The Psychological Benefits of Fasting (Saum)
Every vice in society stems from a lack of self-control. Whether it’s violence, addiction, gambling, infidelity or pre-marital sex – they are all a result of succumbing to desires. When a person does not have the strength in their character to withstand the numerous temptations and tackle his nafs (lower self) to the ground, then he will most definitely become a slave to those desires. As a prisoner of desires, a person feels completely powerless, lacking any ability to help themselves. In the extreme cases, these individuals become depressed, suicidal, bankrupt, imprisoned or in a midst of a scandal.
Since the root of all this evil is the inability to control oneself, then it would be of paramount importance to have training sessions for a whole society in order to strengthen their will power and avoid these destructive pitfalls that adversely affect everyone. Fortunately in the Muslim world there is such a training session during the blessed month of Ramadan. Every Muslim that fasts gets intensive exercise in withstanding many different kinds of temptations. The temptation to eat, drink, have relations or even get angry is overcome every day for a month which prepares us for the many arduous tests we face in life.
Aside from gaining will power and the ability to control desires, fasting instills within us a deep feeling of gratitude along with patience. Deprivation leads to appreciation. After a long day of fasting our sense of taste and smell are heightened. Each sip of water is like releasing a gushing, cool river in a dry, barren land and each morsel of food that is consumed is like feeding a person who has been stranded on a desert island with very little to eat, the most exquisite, scrumptious meal. It is what Gestalt therapy defines as being focused upon the individual’s experience in the present moment, being mindful and being in the here and now.
In a world filled with immediate gratification, it is very healthy to learn how to delay the simple pleasures in life. Having the patience to withstand temptation and tolerating the delayed gratification are highly important elements in attaining personal maturity. We are trained patiently to wait for hundreds of things in life that take time and are delayed without a warning.
Firman and Vargiu remarked that fasting was a method of helping an individual move toward self-realization and reach for super conscious energies. In this respect, a period of fasting can trigger exceptional human performances, paranormal abilities, and altered states of consciousness. This explains how we are able to accomplish such lofty, spiritual endeavors during Ramadan although we are sleep deprived and abstaining from food with such zeal and contentment.
The euphoric state we experience while fasting can be classified as a spiritual catharsis which describes a purging that heals and restores the soul. It is the expelling, vacating and discharging of impurities within us to purify ourselves and reunite us with Allah. Fasting can be an extraordinarily transformative spiritual practice (Len Sperring). It provides the opportunity for releasing earthly ties, joining with the sacred and creating feelings of deep connectedness. Randi Fredricks stated that fasting has the innate power to change the individual, the community and ultimately the world.
When we reflect on the psychological implications of fasting (saum), then we are even more empowered to embrace the blessed month of Ramadan and soar to new heights of spirituality in hopes of strengthening, purifying and enlightening the soul.