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Emotional Fasting and Detoxification
by Stephen Harrod Buhner • Silver City, NM


We should eat enough good food to truly refresh ourselves so that there “be no lack of joy in our souls.”

Hildegard of Bingen

We eat the way we live. What we do with food, we do in our lives. Eating is a stage upon which we act out our beliefs about ourselves.

Geneen Roth

The needs that motivate your decision to fast possess complex emotional elements. At the simplest, because food is so inextricably interwoven with our survival, our earliest memories of life and family, and so much a part of our families and cultural activities, the decision to abstain from food brings up a great many emotions. Fasting casts each of us into the choppy waters of our basic relationships with food. It initiates the release of emotional toxins that we have held on to, sometimes for years. These are most often unresolved family or cultural messages about food, love, self-worth, and survival.

As human beings, our earliest and most pervasive experience is touch—the touch of our mother’s womb upon and around us and the feel of her arms holding us after birth. And it is one of the primary needs we have, to be held and touched and through that to experience the communication that we are loved, cared for, wanted. Our relationship with food is intimately interwoven with all of this.

Just after birth, exhausted from our long journey into the world, our umbilical cord is cut, and we are placed on our mother’s chest, near the nipple. Soon we begin to seek nurturing there.

Humans at birth are helpless; our only tool for meeting our basic needs is the voice, our ability to cry. When we need the basic nurturance of food, we cry and are taken up to the breast to feed. From the beginning, how our mother responds to our cries for food, how she feeds us, and how she feels in giving us this most basic need are an essential part of our relationship with food. Whether or not it is okay for us to cry, to signal through the making of noise that we have an unmet need, is an essential communication that we absorb from the very beginning. The attitudes of the mother and father toward our helplessness and our needs are highly complex and multi-nuanced; nevertheless, they are communicated—we absorb them into ourselves—along with the food we are given.

All this shapes, at our deepest and most unconscious levels, our basic relationships with food. Like the foundation stones under a house, everything rests on these early experiences, and they subtly shape and alter everything that comes after. These early communications affect us throughout our lives. How our parents viewed our essential relationship with food as an essential nurturing substance becomes a lens through which we continue to see ourselves, food itself, and our relationships with others long after we have left home. At the most basic level, food is the thing that allows us to survive, and so how we relate to food is a reflection of how we view our own survival or our right to survive. Because it is so intimately connected to that other essential, touch, food remains tightly interwoven with concepts of touch and the basics of caring that are embedded in touch. Food, ultimately, holds within itself—because of all it means and has meant—the essence of touch, of caring, of nurturing, of survival itself. The decision to fast, to voluntarily refrain from receiving sustenance, brings to the forefront of consciousness all the associations we have with food, all the associations that we have been taking into ourselves from the moment of birth. For each of us, the associations are unique in their shape and form, for each of us have experienced a unique series of communications from our parents and our culture.

In many ways, relationship with food is the same for all of us. It is about trust and intimacy and survival. It is about trust because we have no choice but to trust our parents—we have no ability to provide the essentials for our own survival when we are infants. It is about intimacy because there is nothing more intimate than showing another our most vulnerable needs and asking for them to be met. It is about survival because, without this gift of food from someone so much more powerful than we are at birth, we cannot survive into adulthood. Thus food inevitably brings up issues of surrender, for if, after birth, we do not give in to the keeping of another the power over our life, we will not survive.

Fasting always brings up issues of trust and intimacy, survival and surrender. It brings up fears and thoughts and unresolved emotional complexes, sometimes those we might have thought long resolved. Fasting also brings up the cultural attitudes toward food that we absorbed as we grew, perhaps the belief that if we are thin we will be loved. It brings up the most basic beliefs we have about our bodies and what will happen to us if we change our bodily shapes. Fasting forces us into a confrontation with many of the darker parts of ourselves, deeper beliefs about ourselves and our worth as human beings, whether we deserve to survive, are lovable enough to deserve survival, whether our basic needs will be met. During fasting we confront all of our most basic fears about love, intimacy, surrender, and survival. And we often find that food is a cover under which we hide these most basic fears and beliefs. Intentionally refusing to eat pulls back the carpet and lets us see just what we have swept under it.

And so fasting on an emotional level is, once again, a decision to become aware, a decision to not run from ourselves but to turn and face the darkness. When we do, the voices of those parts of ourselves that we have kept in darkness, suppressed by our behaviors with food, begin to take on strength and to grow in volume and start to be heard. Often, as the fast progresses, we find, suppressed under years of patterned behavior, the voice of our most vulnerable, infant self. The daily noises of life begin to recede, we enter a unique stillness of spirit, and then we start to hear, crying out, as it did after birth, our most vulnerable self, crying for a certain kind of sustenance that it needs but has never received. It cries out for food given in an atmosphere of trust and safety, where surrender is not defeat, where intimacy is acceptable, and survival a freely given gift from the powerful to the weak.

Fasting can be the beginning of changing our relationship with food, with ourselves, and with others. It marks the beginning of learning to give to ourselves those things we never received in childhood. It prepares us, as Carol Normandi and Laurelee Roark so beautifully remark in their book It’s Not About Food, for becoming our own best friend “so that we can perform the holy and sacred act of breaking bread with ourselves.”

Excerpted from The Transformational Power of Fasting, ©2012, by Stephen Harrod Buhner, published by Healing Arts Press. “Posted with permission of Inner Traditions International www.InnerTraditions.com

Stephen Harrod Buhner lectures throughout the United States on herbal medicine, the sacredness of plants, and the intelligence of nature. His other books include Ensouling Language, The Secret Teachings of Plants, and Sacred Plant Medicine.