Fasting and Self-mastery: The Power of Saying No to our Ego
Usually, many people think of fasting merely as a religious obligation to be fulfilled by abstaining from the fleshly appetites of food, drinking, and sexual activity. Reducing our understanding of fasting to this aspect of abstinence turns fasting into an “anti-body” practice; however, the meaning and purpose of fasting are much deeper. Essentially fasting is not starvation but a mindful exercise that sharpens a great life skill we all need for our success; that is to say, the power to delay our gratification, restrain our egotism, and thereby develop more self-mastery.
When you physically qualify for fasting and complete your fast, you declare that you have the capacity to master your greatest desires and impulses. Your body cries out for food or water, and you respond: ‘wait till sunset!’ Here your desires become the servants of reason, not the other way around. In our daily activities, we regularly face the challenge to resolve the conflict between lust and reason. Lust allures us to the immediate gratification we find in eating unhealthy food, taking destructive drugs, falling into gambling, lashing out in anger, or using our credit cards for our wants, not needs. However, our divine gift of reason can see the harmful consequences we will eventually face, and thereby alert us to choose the effort of discipline over the ease of immediate gratification. Fasting gives you the opportunity to give dominance to reason over your desires. In other words, fasting gives reason leadership. When your reason leads desires, you become free as you manage to weaken the uncontrolled power of appetite. Yet, if the desires are leading reason, then our decisions will be based on feelings, not facts, and thereby we may easily fall into the trap of addictions to harmful habits or practices. When we follow our impulses without the good counsel of reason we ease our discomfort for the moment but we pay a bigger price later.
Fasting creates that conflict between impulses and reason and trains us to let reason lead impulses. It is through self-striving (mujahadah) that we can change bad habits and develop good traits. Fasting ensures you that you can change any bad habit; simply because if you managed to abstain from the halal or the essential, you can readily stay away from the haram or delay the gratification of a desire until the morally appropriate time.
Accordingly, fasting is a discipline through which we encounter anger with calmness; hate with love; indulgence with sacrifice. The prophet teaches,“When any one of you gets up in the morning in the state of fasting, he should neither use obscene language nor do any act of ignorance. And if anyone slanders him or quarrels with him, he should say: “I am fasting, I am fasting” [Reported by Muslim]. Thus a Muslim observing the fast is morally expected to face insults with patience, thoughtfulness, and mindfulness. In his commentary on this hadith, Imam al-Nawawi suggests that a person should say “I am fasting” openly to the offender and silently to the self as a reminder of the moral commitment to self-regulate. This verbal reminder, “I am fasting,” cultivates our awareness of the moral goals of fasting: delaying gratification, handling frustration without an outburst and managing our disruptive emotions. The word emotion comes from a Latin word that means “to move.” These emotions prepare us for action. Feelings of anger and hatred could motivate us to attack others. Therefore, saying “I am fasting” turns our focus from feelings of revenge and resentment to the great values of peace and forgiveness that are associated with the discipline of fasting. In short, sustaining our focus on the concept of fasting helps us monitor our emotions.
Therefore, one of the prime purposes of fasting is to train ourselves to stay calm under pressure and build resilience that empowers us to bounce back from difficult circumstances in life. This goal is highly attainable. If we can tame wild horses through some gradual consistent training and striving, we can similarly tame our harmful impulses. If we can wean a child gradually and consistently in spite of the associated pain the child feels in the process, we can likewise tame our harmful impulses. It takes some effort, determination, and self-striving, especially when we keep our eyes on the rewards to come. If you think that mujahadah through fasting is pointless, consider the idea behind war maneuvers/games. Here the conditions of war are stimulated so that the soldiers will always be in control during difficult times, and that they are not to give up during hard times. Therefore, if you think your anger problem is justified by fasting, you fail to understand the mujahadah associated with fasting. Failing to refine our carnal self through fasting is a sign of missing the moral and spiritual essence of this great discipline.
In reference to the relationship between fasting and self-mastery and building good personal traits, Prophet Muhammad said, “Many people fast and they receive nothing but hunger and thirst, and many people would stand up in prayer at night and receive nothing but loss of sleep” [Reported by al-Nasa’i, Ibn Majah, Ahmed, and others]. He also said, “Those who do not leave off indecent speech or acting indecently, Allah has no need for their abstinence from food and drinks.” More clearly, al-Hakim reports that the prophet specifically repeats: “Fasting is not [abstinence] from eating and drinking; fasting is [abstinence] from frivolous talk and indecency.”
What is communicated here is that we truly misunderstand fasting when we limit it to abstinence from food and drinks. Fasting is meant to empower us and keep our impulses under check and thereby secure our personal freedom and success. If we can delay the gratification of screaming out of anger, we can have better relations. If we delay the gratification of buying unhealthy food at the store, we can eat healthier at home. If we delay the gratification of developing illicit relations, we can have better marriages and serve as better role models with moral integrity.
In the 1960s, scientists at Stanford tested hundreds of four-year-old children. This is known as the marshmallow experiment. “The kids were brought into a room and presented with a selection of treats, including marshmallows. They were offered a deal: they could eat one marshmallow right away, or, if they waited a few minutes, they could have two marshmallows. Some kids gave in to temptations and ate the marshmallow as soon as the adult left. About 30 percent managed to ignore their urges, and doubled their treats when the researcher came back fifteen minutes later… Years later they [researchers] discovered that the four-year-olds who could delay gratification the longest ended up with the best grades and with SAT scores 210 points higher, on average, than everyone else. They were more popular and did fewer drugs.”1
Again the message of this experiment was simple and direct: “Small reward now or bigger reward later?” In this vein, fasting is a great discipline for mastering the art of delayed gratification and developing self-control and patience. Success comes down to choosing the pain of discipline over the ease of immediate satisfaction that could hurt us later.This message reminds us of Ibn al-Jawzi’s insights on self-regulation by altering us to behave at the present while envisioning the consequences at the end. To him thinking about the end results before acting is an essential ingredient for self-regulation.
“من عاين بعين بصيرته تناهي الأمور في بداياتها، نال خيرها، ونجا من شرها. ومن لم ير العواقب غلب عليه الحسن، فعاد عليه بالألم ما طلب منه السلامة، وبالنصب ما رجا منه الراحة. وبيان هذا في المستقبل، يتبين بذكر الماضي، وهو أنك لا تخلو، أن تكون عصيت الله في عمرك، أو أطعته. فأين لذة معصيتك؟ وأين تعب طاعتك؟ هيهات رحل كل بما فيه….فراقب العواقب تسلم، ولا تمل مع هوى الحسن فتندم . ” ابن الجوزي
The good news is that self-control is not necessarily an inborn trait that you either have or not; it is a skill that can be sharpened through mindful training and striving, especially when we visualize the fruits to be gained in the future. Experts usually compare self-control to a muscle that we need to train to increase our willpower and overcome our impatience. Finally, to illustrate our need for developing more patience, I will end with this quote from Oren Arnold: Prayer of the modern American: ‘Dear God, I pray for patience. And I want it right now!’
 Duhigg, Charles. The Power Of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business. New York : Random House, 2014. Print.