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My Brush with Breatharianism: solar gazing for appetite reduction and fulfillment
Solar Gazing: an introduction
I know what you're thinking. What a crock of lard.
Staring at the sun in place of eating, human photosynthesis...what gives? The lifestyle is called Breatharianism, a New Age aggregate of ancient fasting practices and teachings, founded in the 1970s by Wiley Brooks and Nancy Foss.
Different representatives of Breatharianism advocate different paths for reaching the no-food, no-water destination. Brooks and Foss developed a 21-day transitional fast, which has gained notoriety for causing deaths of at least three followers who attempted it. In the more moderate approach of Hira Ratan Manek (HRM), one does not force oneself to stop eating or drinking, but after a preliminary 9-month practice period, the urges for food and water disappear on their own. Oh, and you become ageless.
When news of solar gazing reached my ears a year and a half ago, I decided to try it.
At the time, I was living at Ananda Village in northern California, and a friend stumbled upon solar gazing in Paramhansa Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi, in which he mentions the practice. Our young, malleable minds were quick to sponge up the exciting prospects of becoming plant-people, of becoming wild and self-sufficient. And I was especially eager to cut off my long, unhealthy relationship with food. So we began researching the process. Our question: how does one begin eating sunlight?
We found online instructions in several places, none of them with sound scientific backing, but our eagerness overruled the potential dangers of staring directly into the sun. With HRM's how-to in tow, were ready to begin.
Breatharianism: Origins and Context
Despite the recent upsurge of interest in this unbelievable exchange, it has been around for thousands of years, with indications of solar gazing found in ancient Egyptian culture, Turtle Island indigenous cultures, and in Hindu and Buddhist texts. In these contexts, the practice was rooted in spiritual ties to the natural world and the transcendence of selfhood.
In an article about fasting bodies from the Journal of Religion and Health, Jo Nash asserts that Breatharianism's resurgence and other modern avenues for fasting are ways to reconnect with a lost experience of the body as "an expanded field of energetic confluences"; or, they are ways of transcending the everyday experience of the body as "'heavy', burdensome, or limiting"i.
This unconscious desire for self-expansion may very well be the force that drew my friend and I to sun gazing. And perhaps, too, it was this force that beckoned us beyond mere curiosity. For we felt implicitly that we should engage in solar gazing seriously, leaving the mystical components of infinite love and ego loss intact, even embracing them in our daily lives. We became sun worshippers.
Historically, food and religion have been inextricable. Food arises in religious activity in a variety of ways and for a variety of purposes: first, food has a long history of being used to communicate directly with the divine via offerings and symbolic foods, like bread and wine in Christianity; second, following divinely ordained laws regarding the whens and hows of food consumption is a show a faith in religions like Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam; finally, fasting has historically been practiced to reject the worldly and embrace a religio-spiritual existencei.
Breatharianism takes the basic tenets of religious fasting further, since fasting is the very foundation of the spiritual path it outlines, rather than just an optional or peripheral practice. In an article that addresses Breatharianism, Jessie Meikle, of the University of Alberta, describes the foundational beliefs of the sect:
The basis of Breatharian doctrine is the notion that humanity has progressed through five stages. These stages are carnivorous, vegetarian, fruitarian, liquidarian, and breatharian...
Breatharians also have developed a very elaborate pseudo-scientific rationale for living off air. Brooks and Foss claim that because our bodies are composed of the same elements found in air— hydrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide and water— we should be able to live on air alone because our bodies can get all the building blocks of life from it. Breatharianism questions the basis of how the body breaks down food energy to regenerate cells and sustain life. Breatharian doctrine states that if one does not eat, the body actually saves energy, because the body does not expend energy to digest and break down food. Although Breatharians claim that food is not necessary for building cells and sustaining life, they do not offer any real scientific explanation to explain how breathing air can build cells.
Nor do they explain how a digestive system fits into a philosophy of humans as essentially above and beyond food. None of this was on either of our minds as my friend I delved into our own variations on sun gazing. In fact, we were wholly unaware of Breatharianism as a New Age movement and knew of it only in the context of old, yogic practices.
So, blissful in our ignorance we carried on. Each evening for the next month and a half, we sat tall on the edge of the open meadow of drought-drenched grasses and watched the sun descend beneath the trees. Words were unnecessary and usually distorted our experiences, but we had informal discussions after most gazing sessions anyway, sharing our realizations.
If one of us missed an evening, it was a big deal. We were devout. It was like missing a call to prayer. We would make it up by waking up with the sun and gazing in the morning. As the weeks progressed, we began eating less. I began automatically waking up at sunrise and added morning gazing to my practice. Our tolerances for solar radiation were increasing, and we could stare at the sun for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes without breaking.
Diminished Appetite and Occular Regeneration
At what was probably the two-week mark, my friend and I both noticed that we did not want or need to eat breakfast. At the one-month mark, we were eating half of our normal caloric intake, and the food we chose to eat was more for pleasure than necessity. I can't remember feeling hunger during that time. I should mention that we were apprentices in a physically demanding natural building program—we weren't just sitting around all day, we were heaving around buckets of sand and clay. We needed the calories, but apparently we didn't.
