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I have experienced firsthand that one’s greatest challenge can also be one’s biggest gift.
In 1985, I was diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) following the birth of my second son. At the time, it was hard to fathom that the body I had inhabited for 30 years would change so dramatically. Within days, the vibrant, active, capable me suddenly disappeared, leaving a new, unrecognizable me in its place. I felt trapped by overwhelming fatigue and gut-wrenching joint pain. But more difficult than the wreckage happening inside my body was that the effects were not visible from the outside, making it challenging for others to understand my pain and suffering.
After many failed western medicine interventions, I decided to forge a different path toward healing. It began with a book by Thich Nhat Hanh titled Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life. Had it not been for a friend who brought it to me, I’m really not certain how I would have survived. This little book became my constant companion, guiding my awareness around a way of being and thinking that was focused on finding inner peace with my condition. The simple mindfulness and meditation practices offered in the book became part of my daily routine. Ultimately, the book led me to other healing modalities which were hugely beneficial in cultivating an inner balance, such as a qigong and Reiki. This did not happen overnight, however. It required depths of patience, intention and lots of practice.
As my mindfulness practice deepened, I discovered that much of my suffering was caused by my ruminating thoughts and worry. Rather than catastrophizing about the end of a life I once adored, I turned my attention to accepting lupus as a physical condition and not my identity. In turn, I started to feel gratitude for the incremental healing that was taking place in my body and became less consumed by the radical changes to my body. This change of thinking empowered me to set my goals on small manageable tasks and feel a sense of accomplishment.
I began to express my gratitude for all the people who helped me learn new ways to effectively navigate the hurdles I was facing. I started to dismantle the years of sadness, fear and anxiety by taking time to appreciate the fact that I actually had a life to lead. Whether it was family, friends, my team of doctors and practitioners, expressing my thanks and appreciation became another way to feel understood and less isolated.
Compassion is paramount in healing, too. It is only when we choose to lean into our present realities with a mindset of kindness and goodwill that we learn to respond with more compassion for ourselves, others and our environment. In my case, when I shifted my attitude to more self-understanding and care, the weight of my health concerns slowly started to lift. Instead of wishing things were different, I decided to lean into my chronic pain and corresponding emotions like a loving friend that listens to you. I turned my attention to feeling my pain with an attitude of acceptance–without judgment, fear or a need to resolve.
As I began to feel the benefits of my compassion practice, my mood shifted. I was able to take better charge of my health and add other self-care tools. I started an anti-inflammatory diet, listened to my body’s wisdom and took more rest when I was overwhelmed by fatigue. I also spent more time in nature. All of these things immeasurably improved my emotional and physical health. Small yet consistent, these steps led me toward coming to terms with lupus—and I’m still working on it.
Finding the inner strength to overcome my health challenges has taken constant effort and patience. It opened me up to the world of mindfulness, taught me how to be a better parent and friend, feel motivated to relieve another's suffering and strengthened my resilience to life’s unexpected curveballs. As it turned out, my greatest obstacle turned out to be a profound gift.