Gaining by Going Without

Fasting as a spiritual rite of passage

written and illustrated by Justine Epstein

Imagine this: three days without food. For most of us, the thought of going without food is associated with eating disorders or starving children in far away places. These issues are real, but what about viewing the act of going without food, if only for a few days, as an informed, healthy choice? Fasting can, in the right context, benefit our physical, emotional and spiritual lives.

Fasting is an age-old practice used in myriad cultural traditions as a way of bringing one’s self closer to the sacred. During the month of Ramadan, practicing Muslims abstain from worldly pleasures between dawn and dusk. The Christian observance of Lent pays tribute to the forty days Jesus spent fasting in the desert as he endured the temptation of the Devil. The Buddha is said to have fasted for many days before reaching a state of enlightenment. North American indigenous peoples incorporate fasting into rites of passage by sending their youth on spiritual journeys into the wilderness without food. They must fend for themselves—and find themselves—before returning to the community as initiated adults. 

I first encountered the idea 17 years ago when my father fasted for four days in California. He is not a particularly religious man, but growing up I remember hearing him reflect on those four days as some of the most powerful of his life. Two years ago, through a series of synchronicities and a strong desire to connect more deeply with the wilderness, I found myself following in my father’s footsteps, fasting for three days alone in the high desert of the Inyo Mountains. At 21, I felt ready to step more fully into the identity of a responsible adult.   

The Owens Valley is a landscape of extremes. To the west, the fierce Sierra Nevada mountains jut like teeth out of the dry foothills. To the east, the softer and more arid Inyo Mountains glow red at sunset. The native Paiute peoples called the Inyo the “dwelling place of Great Spirit.” The valley itself is sage-strewn, interrupted by green tendrils marking the snowmelt tributaries that feed the Owens River. Here, with 11 other young people, two guides and three assistants, I spent a week preparing for my fast. We told our stories and named our reasons for coming together from across the world to mark our transition into adulthood. We were briefed on all possible emergency procedures, informed (as much as one can be) of what to expect in the desert’s summer heat and guided towards finding an intention, question or prayer to take with us. For many of us, it would be our first time fasting. 

On the sixth morning we all piled into trucks and vans and drove into the Inyo Mountains. The only hints of civilization were an abandoned mine and two or three road signs. A few hours and flat tires later we found our base camp. The guides and assistants would stay there throughout our fast in case of any emergency and to witness our transitions out and back. 

At sunrise the next morning, we gathered around a circle of stones that marked the threshold—the place where we would stand to symbolize the beginning and end of the fast. After the threshold crossing, we would scatter across the arid landscape, amid pinyon pine, juniper and sagebrush, to be in solitude. Four gallons of water, a sleeping pad, a sleeping bag, a tarp, some rope, toilet paper and a journal were all I took with me as I wandered out of base camp.

I kept myself busy on the first day by setting up my tarp and familiarizing myself with the landscape that would be my only company for the next 72 hours. After a while, however, I ran out of distractions, and questions crept into my mind: What the hell are you doing, going alone into the desert for three days and nights with nothing? What if I pass out, hit my head on a rock and get eaten by vultures? Confronted with the prospect of three days with nothing but myself and the wild, even death seemed like a possible outcome. 

After a while, I exhausted my capacity for fear and doubt. I began to question the questions themselves. What is it that makes us so afraid of the unknown, of change, of departure from the ebb and flow of everyday life? I began to realize that when I took away my daily habits and comforts, the activities that I thought made me who I was, I was left to confront what remained. Who am I in these empty moments? 

Emptied of food, I came into a new relationship with my body. After about two days of fasting, the cravings for food stopped. I could still feel my stomach growling and growing tight and I was slightly dizzy and nauseous. But the urgency for food I had expected was not there. By the third day, I reached a kind of calm serenity. I had become so accustomed to the routine of eating that I had forgotten the capacity for survival. The human body can survive three or four days without food—and, what’s more, a fast can cleanse our bodies of the toxins and addictions that we acquire in the course of our daily consumption. Faced with the urgent need to keep itself alive, my body let go of these cravings. 

