I grew up with a sort of composite personal faith heavily influenced by the teachings of Meher Baba and his remaining living disciples, who came from every major religion. As a result, from a very early age I experienced all faiths as sort of aspects of the same worship. When I was about twenty, on one of my extended wanders around North India, I visited Nizam-ud-din’s samadhi in Delhi and ended up at Fatehpur Sikri and the tomb of Salim Chishti, right before Eid al-Fitr. Seeing those communities in prayer, and knowing my experience of that divine attar that arises from within Quaali programs I had attended in Khuldabad, MS, I desperately wished that I’d been aware and able to participate then.
This experience of being outside looking in, set the tenor for each time I encountered the holy month. Not being in a strongly Muslim community, I always realized after the fact that it already started. This year, by grace I received a reminder just before it was to begin and decided that come what may, this was the year.
Like any spiritual or religious practice, there are a lot of reasons why I could reasonably be excused. I’m currently living an itinerant lifestyle without a fixed home. In fact, I moved home twice during this month and travel is absolutely an exception. Similarly, if it is potentially dangerous to one’s health then the fast is not to be followed, there are adapted fasts, or chirriya rosa that can be adopted. In my case, a history of major depression, and generalized anxiety coupled with a very real history of struggle with suicide ideation, can preclude many of the components of the fast (avoiding water and food and adopting a disruptive sleep schedule). In the end, I decided that since it was something that I’ve always wanted to try, and that since for once I was paying attention enough to know when it was starting, I would attempt it. But, I would be mindful and careful with myself. And if any of the components of the fast became unsafe, then I would break it off. What followed was a magical experience of reflection, focus, and discipline that was absolutely worth the transient discomfort.
For those who may be curious, here are some thoughts and suggestions arising from my experience.
- When beginning a fast taper off caffeine slowly. Do not decide to do it the day it begins. Additionally, spending the prior weekend enjoying access to a host’s lovely espresso machine, remembering all your long lost barista skills, does not facilitate the transition.
Trust me, I did the research.
When you can’t take painkillers or drink water to help you through the withdrawal, it is not fun. That first day certainly rivals, and possibly surpasses, any hangover of my collegiate partying days.
- Be clear on your intention. Know why you want to do this practice. In my case, I had a wish to deepen the experience I have with the portions of my faith that are in congruence with Islam. I view my faith as the white light at the center where religions converge. So I can explore and deepen aspects of my own faith by exploring one of the “colors”, if you will, of a religion. I also wished to share this practice in solidarity with the Muslim community at large. In my nation, there is an aggressive effort to demonize this faith. This is something that is not right and it hurts my heart. Particularly, as I deeply cherish the experiences that I’ve had with the Sufi community in India through the years.
- Fasts can be easier (or harder) with a community. I do a verbal fast every year, and love when I am with others doing the same. But there is a real beauty in undertaking these things alone as well. It forces you to not be a victim to community, faith, or creed. You are doing it because you chose the ordeal. No pressure. You can quit anytime. It’s just you, yourself, and the divine.
- Shit will come up. Stuff you thought you’d handled. Demons you thought you’d slain (Do we ever really slay them, or just set them to useful tasks?) Remember that you are in a vulnerable state and it will come to an end. Breathe. Meditate. Free write. Read whatever is holy to you. And, reevaluate. If you are not able to safely (mentally or physically) handle the commitment it might not be the time or place for it. It’s okay to reevaluate. But also consider that it might just be the challenge or temptation that you need to push through.
- Struggles come in waves and change in mode. The first few days were the worst on a physical self-control front. About two weeks in, the dissociation got really bad. The last couple days were brutal when it comes to a sense of depression/hopelessness. That is, until the last day, when I felt like I’d been freed from a mental prison. Again, it’s an intentional ordeal. Knowing why you are doing it helps a lot. Also, remembering that it’s time-boxed and will end makes a big difference. Talk through things that come up with trusted loved ones or counselors. Having mental troubles show up can be a gift. We can’t work through stuff without it coming up. Otherwise it just sits there under the surface where we can’t work on it. But again keep things within reason.
- The first few days are the worst. Ramadan is a weird fast since you break it every day, so your body never transitions its method of energy production to deep fat and protein consumption. You never reach the “break through” stage that health and yogic fasts talk about. You deal with those initial stages of physical discomfort and craving every single day. And as the days stretch into weeks it starts to wear on your psyche. This particular challenge is also the gift of Ramadan; it helps you recognize your compulsions and move past them.
- When you get really irritable or dissociative, meditate or distract yourself. Don’t remove yourself from life. Participate. You chose this practice, so it’s not fair to take out your discomfort or frustration on others. If anything try to be more present, more kind, more honest. Push back against the body and mind’s urge to riot.
- On a pragmatic level: figure out how to get enough calories, stay hydrated and get enough sleep. Eat simple healthy food that isn’t too rich, salty or sweet. That being said, make sure you are making food you love. This is a good time to practice self-love, and recognize that you are putting your body through a challenge, so be grateful and kind to it. If you’re like me, and have habitual low blood pressure, make sure that you are getting enough electrolytes. A packet of Emergen-C each morning really helped my headaches and dizziness in the afternoon. Be very careful about exercising since you can’t drink water to rehydrate or ease muscle cramps and headaches. If you need to be physically active, taking a cool shower and napping as soon as you start to overheat can make all the difference. But also remember that it is just a month and you can resume any aggressive training afterwards. Sleep can be tricky because you’re waking up really early to pray, drink water, and eat and meditate, then fasting till late evening (~3:45AM-8:30PM in my case). In Ahmednagar, the muslim community becomes largely nocturnal during Ramadan which makes good practical sense, especially in the brutally hot summer months. Here in rural Virgina (my home on the road for a few months), that kind of shift is a bit tricky to manage.
- There is a really amazing peace that starts to descend over you. It’s strange and amazing to feel really terrible physically, mentally, but to simultaneously experience a deep bliss and acceptance. One of my favorite aspects of Islam as a faith is the deep practice of surrender and faith in Allah(God(dess/the Divine/Source/Universe/Parabrahama, if you will). I have no doubt that the practice of Ramadan facilitates this mindset. It is after all one of the “Five Pillars of Islam” (along with a profession of faith, five daily prayers, alms for the poor, and performing the pilgrimage to mecca). I do not know if I’ll observe the fast in the future. Indeed, who can tell what will come, all is possible (or impossible) with that nameless one of many names. But, I do I hope so. I also hope that it’s as part of a community next time. This solitary go was what I needed this year, but I’d like to try it someday as a part of a community.
Wishing all blessings and peace in your life. Eid Mubarak!