The month of Ramadan is the holiest month on the Muslim calendar, and with that, there is a lot of opportunity for personal and spiritual growth. Naturally, the part that most people tend to focus on is the fasting. While Muslims understand that this is just a small aspect of all that Ramadan encompasses, it can often be hard to explain to a non-Muslim.
And we've all been there, haven't we? We all have experiences with the curious coworker or school friend, the boss who's wondering why you're working through your lunch break, or the lunch buddy who's sad that he has to eat alone. Inevitably, the question comes,
"But...don't you get hungry?"
For those of you who are unfamiliar with fasting, specifically Islamic fasting during Ramadan, the rules are thus. We do not eat or drink while the sun is up for the entire month of Ramadan (30 days). This means that we can eat as much as we want while it's dark outside. On a typical day, we wake up before the sun, eat a good meal and drink lots of water, and then go about our day. In the evening, once the sun hits the horizon, we eat.
Of course, there are some stipulations put in place that are in the best interest of the faster. If you're sick, elderly, a child, pregnant, breast feeding, taking medication throughout the day, etc., don't fast! If you start fasting and get sick halfway through, break your fast! Fasting is not supposed to hurt you physically. If it does, you're doing it wrong.
That leads me to the point of all this. People tend to dwell on the physical aspects of Ramadan. I've heard people compare it to the flagellant monks of the Middle Ages, claiming it to be self-torturous and inhumane. "Why would your God want you to starve yourself if he's so merciful?" they ask. First of all, we're not "starving." This reminds me of a scene in The Giver, a book I read in junior high school. The children weren't supposed to lie, so when one child exclaimed, "I'm starving!!" while waiting to be fed, he was punished for lying because it simply wasn't true. There's a big difference between being hungry and actually starving. There are such things as hunger pangs that can be pretty brutal, but they usually pass within a few minutes. If they don't and you think you'll pass out if you absolutely don't get some food or water into your mouth, then as previously stated, break your fast.
The true strength of fasting doesn't come from starving yourself, though. Many fasting Muslims carry on with their days as they usually do. The hunger is not really the point. The hardest part of fasting is the mental fortitude it takes to make it through the day. Most healthy adults can tolerate a bit of hunger or thirst, but having the mental strength to overcome those few moments of weakness is where the true test lies. It's harder to ignore hunger when you know you can't simply grab a snack to hold you over until your next meal. It's awkward to tell your friends and coworkers, "No thanks, I'll pass on the free doughnuts this morning, but I still appreciate that you brought them." It's inconvenient to postpone a business luncheon for "some time next month." Sometimes, it's hard to pass up an ice cream cone simply because it looks delicious and it's hot outside! All of these things, often combined, are harder to deal with than any bout of hunger.
Still, there's more to fasting than abstaining from food and drink. In my mind, it's like a long meditative process. You're supposed to be more aware of your thoughts, your intentions, and your actions. The idea is to purify yourself, mind, body, and soul. It's a general purging of negativity and darkness, and if done properly, at the very least, you'll be more self-aware by the end of the month. The hunger helps to serve as a physical reminder of everything else you should be focusing on.
This manifests for me in several different ways. For one, I'm a lot more forgiving of other people on the road while I'm driving. I'm a generally impatient person, and this is especially true while I'm driving. I don't rage or anything like that, but I do get pretty annoyed. It's a silly way to live, too, because I'll be the first to tell you that I'm not a perfect driver. I'm sure there are things I do while driving that upset other people on the road. Still, while I'm fasting, I'm less quick to mutter obscenities under my breath every time someone cuts me off or whenever someone decides to cruise in the left lane.
Another thing is that I'm less willing to waste my days with mindless reality television or rant videos on YouTube. If it's not benefitting me, then it's simply not worth it, especially not during Ramadan. This is a precious month, so that time spent in front of the TV could simply be better spent elsewhere. I could either be working on business ventures or hobbies, reading the Qu'ran, praying, spending quality time with my family and friends, etc...pretty much anything that's worthwhile and will benefit me in the future. So far this month, I've been pleased, overall, with where my time has been going.
I understand that yes, all of these things don't necessarily require fasting to be achieved. I can work on my numerous character flaws at any other point in the year. Yet, I find that I come a lot further in my personal goals during the month of Ramadan than I do outside of it. It could be because the fasting keeps me mentally on track with my goals, or it could be that fasting with other people at the same time makes for an amazing support group.
At the end of the day, though, fasting is a great test of your mental fortitude and willpower. How much are you willing to sacrifice for your own betterment, and how much are you willing to invest into yourself? I believe this to be the crux of Ramadan and the hardest part to grasp. When I was younger, I certainly wasn't worried about bettering myself or being self-aware, but as I got older and got closer to my religion, I realized that there is so much more to fasting than starving.
I invite you all to try fasting with us for a day! There's still time this Ramadan, and if you're head's in the right place, I think you'll find it to be a rewarding experience.
PS Fasting for weight loss is hit-or-miss. Some people lose weight, some actually gain weight, and some, like me, stay exactly the same!