Fasting and Oreo Hallucinations
In November of 1994 I was cold, thirsty and several miles from something safe to drink. I dipped my green plastic water bottle into what, I convinced myself, was a very clean looking Himalayan stream. Dropped in a couple of iodine tablets and half waited for them to dissolve. Then I drank the koolaid.
Later that day I found a guest house and passed out under my sleeping bag in a small cold room. In the middle of the night, I woke up with horrible stomach cramps and stumbled to the outhouse, which, incidentally, sat perched over a very clean looking Himalayan stream ;-> After some wonderful diarrhea and a little exciting vomiting I emerged and promptly passed out a little too close to the edge of a cliff. I remember, as I came to, noticing that the stars were startlingly vivid.
For the next three or four days I ate very little, slept a lot and got to know the outhouse quite well. Finally I felt strong enough to continue my trek. And after a few days I got out of the mountains and continued my travels around south Asia, but the mountains never really got out of me. I had diarrhea every day for almost a year after that.
When I returned to the states I had numerous tests, saw lots of doctors and natural healers and did what I could to get the Giardia out of my body. I got a lot better and gained the knowledge of how to maintain a decent level of health – but even after all these years, my digestive system has never fully recovered.
So three weekends ago I decided to try something I hadn’t – long fasting. I attended a yoga detox retreat taught by a yogi who probably weighs about as much as I did in seventh grade. But he claims to have tons of energy, sleep 4 hours a night and rarely get sick. And did I mention he could eat? I saw some serious putting away – mostly salad, fruit and vegetables but still, quite an appetite for a really skinny guy. Now I’m not interested in regular long term fasting or reviving long dead disordered eating patterns – but I thought a cleansing fast might help – I’ve tried just about everything else.
Day one we fasted on juice and broth. Pretty easy, I’ve been doing one day fasts for years so, no biggie. Day two was optional, lots of people broke their fasts, but I, along with a few others, decided since I was feeling okay that I’d keep going. I had more juice and broth. The detox guru said that if you feel hungry, try drinking a big glass of salted lemon water – then you’ll know if what you are feeling is real hunger or what he called “demon hunger” – acidity welling up in your digestive tract as you go through your detox process. If you’re not hungry after the lemon water, then you’re being haunted by your “demons” – keep fasting until you are really hungry.
Day three – I was back home now, out of the security of a fasting community and people to make fresh juice for me. I cooked for my family, taught a yoga class, went to Earthfare and bought a kale, spinach, cucumber, wheatgrass, and parsley juice (yeah, it was just as nasty as it sounds). Then I went home and worked. I got pretty hungry, but the lemon water helped. In the evening I had more juice and went to bed early.
Day four is when the Oreo hallucinations began. Was that an Oreo on my desk? On the dash board? I don’t think I’ve actually eaten an Oreo since the early nineties. There they were haunting me. I Facebooked my dilemma. My friend Sam encouraged me to try juicing some. I settled for more kale broth.
That evening I quelled the demon hunger with several glasses of salted lemon water. The hunger kept subsiding. But the acidity was becoming more and more uncomfortable. I taught a yoga class, or rather floated around the room in a haze trying to remember if which side we were on.
The morning of the fifth day I woke up dizzy, drank a big glass of water with apple cider vinegar (I was out of lemons at this point), dragged myself to the bathroom and promptly vomited. Then I collapsed on the couch to enjoy some soft moaning. That felt good. I was planning on a 7 or 8 day fast and wondering what the heck to do now. I had to take my son and his friend to school but that wasn’t happening any time soon. They played with Starwars Legos and gave me funny looks between light saber battles. I cancelled my clients.
I began to recall details of lying in the small cold room in Nepal sick with Giardia and what I was going through then – a failing relationship, gnawing insecurities, deep longing to find some personal meaning. My nausea then was in many ways a rejection of my life – an inability to “stomach” it or assimilate it. Then I went back further to high school and my not atypical teenage self-loathing and bulimia, diet pills that made my head tingle, iceberg lettuce salad with non-fat Italian dressing and fake bacon bits, followed by three chocolate chip cookie lunches. Lots of hungry afternoons. Fear – not having the guts to grow up.
I quit dwelling on the past long enough to call my friend Cindy – she’s a wonderful yogini and nutritionist. I told her my dilemma. Wisely advising the obvious she said, “Probably at this point, you should break your fast.” Kindness and the permission to not be a perfect yogi. What a relief. Her compassion pushed me from melancholy to gratitude.
She recommended spirulina and advised that I tune in to what my body was telling me it needed. After fasting for more than four days I had become pretty good at convincing my body that it really didn’t need to tell me anything, so that was a challenge. The only thing that sounded bearable was almond milk.
So I warmed some up and added a little spirulina. I had to dilute it with water because it seemed so rich. I slowly sipped a cup, and felt like I was returning from the ethers to the planet I belonged on. I was able to release more toxins from the proper orifice. Then I started to feel very clear and awake.
I took my son and his friend to school which is at a church that happens to have a beautiful white stone labyrinth on the premises. I hadn’t sat for meditation that morning so instead of racing home to work, I decided to meditate under the tree next to the labyrinth.
I closed my eyes and began my practice. My senses felt acute. I noticed the birds singing but it sounded more like they were chanting mantras all around me. The labyrinth began to glow in my mind’s eye and I imagined I was walking it with my spiritual teacher while karmas untangled. Then we sat at the center in meditation and the labyrinth turned into the cosmos – white light emanating from the middle out into the dancing periphery. I was flooded with ecstasy.
Then came relief, gratitude and tears for this beautiful world that I get to live in, for the abundance of healthy food I have access to, for the people who love and support me, for being gifted with a chronic health issue that gave rise to this spiritual, emotional and physical healing process.
Perhaps I was gifted with a tiny sliver of insight into why the Buddha fasted, why Jesus fasted, why Native Americans fast, why great saints have always fasted and recommended fasting. Fasting is not only about cleansing the body, and it certainly is not confined to the realm of penance – what it does hold is the possibility of blasting open the heart. After his long fast the Buddha ate sweet rice and touched the earth. Fasting opened him to enlightenment, to the beauty of this world, and to the simplicity and rightness of the human experience.
For me fasting opened up my perspective to witness the welcoming arms of mother-love vibrating through my experiences, the support and embrace of the world, the nurturing of food and relationships, to my never invalid or pointless reasons for being here.
When I was in high school I denied myself food out of self-loathing. This time I did it out of hope for healing – the result was a deep experience of acceptance, clarity and love. Om shanti.