Roger, a mentor and friend who has guided wilderness fasts for over 20 years, shared a similar experience: “One thing that really surprised me when I fasted for the first time was … I wasn’t hungry all the time, but there was still the mental habit for food. I remember even on that fourth morning … thinking, ‘Well, this would be a great time for breakfast.’ And it wasn’t that I was hungry. It’s just that we spend so much time punctuating our day with the meals we’re going to eat … So its very much in the foreground [of our lives] and when we take that away, something else can happen.” 

Doubtless, the feeling of being hungry is not completely foreign to you. You forget to eat a meal or two and become irritable, frustrated or weepy. The intentional act of fasting in the wilderness is a way of opening up that hidden emotional landscape. During my fast, I let these hidden feelings come up—and nobody was there to tell me it’s not OK to feel them. 

Part of the healing of the wilderness fast comes through revisiting emotions and memories and finding new relationships to those memories through forgiveness of oneself or others. Removed from daily dramas and distractions, I took the time I needed to work through a number of emotional wounds I had been unable to confront before. I gained new insight and perspective into my relationships to myself, my people and my past. The fast did not simply cleanse my body of physical toxins; it also cleansed my psyche of a lot of pain and fear that I had been carrying. Without food, the mind gains a new kind of clarity; it no longer distinguishes between the rational and the irrational. Everything that I thought during my fast became part of the purification of my psychosomatic being.

The act of ceremonial fasting is never purely a test of physical deprivation—the spiritual element of the fast is there, too. It is a metaphorical act of emptying and purifying oneself in order to receive another kind of sustenance from the divine. 

Removed from any affiliation with organized religious belief, I found sanctity in the intimacy and power of the natural world—being there with the thunder and the mountains, the hawk soaring into the storm, the fly on my toe rubbing his little legs together, the rainbow, the red moon, the dreams, the jackrabbit, the juniper trees growing constellations on their branches, the bones, the stones, the stories and the meadow at dusk. 

Concepts of time and space lost their distinction. I was no longer different from the land that held me—the water that poured from the sky and washed my dusty body was the same that poured from my eyes. I no longer felt a need to distinguish between death and life. The fast is a metaphorical act of dying, a mirror of the cycles of death and rebirth that occur around us in nature every day. I felt connected to loved ones who have died. I spoke to them, laughed with them and this did not feel strange at all. 

After sunrise on the fourth morning, I packed up my small bag and headed back to base camp. Stepping again across the threshold circle, I made my way slowly towards the smiling group of newly initiated young adults who sat amidst the most beautiful sight I had ever seen—a feast! A banquet of fruit salads, crackers, hummus, chips and avocados. Together for the first time in what felt like eons with other human beings we had a true break-fast. 

It is difficult to enumerate the ways in which this ceremony has impacted my life, except to say that it did so in every way. By sacrificing food during those three days, I re-encountered myself in new and wild ways. At its root, “to sacrifice” literally means “to make holy” or “to make whole.” In speaking with Roger about this experience, he explained, “Part of the principle … is that, by giving up certain things—in this case comforts of shelter, society and food, all these things we surround ourselves with, we take for granted, and we depend on—something magical happens.” 

Something magical happened for me and is still happening. I am still living with the question of how to incorporate the self-learning that emerged during my fast. It is the question of what it means to be an adult in this world today, a question of how to make it a kinder and more beautiful place, a question of trust and forgiveness for myself and for others, a question of service and right livelihood. I have struggled to find ways to bridge the story of my time “out there” with my “real life” here. But the lessons from my fasting self are always there, behind the bustle and banter of daily life. Whenever I get too caught up worrying about what a person thinks of me or whether I will get a job with a philosophy degree, I go back to the memory of myself sitting alone on the mountain on the fourth morning, watching the first red rays of the sun creep over a pink horizon. In that empty moment, I was the fullest I have ever been.