A Wellspring of Self-Improvement, Knowledge and Understanding
Good morning, fellow practitioners and honored guests. My name is John Nania. Im 41 years old and I live in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I make my living by running a small computer consulting business.
In January 1999, I went to my usual clinic to see a new health care professional, who I hoped would be able to help me with my recovery from several car accidents I had been in, as well as with some other chronic health problems. This doctor was a licensed acupuncturist from China. As we were going over my history, he asked me, Why do you think you have been in so many car accidents?
In reply, I told him a little joke I had thought of a few days before: I dont know, maybe I was an insurance company lawyer in a past life!
But instead of smiling or laughing, as most people would, he just calmly looked at me and asked, Do you believe in the past life?
At his question, I looked down and thought for a few seconds. I dont disbelieve in it, I answered. We went on to other subjects, but he had planted a seed in January that would sprout in the spring.
My doctor touched on an issue of truths beyond the observable physical realm. All my life, I have avidly sought truths, knowledge and understanding. I have followed numerous paths and learned from numerous teachers, many of whom came to me through books. I searched for answers and ways to improve myself. In early 1999, I was about to come to a culminating moment of truth when it would unmistakably and clearly be pointed out to me that I had been looking for answers in the wrong places, and that I needed to open myself up to whomever or whatever had been trying to get a message through to me for several years.
Throughout my life, the ways I have sought to improve myself fall into three general categories. I sought to improve 1. My personal health and fitness; 2. My knowledge about humanity and the world we live in; and 3. My understanding of the higher meaning and purpose of my life and of life in general.
In a few minutes, I will tell you about the incident that changed where I would look for answers, but I wont keep you in suspense about this conviction: practicing and cultivating in Falun Dafa has helped me immeasurably and unimaginably with all three of these areas of self-improvement, beyond expectation and beyond conventional reason.
The best-selling book Aerobics inspired me to become active about my fitness and health when I read it as a child. I began running for exercise, was on my high school track and cross-country teams, and ran regularly -- and enjoyed it -- for about 16 years, until some unexplained foot problems forced me to stop, after which I took up swimming laps for exercise. The foot problems and some other odd physical symptoms got me interested in nutrition, traditional Chinese medicine, and other methods of getting well and becoming healthy, and I pursued all these methods vigorously.
Beginning in 1992, a pattern of accidents began which consumed much time, money, and energy. At least once every year from 1992 until 1998, my body was jostled and jolted when a motor vehicle I was in collided with or was hit by something else. Two cars I was driving were totaled. As a result of multiple whiplash injuries, I sustained spinal damage that was declared permanent. I became a regular patient at a chiropractic clinic for seven years, where they also had me try countless supplements, therapies, and treatments of all kinds in attempts to address my various ailments.
I have long believed that there is no such thing as pure coincidence in earthly life, and I knew, after a couple of these accidents, that there was a pattern to them, and a message I was supposed to get. But I couldnt figure out the message, much to my frustration, although I suspected it had something to do with deep issues in my life, probably spiritual issues. By the way, my own insurance company continued to give me the safe driver discount, their way of saying that other unlucky forces out of my control were at work, and that I was not a bad driver myself!
So this pattern of accidents relates to my self-improvement in two categories, health and greater meaning. Before mentioning that third area, Ill say a little about the second area in my past, that of improving my knowledge about humanity and the world we live in.
My interest in science began with books I read as a kid about dinosaurs, biologists, astronomers, and inventors. My parents made gifts of a microscope and a telescope to me, but I ended up majoring in English in college. I felt that the study of literature and poetry was a more interesting and revealing way than psychology was for learning about and exploring human behavior, but I also took courses in geology, physics, and math, which were shunned by my English-major friends. Since my formal schooling finished, I have continued to educate myself by taking classes and reading widely in many subjects, all in my search to know and understand people and the world around me.
For the third area, in the quest to understand issues of meaning and purpose in life, I also studied philosophy and religions, before, during, and after college. I was raised Catholic and practiced the faith regularly into my late 20s, a religious foundation I appreciate greatly. I lived and worked for two years in Thailand, where Theravada Buddhism is part of daily life. Two books that deeply influenced my thinking were The Tao of Physics, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, both of which discussed concepts in Eastern thought in relation to modern Western views of existence.
I looked at various spiritual and metaphysical paths, but somewhere along the line I realized that I had lost my ability to hear the voice of God. Long before I reached my 40th birthday I was adrift spiritually. I had as many questions as ever, and could never fully accept the answers Id been given. Im talking particularly about the Big Questions in Life that we all ask at some point: Where do we come from? Why are we here? What happens when we die?
In retrospect, I see all these experiences I had and paths I tested as preparing me for and leading up to a pivotal moment in my life. On March 15, 1999, I began to walk across a street during evening rush hour in downtown Minneapolis. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a driver who was momentarily blinded by the sun turning right and into the crosswalk where I was. He didnt see me until I was already on top of the hood of his car, several feet off the ground and helpless. He stopped suddenly and I fell to the street. Im still not sure now who was more scared after it happened, him or me, but he took me to the hospital and waited while I got x-rays for my arm and neck. The physical damage was limited to another whiplash injury to my neck and nine stitches in my lacerated elbow.
But the physical pain was nothing compared to how shaken I was inside. An accident! Another accident! Again and again and again! Why does this keep happening to me? What does it mean? These were my thoughts. I knew I had to make changes, and I didnt know what they would be, but I knew I had to open myself to whatever the message was that I hadnt yet received and comprehended.
Two days later, I kept a previously scheduled appointment with my acupuncture doctor. We talked again, as I lay on the table with needles in me, about why I had been in so many accidents. I mentioned that maybe it had something to do with my house, since the accidents began after I moved into my house in 1992 -- I even had had an accident with the rented van while moving in -- and I had been working on the feng shui of my house to see if it would make things in my life shift. He said that he practiced a type of qigong that made him safe wherever he lived, and we started talking in a very low-key way about qigong and its history.
I had only a vague idea about what qigong was then, and didnt realize that it involves physical exercises. He wrote down the local Falun Dafa Web site on his business card, and I took a look at it a few days later. He had suggested that I might want to read one of the books -- I could remember the title began with Z -- and try reading one chapter every day until I finished.
What I read on the Web site seemed different from other things that I had read. It was a powerful and authoritative voice, but a caring voice. It seemed to fill me with a current of electricity as I read, and I decided Id seen enough to order the book over the Internet and try to take it on a week-long family vacation in Florida. It wasnt scheduled to arrive at my house until after I was supposed to leave on the vacation, but somehow -- coincidentally? -- it was delivered in time for me to take it on the plane. As I said before, I dont believe in coincidences!
On vacation in Florida with family, I began reading Zhuan Falun in earnest. I didnt understand much of what I was reading, but for many things that I could understand, I found myself saying, Yes. Yes! Thats true! No one else says so, but thats the way it really is! As I continued to read, I would make comments to myself like, Yes, life on this planet is a maze. Of course, mind and matter are of one thing Thats right, studying all these different elementary level textbooks never will get you to the college level of understanding.
Something happened to me physically on this one-week vacation, too. A little tickle in my nose became a non-stop runny nose, with fits of sneezing, fever, and restless sleep for three or four days. A severe allergy? A bad cold? It seemed to be neither. I didnt connect it then with what I was reading, but when I described it to my doctor friend at my next -- and final -- treatment with him after vacation, he helped me understand that it was a cleansing process directly resulting from reading the Teachers lectures. My doctor told me at that point, You dont need me any more, which I eventually understood the full significance of. What I did understand right away from my reading of Zhuan Falun is that complaining is not part of cultivation, so I mentioned my acute symptoms to no one upon returning home from vacation. I just told people that I had had a nice trip, and no complaining, no whining is one of my personal rules ever since.
I finished Zhuan Falun in about 14 days, reading some every day, and before I was done, I was saying to myself, This is The Truth, this is The Truth! This is what I have to do now. Without ever seeing the exercises, or meeting more than one Falun Dafa practitioner, or knowing any more than what was in that book, I decided I was going to treat myself as a genuine practitioner. I had found my best Teacher in this book, better than those in the other books I had learned from all my life.
I bought a copy of China Falun Gong before I went on a week-long business trip in April, and read it through. I tried to teach myself the exercises, but I realized that if I was going to be a genuine practitioner, I needed to go out to exercise practice with others. I have never told anyone this before, but the first time I went to the park where we practice on Saturdays, I arrived several minutes late, and the practitioners had already begun performing the exercises and showing them to newcomers. I was too shy to get up the nerve to walk over and talk to the people there, so from a distance I quietly watched them hold their arms up for a really long time in the second exercise before I drove home. But after learning more from the books I went back a week later, got some instruction from a veteran practitioner, and have been a Saturday practice regular ever since.
All of this, the chronology of how I got started in cultivation, took place more than a year ago. Now I would like to share with you some key things I have learned and done in my own cultivation practice and in my work of sharing this Dafa, this Great Way, with other people.
Our Teacher tells us, You should be strict with yourself, though we allow you to improve gradually. (Zhuan Falun, 3rd Translation Edition, p. 146) When it came to my health and fitness, I continued to see the chiropractor and other caregivers for a few weeks. At first I didnt fully grasp the teachings about what physical symptoms really mean, and I didnt see how I could just stop going to get treatments after seven years and so-called permanent spinal damage. But when my chiropractor told me in May that he was moving out of state, it seemed like the hint that I needed to just stop spending time and energy on external things, like nutritional supplements and health-care treatments. So within a month of beginning cultivation practice, I quit all of that, and havent been back to that clinic since.
The Teacher says, Some people go by how they feel in practicing something. What does your feeling account for? It is nothing. The actual transformation process takes place in other dimensions and is extremely complex and intricate. (ZF p. 46) But I was definitely preoccupied with and fixated on health and fitness in the previous several years, and one of the big early personal revelations in my cultivation was that how I feel is just not that important in the grand scheme, that we arent here to live pain-free, blissful, comfortable lives. For non-practitioners, pain and discomfort are part of the unrelenting process of birth, aging, illness, and death in this lifetime; for practitioners, the pain and discomfort we have are signs of internal transformation, of eliminating the bad stuff from our bodies, of getting adjusted holistically. I see pain and discomfort as good signs now, or perhaps a clue that I havent gotten rid of some attachment.
When people who know about my past health issues ask me about my health these days, I say, I feel good, Im very well. Im not perfect, but my health is fine, and I dont focus on that any more. When I get the opportunity to talk about health benefits of practicing Falun Dafa, I tell people, I honestly believe this is the best thing I could be doing for my health.
From reading Zhuan Falun and the Teachers other books, Ive gained a whole new framework for making sense of human behavior and the natural world. I cant yet fully grasp the concepts of other dimensions or spaces, but it makes sense to me that if you could find some way to just view all the atoms, without seeing the larger molecules or the smaller particles, just view only the plane of atoms, that you would be seeing something very different from what we can see with the naked eye. Also, I knew before that we have auras surrounding us, but now it seem reasonable to me that the size and strength of auras depend on the number, density, and composition of particles around the person, and auras are composed both of substances detectable by current instruments and of substances for which an instrument to detect them hasnt yet been invented.
As for human behavior, Dafa contains countless insights. In the US, we can observe so much about humanity and see interpersonal conflicts played out on the roads and highways. All kinds of behavior come out when people are behind the wheel. Why are people so competitive in their cars, why do they so often act so inconsiderately and dangerously? One day, as I asked myself this question in my car, the words of the Teacher made me think, Why do people do these things? Its because they are selfish! All of us are selfish, and thats precisely why we are here on this planet, in this lifetime!
How many people think of the interests of other first when they are behind the wheel? When I understood that competition is the dominant mentality on the roads, it made it easier for me to shift my mind and become less tense, more calm when driving. As a practitioner, I am not supposed to fight and compete for personal interest, and I try to apply this to my own driving. I see the roads in America as one of the greatest arenas for putting down the selfish heart, testing oneself as a practitioner, and managing interpersonal conflicts. I try to recall this passage from Zhuan Falun when driving, or in any interaction with other people:
As practitioners, you will suddenly come across conflicts. What should you do? You should always maintain a heart of compassion and kindness. Then, when you run into a problem, you will be able to do well because it gives you room to buffer the confrontation. You should always be benevolent and kind to others, and consider others when doing anything. Whenever you encounter a problem, you should first consider whether others can put up with this matter or if it will hurt anyone. (ZF pp. 161-162)
I used to believe that kindness to others is important, but that I had to look out for myself, too, in this world, that there had to be a balance between caring about both. But now I see this principle of always putting others first as much more valuable. It can lead to harmony and peace between people, and its good for me as a practitioner because it raises my xinxing, or mind-heart nature. Its a happy paradox in cultivation that when we most consider the needs of other people first, we gain the most ourselves.
Zhuan Falun gives far simpler and clearer, yet much deeper, answers to the age-old questions, Where did I come from? Why am I here? What happens when I die? Knowing at least part of the answer to Why am I here? after reading the book, the question then becomes, Now that Im here, what am I supposed to do? Before I became a practitioner, I always wondered and thought and pondered about what my purpose in life was. I read all those books about personal mission statements, and making the world a better place, and finding a higher calling. I wrote and revised lists of lifetime goals, annual goals, and quarterly goals, projects, priorities, and personal affirmations. I had thousands of philosophies, quotes, and ideas floating around in my head. It was all complex, shifting, uncertain, and confusing.
Falun Dafa has simplified it all. I do my best to apply these values, these principles, at every moment, and become completely in tune with them: Zhen-Shan-Ren, Truthfulness-Compassion-Forbearance. This Zhen-Shan-Ren, the fundamental characteristic of the universe and of everything and everybody in it, is the ultimate measuring stick and standard for my life. Its so easy and simple, but so deep that the end cannot be seen.
For myself, I have only one short list of priorities now, with three items on it:
#1 Cultivate myself in Falun Dafa, according to Zhen-Shan-Ren
#2 Share this Great Way with other people
#3 Perform my work in society as well as I can
Of course, numbers two and three are really subsets of number one, since everything I do is cultivation. Its simple and beautiful, because these priorities can guide me every moment of every day, no matter what I do or who I meet. My work in society includes paying work, volunteer work, and any other obligation or duty there is to be a good person, living maximally in society.
I have had many attachments exposed while working to let others know about how great and valuable Falun Dafa is. Propagating this Great Way is also cultivating myself. For example, in the Lectures in Guangzhou, the Teacher lists a number of sentiments and desires that hold us back in cultivation. I made a mental note of his saying, You want to be famous, you want NOT to be famous. Last July, after the grim news started breaking in China, I helped organize a local press conference to help people understand the truth about what practitioners do and are. I was a little uncomfortable, knowing that this would be going public with a practice that had seemed personal and private, but I knew I had to speak out.
The next day, in the most widely circulated daily newspaper in the state, there was a photo of several practitioners sitting in the fifth exercise, and in the foreground, identified by name in the caption, was me in my shirt and tie, eyes closed and hands outstretched. This really tested me and got me over the attachment to wanting not to be famous, and made me realize theres no turning back, this is something Im committed to and willing to be identified with in public. For several weeks afterwards, many people I knew from my 10 years in town mentioned it to me or sent me the clipping, with comments like, Thats great what youre doing, John. Several people in the offices where I regularly work saw the photo and it triggered some good conversations. It also gave me an opportunity to explain by e-mail to family members what I had started doing regularly that is so important to me.
Not long after I began practicing, I began to say to myself, This is such a valuable, great thing, but most Americans wont be able get past the cultural and language differences, especially if they arent interested in China. How can I help other Americans understand this?
Three recent observations prompted me to make these rules for myself:
1. Talk about what Falun Dafa IS, not about what its not or what its like;
2. Communicate at the level of the specific individual, situation or cultural group;
3. Give them the book when theyre ready for it and not before
When answering the question, What is Falun Gong? I now directly tell people about the term cultivation practice and define it for them, even though that concept is foreign to Western culture. If I spend time telling them what Falun Gong is like, such as its one kind of qigong or its like tai chi, or telling them what its not, such as its not a religion or martial art, then they will get confused or distracted -- especially if they dont know what qigong is and I have to spend time explaining that -- and theyll probably remember those words telling what its like or what its not (qigong, martial art) instead of remembering what cultivation practice is. Their brains will grab and hold the wrong words, and they wont get the true picture.
The Teacher says that this is a higher level practice unlike any other practice. Theres a blank space in peoples minds where genuine cultivation practice should be. Theres no category for this, but people will try to put it in a known, familiar category, they will try to pigeonhole it or reduce it so that it fits with something they already know -- thats just human nature. Rather than giving in to this tendency to categorize and classify, I try to hold their attention with other descriptions. I say something like this now to people: Its an integrated system of cultivating and refining our minds and bodies. Its a holistic program of self-improvement in all ways. Its a way of purifying and raising our personal energy. We try to put ourselves in harmony with what we believe to be the fundamental principle of the universe, Truthfulness-Compassion-Forbearance.
In the classes we give, I use the analogy of a garden to describe what we mean by cultivation. I say, You take a plot of land, you want to get all the bad things out, the weeds, the rocks, the junk, and then you want to put in the good things, the seeds, the water, the fertilizer, the sunshine, so that good things will grow. This is like what we are doing with our own bodies, minds, and hearts through our cultivation practice.
I also like to say, Doing the exercises is periodic, but cultivating our hearts and minds is 24 hours a day, every day.
When deciding how to talk to a particular person or group, we can be sure of one thing: One size does NOT fit all! I know I have to gather as much information as possible before I start telling them anything. While Im listening to their words, I also listen to their tone of voice, watch their eyes (Americans tell us so many things with their eyes) and body language, and use all my senses. I must also listen with my heart, which is not always easy when I have something I really want to say myself.
When I am talking, whether its for 30 seconds or 30 minutes, Im attempting an education process, and I have to adjust the content and style for the situation. The Teacher has spoken many times, at the Lecture in North America and elsewhere, about the importance of speaking to non-practitioners at the lowest level of Dafa. We practitioners are constantly raising our levels of understanding, and out of enthusiasm we have a tendency to talk at that particular level we have just recently climbed up to, forgetting that others arent there yet. Out of consideration and compassion for whomever I am talking to, I try to use words and concepts that fit the level of those people.
I have made several errors in this respect, such as trying to describe the differences between the energy types of qi and gong. It was confusing to people, and unnecessary, and something that people would better learn from reading one of the books. Also, we had a float in a parade attended by thousands of people. The display was colorful and beautiful, but misunderstood by many people, especially the large Falun emblems we displayed. We received strong negative comments about the fortune symbol in the center of the Falun, one through an e-mail after the parade, and one through a letter read over a local radio station. Is displaying a Falun bad? Not necessarily -- it depends on the situation. We know now that we should not display the Falun unless we are fully prepared to explain its history and meaning directly to people.
People of different backgrounds have different levels of understanding on various subjects. What seems simple and low-level, or what seems compassionate or beautiful, for one individual, group, or culture, may for another actually be too high-level, or distracting, or even offensive.
China Falun Gong and Zhuan Falun are powerful books, but not everyone is ready for them. I have given or lent several copies of them to relatives and friends. The lack of positive response has been sobering. Many people have said nothing at all about the book. Those who said anything made comments remarkably similar to those that Teacher mentions, such as, I read a little, but it was tough, and Ill get back to it some day. I now wonder if I unintentionally interfered with their opportunity to learn about Dafa by giving them the books before they asked for them. At least the book is in their home and I hope that some day that person or someone else will pick it up and learn from it. But from now on, I will just tell people how good these books are, and only if they ask for a copy will I give them one.
In my own cultivation, I have received some good advice from veteran practitioners, such as from my acupuncture doctor, who gently suggested that it would be a better use of my time to practice Falun Gong exercises rather than to swim laps, lift weights, or do other exercises. The ninth chapter in Zhuan Falun explains why. I also took to heart the advice I got about continuing to read the book over and over: one lecture a day is ideal, but at least read one or more complete sections of the lectures every day. Some practitioner friends gave me an audiocassette copy of the Lectures in Guangzhou, and I play them in my car in a constant rotation, starting over with Lecture 1 after Ive heard, and usually learned something new from, Lecture 9.
For the first few months after I began practicing, I was fortunate that a veteran American practitioner who had lived in China, my acupuncture doctor, and a few other new American practitioners all got together twice a week to read from Zhuan Falun and discuss our ideas, questions, and experiences. It was a great help to get me pointed in the right direction, and now I attend a study group weekly.
So from my own continual reading of Zhuan Falun plus the other books and lectures, watching the videotape at our local 9-lecture workshops, listening to the audiotapes in my car, and reading aloud with a group weekly, my mind is getting steeped in and saturated with this tremendous insight and knowledge in several different modes. The Teacher says, Read the book, read the book, read the book, and this is the best advice I could give to any practitioner, new or veteran.
When I read what the Teacher said about this world being a maze, I took it as part of my motivation for practicing: OK, Im getting outta this maze! I said. I was also keen on the idea of not having to come back again into this maze later. I wanted to get away from and escape the pain and confusion of this earthly life. But as I have learned more, I listened carefully to what the Teacher says, Everyone knows that our school of practice does not shun ordinary human society in cultivation practice, and neither does it avoid or run away from conflicts. (ZF p. 319) Lately I think less about escaping the maze, which is running away from something negative, and more about moving towards something positive. I realize my purpose here is to return to the origin, to go back to my original, true self, to raise myself upwards.
I have a positive purpose and a clear direction. I was wandering around lost, seeking self-improvement, knowledge, and understanding on back roads, byways, and dead ends, but now Im on the superhighway. Zhuan Falun, the great book of the Great Way, is my roadmap for the journey back home.
I am grateful for many things. I am grateful that my life situation gives me the time to study and practice and share with others this Great Way. I am grateful for the advice and encouragement I have received from other practitioners. I am especially grateful for the accidents and other close brushes with death, and other past tribulations, because I know I was paying back a lot of debts, learning lessons, and getting prepared to recognize a Great Way when it was shown to me. And of course I am grateful to our Teacher, who finally got his message through to me and has supported me in ways I cannot even be aware of yet. And oh, yes, I am grateful that I now have a ready answer for that big question, John, what is the best book you have ever read?
Thank you all!
Category: Beginning Cultivation