“Fasting,” said a good friend who happened to be in the midst of a fast, “is a good way to confront the ego and reach the limits of its control.” Even in a more gentle fast, where a modicum of food is permitted for mere sustenance, and where one knows with rational clarity that there is no danger of death or even harmful emaciation, one experiences in the first two days the whole range of emotional resistance from discomfort to panicked desperation as the necessities for physical survival are systematically withdrawn. In a more drastic fast, with only fruit juice allowed, I have felt something like terror as my digestive tract was brought to growling, screaming depletion. We hardly ever feel hungry, and are distressed if we have to miss a meal. Rationally considered, the distress cannot be intrinsic to the act of missing a meal, since there are other times — for example, during illness, or after the surfeit of gluttonous festivity — when missing a meal might even feel good. Regularity in feeding brings profound emotional solace: the idea of an unending supply not only of food, but of food we like, reassures us against extinction itself and against the extinction of our individual selves. It safeguards our ego or jiva — and when the food is denied, we are brought to the edge of our ego, as to the edge of an abyss. Of course, rational reflection pulls us back and comforts us: no one we know has perished of fasting, we are in the good hands of our spiritual group, we have done this before and been fine, and so on.
If you have ever attempted a reading fast, you will know that it is not only physical inanition that can take us to the brink of primal desperation. Just as food and drink are nutriments for the body, to a Buddhist thoughts, perceptions, experiences, and words are nutriments to the consciousness. Try a reading fast. For one week, you are not allowed to read books, magazines, newspapers, web pages, advertisements, emails, social media posts; you are also not allowed to read the information on food packets or toiletries — so at the breakfast table, do not let your eyes wander mechanically to the cereal box. On the first day you will experience various levels of resistance: first, after a few hours of restlessness, you will try to rationalize your way out of the fast, telling yourself you already know what is going to happen or that the whole thing is a pointless exercise; then there will be a period of desperate emptiness, as if coming out of severe addiction, and if you stay with this, you will feel something like terror, as if consciousness itself were being starved to nothingness. An uneducated person will be close to going out of his mind after a day of this, but the lifelong reader will have stores of words and thoughts packed in the memory — volumes and volumes of distraction from the emptiness. But sooner or later one can feel that running dry — at which point the resourceful reader will start to write books, inventing original geometry proofs, thinking up novels. We will do anything but let the mental production grind to a halt. Even if we never get so far, it may be enough to realize how compulsive reading can be; and that even if reading may not be our particular way to feed the mind, we all have a favored strategy to guarantee a constant stream of nutriment to our consciousness. If this stream is staunched or dries up, we find ourselves thrashing for breath like a fish on dry land.
When we reach that edge and are about to pull back, it is good to linger there a bit and look at what it is. In any kind of fasting we are tempted to view this moment as an obstacle we need to move through in order to get to the state of lucid contentment that follows it — but it may be that our dread and panic tell us more about who we are and that we need to listen carefully to the uncomfortable.
Hidden deep in the vast collection of discourses known as the Samyutta Nikaya, there are two versions of a potent little parable called “The Leash” (or the Gaddula Sutta). In this parable the Buddha gives us an image of ourselves in our normal “chained” state, where we can never stray too far from a sturdy central post:
“Suppose, bhikkhus, a dog tied up on a leash was bound to a strong post or pillar: it would just keep on running and revolving around that same post or pillar. So too, the uninstructed worldling … regards form as self … feeling as self … perception as self … volitional formations as self … consciousness as self…. He just keeps running and revolving around form, around feeling, around perception, around volitional formations, around consciousness. As he keeps on running and revolving around them, he is not freed from form, not freed from feeling, not freed from perception, not freed from volitional formations, not freed from consciousness. He is not freed from birth, aging, and death; not freed from sorrow, lamentation, pain, displeasure, and despair; not freed from suffering, I say.” (Gaddula Sutta: The Leash 1, Samyutta Nikaya 22:99, tr.Bhikkhu Bodhi)
The body (form), feelings, perceptions, volitions, and consciousness are the “aggregates” or heaps that constitute who we are: we are nothing but them, and they are constantly moving and changing, constantly mutually conditioning, without any ultimate spatial or temporal boundary. The problem is that we identify them as our self, we identify with them, and this act of identification — which asserts a solid core in the middle of the tornado — is our leashing to the immoveable post of a conceived self. The post is the idea of a self, the leash is the idea-ing of self — and our running around the post is our way of consolidating circle and radius by the repetitious attachments with which we make our selves.
