Today, in many Christian religions, marks the observance of “Ash Wednesday”, the beginning of the holy season of Lent. It is a time for looking inward at ourselves, examining our lives, and discerning whether or not we are living the life God intended for us. If not, we apologize and do our best to make a change, recognizing that we can do so only with God’s help. For some, that change begins on Ash Wednesday with a vow to abstain from a particular food (e.g., chocolate or added sugar), or fast for a certain period of time each day (e.g., no food until noon), or stop engaging in a particular habit (e.g., spending too much time on facebook). The aim of any of these practices is to draw us away from our self-absorption and closer to God. At least, that’s the way fasting was intended to work.
In my recovery from Binge-Eating Disorder, I struggled a lot with whether or not to fast or abstain from certain foods during Lent. During the height of my disordered eating and negative body image, I spent far too much time abstaining from certain foods for the wrong reasons (to lose weight, look better, be happier). My two attempts at a true fast during Lent (once in 2000 and once in 2005) quickly led to rumination on past indiscretions, obsessive thinking, and dangerous habits, such as trying to extend my fast longer and longer each day — not to become closer to God but to lose more weight. Fasting and abstaining only served to underscore my warped belief that I, and I alone, had control over my life (by controlling what I put in my mouth). It never dawned on me that God was in control.
Despite those negative experiences with fasting, each year, as Ash Wednesday approaches, I find myself thinking about whether or not to fast or abstain. And most years I choose not to. Since joining an Episcopal church almost seven years ago, I have followed my pastor’s suggestion of engaging in something new for Lent instead of fasting or abstaining. I like that idea because it emphasizes spiritual growth and not rumination and stagnation. Last year, I added one minute of meditation to my morning routine (now I’m up to 3-5 minutes per day). Previous years, I chose to write in my journal every day of Lent or send a note each day to someone I care about. Other ideas include going for a brief “mindful walk” each day, adding a few things each day to a “gratitude list”, or volunteering somewhere once a week.
If we do choose to fast, I think it’s especially important for those of us who have ever struggled with disordered eating to make sure that we are being healthy about it and mindful of our intentions. Losing weight will not make us happy (at least not permanently). Trying to change our shape through fasting will not change our hearts. What will led to happiness and a change of heart is opening up about our struggles, leaning on supportive people, nurturing our bodies, minds, and spirits, and engaging with the world with all of our senses, truly savoring each moment and each possibility for connection with another living being.
So, what might you add to your life today? What new activity might you engage in that will help you find true happiness and inner peace?
Best wishes as you continue on your journey.
Peace, joy, and health,