The Islamic month of Ramadan is celebrated by 30 days of fasting. It is said that the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) used to lock his kitchen for several days during the holy month, while he himself ate only natural, uncooked foods such as dates and honey. The Christian equivalent of Ramadan, Lent, stretches for 40 days. Both the Old and New Testaments make multiple reference to the number forty in the context of purification: the forty days and nights of the Genesis flood, the forty years of the Israelites' wandering in the wilderness, the forty days of Christ's time in the desert. Indeed, our word 'quarantine' comes from the Italian quaranta meaning ' forty'. The voluntary restriction of Ramadan and Lent carried a profound message for believers, signifying far more than merely limiting one's intake of food. Of course, doing that has great benefits, both physical and psychological.
By having to process less food intake, the entire physical system is given the chance to rest, then detoxify, purify, and regenerate itself. Fasting is thus a way to access nature's intelligence and allow the physiology to regain a natural balance that is all too easily lost when we give in to all our appetites without thinking about what we are eating, or how much, when and why. Increasing ill-health worldwide and the rising epidemic of globesity - especially in affluent countries - bear eloquent testimony to the dangers of eating without awareness of what we are doing.
On the psychological level, restricting our food intake can develop empathy with those who are always short of food, due to poverty or other adverse circumstances, those who live constantly in, or on the edge of, hunger. Such a reminder is especially necessary for those of us who are relatively privileged. And, on a deeper level, hunger is not only lack of food, but a metaphor for many types of insufficiency: material, emotional or spiritual. To become aware of the ubiquity of hunger, in all its forms, is a powerful reminder of our own lack of self-sufficiency, our own relatedness to others, and from this can come a greater sense of humility, enabling us better to empathise with all the multifarious living beings we share the planet with, each one of which cherishes life no less than we do.
And at the deepest, or spiritual, level, we are reminded that, in the end, a life lived in ignorance of the nourishment of the Divine is a life of endless insufficiency.
As well as limiting food, the customary level of activity was also reduced during these traditional times of moderation. In Islamic societies, Ramadan decreed the cessation of the travelling that was such a part of their nomadic life. This respite was utilised to give rest to the camels and other working animals and suspend cultivation of the land, while providing more time to share with family and loved ones in an atmosphere of social settledness. Individual inactivity reached its climax in the last ten days of the month, known as chilla, which ideally entailed solitude and even giving up such habits as bathing and shaving, while spiritual practices were correspondingly increased. Similarly, in the Christian world, Lent demanded a greater spiritual awareness and increased contemplative practice. This culminated in the last, or 'holy' week which, emulating Jesus' withdrawal from a public and active life in the last days of his life, lead up to his triumph over death on Easter Sunday.
Today, in the enforced retreat thrust upon us by the worldwide spread of the Covid 19 virus, we can perhaps adapt such sacred traditions to our own needs. Time spent in quarantine offers us a new sort of heroism: not going out and battling in the world, but staying inside and helping and protecting others. Enforced suspension of our habits of outward activity can reveal that some of them are an anxiety-driven avoidance of simply being present, faced with no distraction. Chronic restlessness can easily spiral beyond our conscious control, becoming more a matter of brain wiring and chemistry than will-power. Mandatory inactivity, on the other hand, brings us back into the present moment whether we like it or not, and with this comes the possibility of fully appreciating what is always waiting there quietly in front of us: the people, the birds, the flowers - all the sights, smells, sounds, colours and forms that make up the incredibly rich 'food' of simple, unmediated sensory experience. Relative inactivity revitalises the senses, and such quieter times are also healing and revivifying for Mother Earth who suffers the deleterious effects of our constant busy-ness. Reports are already coming in of less pollution and better air quality being enjoyed worldwide stemming from a mere couple of weeks of the simplification of our living patterns.
The necessity of establishing a harmonious rhythm of rest and activity has, from the start, been a mainstay of the philosophy behind Neeleshwar Hermitage and ABChapri Retreats. This balancing reaches its zenith each year when we shut down our premises in both Kerala and Kashmir for six weeks of rest and renovation. The seasonal holiday is truly a 'holy day', one that saves and conserves precious energy resources while providing a strong platform for starting afresh once more. We are confident that a similar effect will be felt from this enforced Covid 19 retreat. Each of us is being brought face to face with what really matters, what is really necessary and valuable in our busy and often distracted lives.
Looked at positively, we are all being presented with an opportunity to reassess our priorities in the light of the sobering reminder of the fragility of life. So there is a new quietness abroad, an unfamiliar silence hangs over everything, providing a greater, wider context within which our little human endeavours arise and fall and our doing is put into proper perspective. Let us enjoy this expanded context because the more we value it, the more the meaning of our shared lives will be revealed.
Perhaps Pablo Neruda, the Chilean winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, poet, and diplomat-politician, is telling us what Covid 19 has to teach us, in his poem called:
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still
for once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for a second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fishermen in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about...
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.