But what about fasting for the mind? It’s recognised that temporarily depriving the body of nutrients is healthy and brings back some of it’s sharpness. But what about our mind?
For the mind to fast, we need to deprive it of its chief nutrient; stimulation. Under the banner of stimulation we can include information absorbed from social media, TV, music, books, films, or anything else we find on the internet. We can also include sensory information like touch and taste and smell, as well as social stimuli, like interaction with other people.
Besides the benefits of fasting (for the mind and the body), there’s another issue to consider. Pascal quipped that a lot of humanity’s problems arise from its inability to sit in a room alone with itself. I sympathise with that idea. We—in the West at least—find it very hard to do nothing. Or to do something for no purpose at all. Every minute, every moment, every action, has to be directed towards a desired end. Even something whose purpose is to have no purpose; meditation. Read outlets like Fast Company and you’ll see them promoting meditation as a stress management tool, as something that aids powers of concentration, as something that can solve world hunger. But if you undertake the practice of meditation for some specific end, it’s not meditation. As Alan Watts said:
“…meditation is different from the sort of things that people are supposed to take seriously. It doesn’t have any purpose, and when you talk about practicing meditation, it’s not like practicing tennis or playing the piano, which one does in order to attain a certain perfection. You practice music to become better at it, maybe even with the idea that you may someday go on stage and perform. But you don’t practice meditation that way, because if you do, you are not meditating.”
I don’t mean do nothing the way you would when you’re on holiday, lying by the pool. I mean, quite literally, do nothing. To describe it more fully, allow me to outline some ground rules.
- You have three choices of posture: sit, stand or squat. No other movement is allowed. You can change position and fidget, but this is to be kept to a minimum.
- No food or drink, except a minimum amount of water, which for eight hours will probably be a litre or two. No snacks, meals, or consumption of any flavoured (or hot) beverages.
- You must stay in the same room. You can’t flit from bedroom to living room to office. Stay in one place for the entirety of the fast.
- Nothing creative. I did think about doing this and having a pen and a notebook to record impressions of the mind. But that distracts from the point of the fast. Then it becomes about what I record. So no creative outlets.
- No things to play with. I have toys which keep my hands occupied while my mind works. None of that is allowed.
- No information. That means no laptop, no phone, no screens of any kind, no music, no books or other reading material.
- Toilet breaks are, obviously, allowed, but they are to be completed quickly. No faffing. Answer nature’s call then return to fasting.
- No human contact or conversations. If your spouse is at home, or you have a pet, ask (or keep them) out of the room.
As I type this, I realise how extreme it seems. The only way to take it up a notch is to get into actual sensory deprivation—wear a blindfold, earplugs etc.—but that’s too far, for now. Nevertheless, the thought of sitting, for eight-plus hours, and doing absolutely nothing is scary. Almost unbearable, in fact. In that time I could be writing, working, organising, training, connecting with people, doing a hundred other things. The idea of this practice makes me uncomfortable, but perhaps that is an indication that it’s something I really need to do?
I’ve written about the cycles of life, of the things I would like to do daily, weekly, monthly and yearly. I think having a Do Nothing Day, an extended fast for the mind, is something we should do every month, maybe even every week. Because we spend so much of our lives hooked up, plugged in and open to stimuli, we need to periodically remind ourselves what it is to do nothing and be unstimulated.
And I think that by doing this, by being deliberately still and undisturbed, we’ll also learn to better understand the what, how and why of our life when we’re not still. Perhaps by deliberately depriving ourselves of stimuli and coming to a state of stillness, we can increase the effectiveness of our actions.