What follows is a letter Art Ticknor sent to participants for an upcoming retreat; guidelines to prepare themselves to get most benefit from the intensive period of self inquiry.
Fasting, and not just food fasting, is a means of generating mental clarity, which facilitates deep inquiry and examination into oneself.
I’d encourage you to read or review Blindsight & Group Efforts to help get you thinking about the retreat.
In people’s initial preparation plans for a retreat last year, no one mentioned fasting as a possible form of preparation. Here’s what I replied (you may remember in my feedback then concerning the vast potential payoff in terms of clarity:
Usually we associate the term with not eating, and that is one aspect of fasting that I personally found beyond value. You may have heard me describe how one time when I started a solitary retreat my state of mind in the previous months had been a blah “nothing much is possible.” When I started the retreat that November in a remote cabin on the Richard Rose farm, it was cold, rainy, and muddy; the leaves were off the trees; the cabin had no electricity, no plumbing; the source of heat was a tiny wood stove, and the only firewood was downed branches, which were wet and rotting. I began the retreat with 3 days of water-only fasting. I felt lousy, physically and mentally. On the third morning of the retreat, I walked outside and wham: Everything, including the leafless trees and the gray skies and the muddy ground were beautiful; and anything was possible! My conviction state had swung 180 degrees. After the retreat I mentioned that to Mr. Rose, and he told me that’s the value of fasting: it shocks the body and kicks in a different state of mind.
There are many, many other forms of fasting as well. From what? Habits, for example (“settled or regular tendencies or practices, esp. ones that are hard to give up”). In addition to food, the other great instinctive drive is sex. We may never get a clue about how much influence the sex drive has in our life unless we experiment with periods of fasting from intentional sex-action. Other habits that are “hard to give up”? If we take a look at our habit patterns, we may see habits that we tell ourselves wouldn’t be hard to give up … but are we kidding ourselves? Alcohol and recreational drug use may be harmless, but what would we find if we took a vacation from them? Nicotine? Supposedly one of life’s most addictive substances. If cold-turkey withdrawal doesn’t work with your psychology, perhaps a period of tapering usage (e.g., decreasing a bit more each day) might be effective. Coffee? (Now we’re getting too close to home
One of the strongest habits many of us have is using media to fill hours of our waking experience. For a real challenge, try a media fast for a period before the retreat … no books, newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, movies, Internet(!), Facebook(!), etc., that aren’t necessary for school or work. If that seems too heroic, pick one or two of your highest time-wasters to take a rest from. Phone calls? How much time do you spend in needless conversations? Texting? Ditto. If you put your mind to it, I’m sure you can zero in on habits the use your life’s time and energy, which you could experiment with taking a pause from.
Other than addictive habits, there may be indulgences (“giving free rein to”; “freeing from temporal punishment for sin” that would be interesting to abstain from. Retail therapy? Starbucks mochas, lattes and frappes? Fast food treats?
The idea isn’t to remove all pleasures from your life … but to encourage you to find opportunities to shake things up a bit. If you get any later inspirations you’d like to pursue, please feel free to send updates to your preparation plans.