In simplest terms, a fast is a period of time during which a person goes without food and, usually, water. However, as with most spiritual matters, the actual conditions of the fast will vary from person to person, and from fast to fast, depending on the reason for the fast and the requirements of the person. Because of this variability, the following are only some very general descriptive guidelines. In all cases, specific instructions may be given by the spirits that will over-ride anything you read here.


There are a number of different types of fasts, each with their own purpose:


A cleansing fast is done on a regular basis by men, who do not have the gift of a woman's ability to cleanse herself monthly. The purpose of a cleansing fast is to allow the body to cleanse itself of impurities, which it does as a normal physical result of not eating for an extended period. At the same time, the man should be concentrating on prayer and meditation, to aid in spiritual cleansing. In olden times, a man would have done a cleansing fast once each season.


A vision quest fast can be done by men or women. The purpose of the vision quest is to seek guidance from the spirits in the form of visions or dreams. The seeker concentrates strongly on prayer and meditation, including use of a personal pipe if they have one, and requests that the spirits provide him or her with the guidance they need. These fasts tend to be longer in duration than cleansing fasts.


In some cases, people will fast in honour of certain ceremonies. For example, before the spring or fall Bear Feast, people who have the Bear as their Spirit Guide, or who are part of the Bear clan, can fast in honour of the Bear and his long winter fast. This is generally a short fast, perhaps a day or two, and can often be done in the home or while going about your daily life, since the point of this fast is simply to do without food in honour of the Bear. While a personal commitment is required, the fast is done pretty much without ceremony. People who fast in this manner are often requested to speak during the ceremony, if they were given anything to share.


There may be other circumstances when someone will be required to fast. Since these circumstances can vary greatly, we can offer little in the way of information about them, except that each fast would be unique to the circumstance, and would come with explicit instructions from the spirits regarding what is required of the person fasting.


Fasts can be of almost any length, but are generally four days or less. While there seems to be a popular rule of thumb that fasts must be four days, this is not the case; each of us has our own unique requirements, and must do what we need to do to meet those requirements. If you have no specified duration, given from a trusted spiritual advisor, then you simply trust your heart to tell you when your fast is done. Of course, since we usually must schedule our fasts around real life, planning around a four-day period will generally give you whatever time you need, plus perhaps some extra time for recovery. Forcing a fast beyond the required time is simply ego and machismo speaking, and does no spiritual good whatsoever.

You will usually require an assistant, who will check on you periodically to ensure that you come to no harm during the fast, and who will provide any other support that the spirits may have specified. The assistant will visit you several times each day, and if they believe that you are in physical trouble, they can call an end to your fast. At that point, the fast is over, regardless of how you may feel about it. Obviously, the assistant needs to be someone you trust, and they should be as experienced as possible.

Apart from considering the purpose of your fast, and preparing yourself mentally for the solitude, there is little in the way of personal preparation required. You should be looking ahead to the fast calmly. Some people recommend that you cram yourself full of food to prepare yourself for fasting; others recommend various special dishes. We recommend that you simply eat healthy meals, and perhaps reduce your consumption somewhat as you approach the beginning of your fast. In particular, limiting snacks will prepare your body for the long evenings, when we often start to munch on things at home. We especially recommend against trying to gorge on food, as you will simply be putting a needless strain on your system that will make you uncomfortable during the first days of your fast. If your commitment is sincere, and you have prepared yourself mentally and spiritually, you should find that going without food and water will be surprisingly easy.

Generally speaking, a fast should start with a sweat lodge ceremony. The lodge's conductor will call upon the spirits on your behalf, so that they can assist with the fast. Specific instructions to be followed during the fast will sometimes be given during the sweat. There should also be a sweat following the fast, to allow an opportunity to thank the spirits for their help, and to let them know the fast is over. In both cases, the sweat is usually brief, preventing dehydration and heat stress. Note, however, that a sweat is not an absolute necessity.

You will then depart directly to wherever you are going to fast. In some cases, a specific location may be given, but generally a peaceful and somewhat isolated place is required where you can concentrate on the fast without distraction. If possible, any shelter should be set up in advance, so that you are ready to begin a spiritual experience when you get there, rather than having to set up camp. Another important (if mundane) consideration is toilet facilities: your body will be purging itself of impurities as you fast, and you need to be adequately prepared.

A fire can be a great comfort, particularly during the early hours of the morning, and makes a great focus for meditation and prayer. In most cases, sleeping is not allowed during the fast, and making a commitment to maintain a Sacred Fire for the entire period of the fast helps you to stay warm and awake. However, if you prefer the fire can also just be a simple campfire.

Now that you are on your fast, it is time to concentrate on your purpose, if you have one, or simply to focus on meditation and prayer. As time passes, your body will begin to weaken as it purges itself, and it is at this point that your spirit begins to strengthen. Pay attention to the things that go on around you, as you never know when or how you may be given a message, even if you are not seeking one. You fast will be a unique experience, tailored to your needs, so do your best to appreciate the details of the things that are done for you by the spirits. If the day is quite hot, know that the spirits are helping to weaken your body so that your fast can progress. If the day is cool, know that the spirits are helping to prevent harm by not pushing you faster than your body can handle. You should also savour the opportunity to simply be alone and to reflect on your spirituality.

When your fast is over, remember to reflect from time to time on the things you were given, or the things you learned about yourself. If possible, you may wish to discuss these things with a knowledgeable Elder, to get full understanding and benefit from them.


If you are having a great deal of trouble on your fast, it may be that you did not prepare properly, or that you misread signs that you thought indicated that you needed a fast when, in fact, you do not. If that is the case, you may find that you are feeling ill, or are otherwise unable to complete your fast. If this happens, you need to consider carefully whether you are meant to be there. There is no shame in coming down from a fast early; there is only shame in pushing on to keep your ego happy. If you are not intended to fast, you will not have a spiritual experience - you will simply be hungry and miserable for a few days for no reason. You have an opportunity to learn a lesson about yourself; do so without ego and without shame, and promise yourself that you'll prepare better next time.


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Updated: 25 Mar 2016 Print Page