Holding your life dear

A readiness to laugh, learn and love, and to connect and engage in some creative way with life will lead to greater happiness and health. That's the view of well known Western Australian psychotherapist and spiritual mentor, Dr Loretta do Rosario who spoke to Margaret Evans.

A readiness to laugh, learn and love, and toconnect and engage in some creative way with life willlead to greater happiness and health. That's the viewof well known Western Australian psychotherapist andspiritual mentor, Dr Loretta do Rosario who spoke toMargaret Evans.

"Don't move the way fear wants you to. Instead, movefrom within. Create a foolish project today. Noahdid."

A poem by 12th century Sufi mystic Rumi.

Turning the corner into a tranquil garden settingjust minutes from the busy midweek hubbub of Fremantle,the bright blue wooden footbridge that suddenly appearsbefore me brings a surge of childish delight. The touchof whimsy, the sheer joy of such primary colors - thenext one along the path is bright red - marks this spiritualretreat as something out of the ordinary.

Feeling like Dorothy following the yellow brick roadto the Land of Oz, I cross the blue bridge over a Japanese-stylerockpool to meet Dr Loretta do Rosario, a woman youimmediately sense shares your pleasure in the unexpectedsplash of creativity before you enter her oasis of Zen-likecalm.

As Wellness Facilitator for the Cancer Support Associationof WA, a position she has held since last August, theimpressively credentialled Loretta is convinced thatpeople who embrace a challenge and engage with lifein their own uniquely creative way enjoy a greater senseof wellness and soul. Quoting a personal favourite,the 12th century Sufi poet Rumi, who appreciated Noah'sapparently outrageous vision to "save the world", shegives a belly laugh of total approval.

In more than 20 years of research and work in transpersonalpsychology and spiritual development and mentoring,during which she completed a doctorate on the spiritualhealth and wellbeing of people with chronic illnessand disabilities, Loretta has become convinced of theessential importance of what she calls "holding yourselfdear". And it's the message she conveyed to a conferencein Perth last month aimed at helping people living withcancer approach their disease against a holistic backgroundof physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing.

"I've found in my research that regardless of whetherwe're well or we're ill, it's not the bits and piecesthat we do, aromatherapy or massage or whatever it is,that makes the difference. It's how you hold your lifetogether, the holding of the overall, the connectingof the overall, the patterns of your life. The differenceis when people go down this path of holding their livesdear," Loretta explains.

"Fragmentation these days pulls us in so many differentdirections. So many women will say 'I'm a mother, I'ma wife, I'm so many other things. Who am I? I don'tknow!'

"And most people don't care because they've lost thatenergy. They're so burnt out inside that they don'teven have the energy to care anymore."

Instilling that energy to care is the mission Lorettahas taken on in her new role with the Association, anon-profit organisation formed to help people affectedby cancer in their lives, either as a sufferer or asa family member or friend. As she puts it, "to be paidto love is an extraordinary privilege", invoking theoriginal meaning of the word therapist (from the Greektherapon) as 'comrade in a common struggle'.

And her own journey has included many meetings withpeople whose thoughts have stayed with her includingRaymond Carver, a cancer sufferer himself, who said:"And did you get what you wanted from life, even so.You did?

What was it that you wanted? To call myself belovedand to feel beloved with the earth".

It's particularly with people facing the end of theirlife that Loretta is most conscious of the intensityof spiritual connection. and the privilege she enjoysin meeting people who are facing up to their own mortalitywith remarkable calmness and even acceptance.

"It's paradoxical, but many of those who hold theirlife most dear are the ones who say ' If I die tomorrow,it's okay. I'm happy. I'm not asking to die, but ifmy life goes, it's okay.'

"I have found that the people who have made a differenceto their lives, whether they've been cured or died,whether they've had 10 years or 50 after their initialdiagnosis, are those who love life. They love themselvesand they've found new love in life whether if be partners,jobs, dogs.."

