Tuesday, April 15, 2008

On Cleansing and Fasting

I must have looked like a monster.

I was sitting in the front seat of my car, parked at a fire hydrant alongside a busy Bronx sidewalk. I had a crazed look in the eye, my face seemingly smeared with blood, dripping from the chin. Teeth gnashing, I rolled down the window to spit out a mouthful of carnage, trailing a line of saliva from my bottom lip to the curb. People on the sidewalk took a wide berth of my car—afraid to look too closely, afraid they might see the scattered, half-eaten limbs of children strewn across the back seat.

Afraid I might eat them too.

I was only eating a pomegranate, barehanded, with no napkin or utensils. I forgot to get them from the guy at the fruit stand.

It was the fifth day of a week-long cleansing fast. I was sucking out the juice, spitting whole mouthfuls of seeds into the street. At the time, I was too delirious with hunger, too high from fasting to care what I looked like. I was only concentrating on the taste of the juice in my mouth: a supernova of sweet, a cataclysmic explosion on my starved palate.

I had never tasted a pomegranate like this before.

It was pure intoxication.

I closed my eyes. The feeling went straight to my head. I swooned. I was woozy. I wanted to lean out the window, pump both fists in the air and scream to the world, “YES! YES! YES!”


For a week, I did the Master Cleanse, otherwise known as the Lemonade fast. I ate no food and drank only a concoction of filtered water, freshly squeezed organic lemon juice, raw honey, and cayenne pepper.

I couldn’t swallow the pomegranate seeds because I hadn’t eaten anything solid in a week. To do so would have seriously messed me up. You can’t just start eating right away after a long fast. You ease your digestive system back into gear with a few days of juices and broths slowly working your way to the hard stuff like meat, dairy, wheat, or alcohol.

That afternoon, I sucked the juice of three large pomegranates in my car.

I was gorged by the time I drove away; the street behind me oozed red like a crime scene.


I find something so attractive in the idea of the cleanse. As if, through fasting, we can correct everything wrong with our bodies and ourselves. It’s the ultimate romantic notion—that by simply cleansing ourselves we can seemingly fix our past, or even repair the broken relationships in our lives.

The Internet is rife with websites devoted to fasting, cleansing and natural healing remedies. Some sites have shocking photos of mucoid plaque, gall stones, kidney stones, and other physical monstrosities expelled from peoples’ bodies during a cleanse. Page after page offers ecstatic testimony: "Fasting saved my life!" "Fasting cleared my acne!" "Fasting cured my cancer."

Many of these testimonies delve deeply into the idealism and mysticism of self-purification—that you can fast and cleanse yourself to a perfect body and soul.

While I do believe several of those testimonies, the idea of cleansing this way comes very close to the misguided idea that one can get something for "nothing", that one can reap maximum benefits from a minimum effort or sacrifice. (Remember those BMG music club offers of twelve CD’s for a penny? If only it were true...)

Yet isn’t that what repentance is all about? That we can somehow fix ourselves? That it can happen in a moment or quicker? Isn’t fasting a sort of atonement?

I think life is much harder. Life requires more work.

While fasting has many untold healing and spiritual benefits, there seems to be also a sort of delusion involved for the many dilettantes who swear by it. It can all get out of hand. Approached incorrectly, fasting can be dangerous. One can become carried away with the idea of self-righteousness and purification, to the point where you end up like the kid in Into The Wild. Tragic and pointless.

I must admit, though, sometimes I imagine myself plunging headlong into a twenty, thirty, or fifty day cleansing fast, wasting away into nothing. Renouncing my possessions and my material life, I’d roam barefoot and ghostlike among the streets of New York in a lightheaded stupor. My clothes become shabby, my hair dreaded and matted. From the alley, I stare up at the windows of other peoples’ homes, meditating on the shadow that my life has become like a character in a Paul Auster novel.

I have that in me somewhere. I have to be careful.


In spite of my skepticism I keep coming back. I continually find myself seeking out fasting lore and methodology. I planned my latest fast weeks in advance, allowing myself to become obsessed, gearing up the whole time. I did a mini six-day fast leading up to Pesach. It was fantastic.

I’ve always been fascinated by the ascetic mystic, the holy person, the person who has mastered the act of fasting. People like Siddhartha, Gandhi, and the Jewish monarch David are among those who have been able to, through an entire lifetime of fasting and discipline, turn their bodies into conduits for the Divine. By overcoming and mastering their physicality they were seemingly able to perfect their souls in the process. Something about that process resonates deeply within me.

I lust for it.

Fasting plays a prominent role in Jewish mysticism

Anyone who has ever fasted will attest to this idea—that fasting is a process, which, through the negation of the physical, sharpens and hones our spiritual proclivities. It seems to open up something deep within the immaterial parts of our being.

