“You are not your body. Within us all is the choice to create new dreams. Be defined not by what you’ve lost, but instead by who you are and what you can become.”
Ours is a culture that defines itself by things that are ‘outside’ us: our relationships, our work, our family and even our bodies. But what would it mean to have life so dramatically altered in a moment, and our body irrevocably damaged? Who are we then?
The answer to that question came to me in the most painful and excruciating way.
I had been an elite athlete preparing for the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. While on a training bike ride with my teammates, I was struck by a speeding truck. With extensive and life-threatening injuries, including a broken neck and back in six places, multiple fractures, head injures and massive internal bleeding, first responders didn’t expect me to survive.
From my last memory of the sun on my face, what happened on that fateful day, in many ways, remains a mystery. While paramedics and emergency crew fought to keep me alive, I was unaware of what was happening around me. I had left my body, and had begun the fight of—really, for—my life.
This was not the “near-death” experience so many people have described; for me, there was no light at the end of the tunnel, no one waiting to say it was not yet my time. There were no religious icons, nor any welcoming angels.
I could, at will, move between two dimensions. One moment, I was in my body in the physical plane, and the next, I was in the non-physical—sometimes in both places at the same time. The only distinction between the two was that one came with excruciating pain, while the other felt detached from worldly concerns, and pain-free.
I knew I was being guided and nurtured by those who had travelled such a journey long before mine. There were no spoken words between us, only thoughts, and even those thoughts are today difficult to recount. I was experiencing pure awareness.
Those spirits ― those beings, the presences that were with me then ― bestowed on me this gift of which I made mention, the essence of which has never left me.
I was offered a choice: To remain in this spiritual world or return to my physical body—one seemingly now broken beyond repair. The only certainties of the choice to return were unimaginable pain, incalculable physical and emotional loss—and the assurance that my life would never be the same.
At all times, it was clear to me: this choice was mine alone to make.
Those attending to me in intensive care held anxious vigil as I clung tenaciously to life, my profuse internal bleeding alarming the doctors that they informed my parents there was nothing more they could do. Prepare for the worst, they were told.
Struggling to come to terms with the grim prognosis, my father gripped my hand tightly and prayed, “God, take my strength and give it to Janine, I have enough for both of us. Please don’t let her go.”
As the power of his loving intention surged through me, I fought with the last ounce of strength that was in me.
Through medical care, love and the grace of those who cared for me, in this world and beyond, I found a way back. To the astonishment of all those who had believed I would not survive, after ten days I opened my eyes.
To me, what is most important is that I did not come back to my body to share my experience of the afterlife: I came back to learn how to live fully. Once I’d made the choice to return, it proved far more useful to learn how best to live in the present, rather than to dream of ways of escaping from it.
And the gift? Those 10 days in death, alternating visits between physical and ethereal worlds, gave me a deep and profound understanding of who I truly am, and my purpose in life.
I learned these things from my “death” experience:
1) Our greatest power is the power to choose.
I chose to return to my body, and knowing this, gave me a sense of responsibility, and purpose, for how I now lived my life from that point on. I could not change the externals of my life but I could choose how I relate to the internals of my life.
This insight gave me the motivation to reinvent my life in a remarkable and unlikely way. Sitting in my wheelchair, covered in a plaster body cast I watched, transfixed, as an aircraft flew overhead. In that very moment I made a choice that would be a powerful influence in my life henceforth: If I can’t walk, then maybe I can fly!
That moment changed everything in my life. I not only went on to learn to fly, but also to become certified as an aerobatic pilot and flying instructor, along with creating a new whole life as an author, speaker and mother.
Often, seemingly insignificant choices can have profound and unexpected consequences. Every moment of every day, we are making choices that influence our future, even if we are unaware of it at the time. The choices we make can redirect the course of our lives in an instant.
2) Life is about opportunities: Creating them, embracing them, and pursuing them.
As an elite athlete, I had defined myself by my physical attributes and abilities. Athletic prowess was the underpinning of who I was and how I presented myself to the world. I believed that my strength was in my body, and this was what I valued most in my life. Returning to a body no longer able to perform as it had, presented the greatest opportunity for spiritual growth, and it was my wakeup call to the truth of what gifts my life held for me.
My “death” experience has showed me that my true strength never had anything to do with my body. True spiritual strength cannot be tied to anything that can be lost. Our strength comes from the intangible spirit that lives in each of us, the defiant human spirit, that remains steadfast.
Knowing this is the gift.