Fasting: Building a habit of conscious living

The weekly question (perhaps the expression "demand" would be best here) from my mother, “What are you writing about this week?”

To which I replied, as in many instances, with a shrug (thankfully she is usually on the other end of the phone otherwise a speech about shrugging my shoulders when people are speaking to me would be in order).

"Don’t know. I’m fleshing out some ideas."

So this week, a friend asked as we were discussing the matter of ideas,

“Have you ever written about your experience of fasting?”

"No," I replied, "I find it too personal. Nobody’s business. Why? Do you find it interesting material?"

“Well yes I think it is. But I understand what you are saying.”

The conversation closed there and we moved on to other topics that might have been of more reader-friendly interest. However, none suited my current mood. I wasn’t in the mood to comment on current affairs or add to the negativity of the world. I am for the most part, "in a zone."

Writer Neil Gaiman, noted of his friend, the writer Terry Pratchett of Discworld fame, that underneath what most people saw as a light-hearted, jolly old fellow, was really a being powered by anger. It is I will note, righteous anger, anger caused by injustice to sum it all up. It’s an important point to note for writers always come from a position where they attempt to make sense of the world through their words. This is why many of us write. And this is why perhaps today I shall after all, write about the experience of fasting because like writing, this is an attempt to make sense of the world and my existence within it.

While many will be in the midst of water, powder and soca next Monday, many in the Hindu community will be within temple walls or their own homes observing the Maha Shivaratri celebrations which take place the same day. It is all-night vigil which begins at 6 pm on Monday and ends on Tuesday at 6 am. The celebration is dedicated to the worship of the god Shiva, who, in the Hindu trinity is represented as the destroyer, where destruction is interpreted as transformation. He is also symbolic of the discriminating mind and the quality of detachment. Unlike many of the other Hindu festivals which are celebrated with more overt displays such as Divali, Ganesh Utsav and Navratam, Maha Shivratri is a more sombre occasion, marked by chanting of mantras, devotional songs (bhajans), meditation and offerings of milk and fruits to the shiva lingam, the aniconic symbol of Shiva. This celebration is, in my world, the major occasion in my personal calendar and so the fast that accompanies is of great personal significance.

While I had declared myself an atheist some years ago, this was an act of rebellion more than a rational position, for atheism, as I soon realised, is problematic for a Hindu, an absurdity if I may call it that. It was a further absurd position for one dedicated to the vibration of the word Shiva. Absurd because ultimately Shiva is formless and science, which I shall not discuss for the lack of space here, explains the rest. Readers should be careful that they do no assume that I am presenting myself as an authority in any way. This personal story is simply to say that my understanding of the symbolism of Shiva, of the worship of Shiva drives the way in which I position myself within the world. There is still much to learn but this preliminary knowledge is enough to begin to understand that the world as we see it is simply an amalgam of stories upon stories, a collection of narratives that are subject to revisions.

Shiva as one whose energy is creative and transformative also represents the mind that is discerning. Fasting, given this context, is a grounding exercise for me, food being a tangible way of balancing the mind. If we go deeper, the act of fasting entails attention to speech, thought and action.

My fast this year is being conducted for 11 days, dedicated to no salt or cooked foods. Important to note is that the fast does not end here. While for some this is a periodic exercise, for me it functions as a period of further building a habit of living that includes the food, thoughts and actions with which I engage.

So, on this auspicious occasion, I wish each person the presence of mind to understand that the worlds that we inhabit are really about the stories that we tell ourselves. And so too we have the power to transform them.


"Fasting: Building a habit of conscious living"

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