Fasters of this type are spiritual giants. They've worked hard and long at it, and are people who have cultivated the silent spaces within themselves. They have mastered how to make the body serve the soul.

But then there others--people obsessed with non-medical natural healing theories and cleansing rituals. You'll find them on any number of websites peddling their wares: colonics, herbal supplements, enemas, fasting regimens, liver flushes and detox programs. Most of these people have no legitimate medical background and dubious credentials, but they beam with pride and sanctimony about how healthy and vigorous they are.

They scare me.

Months ago I walked into my local health store in search of a good colon-cleansing product. It was during my first attempt at a cleansing fast, and I was rapt with the idea of flushing any trace of toxicity from my body.

The short man behind the counter looked like he could have been of Indian descent. Or Arabian. Or South American. Or Chinese. His black hair fell over his shoulders and hung halfway down his back. He wore a cobalt blue colored frock at knee length. A piece of topaz set into a leather string hung from his neck. His dark eyes, set deep into his face, gave him the appearance of one who could have been forty years old. Or sixty. Or one hundred. Behind him was a woman with bright crimson-dyed hair. She sat cross-legged on a high stool. She was smoking and laughing at something she was reading.

“Can I help you?” asked the man.

“Yes. I’m looking for a good colon cleanser.”

“Ah,” he said, lifting one eyebrow, leaning on both hands firmly planted on the counter. “Why?”

“Well, I’m in the middle of a cleansing fast, and I want to do a colon flush at the same time.”

I found myself explaining my fasting regimen to him—when I started, what I was drinking, how long I planned to go, why I was doing it. I felt unsure of myself. What was I even saying? Who was this guy? He looked like a short, swarthy version of The Vampire Lestat. I wanted to leave.

“Wait here,” he said, and walked into the back.

The lady on the stool put down the magazine and looked up at me. Her hair was too high, too red. She wore too much foundation. Seeming to read my mind, she spoke in a thick Russian accent, “Don’ worry,” she said. “Is good.”

“Excuse me?”

Is good,” she repeated, “We take care of you.”

I didn’t have time to respond. The man returned from the back room with two large bottles. One contained a solution of water and bentonite clay. The other, an economy-sized jar of Super Cleanse tablets—a mixture of herbs and fiber promising to “detoxify, cleanse, and rebuild”.

He explained the regimen I must undergo to use these products effectively, and how the result would be a healthy, pink, clean colon. He also said I should drink 2 ounces of fresh squeezed lemon juice mixed with a glass of filtered water every morning upon waking. As he spoke he lifted each eyebrow at different times for effect. He voice was raspy. He spoke slowly, leaned close, as if he were whispering secrets.

I turned the bottles over in my hand. He turned away to the cash register to ring the sale.

“I’m also drinking Goji juice in the morning,” I added.

At that, I noticed a slightly perceptible shudder pass through his body. He quaked, closed the cash drawer, spun around quickly.

“You got the Goji?” he stammered, eyebrows going haywire as if I had uttered a verbal cue to let him know that I, too, was a part of an ancient, esoteric, secret society.

“Um,” I said, “Yes. I got it last week.”

“This is good,” he spoke fervently, “this is very good.”

“Yes,” said the Russian woman on the chair, “Is good.”

I paid for the clay solution and cleansing tablets and got the hell out of there.


In the end, I always come back.

Even as I write this, I've just finished my second cleansing fast, and am still thinking about it. I’m thinking what people who know have told me—that the most important part of any fast is what comes after. That is, how the fast has changed your perceptions about health and wellness to the point that it has permanently changed your habits.

Because your body exists in such a delicate stasis while on an extended fast, you really see how the things you put into your body affect your energy level, mental acuity, and spirituality.

As a result, I have made some drastic lifestyle and wellness changes that I can see lasting for a long time, hopefully forever. So in that sense, the fast was a success.

But on a more important level, fasting has made me realize a few other things.

First, I noticed how much time we spend preparing food, eating food, or thinking about what to eat next. The entire day opens up when you are not concerned with these things. This feeling is similar to the one I had when I swore off television—you realize how much time you have wasted. I experienced the same thing when I gave up smoking as well.

Even with all of this newfound time while fasting, it still seems that I spend most of it just sitting around, waiting for my water to filter.

There is a metaphor in there somewhere.

Continuing on the subject of time, it is just exactly that which fasting has taught me the most—that time is indeed precious and scarce.

Fasting forces us to think about how we fill the empty spaces, the silence.

It all comes down to how we have used our time. That has been and always will be how we assess the success of life. There is no quick fix. You can't get something for nothing. It all comes down to how we fill the seconds, the moments, the hours. These are the things that ultimately make up all of our days. And we live them.


Anonymous said...

I can't fast. I like food too much.


Anonymous said...

this is beautifully written.

