November 8, 2013

GERSON: Stop Eating and Wake Up

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By RUDY GERSON

Today marks the first annual Medika Mamba Challenge —  a student-run campaign to raise money and awareness for Meds & Foods for Kids, a non-profit that supports Haiti’s sustainable development. MFK assists local peanut farmers who supply the raw materials for the local manufacturing of Medika Mamba. Todya, I’ll be eating just one bag of Medika Mamba today, in semi-fasting solidarity with malnourished Haitain children.

If you haven’t heard of Medika Mamba, all you need to know is that its this succulent gooey substance made of ground roasted peanuts, powdered milk, oil, sugar and all the vitamins and minerals needed to treat adolescent malnourishment. At 500 calories, this product is used as a $69 eight-week treatment that recovers malnourished children with an 85 percent success rate (60 percent better than the older milk-based treatments).

But why am I fasting instead of directly donating money right to MFK? Because fasting is a remarkable process. A good fast cultivates discipline, cleanses our bodies and minds and brings renewed awareness to our habitual cognition. Many religions caught onto the benefits of fasting a while ago: think of Islamic Ramadan, Jewish Yom Kippur, Hindi New Moon festivals, etc. These collective rituals have a therapeutic capacity that can help people connect with an energy beyond themselves. Of course, fasting has a political dimension, with many protesting the social control inherent in our normalized public notions of a proper diet: Gandhi is the first to come to mind, but think of the scores of political prisoners on hunger strikes across the globe.

While I do claim my semi-fast is in support for MFK and the Haitian children, I’ll admit I always love a solid fast. Fasting for me isn’t as miserable as it might be for the average individual. In a fast, I confront the daily convenience of my bottomless consumption. I’m forced to self-reflect and question the boundaries of what my body is capable of. I temporarily take charge of my impulse to eat. In doing so, I stretch my limits of possibility.

Typically, I eat when I’m not even hungry. I’ll eat out of boredom, to procrastinate, to socialize or out of sheer gluttony (I’m lookin’ at you, Insomnia Cookies). We’ve all experienced this before, and for those that have fasted before, I’m confident you identify with the empowerment of abstention.

But for the rest of you, where can fasting fit in? Is it just a religious act? Only for political protest? Can it be spiritual for the secular? All of the above? Or none? In my opinion (t’s an opinion column, so this is all my opinion), fasting cuts right to the core of all our spiritual questions. When I say spiritual, I’m not referring to the Almighty God or the Heavens above or Buddha or any other religious relics built by man. Spiritual in the most general sense is that universal human need for purpose, order and meaning in a world often void of all three.

Spirituality can connect us with the sublime right here on this earth. It’s not an escapist principle in the least.  Whether your “God” exists above, below, here, there, everywhere or nowhere, what really matters is what we do in the here and now.

We have been taught spirituality and religion are synonymous, and recently the trending “I’m-spiritual-but-not-religious” types have sprung up in droves. Honestly, when I’m asked about my religious preferences, I’ll self-categorize that way immediately.Yet, what that sentiment actually entails is quite murky and unexplored.

Fasting can be the portal into a worldly spirituality, a grounded world-view that fosters positive thought and action for fellow people. In denying oneself the pleasure of eating, we make a choice with intention and discipline, unlike many of our other thoughtless decisions. Through self-refusal, we identify and empathize just a bit with those who don’t have the privilege to eat the normal amount we typically eat.

Yet, fasting is neither wholly selfish nor absolutely altruistic, rather it’s both giving and receiving. While fasting, I (hope to) gain an increased awareness of how I relate to the world, thereby increasing my potential for empathy. I fast to slap my ego in the face. I fast to reclaim independent thought and choice by dissociating my habituated patterns of thought and action, so normalized in my daily routine, that I’ve lost self-awareness. Fasting can undo our desensitization to the material excess of our existence. Neither a trite kitsch nor disingenuously sentimental, there’s real spiritual work going on here.

Fasting can shatter the binary proselytized by modern religious ideology: We can experientially blend reality and myth, logic and faith, worldliness and transcendence. My fast tomorrow will release me from self-doubt and alienation to bring about a realization of the significance of every decision. I urge you to give fasting a try. Skip a meal once and see how you feel. Choose discomfort.

To fast is to materialize the sublime — to jar our core and bring the beyond within. Only then can we realize that the Garden of Eden isn’t a myth or an artifact of faith. We’re already here.

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