Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation homepage > Notebooks of Paul Brunton > Category 5: The Body > Chapter 4: Fasting


There are times when there is nothing that can be said or written by another that would be useful in helping to lead him out of his apparent spiritual stagnation. It may be something in his way of living or what he eats or drinks which is contributing to the stagnation. If so, there is nothing equal to a few short twenty-four or thirty-six hour fasts to discover what it is, for then the true instincts of the body begin to be restored.

The more anyone has practised overindulgence of his senses, the more he needs to undertake the discipline of fasting. In renouncing food and drink, he renounces all the sense-activities which follow after their use.

Fasting is both a penance and a purification, both a source of strength and a method of discipline.

To go through the ordeal of fasting the body is not on the same level as flagellating it but on a much higher one. It is sane where the other practice is silly.

Although the method of fasting is neither pleasant to contemplate nor agreeable to undergo, the prospect that most of one's bodily troubles and emotional difficulties will respond to it in some degree may help one accept it.

Just as Jesus prepared himself for his coming mission by, among other things, fasting, so did Zoroaster. Muhammed recommended fasting as an atonement and expiation for sin. "Fasting is a shield," he said. In the Jewish religion, Yom Kippur is an annual holy day when every member of that faith has to fast fully for twenty-four hours, not even drinking water, the purpose being to seek forgiveness of past sins. Hence its name, "The Day of Atonement."

Under the heading of temporary asceticism, the philosophic discipline includes fasting. If done at the right time and for the proper time, it is a mild but useful help to weaken animal desires, curb sex and soften anger, subdue an excessively critical intellect, remove resentment, and bestow serenity. In this way it is also of worth in clearing the mind when in doubt about a correct decision. But to expect the spiritual benefits of a fast to show themselves during the fasting period itself, would be a mistake. The weakness of the flesh may chill all spiritual activity. If it does, then the benefits will start to show as soon as sufficient food has been taken to strengthen the body again.

The practice of rigid self-denial helps to bring his lower nature under control. The fast is the severest reasonable form which this practice can take.

A man arrives more quickly at his own natural instincts and true desires after fasting. With every fast he sheds some part of the artificial and false ones which habit, heredity, society, suggestion, and ignorance have imposed upon him.

My twenty-day fast had three interesting consequences apart from the body cleansing which prolonged fasts produce: first, a clearness of thought which was almost intuitive in its correctness; second, an immediacy of understanding which penetrated swiftly the deepest significance of a situation or experience; third, a heightened fluency in the use of words as instruments of expression.

If it cleanses the body of accumulated poisons, fasting also cleanses the mind of accumulated errors. This it does by opening a way into the mind for new ideas and preparing it to receive truer ones less resistantly. Thus the fast moves a man away from where he is standing in his own light. It is a negative method of achieving positive results.

I have no desire to intrude my writing upon so specialized a field as the cure of disease and healing of sickness. But it is worth incidental noting that there have been many cases where, after undergoing the purificatory regime solely for spiritual reasons, people have been pleasantly surprised to find that it also freed them from bodily ailments.

Hippocrates, one of the founders of Greek medical science and practice, which gave so much to modern allopathy, put fasting among the primary remedies. Yet how neglected has it been until lately, until the awakening of old truths reborn under new names in spiritual, psychic, and physical matters.

Fasting gives the body a chance to regain its lost chemical balance.

When the supply of food to the body is stopped, and the experiment of fasting is begun, several of the physiological functions will have a chance to rest. The energies which would have been expended on their operations are then set free to cleanse the organs concerned.

A fast should improve eyesight because millions of tiny capillaries in the eyes are choked by toxic debris.

Through repetitions of the fast, he is able gradually to correct the misleading appetites of the body and straighten the twisted inclinations of the mind.

After the fast his taste buds will naturally abandon their perverted condition and adjust themselves to their proper work.

Sometimes the diet and the regime take almost instantaneous effect, but more often some time must elapse for the results to show themselves.

This need of cleansing the body to make it better serve the mind and obey the spirit, is usually associated with austere asceticism. Yet it was recognized by that lifelong opponent of asceticism, Muhammed. He instituted the regime of fasting from food and drink during the daytime hours of the sacred month of Ramadan. He enjoined a prefatory routine washing of face and feet and arms, mouth and nose and ears, before taking up a position on the prayer mat to commune with God. He prohibited the eating of certain meats and the drinking of alcoholic liquors.

