Ramadan and the Art of Conscious Suffering

The ninth month of the Islamic calendar, the month of fasting, will commence in a few days. Most Muslims will fast throughout the month, each day from dawn to sunset, as well as many non-Muslims who are beginning to find this practice conducive to their spiritual growth.

What is a typical fast like?  You wake up for a small meal just before dawn; you refrain from eating, drinking, smoking, and sex all day long, until it is time to break your fast . . . at sunset.  There are extra prayers to be offered at night, which further shorten your rest time.

Sounds irrational, doesn’t it?  Why make yourself suffer?

Even though it is rarely introduced as such, there is no denying that suffering is the main feature of the whole exercise.  Fasting is a disciplined and controlled way of frustrating our basic instincts, particularly our needs for food and rest, thereby generating an experience that is highly unpleasant from a biological perspective.  And yet, Ramadan is one of the most anticipated time of the year for Muslims, as well as the most joyful one.

The self-imposed suffering we experience during the month of fasting has one characteristic feature, I think, that makes all its unpleasant aspects worthwhile.  The suffering is supposed to be experienced with maximum awareness.  To merely suffer is not the point; the point is to suffer consciously.

Not everyone, unfortunately, is going to pay attention to this particular feature of fasting; many of us will try to avoid feeling the unpleasant sensations of hunger, thirst,  tiredness, annoyance, irritation, impatience, and so on, that naturally arise in the fasting body-mind.  They will try to immerse themselves in activities, in conversations, in watching movies, in board games . . . with the sole aim of ignoring, avoiding, forgetting these unpleasant sensations.  They will eat bigger and more delicious meals than usual, both before dawn in order to delay the unpleasantness as much as possible, as well as at sunset in order to compensate for all the unpleasantness they have already endured during the day.  If possible, they will take really long naps during the day, sometimes getting more sleep in Ramadan than they are used to getting in the rest of the year.

All of these strategies are aimed at not achieving what seems to be the primary purpose of the entire setup of Ramadan, i.e., learning to consciously suffer.  By using these strategies, many of us will be quite successful in feeling the absolute minimum of unpleasantness, and that too with little or no awareness; with the help of these strategies, we will defeat the purpose.

agent_smithIt so happens that suffering is inevitable for human beings, regardless of how much progress technology makes and how much social engineering we perform to ward off sickness, disappointment, despair, loss, and other unpleasant things.  It is not just that we do not seem to eradicate suffering, but that a complete absence of suffering will not even be acceptable to us.  We won’t be able to live and thrive as humans if we were to find ourselves in a perfect world, a world that lacks all unpleasantness, all suffering.  On this point, let me quote someone with a penetrating insight into the human condition.  I mean, of course, Agent Smith.

Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world?  Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy.  It was a disaster.  No one would accept the program.  Entire crops were lost.  Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world.  But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery.  The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.  Which is why the Matrix was redesigned to this: the peak of your civilization.

Despite its unpleasantness, suffering has a positive role in making us who we are, as well as in fostering the conditions and faculties that allow us to become what we are capable of becoming.  There is hardly any point in taking something that is as necessary for the full flowering of our humanity as suffering and making it into our enemy, something to be conquered and eliminated at all costs.

Now, it should be obvious that I am not advocating that you go out of your way to court suffering, nor am I suggesting that all attempts at minimizing it should cease.  The issue, rather, is one of inner attitude.  If something is everywhere, happens all the time, and absolutely no one is immune from it . . . shouldn’t we approach it with respect and even compassion?  Shouldn’t we learn how to experience it, how to benefit from it, how to make it our friend rather than an adversary?  Insofar as suffering can be eliminated, I would say, let’s try our very best to eliminate it.  But insofar as it still remains, I would say, let’s embrace it fully.  If certain forms or degrees of suffering are unavoidable, if they won’t go away no matter how hard we try, then let’s stop trying to push them away.  Let’s treat them as honored guests; there is no need to invite such guests, of course, but if they have already arrived at our doorsteps then let’s welcome them!

Paradoxically, what helps us transcend suffering is not the attitude of enmity, opposition, or war against its purported causes . . . but a deepening of our experience of suffering in all its unpleasantness.  In this background, the pedagogical value of Ramadan lies in the innumerable opportunities it provides for practicing conscious suffering in small, manageable installments.  Experiencing the limited and controlled suffering of fasting is therefore a spiritual practice that prepares us for the kind of suffering that is neither self-imposed nor pre-planned, the kind of suffering that can appear at our doorsteps anytime, without warning.


  1. For some reason I was thinking crucifixion and the practice of self-flagellation throughout your post…the Agent Smith quote was good. Have a good Ramadan this year.

    1. I am sure that the practice of self-flagellation, in both Shi’ism and medieval Catholicism, is in some ways related to the voluntary suffering of the Muslim fast. I also suspect that there is an element of guilt-punishment-redemption in the former, but probably not in the latter.

      In any case, voluntary asceticism has been a feature of both Eastern and Western religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity. I like to think that this element wasn’t rejected in the case of Islam, but that it was brought under more “rational” control in a manner conducive to Islam’s this-worldly aims.

      My main point, however, is that there is already enough suffering in the world, which makes it unnecessary to deliberately seek it in deserts and on mountaintops. If we pay close, moment-by-moment attention to our normal experiences, we would find enough suffering to meet the needs of any ascetic tendencies. It was the Protestant reformer Martin Luther who said that one doesn’t need to become a monk in order to find what one can easily experience through the travails of married life.

  2. I think there is a human tendency to make the obvious mysterious, to obfuscate the simplest of things; yet life is simply complex. That’s why I take to your ideas, you un-robe some difficult ideas.

    I talked to an 84 year old gentleman, a WWII vet, about marriage; he went through it 3 times!

    1. Socretes said to men that they should marry. “If you find the right woman, you will be happy. If not, you will become a philosopher.” But philosophers can be happy too. As long as you remember that marriage is about holiness and not about happiness, you will remain happy. And perhaps even philosophically so.

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