Mark Tickner on duty at a correctional facility near Vancouver, B.C.
I have worked as a correctional officer in a federal jail near Vancouver for the past 18 years. The job is incredibly mentally and physically exhausting—unexpected, sometimes violent situations come up all the time. I struggled to balance this dynamic for a long time, mostly due to my ongoing internal crises and addictions. This is the story of how practicing a traditional Chinese meditation practice completely changed my approach to my job, my life, and myself.
Grappling With Life’s Meaning
When I was very young, from preschool through elementary and middle school, I always felt somewhat estranged from people and society. This was a subtle feeling in the back of my mind, a feeling of separation, and of not really belonging. This feeling became stronger as I grew older, which led to constant frustration and confusion about not fitting in. I was not socially awkward and had friends, yet I couldn’t shake the feeling of being an outsider on the sidelines looking in.
One night, lying in bed, I was staring at the darkness and wondering about the purpose of my life. Suddenly, I saw light coming down from the ceiling and onto my forehead. I felt it was so strange, but I wasn’t scared. “Where could this light come from?” I thought. At that time, our house was in a remote rural area, far away from cars or any possible reflection of light. This experience always stuck with me, and increased my curiosity about the spiritual world. In 1990, I left home to look for answers to my questions.
Filling the Void With Addictions
In my teens and early adulthood, I looked at the troubled state of society and became more frustrated with my questions regarding the meaning of life. It was at this point that I developed a sense of loss and depression. I turned to abusing drugs and alcohol in order to numb my frustration. I thought that I could use drugs to repress these feelings and to temporarily escape from my growing responsibilities. This went on for almost 20 years.
As I grew older, I wanted to dispel this feeling and decided my method would be to pursue more personal gain in society. I thus started following society’s messages that money, fame, and power will lead to happiness. I became more and more focused on myself, preoccupied with fame and sex, and over-indulged in my self-centered whims and desires.
I had developed the idea that by being popular with girls, having people think highly of me, and having more experience and skills than others, I would be able to gain more in life and find a sense of purpose. All these thoughts of getting more benefits and achievements stemmed from a desire to be a part of something. However, I didn’t really understand what I wanted to be a part of, and couldn’t find much purpose in material gain and meaningless relationships. It all felt fake and empty. So I again became absorbed in questions about why we are here, and what is life’s purpose.
During this period, I also heard that people could gain a sense of spiritual awakening from extreme physical sports. I started spending incredible amounts of time away from my work and family to pursue these things. I would spend a week away from work to go on surf trips. I would go out in the early morning for 6, 8, or 12-hour training runs through the mountains.
Mark on a hike near Vancouver, B.C.
I would spend all my time in the gym, before, during, and after work. During these times, I paid little attention to the needs of others, my coworkers, and family members. These activities consumed my focus, and it was all I thought about. I was pushing myself physically to extreme limits while still abusing narcotics in order to achieve a higher state of being. I also tried studying the Christian Bible through self-study and in groups but never felt any profound understandings. I still had so many questions.
I started to suffer from neurasthenia after many years of pushing my physical body to extremes and abusing substance. My facial nerve would tremble often, and it was hard for me to eat or drink properly. I sought medication, but doctors told me this illness could not be cured easily—some people would carry it for at least ten years and others would have it for a lifetime. This made me feel even more depressed and lost.
A Turning Point
In 2006, I met my wife, a Chinese woman named Xiaoxiao, at the restaurant where she worked. I was very drawn to her cheerful and warm-hearted personality, and she was unlike anyone I had ever met. Within a year, we were married.
I learned she practiced a traditional Chinese meditation practice called Falun Gong. She told me about the benefits of the practice, and how it might be able to help me. But when I read the book “Zhuan Falun,” the main text of the practice, I couldn’t even finish the first few pages, due to my impatience and some cultural differences.