The benefits of fasting are not only physical and moral but also psychological, since it enjoins patience and perseverance.

During the first phases of an unfired food regime, and still more during the fasting regime, there is often manifested a disinclination towards mystical exercises or meditation, or even an inability to continue their practice. The seeker may take this calmly and without anxiety. It is only a temporary phase, for both inclination and ability are to return at a later date. This is the way in which the subconscious forces prompted by the Overself concentrate their work of purification and renovation upon the body and feelings alone for a time, to gain the most effective results in the shortest time. Thus, those forces which would otherwise be used up in creating the desire to meditate--the atrophy of willpower and the deprivation of energy in this direction need not be fought but should be accepted as a passing and necessary phenomenon.

In every system throughout antiquity there was an ascetic preliminary side which purified the mind and body and then only did meditation start. Without such purification, that is, asceticism, all the dangers of meditation--hallucination, misuse of occult powers, egotistic fancies, mediumship, and so on--are free to arise, but with it there is better protection against several of them. This explains why whenever fasting or on unfired food asceticism, there is disinclination for and inability to practise meditation; for all the inner subconscious energies are then directed to the first stage, purification. The second stage, meditation must come later when the job needed for the time being is done.

Fasting cannot guarantee against a return of any troubles which it succeeds in eliminating when their cause still remains uneliminated.

Although fasting will unquestionably contribute to purification of feelings and liberation from passions, it is not usually enough by itself to give more than temporary success; moreover it is beset with psychic dangers. Not all persons can undergo it safely. Yet it is worth consideration.

As the purificatory regime begins to show its effect, there will be clearly visible or strongly pronounced evidence of the stirring up and discharge of unpleasant impurities from the body through skin, bowels, urine, and mouth.

Fasting throughout its course and an unfired regime only in its early stages, eliminates so much waste toxins that bad breath appears as a symptom. However it can be greatly reduced by a combination of colon flushes and strong purges.

The cleansing effects of a fast follow only after the disturbing effects. For when the waste matter and excess mucous is stirred up (so that they can be carried away and thrown away), there results unpleasant physical symptoms and unhappy mental ones. But all this vanishes within two or three days in the case of long fasts, or certainly as soon as eating is resumed in the case of short ones.

The purifying process of an unfired diet works in the same way as that of a long fast. It does not make a single effort with a single result but rather a series of efforts with a series of results. Hence the distressing elimination symptoms are periodic and recurring, being successive and deepening stages of cleansing.

The inner urge in its favour is needed to sanction a fast; the instructive incentive must be felt before embarking on it. Otherwise, it will merely be forced starvation.

Everyone, except the persons whose physical constitution unfits them for it, should mark their entry upon the path of purification by a short fast. If he has never fasted before, it may be a modified fast during which he abstains from all solid food but takes well-diluted fruit or vegetable juices. Two to four days is sufficiently long for this purpose. Otherwise the best time to fast is at the opening of the seasons of spring and summer. Spring marks the beginning of the ancient new year, the real new year, around March 21. The more an aspirant purifies himself by using this simple method of physical fasting, the more will he be able to obtain a corresponding mental purification. After the first year or two, he will find it possible to go on to a fuller fast, during which nothing but water should be taken.

Gandhi was guided by his long experience with fasting to the firm belief that it tended to ascendancy of the mind over the body. He resorted to it whenever the spirit intuitively moved him to do so.

Interior stillness may emerge toward the latter part of a long fast. "Long" here must vary according to the individual--anything from four to twenty-four days. A warning: the older a person is the less can he endure a long fast; it is a matter of diminished resistance, and he courts death if he ignores this warning.

A series of short fasts, which may be from one to seven days each set at intervals of not less than twice their own length in the case of the longer ones and six times in that of the shortest ones, will be the safest way for most people.

Buddha, in the days of his intense search for truth, underwent a forty-nine day fast. But after his attainment of truth he consistently warned his followers against emulating his example. He explained that such long severe fasts were unnecessary torment of the body and that they did not bring one nearer the goal.

Fasting throws the mind into a negative state which opens it to the possibility of mediumistic control. This is a risk which develops only after the third day and therefore longer fasts should be the exception rather than the rule.

