Recently, Instructor Mo Williams completed his first fast and wanted to share some of his thoughts on the experience with all of you.
About a week ago I was sitting in the studio listening to Master Billingsley speak to a group of us, and for reasons I cannot fully describe, I decided that I was going to try fasting for the first time. I’d like to tell you this came as some great epiphany, but it was really just a random decision I made in the moment. I was immediately terrified. I had no idea if I could actually do it, and it sounded like an awful lot of work.
Like many of us, I had toyed with the idea of fasting since I first began training over a year ago. There was always a completely justifiable reason as to why I shouldn’t or couldn’t do one, but assured myself that someday I was going to be ready, and when that day came, I’d turn myself into the Buddha and reach the highest plains of physical and mental enlightenment in no time flat…Just not right now. Then, in a random moment, I surrendered to the idea and told Master Billingsley. Telling the Master served two purposes; to get some much needed advice and to maintain accountability. I then waited in a panic for Friday to come and my suffering to begin.
The Master gave me a few pieces of advice. 1) Accept that you might not make it, but understand that there is something to learn, even from failure. Make sure to reflect on the things you are saying to yourself and how that manifests in your actions. 2) Try and eat as cleanly as possible leading up to the fast, this will help you transition easier. Fasting is always going to be harder for someone who has a poor diet, especially if you eat a lot of processed food. 3) Drink water in large gulps instead of sipping it. This will help your stomach to feel full. 4) The Yin always comes first.
While not yet a Pa Kua Master, I am a master of the ancient art of junk food, and would never describe myself as a healthy eater. Like many of us, my relationship with food is fraught with shame, guilt, and the impulsive need to lull myself into a sugar induced stupor to avoid my problems. I didn’t eat my first proper salad until I was sixteen and grew up thinking french fries counted as a vegetable. Over the last ten years I have made significant changes to my diet, including giving up red meat and soda, but like any good addict, I still have dreams of bacon filled soft drinks most nights. I tell you all this so you understand. I am like all of you. I struggle everyday to let go of my fears, excuses, and impulses and make the changes we all know will make our lives better.
When Thursday arrived, I got halfway through the day and was struck by another thought. “Why am I waiting until Friday?” The day was completely arbitrary and I had no other important commitments that would require me to be in possession of my full faculties, so I made another decision. I was going to start right now. This was inspired by something Master Billingsley had said to me a few weeks ago about the idea of waiting. What was I waiting for? The “right time,” of course. It seems many of us are always waiting for the future, for the moment when it feels safe enough to step out of our comfort zone. As a result, we do not grow or change, because that time never comes. It is important to remember that the only moment we have, the only time that exists is right now. Plus, you might as well rip the band-aid off instead of dragging it out. Let the suffering begin!
I think it’s important at this moment to point out one of the first things I learned about fasting…one of the biggest questions to ask yourself is WHY? Why do you want to fast? Is it purely for bodily health? Is it to prove something to yourself? Is it to prove something to someone else? I believe that your motivation can completely change the experience. For me, fasting was about learning about my own anxiety. Since fasting seemed scary to me, I hoped it might help me put some of my other fears into perspective.
Being an avid hiker and backpacker, I am good at suffering. In fact many of my favorite activities are all about working incredibly hard through a lot of discomfort. Suffering is something that gives me a sense of accomplishment and a feeling of superiority to those around me. It’s not the most gracious reason to enjoy the great outdoors, but it’s the ugly truth. Why is this significant? Because as I began to reflect, I realized that I did not want my fasting experience to be about suffering, I did not want to fast to prove something to anyone else. I wanted to take this small journey with curiosity, like a scientist or explorer, so that I might discover new things about myself. I believe that this was one of the greatest tools I had in overcoming the obstacles that I would face over the next couple of days. Try and look at your fasting experience with an open mind, this will make it a lot less scary, and maybe even a little fun?
Unsurprisingly, the first day is easy. Most adults I know have had to do a short fast for a doctor’s visit or because they forgot to bring lunch to work, so the first day was a piece of cake…mmmm cake. It did take my partner a bit to adjust, as we had to organize our days a little differently. She would eat upstairs, while I wasn’t around.
