How to Fast and Pray

A close-up of a woman clasping her hands in prayer.
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Regardless of your religious affiliation, fasting and prayer or meditation may have significant spiritual benefits. Novelist Herman Melville imagined his soul surrounded by noise and confusion, like a “tornadoed Atlantic,” but the practice of contemplation was like a tropical island, an “insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy” where he could go and find rest. In many religions, fasting is an essential part of this.

1 Choose a Fast

It helps to begin fasting a few hours before prayer time on fasting days because fasting has a way of clearing the mind and enabling concentration. A day or two before fasting, decide from what you want to abstain. Some people choose to not eat for an entire day, while others eat small snacks throughout the day. Followers of Hinduism traditionally fast once a week, drinking only water until the afternoon, then drinking juice or eating two pieces of fruit. The level and type of abstinence required may depend on one's religious tradition. For example, Jews who are celebrating the holy day of Yom Kippur abstain not only from eating and working, but also from washing, and wearing leather garments and perfume. Muslims observing the month of Ramadan are permitted to eat breakfast and eat at sundown. Not everyone abstains from food -- entertainment and social-media fasts are becoming increasingly common.

2 Location Limitations

One of the biggest hindrances to private contemplation is the demands of social networking. Seek a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted by the urge to read emails, check the news or peruse social media. Prayer and meditation requires a determination to resist the impulse to get on devices. A quiet and peaceful environment may create a sacred space for the one praying. Followers of some traditions mark the transition out of the busy, mundane world into the sacred world with rituals. Muslims, for example, engage in a ceremonial washing that involves rinsing the hands, mouth, face, lower arms and feet, sniffing water and rubbing portions of the face with the wet hands. Once this is done, they seek out a clean and quiet place for prayer.

3 Pray Spontaneously or Follow a Guide

Different people choose to pray in different ways. Some choose to pray spontaneously, speaking what’s in their hearts; others read aloud from sacred texts or prayer books. Some religious traditions favor one over the other, although most encourage some combination of the two. For example, Anglicans and Episcopalians typically read aloud from the Book of Common Prayer, a collection of prayers for each day of the year and for all occasions. Others prefer to read aloud from prayers in the Bible or another holy book. The fasting days of some traditions include times for communal prayer in the midst of fasting. Jews observe Yom Kippur with morning, afternoon and evening services, during which the community confesses the sins of the past year and recites prayers from the Hebrew Scriptures.

4 Perform Good Works

In the Jewish and Muslim traditions, good works are encouraged in addition to or sometimes in place of normal fasting. Hebrew writer Isaiah spoke of fasting in terms of feeding the poor and engaging in acts of social justice. Muslims are encouraged to perform humanitarian work during Ramadan, and the Koran offers good works as an alternative to fasting for those who are unable to fast in the regular way.

Boze Herrington is a writer and blogger who lives in Kansas City, Mo. His work has been featured in Cracked and "The Atlantic."