The factors which must determine the length of a fast are: the man's surrounding circumstances and physical strength, how much willpower he has, and what it is that he wishes to achieve or cure by the fast.

No fast ought to be for a longer period than one week unless it is borne by a well-experienced person with a well-balanced mind, or unless it is supervised by an authoritative experienced fasting expert.

Pythagoras required candidates to undergo a forty-day fast before he initiated them into his secret teachings. He said only so could their brains be sufficiently purified to understand such deep doctrine. A few fasts of two to four days in length will cause the average stomach distended by the long custom of overeating to shrink to its right proportions. If this lead, given by Nature, is henceforward followed, he will eat less than before but enjoy equal or more strength than before.

The traditionally prescribed Jain fast consists in abstinence from food and sometimes from water for thirty-six hours. It begins just after sunset and is broken after sunrise or later. It is performed on holy days, which are devoted to self-examination, self-criticism, and self-purification.

A partial liquid fast on vegetable water or fruit juice or lemonade is easier than an absolute one, while a restricted diet is easier than a partial fast.

It is not only the presence of excessive waste solids in the body that calls for purification but also the presence of excessive slimy mucous. It usually passes out after a fast, which shrivels the body and thus contracts the tissues until the mucous is forced out of its lodging places. The process is helped by drinking warm water with one-half teaspoon of lemon or lime juice and one-half teaspoon of honey in it. This loosens and thins the slime.

On fasts of three or four or more days, it is quite practicable--despite erroneous popular belief--to drink nothing, not even water, for the first day and thus give the kidneys a thorough rest. This obviously applies only to healing, not to cleansing fasts.

The Arab mystics practise a form of semi-fasting during their forty-day retreat into complete solitude for special meditation practice. Each day they eat no more than about a half loaf of bread and a dozen figs.

It is foolish to take a full meal when bringing a fast to an end. The digestive organ needs time to re-adjust itself. It is wiser to break the fast with liquid nourishment; go on to semi-solid and then only to solid food, by degrees.

It is best to make the first meal after a short fast on clear broth and the second meal on stewed prunes without sugar. Eat plenty as roughage is needed to clean waste out of the intestinal tract. The prunes give a laxative effect as well as needed fibrous roughage.

To break a fast, use warm water with a little mildly acidic fruit or fruit juice--lemon or tomato. Reserve the sweet fruits--oranges, grapes, and coconut water--for the second breaking of the fast. If possible use only distilled water for these drinks.

The work of purifying the body cannot be done sufficiently by fasting alone, or by diet alone, or by postural exercises alone, or by any other physical means alone. Each may be important, one may be more important to one individual than the others, but it is a combination of two or several that is needed.

So much of this noxious material is eliminated through the skin that three processes of cleansing are needed to counteract it. First, the warm bath. Many persons are not tough enough to stand the weakening effects of a too hot bath. It is better to be prudent and be satisfied with a moderately warm one. Second, the friction rub. Third, the frequent change of underclothing. It is a physiological fact that a part of this material can be re-absorbed into the body if these processes are neglected. When that happens, this rancid and poisonous stuff will open the way to disease.

The friction rub may be done with a small coarse rough face cloth or with a loofah sponge. The entire body should be vigorously scrubbed, but especially the feet. A cool--not cold--shower at the end will close the pores and stimulate circulation.

Among the Ojibwa Indians of North America there existed formerly an esoteric group of shamans who alone refused to become converted to the missionary type of Christianity. They studied the higher teachings of spiritual existence, which were reserved strictly to themselves. The ceremony of initiating a new member was preceded by sweat baths.

I have often quoted in talks Anatole France's terse brilliant phrase, "All is opinion." The Brahmins consider a twice-daily shower bath to be an essential part of their religion. The moderns say that cleanliness is next to godliness. Yet many a medieval monk remained unwashed for long periods, rejecting baths as luxuries for the effete and indulgences for the body.

Yogis consider that basti, the washing of the bowel, is the most essential of their cleansing procedures. This is essentially the same as our Western enema and colon-flushing procedures.

The squatting position is the natural one in which to answer a bowel movement call. It is the best one hygienically, too.

It is advisable to keep the breathing passages clear from mucous, especially the thick, gummy kind which adheres to the membranes. This can be done by gargling the throat and washing the nostrils by strongly breathing some water up the nasal passages, water which has been very slightly dissolved with salt and which is comfortably hot.

