Fasting, Emptiness, and the Sonoran Desert

Yesterday (Friday, June 10th) I fasted for the first time this season of Ramadan. Ramadan is the time when Muslims around the world fast from food, drink, sex, cigarettes, and other amenities between sunrise and sunset for about 35 days. It is considered a very special, holy time, and many family gatherings and special iftars (the breaking of the fast) are arranged. I have fasted almost every year since I learned about the month- in Malawi, Turkey, Chicago, Los Angeles, and now Boston. It has been wonderful to learn particular traditions and feel like I get to share something with my Muslim friends.

Yesterday was a long fast, from 3:23 am to 8:21 pm. I skipped Suhoor (the meal before the first prayer of the day) to sleep, and for most of the morning, my hunger was subdued. During the afternoon, I felt slow- not a bad slow, though. Karin and I agreed that fasting helps us to realize how much time we spend thinking about food- from preparing it, to buying it, to eating it, to then thinking about our next meal. It makes a difference when you don’t spend time or money on three meals a day. We also agreed that the slowness we felt helps us be more reflective. Throughout the day, I returned to a comparison I always remember during Ramadan between Shaykh Al-Alawi’s teaching on fasting as “abstaining from seeing all that is other” to one of Zhunagzi’s Inner Chapters that distinguishes fasting from food to “fasting of the mind.” In advising a companion, Yen Hui, in political affairs, Confucius (a common character in the Zhuangzi), says:

You must fast!…I will tell you what that means. Do you think it is easy to do anything while you have [a mind]? If you do, Bright Heaven will not sanction you.

The exchange continues:

Yen Hui said, ‘My family is poor. I haven’t drunk wine or eaten any strong foods for several months. So can I be considered as having fasted?”

“That is the fasting one does before a sacrifice, not the fasting of the mind.”

“May- I ask what the fasting of the mind is?”

Confucius said, “Make your will one! Don’t listen with your ears, listen with your mind. No, don’t listen with your mind, but listen with your spirit. Listening stops with the ears, the mind stops with recognition, but spirit is empty- and waits on all things. The Way gathers in emptiness alone. Emptiness is the fasting of the mind.”

Emptiness is a key element to many faith traditions. My Christian friends describe their pursuit to be “empty vessels” for God to fill. In my practice of course, emptiness is associated with Nirvana or attaining enlightenment, which is the state of lacking any desires or cravings and not suffering from worldy impermanences. I could probably name examples from almost any faith tradition or ethical framework that somehow deals with emptiness.

Yesterday, I was thinking much about the physical state of emptiness. Perhaps this was because my stomach was empty, and I realized how much nourishment I both lacked from food and gained in solidarity with my friend and co-worker who is fasting for many more days than me. My mind was also preoccupied with the emptiness of the desert- a place I call home, and a place I recently visited with my colleagues and eight students (you can read more about the journey in past blog posts). I have always found the emptiness of the desert to be both terrifying and beautiful. The vastness of uncultivatable terrain, no water to be found unless you really know where it is, a place where only the strongest forms of life survive, and yet, the desert is so alive and colorful with the prickly cacti, poison rattlers, and gold, all-consuming dust. The desert is a place rich people go to cleanse their bodies in soothing hot springs, while only a few miles away, migrants die trying to find a better life.

Ramadan is a time to sit with our emptiness. The emptiness is, like the desert, an experience that both pain us and offers a unique opportunity to draw closer to the divine- and for me, this is the divine I see in every human being. I cannot forget that some of these human beings perish in the emptiness, empty stomachs, empty bladders, empty minds. Luis Urrea soberly visualizes the last moment of a man’s life in “The Devil’s Highway”, an account of several men who died or almost died crossing the Sonoran desert:



ʻAlawī, Aḥmad Ibn Muṣṭafá. Knowledge of God: A Sufic Commentary on Al Murshid Al-Muʻin of Ibn Al-ʻAshir. Norwich: Diwan, 1981. Print.
Urrea, Luis Alberto. The Devil’s Highway: A True Story. New York: Little, Brown, 2004. Print.
Zhuangzi, and Burton Watson. Zhuangzi: Basic Writings. New York: Columbia UP, 2003. Print.


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