Living and Learning

I lived and learned with Scott and Helen Nearing in Maine back in the 1970s; they were the highly educated “back-to-the-land” first organic gardening gurus. They were my first mentors.

Scott had a PhD in economics, but he got fired and black-balled because he was the first person to speak out about child labor and demand protective laws. Industry got him thrown out of academia. So Scott went “back-to-the-land,” but in an impressive, educated manner. Scott and Helen initiated the organic food movement and environmental consciousness. People traveled from all over the world to see how they lived.

One thing Scott and Helen practiced was fasting one day a week. Every Sunday they avoided eating whole foods, but instead drank fresh veggie juice. They then broke the fast in the evening with organic popcorn.

We would sit by the fire that warmed the rock house I helped them build on their land by the ocean in Penobscot Bay. They would talk about the environment, accountability, health, and spirituality while we shucked beans. Above their massive library were the words “Paths are many but truth is one.” By the way, these were the exact same words above the entrance to the satsang hall (room where truth and God were discussed) in the ashram (academy) when I lived and studied with Swami Satchitananda (honored by being on the cover of Time magazine when he died).

Scott always told us that when he got too old to be a contributing member of society, he would simply fast himself peacefully to the next phase of life. True to his word, at 100 years old, Scott Nearing courageously and peacefully fasted himself to death.

Helen, his accomplished pianist wife, was interviewed after their 55th book came out, called Loving and Leaving the Good Life (Living the Good Life was their first best seller about back to the land living, and they wrote the introduction to my second book, The Foot Book by HarperCollins in 1979).

And Now

All these years I have been on the lookout for research about fasting. Here it is. And not from shabby folk. This research was funded by the National Institutes of Aging within the National Institute of Health.

This is the first study to show that controlled fasting makes cancer cells more susceptible to radiation treatment (in mice). Prior work by one of these scientists, Valter Longo, USC professor of gerontology and biological sciences, showed that short-term fasting protected healthy cells while leaving cancer cells more vulnerable to the treatment effects of chemotherapy.

The fasting was for 2 days (48 hours) and its benefits occurred if it were added to customary treatment, in this case radiation, not just fasting by itself. The researchers said the results indicated the benefits of short-term, controlled fasting for humans receiving treatment for brain tumors. USC Norris Cancer Center, Mayo Clinic, and Leiden University Hospital are now all conducting clinical trials on fasting and chemotherapy.

The scientists cautioned that patients must first consult with their cancer doctors before attempting to fast. “You have to do it right. But if the conditions are such that you’ve run out of options, short-term fasting may represent an important possibility for patients.” (PLoS ONE 2012)