Fasting down

In the spring of '73, I spent a week in a cabin in the Cévennes, an isolated region in southern France. For three of those days, in what seemed like an extension of reading old Zen texts and poems, I fasted.

I guess the idea was to get rid of all distractions from the primordial no-mind, including food. This fast wasn't about "curing" a bad habit or a physical ailment. My companion -- a lovely Frenchwoman -- and I just boiled up water for thyme tea, took in the weak sunlight of April and listened to the wind blowing through the olive trees. It was both idyllic and scary, cut off from the world as we were, with no chores to do but chopping wood for the hearth and without the routine of meals to keep us busy ... or entertained.

Food, along with electricity and running water, was just something we didn't have. After 24 hours, I started to feel elated -- after 48, I spooked at the most everyday sights and sounds -- after 72, I began leveling off into calm appreciation of everything-itself. Then we stopped fasting and cooked up some oatmeal. Without milk, sugar or anything else, it was just warm and wonderful.

But what was this "playing" with hunger all about? What about the starving millions? A memory from my childhood gave me some perspective.

About five years after World War II, I got to know an immigrant kid from Poland who lived with his family in some furnished rooms in our house. One day, as he playfully stuck out his tongue at me, I saw it was all lined and scarred. My mom explained that some time in his young life, he had known real hunger. Now I can't imagine that kid thinking fasting was fun or "cool," except maybe as a sign of contrition or faith.

For me, in a different world, fasting has become an exploration as well as an unearthing of lost feelings.

Whenever I got real hungry, I'd also get pissed off, hyper or despondent. Eating was once a good guarantee against feeling any of that stuff. It was like going to Disneyland when you were miserable. Wow, instant relief!

But instead of gaining weight, I stayed thin, partly from having my metabolic idle turned way up and partly from a masochistic tendency to keep putting my hand back in the fire.

Fasting was like walking on psychological coals, emptying the accumulated garbage and testing the air for demons. I didn't have to keep my feelings down any more.

After years of fasting "accidentally" -- like waking up Saturdays and, what with one task or another, paying no mind to food until late afternoon -- I've begun to appreciate the uncluttered feeling that it brings, the sense that so-called wants, and even needs, are pushed into the background in favor of concentration. And the "cold turkey" sandwich of no-eating, if nibbled on attentively, brings out the best in otherwise distracted beings.

In an empty nutshell, fasting keeps me honest, in touch and ready to go.

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