"No food or drink for 19 days? No coffee or cigarettes from sunrise to sunset? You've got to be kidding!" Such was my reaction when I first actually faced the Bahá'í Fast, which begins on the evening of March 1. My feelings when I joined the Bahá'í Faith had been highly spiritual, but my feelings when it came to obeying its laws were not quite so lofty.
It's not that I hadn't been told about the Fast before I joined the Bahá'í Faith, but that it had all sounded so reasonable when the Fast was months away. Just get up early and have breakfast, don't eat or drink anything from sunrise to sunset, and then have a nice dinner. No problem. I mean, basically it's just skipping lunch.
But when it came time to do it, I was in a total panic. "I'm sure this isn't good for my health," I whined to myself. "With no water I'll become dehydrated." I'm an American, after all, used to instant gratification. And nobody can tell me what to do.
With this attitude, it's hard to believe that I've come to love the Fast. In the Bahá'í calendar, the 19-day month of fasting comes between the hospitality of the Intercalary Days (February 26 to March 1) and the joy of New Year (March 21), and I find that I look forward to that sweet time. It's a month of constant awareness of God and our reliance on Him.
So what changed?
First was my experience of deep satisfaction in maintaining self-imposed discipline. I fast in obedience to Bahá'u'lláh - but I choose to obey Him.
Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of the Baha'i Faith, wrote:
"We have enjoined upon you fasting during a brief period, and at its close have designated for you Naw-Rúz as a feast . The traveler, the ailing, those who are with child or giving suck, are not bound by the fast . . . Abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sundown, and beware lest desire deprive you of this grace that is appointed in the Book."
Over the years I have come to feel this grace. Slowly I have realized that when I follow God's instructions I am much happier. I have been learning to see myself as both material and as spiritual, and fasting as a material means to attain spiritual growth.
Abstaining from food and drink - being aware of the appetites of the body and making conscious choices about which of them we will indulge when - is a symbol for being aware of our spiritual state and choosing noble actions over our egotistical desires.
Another change in myself that I noticed after I became a Bahá'í was a growing reliance upon the power of prayer. If I needed help getting through a day of fasting, I said a prayer--and my problem seemed to be lifted from me.
While I've always been self-disciplined in some areas of my life, I haven't been so great at dieting. So imagine my surprise when I found I could go without food or drink from sunrise to sunset - even go without coffee and cigarettes - if I prayed hard enough about it. Not just "any old" prayer, but one of the beautiful prayers written by Bahá'u'lláh specifically for the Fast. If I got up early and said my prayers with devotion, I got through the days of the Fast with very few problems.
Also, over time, I have learned that there are very simple physical things I can do that make fasting a whole lot easier. I don't know why there aren't more "guides to spiritual fasting," as people of virtually every religious tradition abstain from food and drink sometime during each year. Christians have Lent, Jews have Yom Kippur, Muslims have Ramadan.. But if there's a spiritual guidebook, I haven't found it. So I'll share a few of the lessons I have learned:
I discovered that it wasn't abstaining from food and drink that was the problem -- it was the coffee and cigarettes. In fact, for the first 5 years that I fasted, I had a cigarette as soon as the sun went down--before having food or water. Other Bahá'ís were aghast, because although smoking isn't forbidden in the Faith, it's certainly not encouraged. But I found that if I started to cut back on cigarettes a month before the Fast, it was easier. I would drink tea, for example, at times when I would have had coffee. So identify things you think you can't live without and cut back on these. It really helps.
Over the years I have learned to eat moderately during the Fast. When I first became a Bahá'í, I experimented with eating huge breakfasts or gigantic dinners but I found that they made fasting harder. Big breakfasts made me lethargic, while big dinners made it hard to sleep well at night. So now I just eat a normal breakfast (fruit and nuts), and a normal-to-light dinner (soup, salad, and a small portion of meat), and I do fine. I don't get hungry during the day.
What the body needs more than food is water, and I really push myself to drink when I can. I found that lack of water makes me feel dull and sluggish, while serious dehydration gives me a headache. So I end each day's fast with a cup of hot water and take in as much liquid as I can until bedtime. The downside is that I always have to get up in the middle of the night to go to the toilet, but at least it's an opportunity to drink more water.
There are a few other things you can do- arrange your schedule so you get enough sleep, realize it's OK to be a bit uncomfortable sometimes. But mostly, just relax and enjoy the Fast. It's a gift from our all-loving God.