I live a rather busy life. Seth can attest to that. I care for several people and rarely take the time to do so for myself. as a result, I sometimes go a day or two without eating. I know the awakened feeling you mention. That's often when I write my best stuff. I watched a show on the Discovery channel not too long ago. I never watch TV, but I saaw the advertisement for this show so I tuned in. it was all about the human body under duress. one of the things they talked about was starvation, which is a bit more extreme than fasting, but still, they explained what the body goes through when forced to endure lack of food. there are parts of the brain that kick on, work a little overtime, when you have nothing to eat. if out in the wild, that is the part that helps you think up how to survive, both on a concious and subconcious level. however, I think in the instance of purposeful fasting, that extra mental oomph can be harnessed because you have a safety net. you know that you can just go out and eat if you need to. so it becomes a simple manner of controlling the urge, not concentrating on the hunger, and concentrating on filling up the empty spaces, as you said.

I like the way you presented this. I think that, with a little more research, I might like to try a planned fast. the idea is, indeed, attractive.


Anonymous said...

Hi V,

I think this dovetails nicely with a bit from Seth's last post. Here's what he wrote:

"...fasting is an arduous practice—it forces one to imagine himself out of hunger. And perhaps this is why so many artists complain of hunger and yet, at the same time, produce stunning, imaginative work.

Hemingway writes of imagination and hunger in his memoir of his early years in Paris, A Moveable Feast:

"You got very hungry when you did not eat enough in Paris because all the bakery shops had such good things in the windows and people ate outside at the tables on the sidewalks so that you saw and smelled the food…Then the best place to go was the…Luxembourg museum where all the paintings were sharpened and clearer and more beautiful if you were belly-empty, hollow-hungry. I learned to understand Cézanne much better and to see how truly he made landscapes when I was hungry. I used to wander whether he were hungry too when he painted; but I thought possibly it was only that he had forgotten to eat. It was one of those unsound but illuminating thoughts you have when you have been…hungry. Later I thought Cézanne was probably hungry in a different way."

Denied food, Hemingway sustained himself with Cézanne's paintings.


Urban Deva said...

Loved this Seth. Great write. Funny. Thoughtful.

I was reading something on another blog today (Robert A. Johnson) I thought I'd share here, as I feel it's relevant.

"One of C.G. Jung’s great contributions to psychology was re-discovering for us the healing power of symbolic life. It’s not a new idea. All of our religious systems are filled with wonderful symbol systems. But something seems to have gone wrong with them for so many today. As we have become more rational, driven, and materialistic, we have lost the power of many traditional symbols, though we have not lost our need for them.

We may think we have shrugged off the need for symbolic life. Instead of having a periodic holy fast – a meaningful, symbolic action that many wisdom traditions prescribe – we’ve become slaves to perennial diets, a low-grade ritual without connection to something deeper in the unconscious. Instead of saying a blessing or a prayer when crossing one of life’s thresholds, we check and double check our appearance in the mirror, twist a strand of hair, light a cigarette, or drink a cup of coffee."

The rest of the post can be found here - http://innerworkjohnson.blogspot.com/2008/04/symbolic-life.html


ULOF said...

Powerful stuff.

Seth said...


You write, "the idea of cleansing this way comes very close to the misguided idea that one can get something for "nothing", that one can reap maximum benefits from a minimum effort or sacrifice."

I think you're right, fasting is like doing "nothing", in some ways. After all, you are essentially doing "nothing".

Fasting might certainly be a lazy man's answer to spiritual growth.

But fasting is incredibly hard; it is a sacrifice, a tremendous effort.

Also, it is a way, I think, as you say, to "hone spiritual proclivities". At the very least, for the spiritually inclined (say, like Jesus), it offers a tremendous tool--go out into the dessert, eat nothing for 40 days, come back utterly transformed.

I agree, fasting is not nearly as hard as some other spirit-ballooning things. But those things come into sharper focus when we fast.

Also, isn't "nothing" close to spiritual nirvana for many traditions; isn't it close to the revered "om" that Siddartha utters; isn't it close to the absence of distraction we seek in prayer and meditation?

Steve said...

Although I agree with you, I meant "nothing" to mean the act of putting forth minimal or no effort, not as you explain it above.

Torah methodology delineates both positive (do this) and negative (don't do that) precepts. Both are seen as equally valid and, yes, challenging.

Fasting would definitely be a type of negative or passive action (or non action).

Seth said...

OK, fasting is literally the act of eating nothing, so it is by definition passive. Still, I think it certainly is something and it requires maximum effort through non-action. Which, I think, is basically what you're saying. Right?

Anonymous said...

Fasting's easy, try giving up smoking :)

err... this is a test comment, as you know Steve I've been having some blogspot trouble :) Jeffrey

The Life of Kiley said...

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