What Neuroscience Tells Us about Lenten Disciplines
This Lent, fasting is for a cause. Chris Seay, for example, published A Place at the Table, a 40-day diet in solidarity with the poor. Blood:Water Mission is promoting its Forty Days of Water which began on Ash Wednesday.
I've eaten a solidarity diet, and—for someone like me who likes bread and red meat—it is a painful lesson on the suffering that roughly a billion people experience. But I'm afraid that by making the Lenten discipline of fasting about a cause, we are caving in to our cultural distaste for self-denial.
Modern Christians, along with our culture, dislike the idea of exerting control over our bodies, simply for denial's sake. The popular book Eat, Pray, Love wouldn't have sold so well if it had been titled Fast, Pray, Serve. As a result of our culture's unease regarding abstaining from things our bodies desire, we must justify fasting by doing it for a good cause. But as we relearn to fast, we should remember that these disciplines are very much about us and our own personal faith, not only about solidarity with a cause.
Neuroscience sheds light on how fasting and other spiritual disciplines work by training our subconscious mental processes. We think of ourselves as entirely the activity of our conscious thoughts. In reality, our brain has thousands of sub-conscious processes going on all the time. These processes are often pushing and pulling different ideas, concerns, or cravings into our consciousness. What this means is your conscious self is far less in control over who you are and what you do than you realize. "We are not the ones driving the boat of our behavior," says neuroscientist David Eagleman. "Who we are runs well below the surface of our conscious access."
Fasting can train and shape ...