Take a moment to clear your mind. Let go of the chatter of doubt and obsession, and just be still.
Meditation is a simple idea, yet challenging in practice. In a world brimming with distractions, developing the ability to maintain a clear mind for any stretch of time takes dedicated effort. But those who practice this mysterious discipline say it’s worth the effort they put into it.
Enlightenment has long been the goal of meditation, but the bar doesn’t usually start so high. Today, meditation is often promoted as a drug-free way to relax, reduce stress, and improve mental focus. A number of studies validate the health benefits of meditation. Some doctors recommend it.
But the drive to meditate goes far beyond the scope of modern science. For Nicole Fiene, a sales representative from Massapequa, New York, meditation spoke to a void deep in her soul that she had never been able to fill.
“I was in a constant and seemingly neverending cycle of feeling unfulfilled with everything I did,” Fiene said. “I lived a beautiful life full of fun adventures and special friendships—always traveling to new places, meeting new people, and trying different things. But on the inside, it was never enough; I always wanted more.”
Fiene says that instead of feeling inspired, her constant search for stimulation left her feeling depleted. She relied heavily on multiple substances just to get through the day.
But when COVID-19 hit last year, Fiene was forced to change her routine. Under lockdown, all the activity and distraction she had grown accustomed to was no longer available. As a result, she could no longer hide from the painful feelings she had previously pushed down.
“Part of me knew that the reason I was going through such pain was because what was about to be next for me would be so extraordinary,” she said. “I knew that if I was going to fix this, I had to get to the root of it, and I knew whatever I was experiencing was spiritual.”
Fiene had no idea where to start, but direction came a day or so later. Speaking to a close business colleague over the phone, Fiene confessed to her emotional and spiritual unraveling during lockdown, and her search for something to cope with it. Her colleague recommended that Fiene try a meditation practice called Falun Gong. Fiene found instructions for the practice on the internet. She tried it and soon felt better.
“I felt a circulation of energy all through my arms, and for the first time in such a long time, I felt this overwhelming sense of peace and safety,” Fiene said. “I didn’t know anything about the practice, but in my heart I knew this was what was going to pull me out of the mental darkness I was experiencing.”
Roots in China
Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, is a meditation practice in the Buddhist tradition. In addition to the classic seated meditation, it also includes four slow, meditative standing exercises. The exercises are simple to learn, but those who practice them say they bring profound peace.
“Sometimes after meditating, I feel this buzz of soothing energy all around my body and mind, and it’s coupled with kindness and calmness,” Fiene said.
Today, Falun Gong is practiced in more than 80 countries, but it started in China—a place with a long tradition of slow, meditative exercises known as qigong (energy practice).
Either at parks in large groups or at home, Chinese people have been practicing various kinds of qigong for centuries. Tai chi is perhaps the best-known. Falun Gong was virtually unknown until the early 1990s, but it is said to have been around since ancient times. According to Falun Gong’s founder, Li Hongzhi, before he modified it slightly and introduced it to the public in China, it was a lineage-type practice passed from master to student.
Li gave lectures on Falun Gong in a handful of Chinese cities for a few years, and interest in the practice spread—mostly by word of mouth.
In fact, it grew very popular very fast. By 1999, Falun Gong had grown to become the largest and fastest-growing qigong practice in China. The Chinese regime estimated that 70 million people were practicing Falun Gong, including some high-ranking members of the regime. The appeal was clear: Classes were free and open to anyone, and testimonials of positive experiences increased people’s interest. Many reported significant improvements in their health and state of mind from practicing Falun Gong.
Jane Pang remembers first learning Falun Gong back in China 25 years ago. Today, she’s a 45-year-old school principal living in Toronto. Back then, she was attending a Chinese university, where she would occasionally practice qigong with a group of fellow students in her free time. When one of her qigong buddies introduced her to Falun Gong in 1996, Pang knew she had found something special.
“I practiced qigong, but it didn’t feel anything like Falun Dafa,” Pang said. “[Dafa] gave me a lot of inner peace immediately.”
The biggest change Pang first noticed from the practice was that it calmed her down. She was a very dedicated student, but extremely stressed from all the pressure she was under, and full of anxiety. Falun Gong meditation helped her get her anxiety under control.
“Meditation helps me physically,” she said. “I have more and more control of my physical body. I can calm myself down and relax myself. I’m not worried about the results. I think that’s a big change for me.”
At first, the Chinese regime was pleased with the beneficial results people like Pang experienced with Falun Gong. Some officials even noted how it could save money on health care costs. An official from China’s National Sports Commission told U.S. News and World Report that Falun Gong’s influence could save each person 1,000 yuan per year in medical fees, and the benefits could add up.
“If 100 million people are practicing it, that’s 100 billion yuan saved per year in medical fees,” the official said.
But in 1999, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) changed its tune. Top officials suddenly became concerned that Falun Gong was becoming too popular, and feared the influence of such a large segment of the population involved in an activity outside communist control. Perhaps most serious of all, Falun Gong was deeply rooted in traditional Chinese culture, something the CCP had worked to destroy since the regime’s founding in 1949. Socialism and atheism effectively became the state religion.
Falun Gong books were ordered burned, the exercises were forbidden, and a major propaganda campaign to demonize the practice was carried out by virtually every media outlet in the country—all of which operate under tight state control.
Thousands of Falun Gong practitioners went to the Chinese capital to appeal what they believed was a misguided decision by the CCP. In 1999, Pang made her way to Beijing to convince the authorities that Falun Gong was good, that it wasn’t political or any kind of threat to the regime. It was something to be celebrated. Like many other practitioners in China at the time, Pang thought that if people in power could hear her positive experience, it would change their minds.
