The other day, I decided to fast the entire day to see how I would fare if I partook in the upcoming Ramadan fast starting on the 20th. That was a mistake.
I woke up at 4 a.m. and enjoyed a healthy sahur, but by noon I was shaky and lightheaded, and I realized that if I didn’t get sustenance, I was going down. I nearly fainted. It’s a shame, too, because I really wanted to do it. Almost all of my friends are fasting. But they’ve been doing it all of their lives and I have only done it once, in my first year here when Ramadan fell in December.
After that meal, however, I still felt “off.” I had drunk plenty of water, I had eaten a healthy meal of falafel and salad, but the heat still felt oppressive. When I checked in with some friends, they told me that I needed to replace the salt and sugar in my system that I was losing from my sweat. I went online and found a homemade sports drink that would help bring my body back to normal.
Incidentally, the recipe for that drink is very easy. Mix 1/3 cup fresh squeezed lemon (1 1/2 lemons), 1/3 cup orange juice, 1/3 cup honey, 1/4 teaspoon coarse sea salt (sofra tuzu) and 3 cups of water. You can adjust the type of fruit juices and the amount of water (a friend announced that she preferred lemon and lime juice and added an extra cup of water to dilute the sweetness, for example). After drinking that, I felt normal again.
So it looks like I won’t be able to fast with my friends -- at least not until Ramadan falls in the winter again. The Ramadan fast requires total abstinence from food or drink from dawn to dusk. I wondered how my friends would be able to fast when the heat is so oppressive. I asked a few of them how they will manage and most of them replied, “We are used to it -- it will be difficult, but we will manage as we have every year.”
Some went on to say they felt that the more difficult it was for them, the better it was for them in the long run. When asked to expound on that point, one friend said: “You know me. I’m not a devout, practicing Muslim. Yet for me, the fast is the most important part of the year. It allows me to exert authority over my willpower and at the end of the month I feel physically healthier and psychologically stronger. I think it makes me a better person.” One of my more devout friends told me that the fast gave him an opportunity to experience the pangs of hunger and thirst that the poor feel on a daily basis and that in the end he felt more compassion for those who had less.
At the heart of the fast, regardless of the faster’s perspective, is the need to exert control over their willpower. No matter how religious or secular my fasting friends are, control of will seems to be the essential element of the fast.
Fasting is universal
This idea of gaining control of our willpower through a fast is a universal concept that goes far beyond the confines of the Muslim faith. In fact, every holy book for the major religions prescribes a time of fasting. Beliefnet.com lists more than 13 belief systems that require or suggest fasting, and it goes on to explain when the fast takes place, how the fast is performed and the reasons behind fasting for that tradition. It is a fascinating read. At the heart of all of the reasons that people fast -- to get closer to God, for purification of the mind and spirit, to petition God for special needs, to atone for sins, etc. -- is the need to gain and exert control over one’s willpower as it relates to the body and/or the mind.
My Muslim friends who will partake in the upcoming fast are up to the challenge. However, they do acknowledge that the summer months are more taxing than the other months -- especially for those unfortunate enough to be addicted to cigarettes, or who are not lucky enough to be working in an air-conditioned environment.
Controlling the will
In fact, controlling our willpower is one of the hardest things humans are meant to do in life. It can feel like having to gain control over an unruly child. In the Hindu tradition, the different aspects of the human condition are attributed to energy centers or chakras. The chakra for willpower is found in the area around the neck and is said to be where we make our choices. I like that image because I can imagine breathing life into different choices. After all, doesn’t willpower boil down to choice? We choose to take this or that action and then we reap the consequences of that choice (whether positive or negative). In fact, we have expressions illustrating that dynamic -- “what goes around, comes around,” or in Turkish, “ne ekersin, onu biçersin.” We have an archetypal understanding that having control over one’s willpower is essentially taking control of one’s choices.
While I have used religion as an example of gaining control of the will, one need not be religious at all. I have a couple of friends who are self-proclaimed atheists. They, too, have expressed a need to quit cigarettes or start a diet or lose weight. No human is immune from the need to work on his or her willpower.
Finding a role in the month
I’m sorry that I won’t be able to participate in the fasting with my Muslim friends. However, I can be helpful to them during the long summer month. I wake up at the crack of dawn every day and so I can invite some friends over, make sahur for them and wake them up -- if the drummers don’t get to them first. I can help with the iftar preparations and enjoy the company of my friends as they break their fast. As helpful as I can be to my fasting friends, I really wanted to physically participate in this month-long control of willpower and so I thought long and hard about which aspect of my life is not as under control as I would like it to be. The answer -- eating enough fruits and vegetables. I decided that for the month of Ramadan, I will eat only fresh fruits and vegetables in any form (raw, cooked, juiced), and eschew desserts, breads, meat and dairy for the entire 30 days. In effect, I will follow a vegan diet. For me, that will be much more challenging than it looks on paper.
The month of Ramadan is the perfect time to do this because I can connect to the collective solemn energy being generated by the millions of fasters all over the world. There is strength in numbers. In fact, even if you or your friends are not fasting, it’s the perfect time to try to quit smoking or get your diet/exercise program under control. They say it takes at least three weeks to break a bad habit and the fast goes on for 30 days. As I said, willpower is one of the hardest energies to wield control over.
I remember the first time I consciously tried to take control of my willpower -- I had just turned 40 and I was tired of one of my bad habits that I thought had grown out of control. When I put my foot down and said “no,” it was as if that energy turned around and confronted me saying, “Are you talking to me? After 40 years you now want to take the reins? Good luck with that.” It took me a couple of months of hard self-work to get that under control. I admire traditions that take on the will on a yearly basis.
I have great respect for those participating in this year’s fast. I look forward to the day again when I can join in. In the meantime, I’ll do my best to help them out, while I simultaneously work on strengthening my own willpower.