Many around the world are now observing Lent, popularly understood as a fast or a time to give something up, but intended as a period of spiritual preparation for the Holy Week of Easter, the most sacred moment in the Christian calendar. For those who follow this belief, abstinence from certain foods–typically meat–is accompanied by other disciplines, such as reading of scriptures, giving alms and offering special prayers.
Other traditions also hold fasts. Muslims fast (no food, no water, regardless of the heat) from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan, and Jews fast for twenty five hours on the occasion of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (which coincides with the second bringing of the Tablets by Moses, and the atonement of the Israelites for their folly of setting up the Golden Calf). In some parts of the world Buddhists also fast during Vassa. This coincides with the rainy season where there is one, and is a custom from before the time of Gautama Buddha; for practical reasons, wandering monks would suspend their travels during the monsoons, and took advantage of the enforced inactivity to make a spiritual retreat.
When we think of fasting, we may also think of the word ‘sacrifice’. This word now is most often associated with giving up something, as for example in a game of chess, when one may decide to sacrifice a pawn in order to gain some other advantage. The original meaning of the word, though, was to make sacred, and perhaps it is a sign of our profound immersion in duality that we have difficulty imagining that something can be made sacred if we don’t give it away. On the one hand, giving something away, especially to someone in need, can be a sacred act, and even more so if we give it from the heart. On the other hand, devoting time and attention to keeping a corner of the home as a special place of beauty can also be a sacrifice–yet the first soul to be nourished is our own.
To fast is to exert one’s will; it requires discipline. That is always beneficial to the seeker on the spiritual path, but if the discipline is not closely linked with the ideal, the benefit is lessened. Sacrifice means ‘to dedicate to the Divine’ – which may include doing without something, but once again, if the abstinence is not linked to your ideal, then the sacrifice is not sacred. Few accomplish the ‘ultimate’ sacrifice of the mystic, of giving the self away entirely for the sake of the Divine Beloved; for those who do, every act, thought, every breath, becomes sacred.