“We wanted them to know there shouldn’t be any concerns,” Pang said. “I thought if I went there and shared my story, it would help them to understand what Falun Gong is.”
However, these types of appeals seemed only to intensify the regime’s determination to stamp out the practice. After they arrived in Beijing to appeal, Pang and other practitioners found themselves incarcerated. Pang says she was abducted on the street, put on a bus, and taken to several detention centers over the course of the next few days. She was tortured, starved, and denied access to a restroom. She also had no idea where she was.
“I was very, very scared,” Pang said. “I wanted to say goodbye to my family members. I felt that at any moment, I could be dead. And if they killed me, my family would never know how I died.”
After being processed at five or six different detention centers, Pang was eventually taken to a labor camp where she spent the next two years. The experience was designed to break prisoners like Pang of their adherence to Falun Gong. Ironically, it only deepened her dedication.
“Even if I just had a minute or two to myself, I would close my eyes and do the meditation. I tried to get some peace internally,” Pang said. “My physical body was deteriorating from the torture, but mentally I did not break down. Meditation helped me a lot in such a difficult situation.”
Better Health, Brighter Outlook
Falun Gong shares similar elements with Buddhism and Taoism, but it also has unique characteristics. In addition to providing methods to clear the mind and move energy through the body, it also teaches practitioners to elevate their character. This means doing their best to be a good person in every situation in life. The three guiding principles of Falun Gong are truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance.
Those who live by these principles say they have the power to overcome virtually anything. Pang says that even today she feels a profound sense of protection.
“Whatever happens in your life, your heart cannot be touched. It can be an extreme situation, but you feel calm because you feel protected,” Pang said. “I’ve been able to go through so many difficult situations because of the meditation practice of Falun Gong. I’ve benefited from day one.”
Falun Gong comes from China, but the people who practice it today hail from all over the world. One of them is 45-year-old Tabitha Smile. In 2014, Smile was a single mother of two teenagers and working a corporate job when she decided she wanted to find a meditation practice.
Smile had some previous knowledge of meditation practices found in Asia because of time spent in the Far East. Many of her formative childhood years were spent in Japan, and she also visited Korea and Taiwan.
But she discovered Falun Gong in a room above a Whole Foods store in Portland, Oregon, where she met up with a small local group to learn the exercises. She says it was a casual atmosphere where she felt comfortable to go at her own pace. But she saw profound benefits right away.
“The first time I did the Falun Dafa exercises in the group, I could feel the gentle warmth and vibrations throughout my entire body. I felt very light and wonderful, and I knew I had found a true practice.”
“For weeks after my practice, I felt a rotational type of vibration all over my body,” she said.
Within a few months, Smile’s chronic back pain disappeared, and a persistent skin issue that had plagued her for years was finally gone.
“I also felt an increase in energy,” she said.
If you’re new to Chinese culture, much of the philosophy of Falun Gong may seem odd at first. Mystical talk of energy channels, the power of inner silence, and the accumulation of virtue as a real physical substance are all a part of traditional Asian culture. But interested Westerners can find a connection with these ideas.
Those who come to embrace Falun Gong often talk about finding it at a pivotal point in their lives. Joseph Gigliotti, a 29-year-old chiropractor, was first introduced to Falun Gong almost seven years ago while in chiropractic college.
“It was at a time when I was beginning to see that I had some serious work to do on my character. I was looking for an authentic spiritual discipline that could help me mature and be a better person,” Gigliotti said. “When a friend told me about this practice, I immediately knew this was unique, authentic, and very powerful.”
Gigliotti had previously struggled with anxiety and depression, but he says through Falun Gong, these issues simply melted away.
“I could never imagine then the changes that would take place in me,” he said. “Falun Dafa has left a permanent mark on who I am, and it has transformed all my relationships.”
Today, Gigliotti says meditation has become an integral part of his life. It has taught him to think of others first, and to look within whenever he faces any difficult ordeal.
“In many ways, this practice saved my life,” Gigliotti said. “I wouldn’t be who I am without it. It’s so nice to be able to sit and settle my mind.”
“While meditating, it feels like a shower to my mind and body. It can really be pleasant. It can also be challenging at times and helps me temper myself.”
A Treasured Discovery
Many Falun Gong practitioners say they treasure the practice because of the journey—the search they took to find it. But sometimes the practice finds them.
That’s what happened to a 63-year-old music teacher and photographer, Syl Lebar. In 2004, Lebar was researching information about a style of tai chi known as “wu,” but for some reason, his search results kept leading him to Falun Gong.
“Every time I searched, Google only showed me pages and pages of Falun Dafa. I had heard of it before, but that’s not what I was looking for at the time. I tried a second time, and the same thing happened. A third, and yet the same results,” Lebar said.
At first he was annoyed, but he decided to see what Falun Dafa was about. He found the main text of the practice, “Zhuan Falun,” online. After reading just a few pages, he was hooked.
“Before I knew it, I was in the third chapter. I couldn’t stop reading it,” Lebar said. “When I went to bed, it suddenly occurred to me—that was no accident with the results when I was looking for wu-style tai chi. Someone was guiding me there. I smiled when I realized what had happened. Dafa is what I was looking for all my life.”
Over time, Lebar saw benefits that he attributed directly to his Falun Gong practice. His health was improving. He developed a more positive outlook, and he found it easier to handle all the little challenges of life.
“Everything in my daily life seemed to be taking an unknown direction for the better. The meditation that goes with the teaching put me in a state of internal peace that I had not felt before, even with other cultivation systems,” Lebar said. “Relationships to my immediate and extended family were improving as well.”
Lebar says he got a lot out of other meditation systems he had tried in the past, but they didn’t compare to what he gained from Falun Gong.
“I could not imagine life without it,” he said.