RECORD BREAKER: Magician David Blaine broke the world's record for breath-holding earlier this year, but have others far surpassed this feat?
Exemplary fasting, meditating asceticism
Bigu: Life Without Food
While many observe a period of fasting—either for health or religious reasons—this brief break from food usually does not last long. Some go without eating for a few days or a week and report that the occasional practice can actually promote a healthy vigor, provided that they return to eating again. Others, to mark a political protest, might engage in a hunger strike—abstaining from food to bring attention to an issue.
Nonetheless, there are ancient records suggesting that humans might have the ability to go without food or water for far longer than we might imagine. According to ancient Chinese cultivation methods, when a monk decided to meditate in a remote mountain or cave, sooner or later he would confront a problem—what to do about food. Living in a cave away from the rest of civilization, he had little to sustain him on his path to enlightenment.
According to oral tradition, in order to resolve the situation of sustenance, monks practiced Bigu (literally translated as "without grain'). Detached from the human world, the monk would miraculously abandon the biological necessity for food and water, although he could continue his practice for decades—a veritable impossibility according to modern biological understandings.
But beyond what the records say of eminent monks who have stayed in meditation for nine or more years, and which modern science may not acknowledge, does there exist any evidence indicating that the human body may possess the capacity to escape the burden of finding sustenance? Beginning in 1926 (a case negated by scientists), a woman named Teresa Neumann managed to go 35 years without eating until her death.
More recently, investigators report that in 2005 a young Nepalese Buddhist, Ram Bahadur Bomjon [the famous "Buddha Boy"], sustained his meditation in the shade of a fig tree for more than eight months without consuming food or liquid of any kind. A fence separated the hundreds of followers who stopped to pray and admire the miraculous human. Even the Discovery Channel filmed him day and night for four days to prove the veracity of the case.
But what can we say about sleep? Is there anyone who has managed to bypass the restorative "escape from consciousness" that all people require once every 24 hours? Some animal species, such as fish or ostriches, possess the capacity to sleep with only one hemisphere of the brain, leaving the other half alert to watch for predators. Later they swap, putting the other half to rest. In this way, they complete their daily sleep cycle.
Yet these slumber-free stretches don't compare to 66-year-old Vietnamese farmer Ngoc Thai. Stricken with a fever in 1973, Thai has not been able to return to sleep in the last 35 years, but not for a lack of trying. Medications, folk remedies, and alcohol don't seem to break his sleepless existence. Is Ngoc Thai a medical impossibility? How can the human brain survive without sleep for more than a week?
Every Breath We Take
While organisms such as anaerobic bacteria thrive just fine in an oxygen-deprived environment, humans fare less well. Most people have tried to hold their breath under water—after just a few minutes, the need for air takes over and we are forced to emerge for precious oxygen. Earlier this year, magician David Blaine astounded audiences when he broke the world record for holding one's breath, enduring over 17 oxygen-deprived minutes. But has he reached the human limit?
Some records show that Indian yogis have stayed buried in the earth or immersed in water for several days, defying scientific understandings of molecular oxygenation.
Humans are naturally curious about the body's limits, and individuals who test them inspire awe and wonder. But when examples break far beyond the realm of the possible, the results become difficult to comprehend. [There's also a Western history of monastic asceticism].
When someone appears to sever their dependence of these vital life-giving factors—beyond the well-trained parlor trick—we are forced to examine what might instead sustain the body.