I suffer from mucous and have experimented with various remedies, but I found that the one thing which was most successful was to prevent its appearance altogether by wrapping a scarf twice round my throat and keeping it there.

If the eye muscles are overworked by too much desk work, regular resting at intervals during this work will enable them to recuperate their strength and efficiency. In this connection remember the advice given by my oculist that when using any eye drop medicine take care not to touch the eyes themselves with the eye cup or the dropper used. If one eye gets infected with, say, conjunctivitis in this way one avoids passing the infection to the other eye. The same care should be used with the small towel used for wiping the eyes after washing. Separate towels reserved for this purpose should be used or rather separate face cloths.

An eye specialist informs me that the blurring of sight which sometimes happens with the fall of darkness can be avoided by wearing red spectacles for a few minutes and avoiding looking directly at white light. He also advised me to trim odd eyelash hairs which got too long and irritated the eyeball and to do this regularly.

According to Dr. Aschner:

1. The three-week fast gives very good results in anti-arthritic treatment, especially where fingers are involved--swollen, stiff, etc. A little stale bread and a cup of prune juice is allowed per day. Heavy blankets on a sheet-wrapped body to produce perspiration are used at night.

2. Chronic indigestion through hyperacidity is treated by bitter tonic herbs--alkalizers are not enough. The best are gentian on empty stomach, vermouth, cinchona.

3. Breakfast: Fruit juices create heartburn; ban them; cereals slow digestion; toast is better. Boiled rice is easiest to digest.

Artificial and synthetic materials are preferably not to be worn next to the skin. Their use should be limited to outer and overgarments, which should be made, in that case, of mixed materials, so that nature's cotton or wool introduces its energies and less fatigue is induced.

They blindly obey, in their ways of living and eating, the suggestions received from their own lower nature, from their family, and from the world generally.

The break with long-held bad personal habits, coupled with the bringing to birth of entirely new good ones, is a difficult experience. But it is also an immensely rewarding one.

Essay: The Practical Technique of Fasting

The beginner should experiment with an eighteen hour fast, repeated every week or two weeks; extend it to twenty-four hour periods in a month or two, and later on to thirty-six or forty-eight hours at a stretch. Having thus well prepared himself, he should finish the regime with a single three, or three and a half day fast.

The fast starts in the evening by missing the dinner meal, and by taking instead, to help to empty the bowels completely, a mild dose of warm senna leaf infusion--a herbal laxative tea.

The next morning, take a cupful of mild herbal stomach cleanser, an infusion of Golden Seal herbs in warm water (also known commercially as Fluid Extract of Hydrastis). Follow this a half hour later by drinking a cupful of warm or hot water. This process is to be repeated on the last morning of the fast, if the latter extends to a three day period. Fasting should be preceded and ended by these purges.

At night, after the first complete day's fast, take an enema. Use warm, slightly soapy water (vegetable oil soap is essential), hold it within the body for as long as possible while lying flat for a minute or two. Turn over on the left side for a further minute or two and then turn over on the right side for the same period. Repeat on last night if fasting for three days. On each morning, take a warm bath, not exceeding five minutes and using soap. In the morning when dressing and in the early evening, use a tongue scraper. These long, thin, narrow strips, made of lightweight plastic, are stocked by most drugstores.

It is recommended that only distilled water be drunk and that the herbal infusions be made with that also. It can be bought in jars from better food or drugstores.

As an alternative to the full fast, you may conserve your strength for work by engaging in semi-fasts of the same duration as the full fast. During these periods eat no solid food and subsist on fruit juices well diluted with water, or else, on lemonade containing one-half teaspoon of raw honey to each tumbler of distilled water, or on vegetable extract water made by soaking diced carrot, celery, and parsley for five or six hours in distilled water, then straining off and discarding the solids. This drink may be mixed with the lemonade drink already described to render it more palatable if desired. Since, when unmixed, it contains no significant quantity of proteins and no starches, it belongs more closely to the category of full rather than semi-fast and may enable them to be better borne.

While fasting, do not exercise the body or undertake physically strenuous tasks. If you are working, it is advisable to carry out the fast during a weekend. It offers a convenient time to catch up on reading and meditation assignments. Experience demonstrates conclusively that if this period is spent sitting on a chair, reclining on a couch, or resting in a bed, it is passed through more easily, more swiftly, and more effortlessly, whereas, if spent active and moving about it is passed through with difficulty, slowly dragged out. So do not spend more than the least possible energy. Pray for guidance in self-improvement and for help in self-purification.

