By Al Whitted
I grew up in central North Carolina, at the intersection of two very different ideologies.
One of those worlds was that of my father’s father, a Baptist minister. When he was in his prime, he was a great athlete and he had signed up to play Major League Baseball, which was his lifelong dream. But all that changed during his military service in World War II, when a drill sergeant jammed the butt of a rifle into my grandfather’s knee and injured the knee so badly that he could never play baseball again. The resentment he held against the sergeant became a weight my grandfather carried in his heart throughout his twenties, until he truly found God. From that point on, he devoted his entire life to preaching the good word that freed him from the demons in his heart.
Life with Grandpa was simple. He was an honest, traditional man with good values, and to him, all you had to do in life was to follow the word of God. With Grandpa’s lead, we went to church every Sunday. I spent many weekends with him exploring nature, playing golf, and learning the principles that made him a faithful husband and a dutiful father. And something must have worked for him: when my grandfather finally passed away, he had lived to the ripe old age of 99. He had no pain or any major ailments, and he was able to leave the world peacefully—the same way he had lived the better part of his years.
My mother, on the other hand, represented everything that ran counter to my grandfather’s old-fashioned conservatism. She was a flower child of the 1960s who fully embraced the indulgence and emotionality of the hippie movement. She ran a retreat for rehabilitating juvenile delinquents and dabbled in all sorts of new-age treatments and techniques, trying to find the one that would give those kids (and herself) the right guidance in life. From her, I learned about other avenues of meaning-making, including Eastern philosophy, spirituality, and meditation. But I also learned a lot about mistakes, regret, and the pain of not having a clear direction in life.
The one thing that both sides of the family had in common, however, was a love for nature. It was a grounding force that accompanied me as I grew older, and it was the place where I’d always return when things got difficult.
During senior year of high school, I sat next to a cheerleader in one of my classes. One Monday, I came to school to find the seat empty.
As word spread throughout the school, I found out she had died in a car crash that weekend.
This incident struck the deepest parts of my teenage heart, shaking my faith in God. I began to question many of the things I had learned from my grandfather growing up, things I previously had taken for granted. I couldn’t understand: why did an innocent girl who still had her whole life ahead of her have to die? How could God let that happen? Was there a God?
These questions plagued me, pitting the teachings of my grandfather with the reality of my experience. Since I had already learned a lot about one way of finding God from my grandfather, I wanted to explore the paths that other people have taken in history to see if they could offer some insight. In college, I studied Eastern religion for my major. I became familiar with Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism. I experimented with kung-fu and qigong. I learned to speak Chinese. But nothing seemed to be the actual answer I was seeking, and my questions still remained.
After college graduation, I decided to take some time for myself to think through these questions the only way I knew how—by spending time in nature. And so I hiked the Appalachian Trail, a 2,200-mile-long trail and one of the longest in the United States. From south to north, I wanted to take all of it in: every rock, tree, stream, and creature along the way. It was a meditative experience, far away from the hustle and bustle of places where people gathered, where I could truly observe things with my heart. And through these observations, my heart gradually found itself calming down. As I examined the designs of nature, I soon found my answer. There had to be a God, a Creator of some sort. There was no way that all of this beauty was an accident, from the delicate shape of each tree leaf to the delightful song of each bird, from the majesty of the morning peaks to the brilliance of every sunset.
From that point on, I knew that the universe must have a creator. I just wasn’t sure if I knew how to find him yet.
I lived for a while in Southern California to further explore these existential questions. I found lots of like-minded people who were also searching for that “something” in life, but nobody seemed to be any closer to finding the answer than I was. Instead, the only thing we seemed to accomplish was to emphasize how much we didn’t know about things together.
During this time, I continued to study kung-fu while holding a series of odd jobs. There was a kind of disconnect I had with the world, a kind of avoidance. Perhaps it was due to reading about Daoist sages and hermits who used to cultivate in the mountains, away from the world—I also viewed the conflicts and hubbub of the world as something I wanted no part in. I distanced myself from any kind of commitment or responsibility, viewing them as ties to something impure.
But for all of my efforts, I still wasn’t any closer to where I wanted to be. I eventually grew doubtful of the friends around me, who, despite saying that they wanted to find a path for goodness, often found themselves doing things that only seemed to drive them further from that path. The straw that finally broke the camel’s back was when I came down with lyme disease after a tick bite while camping in the Santa Monica mountains. I decided to go home to my family in North Carolina, where I could recover in their care and figure out what my next step was.
However, the spark inside me did not die out. Throughout my recovery, I held onto one thought: I wanted to become a pure person, and I wanted to follow the Buddha Way.
One day in 1998, when I was walking around downtown Durham, a small flyer caught my eye. “Falun Dafa,” it read, describing the practice of an advanced qigong school. Below that, it said that this qigong followed “the Buddha Way.” It also offered a free class.
The Buddha Way? That’s exactly what I’ve been looking for, I thought. So I decided to sign up.
Soon, I visited the local practice site at Duke Gardens to learn the exercises and watch Master Li Hongzhi’s lectures. Throughout this process, it was like something had finally clicked for me, like all the different pieces of my life—which I used to think were at odds with each other—suddenly started to fall into place.
From Falun Dafa, I understood that Eastern spirituality wasn’t about letting yourself loose and doing whatever it was you wanted. I also understood that there were deeper reasons behind the happenings in a person’s life, that all the good things and bad things that happened to a person were all based upon his or her actions in the past—perhaps even in previous lifetimes. There were many, many other questions that I was able to receive the answers to, about life, about death, about the intricacies of the universe. The more I studied the teachings, the clearer my future felt. It felt like I had finally found my direction in life.
The biggest change within me after studying Falun Dafa was that I began to take responsibility for my life. I realized from the teachings that in order to find higher truths in life, you had to start by being a good person in society. Commitment and responsibility were not things to be avoided; instead, by staying true to my word, I could run into opportunities to temper my character and become a better man.
I began by looking for a steady job so that I could support myself, and I soon became a teacher. I married my longtime girlfriend so that I could be responsible to her. We started a family shortly after that, and I tried to put what I learned from my grandfather to good use in being a father to two strong, healthy sons. I started to think more about other people, instead of just about myself.
Seeing this, my family was finally able to breathe a sigh of relief: their wayward son had come home, at last.
But the path of life always comes with surprises, even after you know which direction to walk in.
One cold winter night in 2020, I found myself lying on a hospital bed. It was still the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak, and I had caught the virus while I was working in New York.
Alone and in pain, I struggled to breathe. I hadn’t eaten in 14 days. I was wracked with pain. I couldn’t even walk a few steps to the bathroom.
Back then, the world still had no way of dealing with the virus effectively: no vaccines, no drugs. Ventilators would buy people more time, but whether you lived or died still depended on your immune system. Most doctors would have advised a healthy, active middle-aged man like me to just stay home and quarantine, but my symptoms had been severe enough that I needed to be admitted to the hospital.
However, even after I got admitted, my symptoms didn’t seem to get better, no matter how much anyone tried.
Is this really it? Am I passing away? This can’t be right, I thought. I had just turned 51.
For days, I was standing at death’s door, peering into the beyond. And despite the lethargy of the disease, my mind was racing a mile a minute. Anxiety took over my entire brain; I raced from one thought to the next—my family, my sons, my house, the meaning of my life until then, the feeling of dying.
Until one day, a thought broke through the fog of my mind: I needed to meditate. I needed to clear my mind. Because regardless of whatever came next, nothing helpful would come out of spiraling my way into my own emotions.
I pulled myself up in bed, and began to find my center the best way I knew how. I started practicing the Falun Dafa exercises. When I wasn’t doing the exercises, I was listening to recordings of Master Li Hongzhi’s teachings.
Soon, I could feel my mind becoming clearer again. And as my mind became more calm, my body started to recover, little by little. I made a choice that I would live. Within a day, I could walk to the bathroom by myself for the first time in weeks. A few days later, I had recovered enough to the point that I could be discharged. With oxygen tubes in my nose and accompanied by my mom, I drove myself 12 hours back to my family home in North Carolina.
People always like to say that it’s “mind over matter” when things get difficult in life. And there’s a lot of psychology coming out now that proves it’s actually true—our minds really are the basis of all that we experience in life, including our perceptions, our health, and our identities.
But how many people can actually say they put mind over matter when things get hard? And who really knows how?
For me, Falun Dafa is what helped me break out of the mentality where I was floating along in life and totally reactive to any emotion that came my way. Instead, I was able to work with my emotions and find a profound sense of peace—a peace that also helped to calm my surroundings and the people around me. I could truly put mind over matter, and I’m so much better off for it.
Of course, meaning-making is a highly personal question. We all have to decide what the right answer is for ourselves.
However, if you’re like me and have many questions about life, about ourselves, about the universe, I’d recommend you give Falun Dafa a try. Coming from someone who’s seen a lot spiritually, I can say with confidence that this is the real deal.