Doctors Thought She'd Never Walk Again -- Today, She Twirls

A horrific surfing accident compelled Karen Cavanaugh to become a Whirling Dervish.

More than 800 years ago lived a Muslim poet named Rumi. Rumi was a Sufi, a member of the mystical branch of Islam that believes the true path to God lies deep within ourselves. To get there, it is said that Rumi began whirling, turning around and around in a kind of moving meditation that he believes brought him deeper into God's loving embrace.

Today, those who follow this practice are called Whirling Dervishes. They are members of the Mevlevi Order, and they welcome all faiths. American Karen Cavanaugh, featured in the documentary "Belief," is about to become one of them.

Though Karen is a practicing Catholic, her spiritual life took a surprising turn six years ago, when she was in a horrific surfing accident. The mom, wife and lawyer broke her neck and suffered a traumatic brain injury. Medication and surgery didn't help, and doctors didn't think she would survive.

As Karen drifted in and out of a coma, she remembered a powerful poem by Rumi that she'd read 20 years earlier.

I have lived on the lip of insanity,
Wanting to know reasons,
Knocking on a door.
It opens.
I've been knocking from the inside.

When Karen woke from her coma, doctors told her she would never walk again. But the words of Rumi seemed like a message calling her to the Sufi path.

So, Karen started sitting in on classes with a Sufi master whose teaching tradition centers on whirling. Though Karen was unable to turn physically, she started to meditate, visualizing her body turning around and around. Then, something incredible happened.

"Immediately, there was a moment where I felt no pain," Karen says. "I told my husband, 'I know what I have to be now. It’s some kind of Whirling Dervish/Buddhist/nun, I don’t know, but there was a moment tonight where I felt no pain.'"

After several weeks, Karen proved all of her doctors wrong: she started to walk again. Eventually, she was able to turn.

"Someone looking at me from the outside might say, 'well, she's done now. She's healed, she's walking, she's turning.'" Karen says. "But the accident changed everything. It changed who I was."

That's when Karen decided to devote her life to the Sufi path. She trained for 1,001 days and booked a trip to Konya, Turkey -- where Rumi lived and died -- to be initiated into the Whirling Dervishes.

"This is a journey I need to do to heal my spirit," Karen says.

Her initiation takes place in a private ceremony at the home of a revered Sufi master. As a part of the initiation, Karen performs the Semma, a sacred ceremony where she crosses the threshold from student to Whirling Dervish. By the end, Karen reveals the powerful mantra that kept her going.

"At some point during the turning, I heard the doctor say, 'you won't walk again.' And I said, 'Then, I will dance.'"

Today, Karen continues to twirl. It's now been two years since she taped her segment for "Belief," and in the video below, Karen gives an update on her life in the time since. She reflects on her experience, shares her spiritual outlook and explains how she reconciles her Catholicism with following a practice rooted in Islam.

Karen today:

Explore more stories of diverse faiths in "Belief," airing every night from now through Saturday, Oct. 24, at 8 p.m. ET on OWN.

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