and crushing indifference to the "suffering martyr" who perversely fasts on and on, even after everyone, including himself, has stopped keeping track of the records he has broken. Interestingly, the longest period of fasting fixed by the hunger artist's impresario was at forty days, the length of Christ's fast. "Just try to explain to anyone the art of fasting! Anyone who has no feeling for it cannot be made to understand it," exclaims the narrator in exasperation, at one point in the story.

The unhappy ending of this human experiment, mercifully unlike David Blaine's, is the burial of the crazed old artist. And rather than leave his "perfectly good cage standing there unused," he is replaced by his antithesis: a young panther, his "body furnished almost to bursting point with all it needed." But, more than anything else, it is the haunting dying words of the hunger artist that best communicate the incommunicable: "I couldn't find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else."

With this in mind, I believe fasting to be a form of practical mysticism, or a belief in privileged moments. Perhaps this is the "artist's metaphysics" that Friedrich Nietzsche described, but I do think that fasting can stir whisperings of another world or glimpses into uncharted regions of the soul. "Only something supernatural can express the supernatural," says Ludwig Wittgenstein, which does not make it any clearer to the uninitiated. Yet fasting is this, too--a pursuit of clarity. And, just as regular baths are prescribed during longer fasts, so fasting is a hygiene of the spirit.

To put it differently, when poet Philip Larkin writes, "Deprivation is to me what daffodils were to Wordsworth," he voices the bitter-sweetness of self-sufficiency. It is not deprivation per se that he is enamored with. It is having fallen in love with a pain, not for how it impoverishes but how it enriches: fortitude, profundity, insight. Likewise, Michel Foucault does not explicitly speak of redemption through sacrifice, but he does hint at the transformational process in his own terms when he writes of "a sacrifice, an actual sacrifice of life... a voluntary obliteration that does not have to be represented in books because it takes place in the very existence of the writer."

Naturally (and unnaturally) there are other ways to willfully enter this altered state. Whether such experiences go by other names--Martin Heidegger's "unthought" or Karl Jasper's "boundary experience"--is immaterial. The point of the exercise is the salvaging of truths not afforded by everyday experience. For in the act of fasting, it is not merely food one renounces, but thoughtlessness. This is also evidenced in Eastern mysticism in the practice referred to as "immaculate speech." To maintain immaculate speech, oftentimes silence is required, another renunciation. In the final equation, it is a question of attention, sustained attention--an idealistic attempt to align what is thought with what is said and done. Whether one can approach and enter this state having diligently sought it or having been mysteriously granted it, fasting offers a gradual awakening or gentle shock out of soul-deadening routine. To fast is to slow down, almost to stillness, and distill what is necessary.


I'm an Egyptian poet and author of Signposts to Elsewhere, a book of 300 of my original sayings: