The Fasting of the Heart 📽️

Video script of ‘The Fasting of the Heart’

You hear not with the ears, but with the mind; not with the mind, but with your soul.


In psychology, as well as popular culture, we see the emerging of different types of detox. The dopamine detox, for example, also called the ‘dopamine fast’ is currently presented as a way to “reset” our brain’s reward system, by abstaining from all kinds of activities that bring pleasure.

This serves different purposes. One of them is increasing our motivation, as our brain learns that pleasure isn’t so easily available anymore, so it becomes more willing to take an effort to obtain it. Another purpose is working with our addictions, as abstaining for a period of time weakens the relationship we have with things we’re addicted to, so the problem becomes easier to handle. Hence, the method of Alcoholics Anonymous is based on abstinence.

The idea of detoxing ourselves from outside influences isn’t new. The ancient Taoists acknowledged the value of letting our minds rest, so we stop the exhausting maelstrom of judging, identifying, analyzing, fantasizing, et cetera. According to the Taoists, silencing our faculties for a while not only replenishes our energy, it also brings us closer to a mysterious and incomprehensible force referred to as ‘Tao’.

The ‘fasting of the heart’ entails temporary abstinence from intellectual as well as sensual activity. This concept isn’t just about detoxing the mind; it’s about detoxing the soul, by shutting down the mind and the senses.

This video explores the ‘fasting of the heart’.

The term ‘fasting of the heart’ is coined in an ancient Taoist text called the Zhuangzi, in which Confucius has a conversation with one of his pupils: Yen Hui. Yen Hui wanted to travel to the kingdom of Wei and bring about change by using his knowledge and wisdom. Confucius criticized Yen Hui’s plans for being a bit too ‘ego-driven’, as no one is waiting for a know-it-all that enters the kingdom and starts telling people how to live.

When Yen Hui asked what he should you then, Confucius advised him to start fasting.

Yen Hui then replied: “My family is poor, and for many months we have tasted neither wine nor flesh. Is not that fasting?”

“The fasting of religious observance it is,” answered Confucius, “but not the fasting of the heart.”

For a Westerner, the heart has a different meaning than for a Chinese person. The word ‘heart’, in this context, is translated from the Chinese word ‘Xin’ (心) which could be translated as ‘mind’, because the ancient Chinese believed that the heart was the center of human cognition. Thus, the ‘fasting of the heart’ is actually the ‘fasting of the mind’.

Confucius explained it by saying that it ‘cultivates unity’, by curbing the senses and the workings of the mind. Or as he states: “You hear not with the ears, but with the mind; not with the mind, but with your soul.”

To understand what Confucius meant by ‘cultivating unity’, we must understand a metaphysical concept that the Taoists call Tao. The Tao is an all-encompassing force that cannot be intellectually understood. Nonetheless, it’s eternal, it’s everywhere, it’s boundless and endless. We cannot recognize it with our senses, nor can it be explained with words. But, we can feel it.

Because our mind cannot know the Tao, and our five senses cannot perceive it, the only way to get closer to the Tao is by stopping the mind and senses, so there’s nothing left to disturb the connection we have with it. So, it’s a subtractive process, a way of letting go, in order to unite with the Tao, and experience oneness with the universe. So, it’s the abundance of thought and sensory activity that prevents our soul from what Confucius called ‘cultivating unity’.

Even if the idea of Tao doesn’t appeal to us, we can still benefit from the fasting of the heart, as it’s an ultimate detox of everything that disturbs our being (or should we say our non-being). This helps us to achieve what so many people try to achieve through sensual pleasure: inner peace, or just simply: a break.

The senses are the gateways between the world around us and our minds, as we think about what the senses pick up. A mind is a powerful tool, but it can also be an immense burden; especially when it’s out of control.

The mind’s survival mechanism is based on making distinctions. Good and bad, beautiful and ugly, healthy and unhealthy, et cetera. But in the Taoist worldview, these are just modulations of opposites that are inseparable. In other words: as there is no high without low, there is no good without bad, there is no beauty without ugliness, and so forth.

Seeing the world in opposites also creates friction. Our fears, our aversions, our hatred, and the actions that follow, are products of our discerning faculties. It’s the old story of us and them, which also lies at the basis of a perceived separation between humans and nature.

Needless to say, this mechanism serves an important purpose too. Without it, how can we distinguish friend from foe? Or a good decision from a bad one? Without thinking, how can we plan for the future, and learn from the past?

Using the mind helps us to thrive, communicate, achieve goals, protect ourselves, stay out of trouble. But when we let the mind use us, there’s is a chance that it becomes a liability rather than an asset.

The more we attach ourselves to our beliefs, the more hostile we become to different views. The more stern we are, the more brittle we become. The stronger we desire something, the more painful not acquiring the object of our desire will be. The more troubled our thoughts, the darker we see the world. The more we feel that we possess something, or someone, the more fearful and domineering we become.

The continuous chatter of the mind exhausts itself as well as the body. How can we find inner peace, when we’re constantly plagued by thoughts? ‘Cultivating unity’, therefore, is the liberation from the clash of opposites, and the experience of the interconnectedness of everything, which can be achieved by quieting the mind.

I quote:

Can you coax your mind from its wandering and keep to the original oneness?
Can you let your body become supple as a newborn child’s?
Can you cleanse your inner vision until you see nothing but the light?
Can you love people and lead them without imposing your will?
Can you deal with the most vital matters by letting events take their course?
Can you step back from your own mind and thus understand all things?

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, 10

When our hearts fast, we become passive and receptive. When we become still like a pond in the center of a valley, the mud settles, and the water becomes clear. When we let things slide and don’t intervene, the universe takes care of itself.

Confucius probably knew that the fasting of the heart would show Yen Hui that it’s better to not intervene and let the kingdom of Wei figure out their own course. His mingling with a business not his own would probably have made things worse. 

As Lao Tzu stated: “For those who practice not-doing, everything will fall into place.” End quote. And so it works with the mind.

Could it be that all our neuroses, addictions, compulsive engagements with pleasurable activities are products of mind’s tyrannical efforts to intervene with the world and with itself? Do we embark on a ‘dopamine detox’, because we can’t bear the tormentors in our heads any longer?

If so, then abstaining from external pleasure may only take us so far; the solution to our problem lies in our hearts.

Thank you for watching.