I wrote a piece two weeks ago called “Fasting in Utah” wherein I stated that I was embarking on a fasting and meditation retreat in the woods.
I left for the woods near Parowan the day before Labor Day, which was unrealistic of me. I sought solitude, and what I found was like a cross between a monster truck rally and a child’s birthday party. Country music blared from trucks, and the roar of ATVs was constant. I set up a tent and did my best to meditate for one day, but I eventually realized that my own backyard was incomparably more suitable an environment for a retreat, at least at the moment. So I reluctantly packed up and headed home where I continued to fast and meditate.
As far as fasting went, one reason I wanted to be away from home was because my house is packed with healthy, delicious food. I cook three meals a day from scratch (unless my partner Jamie does it), so food is a large part of my life, and fasting is far more difficult when the mindgame of self-denial becomes a part of it.
And in truth, I didn’t make it the full five days. I ate Sept. 4 and planed on breaking my fast the morning of Sept. 10. The longest I’ve fasted before is three days, and on the fifth day, I felt weak and nauseous. I felt physically ill in a way I never quite had before. I was prepared for the weakness but not the illness, and as I noted, the mindgame was difficult to overcome in such a debilitated state. So I held off for a while Sept. 9 but ended up having a late breakfast, which made almost but not quite five 24-hour days of fasting.
In regards to meditation, I spent the entire first day in meditation but only spent three hours a day of formal zazen after that.
What I learned from five days of fasting and meditation
First was coming face-to-face with the spiritual materialism of treating a retreat as some kind of feat or achievement. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s “Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism” was one of the first books on Buddhism or meditation that I read, and a hundred or so later, it’s still one of my all-time favorites. I’m familiar with how easy it is to fall into spiritual materialism.
While my motivation wasn’t to earn a gold star of merit, there were still moments when I felt like I had to follow through with it — even after my initial plans had fallen through — just to prove that I could. And I do see value in following through with my decision; I just didn’t want to view it afterwards in terms of “look how great I am.”
The experience also brought with it lessons of letting go. Even the first day was a lesson in letting go as I reluctantly admitted that my plans had been impractical and starry-eyed. In retrospect, I’m not sure if I was optimistic, naïve, or just dumb to expect solitude in the woods during Labor Day weekend.
In addition, when you read about someone fasting for, say, three weeks, it doesn’t seem as long as it feels. I had to admit defeat partway through the last day, which was humbling. Furthermore, I have a worsening back injury from a car accident that definitely should have killed me, and trying to sit still with my tectonic, Jenga-like spine for so long was a lot tougher than it was last time I sat for more my usual zazen period of 25 minutes. As it is stated in the Heart Sutra, there is no attainment and nothing to attain — hence the folly of spiritual materialism — so these failures and shortcomings were powerful lessons in humility.
Fasting and meditation are great ways to hit your internal “reset” button.
However, even though my retreat didn’t go exactly as I planned, I still felt immediately refreshed and rejuvenated in ways that are difficult to put into words. Meditation is often referred to in jest as “mental floss,” but this was like a full mental detox program. In meditation, while they are easy to avoid in everyday life, it’s common for things that you’ve been avoiding to come up or for problems you haven’t yet found a way to resolve to appear. Being forced to sit with those for longer than usual made their relentless immediacy become more apparent. If you’ve ever had something that you’ve avoided doing for a while and then finally got down to addressing it, you know what I mean.
And it really does clearly demonstrate just how much of life is comprised of the mind and it’s relentless antics when you are stuck with it for so long. Worries, fears, struggles … they are all merely mental formations. They hardly exist. Sneeze and they disappear. It just goes to show that being able to control one’s mind rather than being controlled by it is the key to happiness. The ego is there to help one survive, but in the process of doing so it generates no end of delusions that for many (and I would venture to say for most) come to be misunderstood as day-to-day reality. The ego isn’t bad by any means; it’s just wrong most of the time, and as far as finding inner peace and understanding one’s true nature, it certainly is a hindrance. Having some time alone with it is helpful in cutting through those delusions, even if only temporarily.
The next time I do this — and I do want to take another swing at it in order to go the full five days as well as to fully immerse myself in solitary meditation — I think I will have Jamie drop me off in the woods rather than driving out there myself. That way, I’ll have no choice but to stick it out, monster truck rally or not.
Fasting and meditation are great ways to hit your internal “reset” button. If you’ve never fasted, the first day or two aren’t so bad. The third and fourth are worse, and I can only assume that the fifth continues to escalate — although I’d imagine that, as with running there’s a wall that you hit and move through, after which there is a relative state of numbness.
But if you’re not prepared for that level of intensity — and I wasn’t — you might try just a day or two for starters, especially if you’re struggling with some obstacle in your life, you feel like things are out of control, or you want to start anew with some routine or discipline.
You also might want to check with a doctor before fasting. I drank water during my fast — you know, so I wouldn’t die — but a water fast might not be wise for some people depending on their health.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, no. I did not attain satori, which is fine with me since there’s no attainment and nothing to attain.