When our body feels terrible from our modern lifestyle and unhealthy diets, a healthy remedy is to fast the body. This allows the internal organs to slow down and heal. Fasting the body gets rid of toxins that have built up over time. As a result our body feels great and our mind is also at ease. But the effects on the mind are only momentary. This is why post fasting the body people might change their diet for the better but their mind is still as it was before. There can be some slight psychological changes but they are only superficial and not at a subconscious level.
In the ancient East this momentary effect on the mind was recognized and many philosophers yearned for a method to evoke permanent changes in the mind. From the original Vanaprasthas (forest sages) of the Vedic civilization down the course of history to Gautama the Buddha, Chuang-tzu, and Patanjali the founder of classical yoga, an ancient science evolved through the refinement of spiritual philosophies and practices known simply as fasting the mind or mind fasting. Fasting the mind is a practice to empty the mind so completely that it begins to heal at the root level.
Fasting the mind eliminates subconscious content that continually rises to the surface of the conscious mind driving our unconscious thoughts and actions. When we shovel unhealthy food into our mouth we know it’s hard to complain when we feel like crap and gain weight. The ancient East identified the same is the case with the mind. If we overstimulate the senses, our mind will be bombarded with excessive input it was not designed to handle.
Overstimulating our mind every day damages the mind. We are in the bad habit of constantly distracting our mind. Distracting our mind all the time fills it up with unnecessary content which subtly leaves deep impressions within the subconscious. This process effects how we unconsciously react to the world and our actions, it also fuels our need to distract the mind. The speed and intensity in our world is suicidal if you are too engaged in it. We are destroying our mind from not taking our foot off the accelerator.
We are under the hypnosis that filling our mind full of information, distracting it, and being excessively busy, is a sure-fire way to health, happiness, and being successful. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mind fasting is a complete U-turn; it’s about cultivating space within our mind and life.
The sage Lao-tzu believed our struggles and suffering come from our mind-cup being too full of distractions and busyness of thinking. To articulate Lao-tzu’s point, when we look at a cup, what is more valuable: the cup or the space within the cup? Space is surely the answer. A cup is useless without it. This is a metaphor about the mind. Our mind-cup is naturally spacious and equanimous. But our mind-cups are overflowing from constantly filling it up.
Distracting and filling up our mind depletes the nervous system, driving mental health issues such as chronic anxiety and stress, depression, schizophrenia, and many more. There is an imbalance in the autonomic nervous system (ANS) which is the control system that largely acts unconsciously and regulates our bodily functions such as heart rate, respiratory rate, digestion, pupillary response, urination, and sexual arousal.
The ANS has two branches: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS). The SNS is considered the “fight or flight” system because it is activated in cases of emergencies to mobilize energy. It is what we activate when we stimulate the senses and are in motion. The PSNS, on the other hand, is considered the “rest and digest” or “feed and breed” system because it is activated when we are in a relaxed state. The PSNS is activated when we are doing nothing.
The imbalance in the ANS is from mainly activating the SNS. If the SNS is not offset by the PSNS then the chances of mental health issues occurring is a high probability. We’ve become so busy that we don’t know how to truly relax. When you come home from work and sit in front of the TV, computer, or phone, you are not relaxing. The truth is you are still stimulating the mind, activating only the SNS. We cannot just rely on sleep to activate the PSNS. In our waking hours we need to activate the PSNS if we want to have a healthy and balanced mind.
The PSNS actually nourishes the SNS, making us more effective and productive. Excessive busyness can’t achieve this. Meditation activates the PSNS but it is not enough. We are surrounded by distractions, smartphones for example. We need to embrace feeling bored and fall in love with being present in the moment. Fasting the mind for certain periods of time heals the mind, ending our anxieties and social stress.
Fasting the mind is not just about eliminating distractive habits. It is also focused on uprooting the root cause driving these tendencies. In the ancient East the main purpose of fasting the mind was about mental renunciation. It is the strong sense of “I” that fuels our life and the suffering we inevitably encounter. The sense of a separate and isolated “I” from the rest of the world within us, with its own subjective viewpoint, is what leads to unhealthy minds and a world in conflict.
We have this ability to discern between “this” and “that,” measuring reality according to our subjective viewpoint. The sage Chuang-tzu believes each species has a specific essence. He believed our ability to discern and measure reality is our specific essence. But according to Chuang-tzu this is a flaw. This human flaw gives birth to the separate and isolated “I” we think we are, which leads ultimately to subjective opinions of right and wrong, good and evil, likes and dislikes, and so on. This flaw within us must be completely fasted from the mind. But the sense of you won’t disappear.
On the contrary, by fasting the mind you come back in touch with your pure mind because the mental baggage has been unloaded. Completely fasting the mind will leave you with an unstuck psychological state that is best explained with the Japanese word unsui, which refers to cloud and water. For the fasted mind drifts like a cloud and flows like water.
From Fasting the Mind by Jason Gregory © 2017 Inner Traditions. Printed with permission from the publisher Inner Traditions International. www.InnerTraditions.com