“The unexamined life is not worth living.” ~ Socrates
A Child’s Heart
When I was little, I was rather shy and reserved, preferring to stay in the background and observe. While I had some friends, I was just as content to do my homework, or spend long hours reading on my bed, as I was doing anything else.
If others were unkind to me, I didn’t think too much on it, and easily let things go. I wasn’t unkind to others in return and never held a grudge. It didn’t even occur to me to be this way.
I always listened to my parents and teachers and followed the rules closely. I thought of others first and tried to do what I could to be helpful. I believed others were good, even if on the surface they sometimes might not seem to be. I knew the difference between right and wrong, and doing the right thing came naturally and easily.
Like my state of mind, life was simple and uncomplicated.
As I grew older, my self-interests also grew. My desire to have fun and do what I wanted began to take precedence over being helpful, or even doing the right thing at times. As a result, I sometimes did things that I later regretted.
But when I compared myself to others, I thought I wasn’t doing so badly. After all, I still tried to be kind and help others. But my standards for myself were not what they once had been.
I was often told I needed to toughen up, to not let others walk all over me, and to speak up for myself, lest I be taken advantage of. During my family medicine residency in Philadelphia, a classmate even suggested I move back to the gentle south after training, or else the city would eat me alive.
I grew to believe these things and felt that if someone wronged me, instead of letting it go, I should speak my mind. As my tolerance diminished, my feelings of competitiveness and jealousy grew, though I didn’t know it at the time. I became more easily annoyed, and harbored bad feelings toward others, even over small things.
As my selfishness grew stronger, my patience and compassion weakened. Even so, I still believed I behaved better than others. I often looked down on others, enabling me to justify my own bad behavior.
Many things were deeply buried, such as my desire to show off and my concern for what others thought of me, and these selfish parts grew to be quite strong. Little did I realize, these thoughts and behaviors were covering over the true me, the kind and compassionate me.
As a result, I often slept poorly and my mind was not peaceful. Life was no longer as simple and straightforward as it had been when I was young. My heart was uneasy, and I sometimes didn’t feel good about myself deep down inside.
Difficulties would come to help me understand where I needed to improve, and while I did make some changes, I would become complacent again when things eased up, once more relaxing my standards for myself.
Learning to Examine My Heart and Mind
Today, I’m most fortunate to have discovered the importance of examining my heart in a quest to return to the pure and simple state of mind I once had. This is thanks to an ancient practice known as Falun Dafa, also called Falun Gong.
Falun Dafa is a mind-body practice for self-improvement and good health, and while it originated in China, it’s now practiced the world over. The practice, taught by Mr. Li Hongzhi, teaches one to live by the principles of Truthfulness (Zhen), Compassion (Shan), and Forbearance (Ren) and focuses on improving one’s heart and moral character. An introductory video on the practice can be found online.
I’ve come to understand that it’s important to look closely at myself, rather than pointing a finger at others for their wrongdoing. It’s not easy, and sometimes it’s even painful. I’ve uncovered things that I didn’t know were there—selfish things. Many things that I saw in others, things that often annoyed me, were, in fact, things within me.
To genuinely improve, we must acknowledge those parts of ourselves that we normally try to hide, even from ourselves. This is the only path to true change.
I now understand the need to measure myself against what is truly right and wrong, rather than comparing myself to others. Looking at what my values are has been a part of this process.
Determining my values and who I want to be has helped me look at myself clearly and honestly, and work to change my heart. As I improve myself, my relationships with others improve, and my heart feels lighter.
I’ve discovered that when I let go of selfishness, my mind becomes calmer and my worries become fewer.
I’m also learning to follow the flow of life and go with what life naturally brings, rather than trying to resist and force things to go as I think they should. This seems to yield the best results.
“The ancients recognized that all life follows the rhythm of the universe. It’s the wise person who internalizes this rhythm, harmonizes with the ‘surrounding all,’ and conforms what he does to the flow of life, the Tao,” writes psychiatrist Abigail Brenner in Psychology Today.
It’s believed that what’s on the inside manifests outside. Therefore, the heart and mind have significant roles to play in one’s health.
Since practicing Falun Dafa, I have experienced dramatic and unexpected improvements in my health.
As a teenager, I was diagnosed with scoliosis. The curvature of my spine was so severe that, in order to try to avoid major surgery, I had to wear a back brace twenty-three hours a day, seven days a week, for over two years.
Although I was able to avoid surgery, my back pain progressively worsened, and I often found myself irritable due to the constant aching and burning. Despite deep massage, stretches, strength exercises, and even an inversion table, my pain was unrelenting. It became an unavoidable part of life.
After studying Falun Dafa and doing the exercises regularly, I realized one day that my back no longer hurt like it had. This improvement continued, and I now no longer have back pain, something I’d once thought impossible.
I’d also had gallbladder attacks multiple times in the past, and this too resolved, along with the hormonal issues I’d once dealt with. I now sleep soundly and have all the energy I need to get through my day, something I’d always lacked. There are many stories of practitioners experiencing health benefits, some of which are truly amazing.
I also firmly believe that if anyone deeply believes in the importance of Truthfulness, Compassion, and Forbearance they will have a healthier and more harmonious life
A Guide to Self-Examination
So when examining our hearts and minds, where do we begin?
While there are different approaches, similarities can be found. Pastor Yme Woensdregt writes on five ways St. Ignatius advised for self-examination, and converts the saint’s recommendations into more secular words:
- Become aware that we live in a vast universe in which we do not live for ourselves alone, a universe that we share with other people, other creatures, and forces which we cannot see or understand.
- Become aware that our actions and words are determined by our upbringing, our culture, our origins, and that they have an effect on other people and indeed all of nature.
- Review your day. Recall specific moments and your feelings at the time.
- Reflect on what you did, said, or thought. Were you becoming more clearly the person you wish you could be or were you regressing?
- Look toward tomorrow. How might you continue to be a force for good in your world? Be specific, and conclude with silent reflection.
For my part, when I encounter any difficulty, I look within to see where I need to improve.
When my attachment to something is strong, when I desire to have things benefit me, or when I cling to my old ideas and habits, it can be difficult to see what I need to correct. But with determination and a strong awareness of my thoughts and motives, I’m able to see my attachments and selfishness and correct them.
By following the principles of Truthfulness, Compassion, and Forbearance, I find that I naturally become patient and kind, think of others first, and know and do the right thing.
Life isn’t easy for any of us. Trials and tribulations inevitably come, sometimes small, sometimes large, and sometimes like a storm, with many raining down at once. Yet when I persevere, and view hardships as opportunities, as chances to do the right thing, even when it’s painfully difficult to do so, I find myself better for it.
In the words of Carl Jung, “Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”
No matter what one’s belief, religious or spiritual affiliation may be, the universal principles of Truthfulness, Compassion and Forbearance are recognized by all as good and upright. Holding these in our hearts leads us to a place of self-reflection and self-improvement, and whatever our chosen paths may be, the world is naturally a better place when we improve our hearts.
There’s still much I need to improve. Those I’m closest to help reveal my character most clearly, and also provide some of my greatest challenges. It’s these types of challenges and this self-revelation that leads to the greatest improvements in my character.
The beauty in the difficulty is, I find that with each layer I peel back, it brings me one step closer to returning to the pure and simple state I once had, and as my self-interests dissolve, my true, original state gradually comes to emerge—the state of having a child-like heart.
Tatiana Denning, D.O., is a family medicine physician who focuses on wellness and prevention. She believes in empowering her patients with the knowledge and skills necessary to maintain and improve their own health.