What was my own experience of the practice? Enlightening, dismal, but mostly, lonely.
My initiation into the fast, was rough. I had not prepared properly, having only just decided upon the topic for my research project. I had the romantic idea that I might keep the fast through the Lenten season, and before I knew it, Ash Wednesday had arrived. I had the basics down: no sex, no food, no water. But it took a few days to get up to speed on the finer points of the fast and even longer to settle into the rhythm of it. Having stayed up late the first night working, I slept in the next morning. My first thought was, drat, I missed my breakfast. Allah/God was not even on the radar. The first four days seemed to be a series of missed breakfasts, odd eating, and long days. It was only after I sat down to speak with Imam Subedar, and heard the emphasis on the pious life that is at the centre of the fast, that I began to settle.
In the end I practiced the fast for two weeks. The no sex, no food, no water during daylight hours was surprisingly simple, once I understood both the importance of intentionality and preparation. The fast of Ramadan is serious business and requires full participation. No slouching allowed. The alarm clock is set not according to my will, but the will of the sunrise. My mind became very clear, my work was focused. But the loneliness of it became almost unbearable. I had not realized how much of my day was filled with visits for tea, meetings over lunch, hospitality that comes upon me all day long. Without these, I found myself falling into a deep depression, that was as surprising as it was powerful. The fast of Ramadan, I concluded, is not to be done on one's own. It is a communally powerful act of devotion that requires the support of other devotees. It is one thing to read about the fast, to see pictures of it, and quite another to experience it daily. Only now do I see it for what it is: an enormously passionate act of communal devotion, staggering in its reach, and marvellous to behold.
The Practice’s ‘Stance Towards Stuff’
At the heart of this practice, is the desire to focus on Allah and to keep our carnal thoughts at bay. So, throughout the day, there is to be an observance of one’s thoughts, so as to notice, note and name when thoughts begin to focus on matters ‘of the flesh’, to clear our fixations, by rejecting them, resisting them, or clearing them away, but mostly allowing them to be transformed by fixing that trajectory upon Allah/God. At first I simply tried to push-away whatever stuff came up. But over time, the idea would be transform, or reposition, the thought or energy, away from the carnal to a contemplation of Allah/God. This is an interesting movement, because there is, in a way, an enlivening of what naturally arises, not a suppression, but then, in a way, an offering of the thought for elevation. In addition – and this is something I picked up in conversation with Imam Subedar, and you will also see it on his video chat about fasting – thoughts and distractions from the virtual world, the electronic world, are to be pushed away, discarded, and avoided as much as possible. In other words, for the period of Ramadan, the devoted practitioner will avoid the general onslaught of stuff outside the immediate and the natural world.
There is a focused intentionality to this practice, a concerted effort made to draw one away from the things of the material world to matters of the spirit. This requires focused awareness of one’s self and the world around, but also, of the presence of Allah/God. Action, specific, disciplined action is required in order to draw towards a place of contemplation.
The Compassionate Element in this Spiritual Practice
As the purpose of the fast is to focus on Allah and the attribute’s of Allah, then deepening a person’s sense of compassion would seem to be a natural consequence. Allah, the most merciful and compassionate, has as his core, in the Islamic tradition, a compassionate nature. When there has been a break in the fast, for any number of reasons, or a person is unable to undertake the fast, what is required of them are acts of generosity and compassion towards others. Extra giving to those in financial need is a key part of Ramadan, as is the care at the end of the day of those who are to be included in the Iftar.
Duhigg’s process of forming habits within this practice
The trigger or cue of the habit of partaking in the fast of Ramadan, arrives every year in the form of the collective call to fast from the Muslim community. The yearly, world wide ritual is part of the routine of a Muslim’s life from birth. And the reward, hopefully, is a more pious, god filled life. But I would add that there is another reward, and that is one of belonging. The fast is done as a collective act of devotion and solidarity, the fast being broken after sunset with family and/or members of one’s home mosque. Within the day, the cues to begin and end the fast are granted by the rising and setting sun, and the alarm on you phone or the drum from the mosque that alert you to the passing of time. The routine of the day is the fast itself, with the reward being the celebratory gathering at days end. As I was missing this last reward part of Duhigg's process, I found the habit difficult to continue past two weeks.
Thoughts about a similar experience in my own context
I recently designed and facilitated an evening of conversation between 30 Christians and 30 Muslims. The evening consisted of an initial conversation where we paired up in twos and considered five different questions of life. Then we had dinner together. And then we gathered again in the sanctuary of our church to share the spiritual practices in our two faith traditions, looking at the five pillars in the Muslim faith, and their counterparts in the Christian faith.
So, with the spiritual practice of Ramadan in my mind, and the month of Ramadan beginning on May 15th, I am wondering if I can gather a group of people together to experience one single day of the Ramadan fast in solidarity with our Muslim neighbours, but also in remembrance of the fasts that once were a defining part of my own Christian faith, but which have been forgotten. We can host an Iftar in the evening, celebrating together as a community. We have forgotten, in the Christian tradition, how to practice communal spiritual practices and this might be a good way to begin. And it is a place to make a connection to those outside our church doors who are interested in spiritual practices outside a doctrinal faith.
Proposed Spiritual Practice in my Own Tradition, Coming from My Experience with the Fast of Ramadan: one 24 hour keeping of the fast during the season of Ramadan
Thursday Evening, Friday day and Evening
- gathering in our church sanctuary for instruction on the the details of the fast
- website will be made available to those wishing to participate
- entire community invited to participate, not just those inside the church - a community initiative
- following the form of the Salah in the Muslim tradition, but adapting it for both the Christian tradition and the spiritual/secular one, the book of hours will be taught, and a schedule for the next day of prayer times will be given out.
- there will be seven designations throughout the day to stop and connect with God, the spirit, yourself, the divine other, however it is that people connect to something deepe
- before sleep on the Thursday evening
- on waking - brief intention and devotion for the day
- before dawn - set of morning prayers/readings
- mid morning
- mid day
- late afternoon
- after dawn *****these will all be offered at the church
- sets of mix and match prayers/readings/spiritual thoughts/pieces of music/lyrics/poems etc. will be offered so that each person may choose their own set of spiritual readings/focus for the next day if they do not wish to come to the church sanctuary - the church prayers/readings/short services are only their as an aid, not a requirement
- a commitment/intention will be made before everyone leads to keep to the fast of no sex, no food, no water until we all gather again the next evening for dinner together
Friday During the day either June 1, June 8 during the day ****note that the church will be open all day from before dawn to after the evening meal. The chimes will be played every time there is a scheduled gathering, but attendance at the services is optional, only there for encouragement and focus
- a service in the sanctuary, using a combination of the materials given out the evening before for contemplation
Mid morning, mid day, late afternoon
- three 20 minute services throughout the day that are contemplative in nature
- they will include a selection of readings from the materials offered the evening before to invoke reflection
- improvisational music for reflective purposes will be offered, before, during and after the service
Friday Evening - after sundown
- all participants asked to attend this service
- on entrance to the service, to break the fast something will be offered to eat - perhaps the traditional dates, but also something from our culture - a sweet rhubarb drink, fresh strawberries if in season
- an evening service of 20 minutes on the same format as the earlier ones, but with full participation
Friday Evening - after service celebration
- generous, healthy supper served to everyone
- local music of some kind provided