Fasting, Lusting and Self-control
There is no satisfying lusts, even by a shower of gold pieces; he who knows that lusts have a short taste and cause pain, he is wise; even in the [supernal] pleasures [of the devas], he finds no satisfaction; the disciple who is fully awakened delights only in the destruction of all desires. The Dhammapada , Chapter 14:186.
An ascetic pursues a course that restricts influences and stimuli so she/he can discern and cultivate the one and true personality. This means that a person seeking spiritual consciousness understands that much of life is spent acting and role playing.
To the extent that we can reduce or eliminate self-deception, we stand a better chance of developing awareness of the essential nature of our human experience. Our thoughts, words and deeds can then come into clearer focus. Our confidence grows, as does our self-esteem.
Valley of Fear
By removing ourselves from social interaction, we can abandon the influences and stimuli that produce undesirable behavior. Many of us respond to our environment with habituated processes. We develop and adopt personalities to fit our particular surroundings. Often these adopted facades reflect delusive, defensive or hypocritical conduct. Most are defenses based on subconscious fear.
We have our work facade, our domestic facade, our playful facade, our somber facade and many other aspects of our personality that we display when appropriate. Stimulated by the need to behave in the most acceptable, expedient and admirable manner, we often find ourselves on automatic pilot; we do not even think about the particular facade we have donned.
Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day. That is, be systematically ascetic or heroic in little unnecessary points, do every day or two something for no other reason than that you would rather not do it, so that when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test. [ William James , The Principles of Psychology, ch.4, Habit]
We can seek to remove destructive practices long enough to free ourselves from adopted detrimental habits. Ideally, after sufficient seclusion, we can return to social interaction equipped with a single and true perspective. Having eliminated false and self-deceptive practices, we move toward selfless service, and to comfort and guide others along the path.
For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God. [ Romans 8:5-8 ]
The belly when filled with all kinds of food gives birth to seeds of wantonness, nor can the mind, when choked with the weight of food, keep the guidance and government of the thoughts. For not only is drunkenness with wine wont to intoxicate the mind, but excess of all kinds of food makes it weak and uncertain, and robs it of all its power of pure and clear contemplation. The Monastic Institutes – The Training of a Monk and the Eight Deadly Sins by John Cassian
The initial resolution to fast represents a step toward God. To resolve to fast for God means that you are taking action to accomplish an act of worship. When we translate faith into action, the result is attitude modification.
Implicit in sincere worship is belief and trust in God. One who engages in prayer, for example, ascribes to it a significance far beyond human comprehension. The same is true with other acts based on spiritual affirmations such as charity, pilgrimage and fasting. Faith and trust are what first produce attitude modification.
An intention to please God precedes every sincere act of worship. One intends to please God before the actual act of worship is performed. The act may never be brought to fruition, for one reason or another, yet the intention itself is beneficial. The initial intention evidences a conviction that reinforces faith and trust.
Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one's flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, kindles the true light of chastity. [St. Augustine, On Prayer and Fasting, Sermon lxxii]
Prayer and Fasting.
And when he was come into the house, his disciples asked him privately, Why could not we cast him [the evil spirit] out? And he said unto them, This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting [Matthew 17:19-21].
Jesus offers us insight into the nature of certain malevolent conditions that require uncommon efforts to correct. His disciples had been unable to cast out a particularly unmanageable spirit by conventional declarations and oaths. The Messiah suggests that their faith was insufficient. It had to be bolstered by fasting and prayer, to succeed against such a defiant opponent.
As Jesus pointed out, exorcism is most effective when accompanied by prayer and fasting. Whether at the individual or communal level, prayer and fasting are powerful natural resources for resisting the disintegration of our social order and for liberation and deliverance from personal temptations.
Today, we live in a period of greatly diminished faith. Having abandoned the paths offered by sacred scriptures, we have opened the doors to unprecedented social degeneration. The vacuum created by rejecting faith has been filled by a “banality of evil” that reigns pervasively throughout modern societies. Philosopher Hannah Arendt eloquently expressed this in her analysis of the trial of Nazi leader, Adolph Eichmann:
Listen and hear the word of warning: “Wide and spacious is the road of gluttony. It leads to the catastrophe of fornication, and there are many who travel that way. The gate is narrow and the way of fasting is hard, that way leading to the life of purity, and there are few to make the journey . . . Fasting ends lust, roots out bad thoughts, frees one from evil dreams.” [St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Mahwah: Paulist Press, p. 167].
Grace of God
Our first line of defense against such prevailing depravity is to rely on the grace of God, being faithful in our worship, adhering to high moral principles and avoiding sinfulness. We must remain firm in our personal commitment to Truth, and to persevering in a life of altruistic service. However, under extreme conditions, our personal exorcism must include dedicated prayer and fasting.
A fifth and more weighty reason for fasting is that it is a help to prayer; particularly when we set apart larger portions of time for private prayer. Then especially it is that God is often pleased to lift up the souls of his servants above all the things of earth, and sometimes to rapt them up, as it were, into the third heaven. And it is chiefly as it is a help to prayer that it has so frequently been found a means in the hand of God of confirming and increasing . . . seriousness of spirit, earnestness, sensibility, and tenderness of conscience; deadness to the world and consequently the love of God and every holy and heavenly affection [John Wesley, Sermons on Several Occasions ]
Fasting enhances God-consciousness, humbles the spirit and immerses the mind in repentance. It makes our soul bow even before we prostrate in prayer, diluting our arrogance, shrinking our pride and binding our ego, leaving us free to worship and praise the Almighty Creator uninhibited by affectation and amenities.
Therefore, on this ground also, every wise man will refrain his soul, and keep it low; will wean it more and more from all those indulgences of the inferior appetites, which naturally tend to chain it down to earth, and to pollute as well as debase it. Here is another perpetual reason for fasting; to remove the food of lust and sensuality, to withdraw the incentives of foolish and hurtful desires, of vile and vain affections. [John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Volume 5, Sermon 27."Upon Our Lord's Sermon on The Mount"].
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Spiritual exercises are vital if we are inundated by secular pastimes and besieged by worldly temptations. These negative conditions blind the mind, depriving it of divine awareness and contemplation.