It’s the Islamic month of Ramdan, in the year 1430 AH (anno Hegirae /after Hijra).  A month when throughout the world Muslims abstain from eating during the daylight hours.  They wake up early in the morning, to consume some food prior to sunrise, and then wait until the sun sets in the evening to then break their fast, and consume food again.

During the daylight hours not only is food forbidden, but also is the consumption of water, drinking of any liquid beverage, inhalation of smoke, or consumption of any intoxicating substances.  Also forbidden during the hours of the fast are any sexual activities.  Muslims are also advised to pay attention to their thoughts and abstain from thinking any negative, wicked, cruel or illicit thoughts.

Whilst outwardly the Muslim abstains from food, water and any other nourishment, inwardly a Muslim is expected to refrain from any ill thinking and to monitor and control consciously their thoughts.  Even seeing a beautiful woman, and desiring her in an intimate manner, is, if I understand it correctly forbidden during the month of Ramadan.  Of course, there are varying degrees of interpretations of the practices of the fasting of Ramadan, but having been born and raised a Muslim, and as someone who chooses to practice the observance of Fasting, I’m sharing my personal understanding of fasting during the month of Ramadan, based on my own personal experiences and observations.

One of the reasons that I choose to observe Ramadan, apart from being a devout believer in the Oneness of the Almighty Creator, in the perfection of his revealed message, the Qur’an, and in the authenticity of his Messenger Muhammad (pbuh), is because I find Ramadan to be a month of renewal.  Abstinence allows me the opportunity to spend less time occupying myself with thoughts of food, and being consumed with activites relating to eating and drinking.  It’s interesting how when you know that you’ve deliberately chosen not to eat something, and follow through with that commitment, how after a few days your body adjusts to your new eating cycles, and starts to experience hunger at different times of the day.  After the first few days of Ramadan, my body automatically adjusts to my new eating behaviour and starts to get hungry at different times.  A change which happens so quickly each Ramadan, it always intrigues me.

Another reason that I observe Ramadan, is because I realised a while back that naturally when I’m immersed in an activity of some sort, and I’m in flow with my work, that I simply forget to be hungry.  Often, I’ve found myself so immersed in my work, that I forget to eat, or drink, simply because I’m so caught up in the work that I’m doing.  Knowing that that happens naturally, I realised a long time back that Ramadan is actually quite easy, as long as I keep myself occupied and gainfully busy throughout the day.  Something which doesn’t have to necessarily be a bad thing 😉

Before I realised that Ramadan was approaching, funnily enough, a week or two before Ramdan started, I started to think about how abstaining from something is actually very liberating, and empowering.  I’m reminded of a scene from the Hollywood film 40 Days and 40 Nights, where the main character Matt (played by Josh Hartnett) chooses to abstain from all sexual activity for 40 Days, during Lent. During the movie there’s one scene where the women gang up on Matt, in a desperate attempt to have him break his 40 Day vow of abstinence.  In the scene the woman talks about how abstaining from sex has been a way that women have controlled men, and maintained their power over them, and how by Matt abstaining he’s taking back that power, and that for the sake of women, they had to stop him.  Fortunately they don’t and Matt continues the film with his Vow intact.

But it did get me thinking about how restraint is a common practice in many spiritual traditions, and practices.  From Monks and Nuns in the Christian Traditions, to Buddhist Monks, Hindu Swamis, and even Shamans undergoing spiritual journeys.  The practice of abstinence, or chastity as a way of preparation is often associated with a spiritual practice, or spiritual undertaking, whereby people prepare themselves free of distractions and clear headed, having not undertaken any acts of personal gratification, or sexual intercourse as part of their preparation.  This ability to restrain oneself, and abstain from an act of impulse or desire got me thinking.  What if we applied the same restraint in other areas of our life?

What if in the West, we have become so obsessed with trying to please ourselves in every moment, with every whim, that we’ve lost the ability to hold back? To restrain ourselves?  What if in trying to always find the pleasure in every moment, in trying to experience everything and fulfill our every whim, we have lost the ability to hold back when it might serve us best to do so?

Thinking about the current credit situation here in the UK, it occurs to me that credit and debt problems stem from an inability to hold back from spending money.  It comes from a desire to have something regardless of the current financial balance of our accounts. So we go and borrow on our credit cards, or take out a loan, and overstretch ourselves in a desperate attempt to keep up with appearances, even if we don’t truly have the means or capacity to take on that extra expense.  In contrast I’ve met people who choose not to spend money they don’t have, and when faced with an expensive purchase, they simply choose to wait, and set aside a portion of their income each month in an allocated kitty until they’ve saved enough money to make the purchase in cash.

Perhaps restraint isn’t always a bad thing.

Perhaps it is the wise individual who only spends money they actually have.  Indeed most businesses only exist by spending money that they have.  Perhaps our poor money management practices explains why somehwere between 70% – 80% of new businesses end up closing down within the first two years of business.  I wonder how much of the failure of those businesses is just down to poor financial planning, and an inability to work on a cash only basis, after being personally used to always stretching budgets or financial constraints using credit cards and personal loans?

It’s interesting how the management of money can change things so completely, from being completely empowering and liberating when you posess an excess of it, and how it can completely overwhelm and consume you when you perceive a ‘lack’ of it.

My personal experience of money is that when too much money starts to come in too quickly it can become too much to handle, and cause you to lose track of what you have and what you don’t.  You end up spending money not knowing exactly what you have, or what you have already spent.  Similarly too much food entering the human body too quickly, or just generally eating too much can also be overwhelming for the human body.  Current research suggests that reducing your calorific intake can actually increase your level of health, and potentially extend your lifespan.  Experiments on rats and monkeys have so far shown restrictive diets being responsible for increased lifespan, reduced incidences of illness and disease, and potentially better physical and mental responses to boot.

Perhaps the infatuation of always getting what you want straight away, of always pursuing your desires and whims, and of always believing that just because you think you want it, it’s the right thing to have is overrated.  A misguided myth, stemming from an overly self-centred society?

Perhaps there is a great inherent value in restraining oneself.  In holding back.  In allowing yourself to feel and experience desires/wants and needs and urges, and not consciously acting upon them.  Perhaps the hardest part is not in choosing what experiences to have first, but rather to hold off from indulging all the wants and needs that emerge.  From holding back from the impulses and desires of life that we are so used to listening to in every moment.

For me, during Ramadan, I’ll certainly be paying far more attention to how I consciously can extend the power of restraint to other areas of my life.  Hopefully, after Ramadan and the month of fasting is over, I’ll have strengthened my restraint muscles to be able to actively start holding myself back from saying things or doing things that previously I wouldn’t have hesitated to say or do before.  Perhaps by strengthening my ability to ‘not’ act on impulse, and to be able to restrain myself more consciously in each moment, I might create the space in my life, or at least my experience of life, to discover something more meaningful and fulfilling than another material desire of the physical body, or another urge or craving.

Perhaps we need to see our lives as a blank canvas, with restraint playing the role of the empty spaces that sometimes are so essential in a piece of art.  The white, and blank parts can sometimes add so much more meaning and context to a piece of art, that perhaps we should see restraint in the same light.  Perhaps we need to consider restraint as being a necessary tool in our arsenal of life, than when deployed allows us to create the spaciousness, and expansiveness in our daily lives, that we can appreciate those moments that we choose not to restrain ourselves that much more fully.

Perhaps restraint is even more powerful than action, when used wisely, and correctly.

I’ll let you be the judge of that for your own lives.

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