“The greater danger is not that your hopes are too high and you fail to reach them; it’s that they are too low and that you do.” – Michelangelo
“Mr. Watson, we don’t know if we can save you, but we will do everything we can”.
I’ve heard these words uttered to me by surgeons on two different occasions, in two different languages, in my life. I must admit that, at the time, in the fog created by the pain, my initial thoughts were that one way or another the physical and emotional pain would finally cease. Both of these emergency situations were the result of complications relative to an auto-immune disease. In other words, my body had turned on me.
In the first instance, I had just turned 21 years old and I had spent months in hospital where I lost 100 lbs in four months while the doctors were trying to figure out why I was so sick. At one point my weight dropped to 88lbs. The fear was that I would die of starvation. I was told that exploratory surgery was the last resort though, being so weak, I was also advised that I might not survive the procedure. Once I awakened from the anesthesia after the surgery and was informed that what they found , Crohn’s Disease, was controllable, all I wanted to do was return to my previous life and forget that this event had ever happened. In other words, I didn’t take the time to seek the lessons of this traumatic experience.
Life is funny sometimes in that if you choose not to learn from your difficult times, you end up having to go through another even more difficult event that will, hopefully grab your attention. My second event occurred 25 years later. In the middle of the night an abscess had burst in my abdomen and burned holes in my intestines. The pain was intense, but I did not want to alarm the kids by calling an ambulance so I waited until they left for school before being transported to hospital. It came close to being a fatal mistake. Shortly after I arrived at the hospital’s ER it was explained to me that I needed emergency surgery as I was septic. Thanks to a very skilled surgeon, I got through the surgery. My recovery from this event was very lengthy and difficult. It was both the worst and the best thing that ever happened to me.
It was the worst thing that had happened to me at the time, not only because of the intense pain before and during the recovery period, but also because the effect it had on my family and friends. It was the best thing that ever happened to me not only because, once I was completely recovered, the symptoms of Crohn’s disease that I had been dealing with for the last 25 years completely disappeared but, just as important, I had an awakening. Being older, more mature and a little wiser I was so much more aware of what I could have lost. Apart from the biggest loss of not seeing my children grow up, which is something I don’t even want to think about, it struck me that I would have left this life without having become the person I wanted to be. That realization was a major shock to me.
Nailed to a hospital bed with too many plastic tubes sticking out of my body, battling pain and fever, and listening to the mind-numbing beeping sounds emanating from the numerous monitors I was connected to provided me with a lot of time to take stock of who I had been, who I was and who I wanted to be. Just like most people working a high stress job and raising a family, life was a list of daily “to dos” that rarely seemed to change as the goal was about surviving another day in the trenches. I was on auto-pilot. Though I am very proud of what my girls have become, I was less proud of what I had become. It is not that I thought I was a “bad” person, it is just that I realized that I had been “sleepwalking” for most of my life. I was doing all the things that were expected of me and being who, I believed, everybody expected me to be. I had settled. It was a classic case of … self-betrayal. Not only had my body turned on me, but I had turned on myself.
The thought of having potentially died “with the music still in me” as Dr. Wayne Dyer has written was as scary as the thought of death itself. I was not sure of who, exactly, I wanted to become, nor how, but I knew that this was a quest I needed to embark on. Through the numerous books I read and lectures I attended over the years I came to the realization that what I needed to learn was how to live mindfully. Self-awareness, I concluded, was the key to living my best life.
After years of searching I developed a formula that works for me that I include in my coaching sessions with clients, especially those whose goal is achieving life balance. I call it feeding the four pillars. The four pillars I am referring to are the mind, the heart, the body and the spirit. I believe that if we mindfully tend to these areas of our life on a daily basis most people will attain a certain sense of balance and clarity. I can attest that it made a difference for me, though it did not happen overnight.
Before going any further, let’s look at what exactly are the pillars and how do we feed them:
Mind: This pillar is about expanding your mind through personal development. When you are learning, you are growing. Increasing your knowledge about anything helps you better understand the world around you. It also gives you more confidence in yourself, resulting in a boost to your self-esteem. Reading an article or the chapter of a book, taking a course on-line or listening to a CD or podcast on a subject that interests you are all examples of how you can feed this pillar. The idea is to learn something new, for you, every day.
Heart: Feeding your heart is an important aspect of having life-balance. Human beings need connection with themselves and others to survive. This pillar can be easily satisfied in so many ways and it is one of those that provides you with the quickest positive feedback. A quick hug, a random act of kindness toward a stranger, a quick text or email to a spouse or child telling them you love them are examples of how you can feed this all- important pillar.
Spirit: This pillar is one most people ignore. I suspect that the majority of individuals don’t realize the importance of taking care of the spiritual part of their lives. Now, I am not talking about religion here , though , for some people that is the way they would feed their spirit. I am talking mostly about spirituality through a person’s exploration of their sense of self. Feeding this pillar can be done through reading inspirational material, meditating, expressing gratitude, journaling, taking a solitary walk in nature or by choosing any activity that connects you to your essence. In my case, learning to meditate was one of the best gifts I ever gave myself.
Body: You feed this aspect of your life by doing anything that enhances your health. For most people this would be doing some form of exercise, making better food choices or abstaining from anything that you know is not serving you well in becoming a healthier human being. It is important that you become conscious of your choices when feeding this pillar. Feeding it can be as simple as taking the stairs instead of the elevator at work that day or choosing the fruit salad instead of that chocolate parfait. Committing to a fitness goal is an excellent way to feed this pillar.
By far the most difficult part of this all important exercise is to commit to doing it on a daily basis. That is why I suggest that you keep a journal where, on a daily basis, you record what you did to feed your pillars on that day. We all know that what gets measured has a better chance of getting done. This will help in keeping you focused.
Taking the time and energy to learn who we are and who we want to become has no price. We all spend so much time sleepwalking though our lives accompanied by a gnawing feeling that we can’t identify. That feeling, I discovered, was the real me trying to surface from deep inside my soul . I have found that the journey I have chosen to undertake has provided me with a level of clarity and peace that I am sure I would never have known had I not been “awakened” by personal trauma. It certainly is not necessary, nor would I recommend it, to wait for a traumatic event before taking on your journey to inner growth.
My quest to live mindfully is an ongoing process that has its struggles, but is also rich with “aha” moments. I am certainly happier and more at peace with myself now that I have ever been thanks to this journey. It is just too bad I had to be so close to death to scare myself into learning to live my best life.
Photo by Shawn Tron