Petrea King helps people with the “D’s” – divorce, depression, diagnosis, death, dependency, disaster, etc. She is a crisis expert with deep wisdom about how we come to terms with life’s biggest challenges – and move forward.
Last August, when I announced that I was undergoing a bout of depression, I was humbled by the amount of people who reached out to me with words of encouragement, support and friendship. One of those people was Petrea, CEO and Founder of the Quest for Life Foundation which hosts support and meditation groups for people experiencing physical and emotional trauma.
In 1983 Petrea was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and was not expected to live. Meditation and the integration of past traumatic experiences, including the recent suicide of her brother Brenden, became paramount in her recovery, much of which was spent in a monastery near Assisi in Italy. She has been meditating since the age of 17.
More than 110,000 people have attended residential programs or counselling with Petrea and her team since 1985. She also lectures and conducts workshops around Australia and internationally.
Petrea has written eight best-selling books including: Quest for Life ~ A handbook for people with life-threatening illness, Spirited Women ~ Journeys with Breast Cancer, Sometimes Hearts Have to Break ~ 25 inspirational stories of healing and peace, Your Life Matters ~ The Power of Living.
Petrea invited me to join her at an upcoming Healing Your Life program at their beautiful property in the southern highlands of NSW. I got a huge amount out of the retreat. It is a very nurturing environment with wonderful healthy food and great people.
Petrea is an amazing lady who kindly allowed me to interview her. As part of that program Petrea presented to the group.
There were three themes that Petrea discussed:
Welcome the struggle
Do the work
No one ever said it was easy
I asked her to expand on these.
What do you mean by “Welcome the struggle”? How did you come believe that?
We always learn far more when things are going pear shaped than when things are going wonderfully. It’s when things don’t meet your expectations, when strategies that you thought would work fall over, when people disappoint you, when people break commitments, or when you encounter betrayals. That’s when you often do soul searching.
These are opportunities to look at your values, to look at your purpose, to look at the meaning that you have in your life, and to find new ways of doing things. In my experience, it’s usually not until you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place that you’re willing to let go of your cherished way of doing things.
Often, those things are habitual. We’ve done them before. They’ve always worked up until now, but now they don’t. Perhaps you’re in this new circumstance, and something’s fallen over that you didn’t anticipate. You’ve got to find new ways of approaching it.
When many people visit the Quest for Life Foundation, they’re in a terrible place. What do you think is the best way to help them see new opportunities?
I think the first thing always is to listen. It’s called narrative therapy as far as evidence based treatments are concerned. In my experience , unless people feel they’ve been heard and that someone gets them, “I get why you’re feeling the way you are, why you’re acting the way you are,” people are not open to change. It’s almost like someone has to acknowledge the pain that you’re in or the circumstance that you’re in before they’re then ready to see another way out.
I’m always deeply touched that some people travel so far to visit. It amazes me that people will entrust themselves at a very vulnerable time in their life to a group of strangers, and know that they’re going to be safe, nurtured and cared for. Once they’ve unburdened themselves from the story, they’re ready to hear about another way of looking at circumstance they are facing.
The first step is always the need to be heard, and that’s part of, “Are you okay,” as well. It’s really listening to them, not immediately coming with your solution to their problem. People feel like that’s a presumption. You haven’t even heard me yet. You don’t even know what my world’s like, and yet you’re trying to pull me out of where I am before even fully hearing where I am.
I think that’s the difference between this kind of process and a psychiatric hospital. There you’re treated, but it’s not really about you. It’s about the condition you’ve been diagnosed with, and they don’t meet you where you are and then walk with you from that place. We endeavour to meet you where you are, and then walk with you to possibly seeing things differently.
What do you mean by “Do the Work”. How do you know what work to do?
Well, so often, we blame everyone else, or blame life, or blame circumstances, or blame other people’s decisions for our misery. It’s their fault that I’m in this situation. You need to own it and understand what that reaction is about. It’s not okay to keep blaming circumstances for your lack of inner peace, because then your inner peace it totally dependent on outer circumstances.
Life’s full of unexpected, unthinkable, unimaginable things that can happen, and so it’s more about how are we going to respond, not react. When we react we are acting how we’ve done before. A response takes you into new territory. The work is the willingness to have the self-reflection and self-examination. That really allows you to choose a different path and own your inner state.
What is step one in “Do the work”?
Awareness. Reactions are always in the body. Reaction’s in our gut. Our heart rate increases. Our breathing changes. We tense our muscles. We get sweaty palms. Our head can feel like it’s going to burst. Each one of us needs to become aware of how we react, because for one, it’ll be tensing up fists, and for another, it’ll be in the gut. For another, it’ll be the breathing changes.