Headaches and fatigue often appear during the first and second days of fasting. They usually disappear along with hunger during the third day.

To end the fast, be careful to break it gently and by degrees. This preconditions the stomach for normal eating. It is a serious and sometimes a dangerous mistake to break a fast with solid food. The longer the fast, the more dangerous it is to do so. The correct way is to take a mild dose of warm liquid herbal laxative like senna leaves and wait for half an hour. Then, take liquid refreshment only--a warm, clear, vegetable soup containing no solids is best. The broth should be unspiced and unsalted. It should be made from one-third part at least of carrots and the remainder of mixed seasonal vegetables in which spinach predominates. Potatoes, being very starchy, must not be a part of it. The next meal may be a thick, heavy vegetable soup of which diced carrots are a substantial part. No dried beans or lentils may be included. For the first ordinary solid meal, avoid sharp, hard, crisp foods such as toast, as these can damage the temporarily tender stomach lining; avoid also such heavy, clogging starches as potatoes--as these retard the recovery of digestive activity.

The beneficial effect of fasting is both psychological and physical. Not only are the toxic matters eliminated but so also are obstructive waste matters and sticky slimes. This purification of the body lets it function more freely.

Although fasting is given a temporary place in the philosophic discipline because of its benefits, warning must be given of the possible injuries if it is practised without discrimination. If prolonged beyond the capacity of the body to endure, fasting may end in coma or sometimes even in death. The correct length of a fasting period depends partly upon the vitality and weight of the individual. Weak and thin persons cannot endure so long a one as strong or fat persons can. The period following any fast must not be regarded as unimportant. The body, being weakened, will not be able to endure strains that it can ordinarily endure; therefore, rest must be continued and only slowly discontinued. Take particular care not to lift heavy weights. Since pulsation of the heart and blood pressure are noticeably reduced by fasting, those persons who have an already low blood pressure and even those who are older than fifty years, should take care to avoid either a total fast or a long one. The dizziness which is felt by some fasters when they get up from lying in a bed or reclining on a couch can be lessened or prevented if they will be careful, when rising from this position, to move very slowly.

The physical dangers can be adequately safeguarded against by taking the precautions mentioned in the previous paragraph and by setting three and a half days as the maximum period for any one fast. It is harmful not to take a mild laxative just at the beginning of the fast as at the end, for the bowel motions stop and previous accumulations, having no intake of food to move them, remain clogged and constipating. But those who use strong mineral salts--which heat the membrane lining the stomach rendered delicate by the fast--when mild herbal ones are available are ill-advised.

The psychical dangers also do not usually arise except on fasts extended for periods longer than this time. The chief one is the negative condition of mediumship, which opens the mind to the influence of other persons and the body to control by disincarnate entities. No aspirant who already shows mediumistic tendencies should practise fasting for longer than one or two days at a time. The sick and the old must take all needed precautions, modify the fast to suit their individual condition, or adopt the semi-fast. Sufferers from serious lung or heart disease must not attempt any form of fasting.

A series of intermittent fasts with one week between the twenty-four hour fast or two weeks between the two, three, or four day ones are preferable to very long abstinences. They are less drastic, much safer, and not less efficacious at the end of a course. The end of a course in fasting should be followed by a reformed diet. It is much less difficult after such a course to drop from one's diet any article of food or drink of which one has been fond for many years and to which one has been so addicted that its absence would be highly disturbing. The same is true of adding any new dietary articles which may seen unattractive and unpalatable. This fact makes the fast an easier and useful way of making the transition from wrong eating habits to better ones.

It is inadvisable to fast in winter as the cold weather is easily felt. The best times are spring, summer, and early autumn. Especially suitable times are:

(a.) at the two equinoxes, March 21 when the sun crosses the equator on its northward journey and thus inaugurates the spring season, and about September 23 when it again crosses the equator on its southward journey and inaugurates the autumn season.

(b.) at the summer solstice, when the sun changes its course and reverses its direction. This happens about June 21.

At these three dates, Nature is preparing her great cyclic changes throughout the world and in Man. It is then that the cleansing of man's body prepares him for these changes.

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