"Pull the thorn of existence out of the heart! Fast!
For when you do, you will see thousands of rose gardens in yourself." Rumi
"O Ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed or you, even as it was prescribed to those before you," (Sura 2) translated by Pickthal.
Fasting being a prescription is revealing in this verse, as having curative and protective benefits; a deeper spiritual alchemy with blessings seen and unseen. It is believed to deepen the most intimate relationship -- of the self (the soul) with its Source (The Divine Creator) which is at the heart of all religion and spiritual practice.
The oft quoted words of Hippocrates -- "Let food be thy Medicine and Medicine thy food" -- can be combined with the words of Rumi, who adds that "Fasting is the first principle of medicine." A pub-med search offers a wealth of research on the medical benefits of fasting and different formulas of fasting that are being both studied and. Fasting has been found to have neuro-protective qualities, improve detoxification, and is promoted for health and longevity.
Now, from the sublime to some practical tips for fasting this Ramadan in New York. The long, hot days are daunting but not quite like in the Arabian Peninsula!
1. Fast a few days in the earlier month of Shahban. Some devout practitioners fast two days a week (Mondays and Thursdays), as was the practice of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). Not quite like training for the marathon.
2. Decrease your intake of caffeinated beverages in the days prior so as to limit the withdrawal effects of caffeine.
3. Do awaken for 'Suhur,' which the meal before the first sliver of dawn, as recommended when fasting. Both metabolism and stomach capacity will adjust in a few days.
4. A balanced diet is best; however a good mix of fiber and protein is essential with complex carbohydrates versus simple ones that burn quickly. Fiber and good fats keep one feeling satiated and have a slow sustained release of energy. Consider walnuts and avocados. Servings of greens vegetables and fruit should be included in the meal planning. Traditional shuhur for Egyptians is fava beans (damus) cooked in oil with cumin, ginger and other spices to taste with freshly-cut green peppers. Growing up in the sub-continent, I had a 'paratha' (bread cooked in oil) with eggs and kabobs plus my favorite mango lassi (yogurt drink). In New York this morning, I had left over mince meat and eggs (keema anda) with gluten-free, multi-grain bread, plus an almond milk shake with a scoop of my daily vitamin/antioxidant blend plus probiotic powder added in. Not to forget Omega-3 fish oil. I did feel quite full and was not able to complete the cup of tea made, but did have two glasses of water 10 minutes or so after the meal. So far, so good!
5. Drinking enough fluids and water in this hot weather is important. The eight glasses a day rule may be difficult to achieve. This can include juices and yogurt drinks, etc. Coconut water with added nutrients is refreshing and beneficial, as is fresh watermelon juice, which is rich in glutathione (a powerful antioxidant). Milkshakes and smoothies with fruit and fiber are great. Careful with drinks loaded with artificial sugar, which do give a burst of energy but as the insulin kicks in to balance the sugar load increase in craving with the secondary hypoglycemia can be destabilizing.
6. Adjust your work and sleep schedule to get enough rest. Awakening in the middle of the night (so it seems), which presently works out to be 3 a.m., can be challenging with work the next day. Try and sleep earlier so as to get a solid stretch of four to five hours in the first part of the night and a couple after the morning 'Fajar' prayer. Naps in the day are a delight and luxury as it does feel like a different quality of sleep when you fast! Some friends are able to adjust their work schedule accordingly.
7. In this hot July weather, I would advise to be vigilant about getting dehydrated in the heat during the day. Stay cool with clothing and maybe a hat to limit direct sunlight.
8. Gargle and mouth wash keeps the breath fresh. (Suggested by my 22-year-old daughter.)
9. With fasting and the special prayers / reading of scripture, social engagements revolve around the breaking the fast at the time of sunset (Iftar) is often done with family and friends. It is considered a blessing to feed others who fast and the less fortunate and recommended as one can, and this does create and deepen a shared bond and can widen the sense of community. Yesterday, as I took a taxi from work at Union Square to a mosque on 3rd Avenue and 55th Street with some friends, I experienced the delight of the taxi driver from Bangladesh as he realized I was going to the same mosque as he had planned to after this last ride. It is tradition to break the fast after a short prayer of gratitude with dates and water, as was the practice (Sunna) of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). A cup of tea is what I would have in Karachi soon after, but I recall breaking fast with a Wrigley's chewing gum when stuck in the subway last Ramadan.
A more substantial meal is customary after the evening 'Magrib' prayers, which can be quite the feast. The taste of the first morsel is definitely intensified as one cannot escape the deep sense of gratitude and joy that pervades the senses and being! Do watch out for over eating as one can feel full faster. It is recommendation to eat slowly and mindfully so as to fill the stomach with a third of food, a third of water and air.
10. My last tip would be to make sure you do drink more water/ liquids and catch up with the eight glasses a day recommendation after Iftar and dinner, which can be separate meals.
I hope this Ramadan, my sharing of practical tips, plus the inspiration from scripture, poems and reflections, are a beneficial source of guidance, understanding and nourishment as "There's hidden sweetness in the stomach's emptiness.
We are lutes, no more, no less. If the sound box is stuffed full of anything, no music."
A dear friend and teacher, Imam Feisal Rauf, helped explain this concept of fasting as a spiritual practice used the imagery of a test-tube with water, mixed with oil, sand which in motion stays mixed but when held still, allows the different ingredient to separate and get better defined. So in the practice of fasting, you are better able separate and observe your hunger, your thoughts, your anger and other needs and emotions from another perspective which increases a spiritual awareness and can be transformative. This concept resonated with me as I read these words of Rumi in the translation of a poem titled:
A Garden Beyond Paradise: The Mystical Poetry of Rumi
(translated by Jonathan Star), Bantam Books, NY.
Everything you see has its roots in the unseen world.
The forms may change, yet the essence remains the same.
From the moment you came into this world, a ladder was placed in front of you that you might transcend it.
From earth, you became plant,
from plant you became animal.
Afterwards you became a human being,
endowed with knowledge, intellect and faith.
Behold the body, born of dust-- how perfect it has become!
Why should you fear its end? When were you ever made less by dying?