A week ago, I went for personal retreat at the Birken Forest Monastary.
For religious reasons, Buddhist monks and nuns refrain from eating past noon (with a few exceptions). And as a visitor to the monastery, I was encouraged to follow the same living habits. Which meant I was fasting for 19 hours/ day.
I was worried about skipping dinner because I was worried about being hungry. But as it turns out, what made me feel worse was the lack of sleep from being so hungry.
When I was there, I tried to eat according to my hunger and fullness cues. There’s a meal blessing that the entire group of monks, nun, and visitors recite prior to eating lunch. One of the lines goes something like “I will refrain from inducing new feelings of unpleasantness from overeating.” So, you know, eating excessively at breakfast and lunch to “make up” for the lack of dinner isn’t encouraged. I think this is one of the differences between what happens at a monastery and some forms of intermittent fasting.
As a result of eating moderately at the meals that were served, I got hungry around dinner time (duh!). But of course, there was no food!
There is, however, tea time between 5-6 pm, where tea and some “allowables” are served.
What are allowables? Foods that the Buddha said it was okay to have past noon. The foods served at Birken included: chocolate, miso paste, coconut oil, juices, soy milk, cocoa powder (for hot chocolate) and sweeteners. I found it a strange mix of stuff.
One of the stewards who live at and help run the monastery said chocolate was “medicine for hunger”. I can’t argue with that.
The first day I was there, I tried to have tea, juice, and a few squares of chocolate– that’s what most other people were having. I noticed that the feelings of hunger from the sheer volume of fluids and a few squares of chocolate did dissipate temporarily.
But by the time the group meditation at 7 pm rolled around, I could feel my stomach getting more empty. All around me in the meditation hall, there was a symphony of grumbling stomachs.
That night, I went to sleep at 8:30 pm because I was so hungry and simply had no desire to stay awake. I slept poorly, waking up at 11 pm, and again around 3 am. I got up around 5:20 am for the group morning meditation at 5:30 am, and again, the group of grumbling stomachs were playing.
I loaded up on breakfast at 7 am: granola, whole milk, full-fat yogurt, peanut butter, prunes, banana, and fruit bread smeared with butter… I was starving! After I ate, I took a much needed nap, and went about my day.
The second tea time, I didn’t care about “fitting in” by choosing the same drinks as everyone else. I was determined to not suffer the pangs of hunger and the lack of sleep.
I made myself a cup of hot cocoa with plenty of sugar and coconut oil. Took a few squares of chocolate, and sipped some tea. I felt much better after this more substantial “tea” time, although I’m not sure that the coconut oil was meant to be added to the cocoa (since there was a label on it that said “for tea”, but who adds coconut oil to tea??? seriously).
That night, I didn’t sleep much better– I woke up at midnight, and again at 3:30 am. I felt fully awake, and probably wouldn’t fall back asleep.
I headed downstairs to make myself a cup of tea. To my surprise, I wasn’t the only person there– a couple of other visitors were also in the dining room, sipping tea in the early morning darkness.
At 5:30 am, the grumbling stomach symphony played again in the meditation hall. My stomach joined them.
At 7:00 am, I ate a much needed breakfast that was just as energy dense as my last one — I added cocoa powder and cinnamon to flavour my granola, and piled on the peanut butter to add some much needed energy from fat. The monastery had delicious breakfasts and lunches, and I ate well when food was served.
Later that morning, I ended my retreat and left the monastery. Grateful to be back to a 3-meals-a-day eating schedule and an uninterrupted sleeping schedule.
It’s been a bit more than a week since I left Birken. Although I do not miss the lack of dinner, I have realized that I enjoy a lighter dinner: it encourages me to go to sleep and wake up earlier. I feel most energetic in the morning, and it’s a great opportunity for me to get work done.
Have you tried intermittent fasting? What did you think?