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To Be Fast or To Be Fasting: That is the Question.

"It is the emptiness of the cup which makes it useful."
--Taoist saying

I imagine that thousands of folks have an ambivalent connection to Lent. It is, for starters, counter-cultural and counter-societal. All this discussion of what we should give up or take away from our daily lives, what we are willing to subtract from the comfort zones we've created (and that we often need), can seem meaningless or counterproductive in the stressful world we occupy. 

Then there is the question of fasting, of subtracting something (something we like very much, as the instructions usually go) from the cornucopia of foodstuffs that surround us in some countries... and subtracting substance in other parts of the world where there is still not enough to eat. In some parts of the world, fasting seems impossible in the face of a poisonous plenty, and in others, impossible due to punishing scarcity.  

Tree Bent by Snow, Ysabel de la Rosa

Lent and Resentment
I used to admire Lent and what it stands for, but I also resented it, especially when I was a self-employed single parent, barely making ends meet and chronically tired. Give something up? Ha! My standard line became:"I gave up cooking for Lent, and that was 20 years ago." That always got a laugh, usually born of understanding and identification with the idea. In my 20s and early 30s, I could indeed fast for several days at a time, and I found the experience exhilarating... until my body would go bananas, and I would have to re-calibrate my digestive system and spend several days or more recovering my usual energy. At this point in time, I have enough "standard" health issues that fasting from food for any extended time is not an option. But that has not kept me from thinking about fasting. This year, I'm stepping through the looking glass Alice of Wonderland introduced to me and looking at fasting from another perspective.

Winter Sculpting, Ysabel de la Rosa
Seeing Anew
The practices of Lent are not unique to Christianity. Fasting has been part of sacred traditions for thousands of years. Although I am no comparative religion expert, I cannot think of a religious tradition that does not include fasting or recognize it as a path to positive change in either consciousness or in nearness to the divine. Why?  Because fasting creates emptiness, a literal, visceral emptiness; a space, an awareness of space, extra room: not to stay empty, but to be filled with greater, more "substantive" presence.

Last week I was reminded of just how many years I've walked this earth when I told a young colleague  that I could remember using a cartridge fax , loading the paper into the machine and watching it spin while the print was somehow "transmitted" to a press bureau in Washington, D.C. He laughed and said, "That was before I was born."  He has no memory of a three-page fax taking 15 minutes to arrive at its destination. In fact, he has probably had little reason to ever use a fax, with email, Webinars, text messaging and the like now being our communications media. I have a sense that these things are fast, because I remember when they were not. My colleague will not see these things as fast, but simply as normal.

To be fast has emerged as one of our supreme cultural and societal values, on an international scale. We are convinced that speed does not kill; it rewards. We strive to make fast normal. A teacher of mine told me that, in Norwegian, the words "haste" and "violence" share the same root. And I find it fascinating that the word "fast" holds so many definitions inside. In fact, this one word holds its antithesis within its set of definitions.

To be fast is to risk being unaware, to part from the present moment, not looking at what is here, but instead at what is there...that place to which we have not yet gone; in fact, where we do not yet exist. To be fast is, indeed, to haste and to risk violence. I lost count of the car-accident fatalities reported on last night's statewide newscast, but speed was a factor in nearly all of them, as was the distraction caused by speed.

Line and Shadow, Ysabel de la Rosa
To fast is to commit to being aware, to say to oneself, "I will choose this, but not that. I will forego something and invite, in that space, I will entertain the advent of new possibilities, ideas, emotions, insights. I can choose to fast from the overdose of daily news on my radio, television, and Internet browser.  I can choose to think instead of listen. I can choose to listen instead of talk. I can choose the initial discomfort of silence for its possible rewards of peace, a new idea, or the simple and vital gift of mental and physical rest. I can also choose to be fasting throughout my life, to choose what comes into my world and my being, and not let those choices be made for me. I can choose to give up speed, at least for these 40 days. I can remember to drive the speed limit, even when I am running late, remember to jot a thank you note to a friend who brought me great happiness a few days ago, and take time to read something deep enough in meaning that I may have to read it twice in order to understand it. 

One word: two choices. I can live fast, or I can live fasting. I cannot live both ways at the same time. In fact, Lent is a good time to ask ourselves if the fast life can ever truly be called living. The sculptor Constantin Brancusi once told a friend: "Speed takes us closer to only one thing--the end." 

Some good reads for forays into the fasting life:

PM Forni's The Thinking Life

Carl  Honore's In Praise of Slowness

Cass Sunstein & Richard Thaler's Nudge


Jendi said…
This is a very wise meditation. For the past few years I have been "giving up" practices that seem good in themselves but become legalistic and a distraction from God when taken to extremes. When I found myself acting holier-than-thou in a dispute over doctrine in our church, I gave up going to church for Lent. It was a great "reset". This year, on the cusp of some major life changes, I am giving up worrying about the future for Lent, so your blog post about slowing down really resonates with me. Have a blessed season!
I like the "reset" idea!

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