She's the first to admit that not everyone is preparedto " go down the spiritual route" at such times of personalcrisis. "But what I have found, and I've been very privilegedwhen doing my doctorate work in the early '90s to meeta range of people with very serious conditions, is asense of connection and coherence at the end of one'slife. It doesn't necessarily mean "God stuff" - it'smore a sense of 'I am one with life," Loretta explains.

One such person who has made a profound impressionon her and others is Maureen Borello who writes of herown more than six year battle against cancer in theAssociation's newsletter Wellness News. In an articletitled "Life is a Wonderful Challenge and Gift", Maureenopens her personal story with: "The doctors expectedme to be dead many years ago." Riddled with tumoursfrom a primary kidney cancer, Maureen has defied theodds and writes that she has "seen [her] cancers disappearthrough much hard work and inner healing. Instead ofgiving up I chose to listen to the inner healer withinand fight for my life".

Meditation, reflexology and chi gung are among thetechniques she uses every day to, as she writes, "stimulatethe natural life force and vitality that we all havewithin our bodies. And till this day, I'm always clearingmy energies, my body, my lymph nodes - so my chi canflow well."

Maureen is vital living proof of what Loretta is convincedis a crucial wakeup call inherent in many illnessesand personal crises. At the Perth conference she outlinedher belief that "dis-ease" and disharmony can oftenbe the trigger to grab hold of a fragmented life andbegin to live with a greater sense of wholeness.

"For those already deeply down a spiritual path, itmay be a call to better live and better learn," saysLoretta.

"And I find those who really learn are those who choosewhat I call the three Ls and the three Cs - to laugh,learn and love and to care, connect and be challengedmeaning to be creative. They take these six variablesand go for them, whether they're housewives, executivesor business people. It doesn't really matter." The audienceof people already attuned to a holistic approach tocoping with illness and seeking to play a role in theirown path to health and happiness was fertile groundfor Loretta's theory of 'the Five Factors of Wellness'.

The first, says Loretta, is the power of hope, exemplifiedby people like Maureen, closely allied with the powerof positive social support. She gives another exampleof a woman called Christine faced with a devastatingbreast cancer diagnosis and an imperative from her doctorto "come in tomorrow because we have to whip them bothoff".

"Up until then, she'd always described herself asa 'Yes' woman - yes to her husband, yes to her kids,yes to the P&C - the proverbial doormat. But for thefirst time she said 'No'.

"Instead, she took up her own battle and receivedunconditional support from her family. Instead of saying'Doctor, doctor, tell me what to do', Christine is anexample of choosing for yourself whether you live ordie. And the power of that authentic discriminativeforce, of choice, is tremendous." The power of takingcontrol of your life is also borne out by studies ofstress levels, as discussed in NOVA (April 2002) byNick Martin. In one British study, higher level publicservants, those with more control over their work environment,had lower stress levels, and in an interesting parallel,lower rates of dementia, than those further down theladder with less control over their lives. Loretta,too, supports the view that taking control of your ownwellness is a way of releasing the pressure cooker valve.

Meaningful engagement with life, creative pursuitsof any sort, is the fourth of her factors of wellnessand here the belly laugh endorsement of Sufi poet Rumimakes her point.

And, finally, the power of spirituality - "the powerof connection, or holding one's life dear" - completesher paradigm.

Working with people who want to be well, spirituallyas well as physically, is the mainstay of Loretta'svaried career, both as therapist, facilitator and, morerecently, spiritual mentor. Her long experience hasallowed her to witness the shift in the mantra of cancertreatment away from the "fight your cancer" rhetoricof the '70s and '80s towards more the imaginative, symbolicenergetic healing gaining credence today. Loretta isconvinced more than ever that "love is the greatestpower".

"It's the heart that really runs the show and that'sbeen the body of opinion over thousands of years. Itdoesn't matter if you have a good mind, meaning consciousness,or not, if you don't have the creative fire within.So it really comes down to love."

And, according to this very thoughtful and well readwoman, the imperative we must all take from the horrorof September 11 is that we must love ourselves as thestarting point for any greater good to come of it.

"It's the heart that changes the mind. It's the heartspace that creates thoughts, stimulates imagination.and then the positive relationships and positive connectionsfollow."