We don’t say to people, “Take reactibility for your life.” We say, “Take responsibility for your life”.
Once you recognise here’s a reaction, you need to ask yourself, “How well do I feel right now?”. When you’re in the midst of a reaction, you’re nearly always a little kid. We’re literally reactivating the physiology of the scared three, four, five, six, seven year old and living it again as a woman of 65.
If I speak or act from that, I’m actually speaking and acting from the physiology of a four year old. A response means I can feel that reaction – but I’m not going to let it be the stimulus for my words or my actions. A response will take me into new territory. It often means taking a risk. It often involves being vulnerable, letting someone see something about yourself that’s human.
Our first priority should to be in our body. A lot of people live in their heads all the time, always thinking about their theories and strategies to improve our lot, whereas we’ve actually got three brains. We’ve got a neurological system in our brain, we’ve got a neurological system in our heart, and we’ve got a neurological system in our gut. The brain, the heart, and the gut need to be working in harmony with each other. You can’t just be driven by intellect. It has to be balanced by compassion, and it has to feel right.
I love your saying” the issue’s in the tissues”. Is that about trying to assess what is causing the tension and unease?
Most of us only have, in my experience, three or four major core states that go right back to our past. We make up beliefs from those. I’m not good enough, I’m responsible for everything, can’t trust people, etc. Once you see the reactivation in your own body and you unhook yourself from it, it unhooks you in a whole range of other circumstances.
It’s like a spiderweb. It appears to be, this is the only way I know how to do life. Once you start unhooking just one, maybe two of those, the whole web comes crashing down. Then, of course, for a lot of people, they go into, “Well, who am I? Who am I if I’m not in this relationship? Who am I if my business fails? Who am I if my partner leaves? What am I if my child dies?”
It’s these things that really confront us with those deeper questions about our own existence. Who am I? What am I doing on the planet? Am I living the life I came here to live? If not, why not, and what am I going to do about that? Most of us just want to be happy and useful, but that means we have to align ourselves with life.
That means we need to eat, exercise, sleep in a way that nurtures life. We need to quieten and train the brain. Don’t just have it wandering all over the place. When you help your body to experience peace, then you have access to intuition, insight, wisdom, humour, spontaneity, creativity, and compassion. Those are all present time qualities, often lacking in business. We get so many people bruised by business, who’ve been bullied, and who’ve been retrenched.
Some people, are sacked via text. They have given years and years, and are loyal to the company, and the company’s treated them badly. It hurts people.
Could you expand on “No one ever said it was easy”? How do you encourage people to do the work when it isn’t easy?
I think that’s why suffering’s a great motivator. I know in one of the universities in America, they were looking at why don’t we do what we know is good for us. We know we should eat well, and we should exercise, and we should go to bed at a proper time. Why don’t we do them? They concluded that the most effective way to bring about change was through ritual. I’m going to go for 10 minute walk before I sit down to have a meal, or I’m going to have a glass of water 15 minutes before breakfast, etc.
I reckon they missed the point. The greatest source of change is suffering. When you find that it hurts too much to stay where you are, you become willing to see things differently and let go your cherished beliefs and ways of doing things. It might force you into collaboration. It might force you into asking for help. It might force you into all sorts of things that might be really scary. The response can takes you into new territory, “Okay, I’m going to reach out and ask for help” . That might be a foreign thought for you altogether.
Petrea, an very important component of your recovery from cancer many years ago was meditating in a cave that was immortalized by St Francis of Assisi. St Francis wrote a very famous prayer, whose opening line is, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” Do you feel that you’ve fulfilled that?
Yes. That prayer was my daily reflection in the cave, and I loved his madness. He was a wild bugger and went against all of the norms and all of the scriptures of the church. My life was a little bit like that, too. I also shared his love for animals.
I think all of us want to align ourselves with life and love. God’s not out there somewhere. That’s what life is. That’s what infuses everything. That’s the energy that holds everything in movement. If we can align ourselves with that and be a living expression of that, be in service to that, that means we have to take good care of the instrument – us.
It means that we need to use what we’ve been given to quieten the brain, because then you’re open intuitively to all kinds of things. If the brain is all over the shop, you don’t connect with the subtleties.
Thank you for your time Petrea, and for the sanctuary you have created at Quest For Life that has helped so many people.
I’m sure you will agree that there is a lot of wisdom here. For me, these are the three main takeaways:
People need to be heard. Don’t presume to understand them or their problems. Check in with them, and listen first.
How we respond to a situation is more important than how we react to it. Reactions are physiological. We can acknowledge them, but they don’t need to influence our response
Suffering is the greatest motivator for change. When our current situation becomes unacceptable, we are forced out of our comfort zone in to looking at new approaches.