Mark with his wife Xiaoxiao and their children in Vancouver, B.C. (Courtesy Mark Tickner)
Several years later, after feeling exhausted after a 30 km run, I remembered hearing that qigong could help improve energy and vitality. I started to read “China Falun Gong,” which explains basic information about qigong exercises and cultivation energy. I pushed through quickly and found the content fascinating. I finished the book in four days. Then my wife recommended I try reading “Zhuan Falun” again.
To my surprise, this time when I read it, I started to understand the principles to a certain extent and I realized it was a very high-level practice. It helped me enlighten to the fact that throughout my whole life, I had been looking for external things to satisfy me, rather than searching inside and working to improving my internal self and state of mind.
This thought was so liberating—that happiness and fulfillment was within my control, and not dependent on external factors. I decided to give up my empty pursuits and focus on my self-improvement or “cultivation.” It was an amazing leap from a shallow to deep understanding of life—as if my true self suddenly woke up.
A Fundamental Change
In two or three months after I started cultivation—improving my character according to Falun Gong’s principles of truthfulness, compassion, tolerance, and practicing the gentle qigong exercises and meditation—my neurasthenia decreased and I felt much better physically. Six months later, all my problems were gone. This was quite shocking, even to some friends of mine.
Once I applied the principles of truth-compassion-tolerance to everything in work and life, my whole perspective shifted completely and I began to think about others first instead of myself. When something difficult happened, I would think about how I could make it easier for others to deal with and I never shied away from conflicts.
For instance, one day at work, a criminal became extremely upset and threatened to kill some officers before ending his life. The officers on duty that day were quite hesitant, not knowing what to do. I approached the individual with nothing else in my heart but honesty, compassion, and tolerance. He was touched, and calmed down quickly. Nobody got hurt and the conflict was resolved.
My colleagues noticed the big changes in me, and also commented on my positive energy and attitude. I treated everyone equally and with the same principles—the criminals, my colleagues, supervisors, nurses—everybody. They observed the way I dealt with conflicts by approaching people with compassion and it benefited everyone.
Once, a new police officer was assigned to my department. The veteran police officers in the department had a tendency to isolate and haze the newcomers. For example, during a shift, some officers started to blame the new officer for something that wasn’t his fault. I stepped forward and said: “We shouldn’t do things like this. We were all new at one point. We need to be more sympathetic and considerate.” Soon, the group backed down and accepted the new officer.
On another occasion, my supervisor asked me to deal with an emergency. A fellow police officer felt jealous and I heard he had slashed my car’s tire. I asked him whether he did it and he did not deny or apologize, but said defensively, “Do you intend to fight with me?” In the past, I would never be able to let it go and would have fought him immediately. But the thought came to my mind that as a practitioner, I should be tolerant and should never be violent with people. So I just laughed and let it go.
Many colleagues spoke out for me and the work union even organized a donation to get the tire replaced. But I declined. The next time I saw him, I greeted that officer as if nothing had happened between us. Through my tolerance, he saw his own faults and realized that he was wrong and apologized. Gradually, the environment in the workplace became better and better.
My parents noticed my changes too. In the past, I had always acted selfishly with them. Even though it upset them, I often used to swear around them, and was always in a sullen and moody state. I started thinking of them first, and corrected my behavior. Once, when a relative passed away, my extended family members were all talking about the inheritance benefits, while my response was just to ask if there was anything I could do to help. My parents saw the positive change in my perspective, and asked me to teach them the Falun Gong exercises.
Mark with his wife and children.
In terms of my family and children, I used to think that my biggest challenge was to balance my work and family. From my previous perspective, I expected a relaxed and comfortable home environment after working at my intense job. However, the responsibilities of raising children and all the conflicts that occurred in family life made me feel more challenged at home. After practicing Falun Gong, I realized that both work and home are good places for my cultivation improvement. Once I started to apply the principles of truth, compassion, and tolerance at home, I was able to balance work and family life well. My children also follow my example, and help me see where I need to improve.
I am grateful to have finally found the answers to my questions in life, and now for the first time ever, I feel peace and contentment inside.
Mark can be reached for questions or comments at: [email protected]