I recently did a four-day water fast, meaning I spent 96 hours without eating or drinking anything other than water. During the fast, I had some insights that apply to my life in general.
At the start of the fast, a few hours after I would have normally eaten, I started to feel hungry. Hunger is the body’s way of expressing a desire. Normally I would have taken action to satisfy that desire by eating something, but part of doing a fast is to let the desire go unsatisfied. Even though I felt hunger, I knew I was not going to satisfy it.
The typical response that most people have to desire is to immediately take action to satisfy that desire, in effect, to make it go away, to get rid of it. How often do we allow ourselves to really experience desire itself? How often do we notice how desire feels?
Another physical expression of desire is arousal. And, just like hunger, a common response to arousal is to immediately take action to try to satisfy that arousal. For example, if someone has an erection, they may feel compelled to “do something about it,” or to get their partner to do something about it. Throughout my career as a surrogate partner, I have spoken to people who have been pressured to attend to someone else’s erection when they didn’t want to, as if just being in the vicinity of an erection created an obligation to “relieve” it.
People even describe arousal or desire as something unpleasant, as in the phrase “hot and bothered.” It’s almost like arousal that is not satisfied is to be avoided. Why not just feel how it feels to be aroused? I have found, when I do that, that I actually enjoy the sensation of arousal. As a result, I don’t have to automatically take action to satisfy it. Then more options open up. I can choose to satisfy the desire, and I can also choose not to, but either way feels good.
Step Outside Your Comfort Zone
In our culture, we are bombarded with non-stop advertising that tells us that if we are not comfortable, it’s a problem. It then attempts to sell us myriad products and services to help us be as comfortable as possible.
There are real disadvantages to being comfortable all the time. Growth and change cannot happen from within our comfort zone. We have to have times when we stress or challenge ourselves. Exercise is a great example of this. Temperature exposure therapy, subjecting the body to either low or high temperatures, is another example, as is fasting. All of these are ways of pushing the body outside of its comfort zone, and they all have significant benefits to health and well-being. Spending a minute in cold water raises your baseline dopamine level. Fasting initiates a process called autophagy, wherein the body breaks down proteins that are not functioning well and rebuilds new ones.
In much the same way the exercise and fasting get the physical body out of its comfort zone, we also need to find ways to get out of our comfort zone emotionally as well. A big part of my work as a surrogate partner is supporting people in being with their emotions. This is often uncomfortable, because most of us are taught, as children, to try to avoid or repress emotions. Some of us are taught, either explicitly or through others’ examples, that it’s not safe to express anger or to be around other people who are expressing anger. Some of us are taught that it’s not okay to be sad. Some of us are taught to override fear. Through Surrogate Partner Therapy, we gradually shift our relationship with emotions, from avoiding them, to tolerating them, to accepting them, to celebrating them. Emotional intelligence and capacity increase throughout, but the process can’t even start without stepping outside the comfort zone in the first place.
As part of the fast, I noticed how often I eat out of habit. A habit is something that happens automatically rather than through a conscious decision. I have habits to eat in response to certain feelings, in certain situations, and at certain times.
I have a tendency to eat when I feel stressed, like when I imagine having a conversation I expect to involve conflict. I also have a tendency to eat when I complete a project. There’s a gap, a spaciousness, after one project is completed and before the next one starts. I have a habit of eating in that gap, even if I’m not even hungry.
I have a tendency to eat at certain times of the day, like in the early afternoon, even if I am not hungry at that time. Another time might be in the evening while watching a movie. If the movie is really good, I don’t even think about snacking. But the worse the movie is, the more of a tendency I will have to snack.
Because I was committed to not acting on all those habits, I got to be conscious of them and notice them in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise. Now that the fast is over, I am still noticing them. There are now times that, rather than eating habitually, I am able to make a conscious decision about whether to do so. Sometimes I’m choosing to eat in those situations, and sometimes I’m choosing otherwise, but I feel more empowered in the decision. This has helped me to look at where else in my life I take action based on habit rather than conscious decision.
Break Bodily Habits
In the same way that we have habits in our behaviors, our bodies can have habitual responses as well. If we consume a lot of sugar, our body starts to crave sugar. If we consume a lot of alcohol, our body may “acquire a taste” for it. Our body will generate dopamine whenever we do something familiar, thereby neuro-biologically reinforcing it. It’s great to be in touch with your body, but don’t forget that the body can be trained, through repetition or past trauma, to desire things that aren’t good for it.
One of the great things about fasting is it resets the body and eliminates cravings. We get to start from scratch, hopefully with bodily desires that are more aligned with health and well-being.
Few people have ever done a fast. Some people told me I was crazy. Some people tried to talk me out of it. After it was over, I thought, “Wow, here’s this thing that almost nobody does and that I wasn’t even sure I could do. But I did it! I wonder if there’s anything else like that I could accomplish.” Like “maybe I can write a book” (although the amount of time it’s taken me to write this article has brought up some doubt). In any case, lots of other tasks that used to feel difficult now seem more attainable.
These are lessons I learned (or reinforced) from doing a fast. Overall, having a period with behavior drastically different than normal helped me become aware of my motivations and behaviors in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise. For this, I am grateful. I’m curious to see if the next fast will have the same effect.