This brings me to the next lesson. It is important to establish firm boundaries and expectations with those around you ahead of time. Don’t want until you’re weak and “hangry” to tell her wife or children not to eat in front of you. I live with three other roommates, so it was a bit inconvenient for me to ask them all to stop eating around me for three days, so I had to find ways to hide myself away when dinner was being cooked. This dynamic can be especially tricky because many people’s time for connection comes along with their daily meals, so it is necessary to find alternative ways to share in those experiences. The fear of missing out is a real and present threat to the success of your fast.
Going into the second day I had anticipated that it might be the most difficult. Most people I spoke to mentioned this and they were right. I woke up around 6 a.m. with a slight headache and milled about my living room in a daze, trying to get the hunger pains to pass. When they subsided a bit, I decided to sit down and meditate. Throughout the day I found my energy cycling up and down, but tried to set my expectations low for what I was going to accomplish that day. I found myself bargaining and time moved to a crawl.
Shockingly, eating takes up much more of your day than you realize. Not just the act of eating itself but also buying,preparing, and cleaning. Plus, the endorphins and all the other goodies food produces in your brain makes time seem to move much quicker. When you take all that away, you end up with a lot more time on your hands. You are forced to slow down both mentally and physically. Sometimes, there is nothing to do but look inward and this can be very uncomfortable. You may find your mind drifting towards things you did not want to see or hadn’t been aware of. It can be a surprisingly emotional experience.
About halfway through the second day the first bout of panic set in. There is a primordial part of your brain that starts shouting, “You’ll die if you don’t eat!” I started getting some hot flashes and dizzy spells on and off, and just kept reminding myself that I was in my living room and not on the savannah. Like the other feelings of discomfort, they never lasted and afterwards I usually felt good. Nothing is permanent and everything is constantly changing. Intellectually, we know this to be true because that’s part of what Pa Kua means. How many times has a Master explained this concept in different ways or even shown us? Yet to my mind, there was no clearer teacher than my own body. To me, it is the most basic and direct manifestation of this idea. If you want to move this idea from being intellectual to being understood in your body/heart/soul, fasting is a very effective teacher.
By the end of the second day I was exhausted and ready to sleep for the next thousand years. I kept clinging to the hope that the third day would be better, and it mostly was. I still had moments where I felt a bit ill, tired, or frustrated, but I could feel that my body had begun to correct itself. I was spurred on by the feeling of having survived the first two days and even managed to do a small workout with Master Kyle. Although it was a very soft session, I was surprised by how much energy and strength I actually had.
The next day was Sunday. I had made it almost four days and decided that I was going to break my fast. Going into it, I did not set a concrete end to my fasting, because I wanted to limit the feelings of failure that might occur if I didn’t make it to a certain point. I had a rough idea that I wanted to go four days, but beyond that I was just going to play it by ear… or stomach. I spent the morning reflecting on whether or not I was giving up because I was being lazy or because I actually felt it was the right time. I came to the conclusion that it was the right time and broke my fast with some broth. Over the next half a day I slowly transitioned back to eating, so as not to shock my system. This was probably overly cautious, since I had not fasted for very long, but the last thing I wanted was to start eating again and feel sick.
Despite my over dramatic recounting of this experience, I feel like three days isn’t a very long time in the big scheme of things. Yet, I must also acknowledge that most people in our country don’t go a day in their lives without eating something. I learned a lot about myself, about not taking things for granted, and how I operate mentally and physically. I was also reminded of how important and beneficial it can be to take time to do nothing, to reflect and try and be present in the world around you. The idea of fasting seems far less scary now and hopefully I will carry the lessons of those days as I move forward in life. I’m actually looking forward to trying it again…just not right now.
I am sharing all this with you because I hope it helps you in your own journey. I hope it might inspire you to try fasting, even if you’re not always eating in the “perfect” Pa Kua way. Maybe try fasting and see what you learn about yourself. As Master Billingsley has pointed out to me, you learn just as much by failure as you do by success, and maybe sometimes more. Our fears, whether big or small, often keep us waiting to make the changes that will help us to lead more balanced and fulfilled lives. The question is, what are YOU waiting for?