I wonder how much of the diminished appetite can be attributed to our suggestability, and I wonder how long it could realistically have been sustained. Whether it was the sun's energy or the placebo effect taking away my need to eat, I may never know. But I will tell you what is certain. I have never felt more whole in my life, before or since. The side effects of becoming a sun worshiper were unparalleled: boundless energy, positive mood, inner contentment, creative motivation, sociability, selflessness, and elimination of disordered eating. It was the best mental illness ever.
The great thing about our practice was that it was self-directed and, in that sense, very empowering. It also synced us up with the rhythms of the day, rising and retiring with the sun. It created space in our lives for stillness and reflection. And it connected us to the world beyond ourselves. These and all other benefits I mentioned are why I hold strong to the belief that solar gazing is a wonderfully positive undertaking--when done in a smart way. Always listen to your body's needs; don't try to achieve a perpetual state of fasting, but simply gaze at the sun as a meditative practice, and perhaps it will have a magical effect of your dietary needs. Perhaps not.
Going back to Jo Nash's article on the subjectii, the effects experienced during my brief Breatharian lifestyle are consistent with the classic definition of an ecstatic experience: "The word ecstasy derives from 'ekstasis', a Greek word meaning to stand outside oneself. It is this desire for 'self transcendence' involving the dissolution of boundaries between inner and outer, body and mind [...] that is sought [...]. During fasting, the experience of the body in time and space is altered so one becomes predominantly located in the present moment."
The paradigm shift brought on by Breatharianism had profound effects on our perceptions of self and reality. It even inspired my friend and I to stop wearing our prescription glasses in attempts to heal our eyes naturally (yeah, we were pretty far gone). It was actually my friend's idea to stop wearing her glasses. Her intuition told her that if she stopped wearing them, it would give her eyes a chance to regenerate to perfect vision on their own. Couple the eyes' natural capacity for healing with the wonders of solar gazing, and you've got a miracle. So I followed suit a bit later.
Unfortunately, the eye experiment never came to fruition, because travel made my glasses a safety necessity, and my solar gazing lifestyle ended abruptly when I returned to a sun shrouded by the snow-clouds of northern Wisconsin. But that's not the point. The point is, solar gazing was the leaping off spot for all sorts of lifestyle changes. It inspired us to weave lives driven entirely by intuition. It made all objects of human manufacture superfluous, even abbhorent. Glasses, shoes, clothes...who needs 'em. The only thing that made sense was living as an animal. We didn't need technology; we had the cosmic grid. We had universal consciousness that we could tap into any time.
My journal entries from this period read like a collection of really bad, short poems. They were my many paradigm shifts, and they were happening daily. My perceptions of self and the world around me were changing rapidly, and the separations between the two were becoming less and less distinct. Life was a dream, I was capable of magic, and I was one with the universe.
Good ole' Ananda Village, that bright and shiny place. And good ole' North San Juan.
In more recent travels in California, I was speaking with a friend who has an extensive background in eastern philosophy and spirituality, specializing in yogic and ayurvedic ways of knowing. I brought up the idea of solar gazing, and he looked at me, and said, “Oh, that's easy. It's all right here,” and pointed to his adam's apple. My baffled look entreated him to explain. He told me that he has lived for months at a time on little to no food, all the while controlling his appetite with a focus centered in his throat chakra. He also required little to no sleep during these phases, and spent the time in meditation instead.
“Remain strong in your center, so when life comes flying at you, you don't bend to it; you are unmoved, and it has to go around.” Even hunger and exhaustion will go around you, if you are strong enough in your center, according to my friend. This is an intriguing and beautiful mythology that I intend to explore. It tells me that the narratives we choose to tell ourselves are powerful realities. And that's how one becomes a wizard.
I feel lucky to have led such an ethereal existence, even so briefly. Since my sun worshipping days, I have returned to a more moderate way of life, though still with a deep love for and desire to emulate the constancy of our sun; and I am learning that the wholeness I felt at Ananda is neither with me nor gone from me, but ever-existing in a place that I have to constantly rediscover. There are many paths to find wholeness, but solar gazing is the one that taught me it's not mererly fantasy.
Now it's a matter of finding a practice that doesn't depend on the weather.
Expert Perspective & More About Pineal Gland
References & Further Reading
Imposed Anorexia: A Model of Dietary Restriction in Four Ideological Groups, by Jessie Meikle, Department of Sociology, University of Alberta, Jun 2004.
Mutant Spiritualities in a Secular Age: The ‘Fasting Body’ and the Hunger for Pure Immanence, by Jo Nash, Journal of Religion and Health, September 2006, Volume 45, Issue 3, pp 310-327Date: 08 Jul 2006.
About the Pineal Gland
Solar Gazing Documentary: Eat The Sun
Hira Ratan Manek & The Solar Healing Center
Natural Building Apprenticeship @ Ananda Village
Solar Gazing Anecdotal Evidence