I wake up with a jolt, spilling most of my breakfast cereal onto a thirsty couch. My eyes find the clock. Cleaning will have to wait. I'm downing water like there's no tomorrow, but really tomorrow starts in one minute. Still drinking. All work is thirsty work if the day is long enough, and engineering is no exception. Time's up.
From the literal break of dawn to sunset, no food, drink, or other respite. It's Ramadan. What does this mean, practically? Well, summertime here in Silicon Valley, it means from 4am to 9pm, I battle human nature while writing emails and software. But, far from an antiquated ritual, I see Ramadan as an exercise in lifestyle design.
As we near the end of Ramadan 1436, this year has proven that even in modern and diverse environs, every year brings the same reactions and questions as 1435. Mostly boiling down to:
What? Not even water?
A bit facetious, but this really is the most common question I get. So just to be clear, traditional interpretation calls for no food, drink (including water), or drugs. From the crack of dawn to sunset. Or in the technical terms, the beginning of sunrise's astronomical twilight to the beginning of sunset's civil twilight.
Individuals adjust according to limitations. If you're not healthy enough to fast, you don't fast. If you feel like you can't complete a fast, you don't. If the sun doesn't set, just do something reasonable. Your intentions are your own, and self-harm does not enter into the purposes of Ramadan.
Everyone has their reasons, but first off Ramadan is not some sort of collective diet. Yes, Ramadan is used by many as a springboard to stymie smoking, overeating, and other unhealthy physical habits. But for me, fasting is about building four virtues:
Not exactly the stuff of classrooms and annual compliance trainings. And yet people are expected to just find these characteristics within themselves, even in environments most antithetical. Countless well-compensated designers and engineers know about the limits of limitless life. We almost immediately pine for constraints. Negative liberty only goes so far, then real freedom becomes about the ability to formulate and follow the orders you give yourself. Design grants creative autonomy, but design tools offer a hundred possibilities draped in a thousand distractions.
Empathy is the most obvious trait built by fasting, and the one promoted most when I was younger. There are poor people in the world, and all should experience their hunger and thirst to understand. Fasting puts you on the path closest to the one they walk, building a visceral empathy that simple imagination can't match. When was the last time you were hungry like the wolf? One month of senses too sharp for civil society. One month of feeling the natural appetites object and interrupt your every thought. But it keeps one connected to so many people, from the most intense protesters to as many as a fifth of American students.
Reflection is critical to the Ramadan fast. Take away food and water, and within a few hours you're transported to the banks of a personal Walden Pond. In much the same way that exercise burns off dirty, anxious energy, fasting stops it from being produced in the first place. It quiets the shores of one's psyche and in the stillness, all is clear. This is the part of Ramadan I look forward to most: a staycation from my usual self-imposed obligations. The line between essential and unnecessary is bright. I don't know much about meditation, but most days of the month, around sunset, I find a certain peaceful state, every thought sorted away in its right place.
Midday is another story. Shouldering a normal workload with the added constraint of a fast is the definition of a stress test. Except unlike software and other commonly-tested constructs, the systems at work here involved grow and strengthen naturally. During Ramadan, I stockpile this discipline to burn over the next 11 months. Discipline complements motivation, especially with creative work like software and architecture. Whereas frustration obviates motivation, discipline rises to the occasion, grateful for the opportunity to push through and grow.
All of the above pours into the last attribute. Confidence is deeply linked to feelings of sufficiency: the ability to say, "What I have is enough to do what I want to do." I'm a big fan of water myself, but even something as essential as hydration isn't as big a deal as we make it. My adolescent fascination with basketball was rooted in Hakeem Olajuwon playing whole NBA games against the Chicago Bulls, 12 hours into a fast. More recently, a fasting Algeria played a strong World Cup game against winners-to-be Germany. People thirst for confidence, not water. Ramadan is a reminder that personal excess breeds anxiety. Consumerism's advertising immerses us in false dependence. Ramadan is the gentle reaffirmation you send yourself that, yes, you can do more with less.
At this point, the how is more of a logistical appendix, but this year's approach was particularly successful. Each year, Ramadan's approach gets me nervous. No matter how many times I fast, despite having survived and thrived not one year ago, I still get skittish at the thought of it. I focus in on the circumstances new to the year, and can't help tweaking my design.
Everyone has different lives and schedules, but my Ramadan unfolds in three phases:
- Phase 1: Just make it through in one piece. The first 4-5 days.
- Phase 2: Requires a conscious and concerted effort. The middle twenty days or so.
- Phase 3: The fast is the new normal. Usually just the last few days of the month.
My Ramadan technique goes into effect from day 1. It can be a rough transition, involving some falling asleep while eating cereal, but the long-day summer technique has been perfected over years. Granted, its design leans on the unique schedule afforded a young software engineer. Not everyone can switch away from a standard work-a-day-sleep-at-night schedule. The median practicing Western Muslim probably approaches Ramadan like this:
- Get to work at 9am.
- Work til 5pm.
- Get home at 6pm. Cook, clean, tend to kids.
- Eat at 9pm.
- Sleep around midnight.
- Wake up before 4am, eat again.
- Sleep until 6-8am.
Straightforward enough, but far from optimal. There's no period of sleep longer than 4 hours, which leaves my energy on a different valence altogether. For the last three years, I've improved on the naïve solution, by switching to a bimodal sleep schedule:
- Get to work around 11am.
- Skip lunch, hit the books til 5-6pm.
- Get home, take a long nap at 7pm. This last bit would just be clockwatching anyways.
- Wake up at 9pm. Dinner for breakfast!
- Read, write, and code for the next 6 hours.
- 3:45am. Eat breakfast, taking care not to fall asleep.
- Sleep through til 10am and repeat.
It's a fun change of pace. If the workday seems short, keep in mind that there are no meal or snack breaks, so it evens out. Similarly, there's a lot of new time discovered in these quiet, contemplative nights. Overall my energy, while restricted, stays predictable and manageable. I'm no Hakeem Olajuwon or Algerian footballist, but this year I managed to continue to bike everywhere, several times riding 6 to 15 miles per day. Other innovations this year have included playing violin to stay awake and just eating a small bowl of raisin bran for breakfast. Eating less is unintuitive, but I wake up less thirsty than trying to cram in more calories, and hunger is easier to manage than thirst. Oh, and bubble water.
Sometimes during the day I'd find myself impatient, checking the calendar to see how many days are left. But just as many times at night I've caught myself lamenting the quickness with which my split days have slid past. With Eid-ul-Fitr right around the corner, I must admit I am pleased with the special satisfaction brought by another year, another fast well designed.