A Canadian reader, Jan, introduces a new spiritual practice, Falun Gong, to our ongoing series. He’s been a practitioner for 16 years and “came into my spiritual path in a most unexpected way”:
I grew up as a Catholic, though really only in the most basic sense of the word. Early on I tried to be a proper Catholic, was an altar boy, but I met with what I saw as sufficient hypocrisy in the church (no need for details here) that I proudly declared myself an agnostic in my teens. I came to see religion as a tool for powerful people to subjugate the masses.
I decided that science would be enough as a worldview, a paradigm. I dabbled in Daoist Tai Chi a bit, but purely for purposes of relaxation.
I studied to become a biologist, with particular interest in ecology, evolution, and conservation. I imagined myself becoming a professor. Things were going well. I was blessed with generous research scholarships. I made excellent contacts in my areas of interest, established great collaborations, found ideal field sites. What really interested me was non-Darwinian models of evolution. For my doctoral studies, I did field research in Madagascar to study apparent hybridization between different species of lemur.
Returning from the field, I began to feel weak, depressed, and after some time, my ability to do simple things progressively degenerated. Working with micro lab tools became progressively more laborious and difficult. I thought I was overworked, but no amount of sleep would help.
One day, running to catch a street light, my legs stopped working properly, and I barely made it to the other side. I checked myself into the university hospital.
I was diagnosed with Guillain Barre Syndrome. My immune system was attacking my peripheral nervous system, and I was slowly losing control. Having found a rare neurological disorder, doctors kept sending interns and residents to me to attempt a diagnosis. I wasn’t getting better or worse, but there was no known treatment. The day I checked into the hospital I also discovered that I had a parasitic worm infection, and later, mono. Basically, my body was toast.
A tough six months followed. I watched my career disintegrate. The academic partnerships I had developed evaporated, and I could no longer teach effectively. My already rocky romantic relationship further suffered.
I returned to my hometown, where my mother encouraged me to try “alternative therapies.” I did, but none were effective. So I went back to my university town. There, in a smoky coffee shop, I met an old acquaintance who had explored numerous Eastern disciplines. He gave me a DVD, saying that what was on it helped him recover from chronic fatigue syndrome, which he had experienced some years back.
I’ll never forget watching that video for the first time. It was a video introducing the exercises and meditation of Falun Gong—a style of Chinese yoga rooted in Buddhist principles, also known as Falun Dafa. After half an hour of trying to mimic the slow-moving exercises on the video, I started to feel better for the first time I could remember. It was really an indescribable feeling—my heart, body, and mind were all singing.
I read an introductory book of the Falun Dafa teachings, though many of the references to Chinese qigong and folk traditions were at first difficult to understand. All I knew was that, as I was learning these exercises day after day, I was feeling better. At some point, I realized that my reflexes had returned (reflex loss is a common symptom of Guillain Barre).
Some months into it, I went for a checkup with my neurologist. I’ll never forget her words: “Congratulations. You’re in complete remission. I have no explanation, but keep doing whatever you’re doing.” I did, and didn’t really look back.
There were some curious side effects, however. Within about a week of starting, I started hating the taste of cigarettes. I was never a heavy smoker, but I enjoyed the social aspect, and it was consistent. Some time later, I experienced the same thing with alcohol. As it happens, both these states are described in Falun Gong’s seminal book of teachings, Zhuan Falun. As a Buddhist school teaching, Falun Gong encourages the abandonment of unhealthy addictions and attachments. I was fascinated, because it wasn’t something I really expected or necessarily wanted to happen.
One night while meditating, I experienced what really set me on the path of Falun Dafa. I had the proverbial experience of having my whole life flash before my eyes. I’d read about such things, but it’s really difficult to imagine until you experience it. Basically, I saw vignettes from my life, step by step, from an early age. I experienced this as one would a film, I suppose, yet at the same time, time it was moving very quickly; I was able to see a lot of my life in a matter of minutes.
But it was odd: It was clearly my life, yet it wasn’t somehow how I remembered it. Not exactly. Mid-way, it dawned on me: It was my life seen through my mother’s eyes. It blew my mind. I cried for several hours.
My mother and I had a complicated relationship. We loved each other, wanted it to work, but we couldn’t be in the same room without tension for more than 15 minutes. With this experience, I really, for the first time, understood her, understood her trials and tribulations, understood what her pains and motivations were.
I also knew how to fix our relationship. The next time I was back home, I was able to initiate mending process in a matter of 24 hours. Not perfectly, of course, but the relationship became something completely different: fully loving and respectful.
I knew then that I had found something deep and profound. I understood from Falun Gong’s teachings that cultivation was a path of constantly getting rid of attachments, and of gaining a broader and broader, more tolerant and compassionate perspective of the world. Here I saw it manifest in my life in reality. Initially, I was physically healed, and now, I saw I was able to change behavioural patterns that didn’t think I had the power to change. With this, I decided to commit to the discipline.
It’s fascinating that many of the issues I’d had with organized religion are absent from Falun Gong. Collecting money? Forbidden, according to one of the few strict rules. Hierarchy? None, amazingly. One can only measure one’s progress against the teachings and against oneself, not against others. Taking others as role models is not an option, nor is imposing on another how they should behave.
Studying the teachings, I saw myself becoming more truthful, compassionate, and tolerant day by day. (Truth, Compassion and Tolerance are the core tenets of Falun Dafa.) I came into it being enthralled by physical healing, but what I found along the way was something much deeper—spiritual healing, and dare I say, in a sense, salvation.