The second version of this Sutta emphasizes how close we stay to the post:
“Suppose, bhikkhus, a dog tied up on a leash was bound to a strong post or pillar. If it walks, it walks close to that post or pillar. If it stands, it stands close to that post or pillar. If it sits down, it sits down close to that post or pillar. If it lies down, it lies down close to that post or pillar.” (The Leash 2, Samyutta Nikaya 22:100)
The radius is tiny, for we confine ourselves to our familiar little circle — and this precisely is the foundation of our unhappiness. The Buddha will then go on to describe how through discipline the Buddhist practitioner frees himself from leash and post, but in this essay I want to dwell more on the range of this leash. What do we experience when we pull hard and reach the end of the leash?
The great Italian philosopher Julius Evola expands on the Parable of the Leash in his strange, rich book on the Pali suttas, The Doctrine of Awakening. Evola sees the modern human being as self-imprisoned in a materialist, external orientation to his own life, lost in the illusion of infinite “options” and not capable of seeing more deeply than the merely psychological. Even so, we all experience moments when the reassuring solidity of what we take to be real dissolves suddenly into blackness:
the life [modern man] normally leads is as if outside himself; half sleepwalking, he moves between psychological reflexes and images that hide from him the deepest and most fearful substance of existence. Only in particular circumstances is the veil of what is, fundamentally, a providential illusion torn aside. For example, in all moments of sudden danger, on the point of being threatened either by the vanishing of ground from under one’s feet through the opening of a chasm or glacier crevasse, or in touching inadvertently a glowing coal or an electrified object, an instantaneous reaction takes place. This reaction does not proceed from the “will, consciousness, nor from the “I” since this part follows only after the initial reaction is complete; in the first moment it is preceded by something more profound, more rapid, and more absolute. During extreme hunger, panic, fear, sensual craving, or extreme pain and terror the same force again shows itself–and he who can comprehend it directly in these moments likewise creates for himself the faculty of perceiving it gradually as the invisible substratum of all waking life. The subterranean roots of inclinations, faiths, atavisms, of invincible and irrational convictions, habits, and character, all that lives as animality, as biological race, all the urges of the body–all this goes back to the same principle. Compared with it, the “will of the I” has, normally, a liberty equivalent to that of a dog tied to a fairly long chain that he does not notice until he has passed a certain limit. If one goes beyond that limit, the profound force is not slow to awaken, either to supplant the “I” or to mislead it, making it believe that it wills that which, in fact, the force itself wills. The wild force of imagination and of suggestion takes us to the same point: to that where according to the so-called law of “converse effort,” one does something the more strongly the more one “wills” against it–as sleep eludes one the more one “wills” it, or as the suggestion that one will fall into an abyss will certainly cause one to fall if one “wills” against it.
This force, which is connected with the emotive and irrational energies, gradually identifies itself as the very force that rules the profound functions of physical life, over which the “will,” the “mind, and the “I” have very little influence, to which they are external and on which they live parasitically, extracting the essential fluids yet without having to go down for them into the heart of the trunk. Thus one must ask oneself: What, of this “my” body, can be justifiably thought of as subject to “my will? Do “I” will “my” breath or the mixtures of the digestive juices by which food is digested? Do “I” will my form, my flesh, or my being this man who is conditioned thus and not otherwise? Can he who asks himself this not go on even further and ask himself: My “will” itself, my consciousness, my “I”– do I will these, or simply is it that they are? (Evola, Doctrine of Awakening, 1995/96, pp.54-55)
This is the vision that lies on the other side of fasting, which is a way of easing us towards the realization. Faced with this, and made uneasy by it, the sages of the Upanishads would sacrifice: the world devours, all beings devour and are devoured, we are the devouring and the devouring is us; life is nothing but nutriment, digestive combustion as well as intellectual conflagration, birth and sustaining and destruction on every level all at the same time. There is no way to change all this, but there may be a way out if we ever find ourselves at the point where we cannot take it any more — yet the way out is not to escape with ourselves intact, for that would be wanting to bring leash and post with us. It involves learning to “comprehend it directly,” as Evola puts it, not just theoretically; and to “create” for ourselves the faculty of perceiving it gradually as the invisible substratum of all waking life. And the greatest masters of such comprehension might not be the conventional spiritual teachers, but writers like Chekhov, Kafka, and Beckett.
I am employed by the parish, and do my duty to the point where it is almost too much for one man. Though badly paid, I am generous and helpful to the poor. I should like to see Rosa provided for, and then the boy may have his way as far as I’m concerned, and I shall be ready to die as well. What am I doing in this endless winter!
The complete Gaddula Suttas, together with the rest of the Samyutta Nikaya, can be found at
Julius Evola, The Doctrine of Awakening:
Franz Kafka, “A Country Doctor”: