The primary motivation of the Muslim fast is to worship God. From this spring many other benefits, including: enhancing empathy for those who are in need; positive health effects as noted by many health professionals, and overall improved sense of psychological well-being. That is why for centuries Muslims have anticipated Ramadan like a dear guest.
This article examines several specific benefits from a psychological perspective. Namely, I have noticed over the years that people are able to successfully quit tobacco and alcohol use during the month of Ramadan. I was born in Bulgaria and during communism the practice of religion was strictly forbidden. Under those conditions the consumption of alcohol in the country and among Muslims increased. Tobacco use was also on the rise. Living in a small, close community, one was able to witness the peculiarities of human behavior longitudinally. Most people were born, lived and died in the same place, and this offered great lessons for those who paid attention.
During Ramadan a frequent topic of discussion in the community was the fact that many alcoholics would quit drinking in order to fast and pray and resume "their habit" at the end of the month. Each year some would take an official oath of quitting tobacco or alcohol for good, "in the name of God", and that would be the end of it. We were taught that when you say "Wallahi", i.e. "by God", you must really mean it and that was the highest form of commitment and assurance. Such oaths are not taken lightly and the person doing so is fully aware that taking such an oath is not the beginning but the end of the long road to recovery.
I finally came up with the term "Ramadan Effect" when I successfully stopped my own tobacco use by employing Ramadan principles in dealing with cravings. Prior to this, I had been trying to quit unsuccessfully for a couple of years, each time relapsing and getting a sense of eroding will-power and decreased self-efficacy. The fact that my father had died of lung cancer secondary to tobacco use helped me in wanting to quit, but did not help me in quitting.
In 2006 I was talking to my wife about the blessings of this holy month, the wisdom of fasting and how it builds the person's faith and character, improves their discipline and patience, makes the person a mature, responsible, empathic human being, etc. She listened to my enlightened musings and then said: "Why don't you use Ramadan to quit smoking?" And I remembered the eccentric alcoholics and smokers from my childhood. I was not ready to take the official oath like many of them had done to quit for good, but decided I would try to quit by telling myself that "for now" I am fasting from tobacco. Just like with regular fasting, this fast from tobacco would need to be perceived as a form of worship too. I counted the days I did not smoke, which turned into weeks, which turned into months, and eventually I stopped counting.
By activating this Ramadan Effect, I cut off all of my previous justifications for relapsing. When the mind is in a fasting frame, it simply does not entertain the cravings and their "propaganda". It interprets them the same way it interprets the hunger and thirst during the fast-"gets used to them like the horse is used to the saddle", to use a Bosnian proverb. The cravings gradually subsided and disappeared and it was no longer a struggle. The battle was won. "Of all the cures God has created, patience is the best," says the great Muslim teacher and poet Rumi.
As a believer I see this success primarily as God's acceptance of my worship. However, how this acceptance happens on psychological and physiological level is of interest to me as a therapist. When people try to overcome a chemical dependence using only their will power, certain cognitive centers in the brain activate and initiate the struggle. Sometimes that is sufficient and sometimes it is not. My speculation is that the schemas associated with the Ramadan Effect are much more complex and powerful and the resources they can summon are more holistic and systemic, tapping also into the emotional and spiritual centers and not solely in the cognitive ones.
The Ramadan Effect is something that millions of people around the world share. This is only an attempt to show how this common resource can be generalized to specific areas in our life where we face challenges in implementing successful behavioral change. By the same logic the Ramadan Effect can be employed for weight loss and nutritional improvement.
Roumen Bezergianov is a psychotherapist working with troubled youth in Phoenix, Arizona. He is also the author of "Character Education with Chess", available on Amazon.com . In his free time he translates works on Islamic spirituality in Bulgarian and makes them available on his blogs: http://islamska-duhovnost.blogspot.com and http://rumi-na-bulgarski.blogspot.com
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