September 24, 2007

9/24/07 Lavaur France

Nalanda Monastery

One of the last things I have done while here at Nalanda was to go on a 7-day fast. I made the decision after talking with another monk, Losang Gendun who is on a month-long fast. One thing that he said struck me was the fact than almost a billion people have no choice but to live each day hungry. I looked up a few facts just to see:

* ¾ of a billion people go to bed hungry
* 4 million people die each year from hunger related causes
* One child dies every 5 seconds from malnutrition

So, with these startling facts, I decided that I would fast for a week, seven days, only drinking water and tea. My goal was to understand, even if only minutely, the feeling of hunger in order that I would not forget those in the world who have no choice. The one advantage to doing it here, doing it now, is that in the monastery we are not bombarded by all the 'food' advertising. There is no TV, no radio, no magazines or newspapers. And when I told others about my fast (only because people who didn't know kept offering snacks and cookies to be generous), all were supportive. No "That is crazy. Why would you want to do that."

My only other experience with fasting more than a day was twenty years ago when I fasted for three days as part of an outdoor educators course in Kenya. Like this time, I was backpacking in the countryside of Kenya, so I didn't have any of the normal food "reminders" that a person is subjected to in modern life. But our attitude was different then, as it was more of a challenge than any lesson in world hunger.

I think the first day was the hardest, just because my stomach knew our eating schedule wasn't following our normal habits. I worried about the third day because others told me that was the hardest, but when it came it didn't seem that bad. Or at least not as bad as I expected.

One thing that did surprise me is that, after the first few days, being around others who were eating didn't really affect me as I thought it would. Sights and smells didn't really trigger a 'hunger' response. It was as if 'hunger' was now in my mind and not in my stomach at all.

It did in fact change how my sense of smell and taste worked. For example some of the teas I drank just didn't taste right now, and water usually tasted wonderful. But when the wonderful aromas wafted out of the kitchen, I was happy to tell the cooks that I appreciated the smells even though I wasn't going to eat any of the food.

By the fifth day I think I knew infinitely more about hunger than I did before. When you are hungry, your body knows something is very, very wrong. It felt like I was in a constant bad mood, but it was caused by my bodies imbalance instead of emotional problems.

I began to see how difficult daily life would be for someone whose world was constantly colored by this feeling, this malaise. They would still have to get up in the morning, do everything they needed to survive another day. How could a child learn in school with this hunger robbing him of the joys of education. How could an adult appreciate all the people around him as his body screamed for attention. It was like your whole life was seen through distorted gray glasses. Even for me during this fast, trying to buy some train tickets online just seemed too difficult because I couldn't concentrate.

I wrote much this journal entry on the seventh day because I didn't know how all this viewpoint would change once my belly was full again. I wouldn't say it's something everyone one should do, but it would be a blessing if, when you feel hungry, one of your first thought is of others who are experiencing the same thing at the same moment all over the world besides what you're going to eat to satisfy that hunger. Because when you take that first bite, it is so wonderful, the tastes and textures. Most of us are so lucky not only in what we eat, but when, how often, how much, and how many varieties. But even something simple like a peanut butter sandwich is life to someone who is hungry.

Even on the morning of the eight day, when I was officially over with my fast, the power of the mind was evident. The whole morning, from the first time I stirred in bed, taking a shower, getting dressed, heading down to the kitchen, I was in a great mood even though I hadn't eaten yet. Just knowing I was going to eat something was enough to change my whole outlook.

And just for the record, I did loose weight but I wouldn't recommend this method as I think it took pounds away from everything everywhere, just not as much from my midsection as I would have liked. And second, I did eat too much breakfast for my first meal (but I kept happy thoughts of the lunch I was going to eat later in the day).

Jim eating a wonderful lunch

In the past, I've volunteered at a soup kitchen for the poor and also worked at a food pantry that supplied food to organizations dealing with local hunger. But now, when I do those things, and I will keep doing them, it will be with a slightly different viewpoint. Maybe with more mindfulness in what I am doing and for whom, maybe with more compassion than pity, maybe with more understanding.

So for me, I will try to eat a healthy diet. While at the same time, appreciate how fortunate I am, and work to helping others become fortunate too.