Stress has made the headlines this week – disturbingly the perception of stress can almost double the chance of a heart attack, and the number of people being admitted to hospital has risen by 7%.
It got us thinking about ways to take that first step to a less stressed-out life. I don’t want to sound like a cynical hack, but if there’s anyone I’ll trust to take me through the miasma of city living and dealing with all the stresses and challenges that it entails, it’ll be someone who knows what it feels like to feel that trapped in the first place.
John Parkin and his wife Gaia were Londoners – South Londoners to be precise – and 10 years ago they up and left to move to Italy, where they set up a gorgeous retreat called The Hill That Breathes, that helps people who are having trouble coping with work or life in general. Since then, they’ve started workshops in the UK and published a book which is all about their unique brand of ‘Fuck It’ therapy. We caught up with John to find out what it’s about and his journey from ad executive to all-round chilled out fella.
Why did you leave in the first place?
I didn’t hate my job – we were both creatives in an advertising agency – and we liked what we did. But, I wasn’t well, and I was interested in alternative therapies as was Gaia. I incorporated that into my work and I was trained as a shamanic healer – I used trance hypnotherapy to help clients come up with ideas.
But, it came to a point where I wanted to help people who needed therapeutic help. I’ve talked to people about making the change, and they always ask: how do you make the jump? But we’re not alone in this – most people who change their lifestyle or leave the country do it because it comes to a point where there is no choice. On paper your job might look good but we just needed to go and do our stuff with people who really wanted therapy.
As someone who lives a completely different lifestyle, what strikes you about city people?
It’s nearly 10 years since we left and the differences between the city and the country becomes more apparent the more I come back. People look really tired and washed out, and yes, the pace is much faster. We can actually feel the buzz – how much faster things move, the stress. People on the tube are just in their own world, they don’t think too much about stuff.
Fuck It therapy: Most of our pain is around resistance to what’s happening, the situation we’re in. We’re resisting something that’s there. What Fuck It does is it pricks the bubble of that attachment to something. It might be: ‘Oh Christ – I really need to lose stone (after a weekend about drinking)’. You then say: ‘Oh fuck it, it doesn’t matter.’
Fuck It has got lots of elements but in a nutshell – it’s unique because it points at the fact that most of us worry about things that don’t matter so much. It’s putting yourself through the perspective machine and saying to myself, I shouldn’t be going through so much pain.
How do you get perspective?
The idea of Fuck It is to look at the things we feel are so important, the things that are making us unhappy or stressing us out. It’s about looking at your life from the outside. Getting perspective is a key thing of what we teach and you think, crikey, a few months ago we were worrying about this and that, and it’s not that important. .
We found a friend who was our age died recently – it is shocking stuff and really makes you examine what’s important and what isn’t. You know, whether it’s you leaving the city, or going on holiday, or getting some really bad news like a death or illness – it pulls you out of the situation and makes you realise the things we are worrying about and stressing about is making us sick. You can see the physical state of how it affects you.
Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. (University of California, Berkeley)
So are people better off not living in the city?
No, we don’t teach about moving out of the city. When I was in London, I loved the challenges of it and everyday life. Then when we came here (Italy) to live on a hill – I didn’t have to do so much Tai Chi. The worry of the lifestyle there – being bombarded by advertising, bad news, everyone’s fears and stuff in your face - it’s actually great practice for the person interested in finding peace or balance in it.
How can you instantly de-stress?
Take small steps – breathing is a very quick and easy thing to do. Slow your breathing down and breathe into the belly. Focus on the outbreath – just by lengthening it makes a difference. That’s the first thing.
The next thing is some form of ‘coming into the present’. Bring your awareness into what’s around you at the time. If I’m stressed I start to focus on the sounds around me but it will change from person to person. If you’re on the tube, listen to the train creaking, the announcements – it really relaxes me. And I have my mantra – which is Fuck It.
What does it mean to ‘be happy’?
I feel the same about happiness and love. Both happiness and love are side effects of things that naturally happen when other things align. My idea of happiness is being okay around things. When I feel tension arising, my stuff is: how can I be conscious of it and relax around it. As I relax, I tend to feel love. The problem is that we’re so happiness-obsessed about the actual idea is that the best thing is to forget about it if you can. Being content is better.
MORE ON HUFFPOST UK:
- 5 Surprising Secrets To Being Happy
How can you change your life?
The key thing in making any shift is consciousness or being aware – mindfulness, in other words. When we’re unhappy we drink a bit too much or work too hard or eat too much. When you shine a light on it – that means going okay – I don’t feel too happy. And that is huge in itself. . Just being conscious improves things and creates a shift.
Try meditation – you don’t have to do it everyday. People do, and practice can make a difference, if you’re new to it then having the discipline of doing it every day is good, but it’s not about how much time you spend. It’s about what you do with the rest of the day.
The main thing is up your levels of awareness without attaching too much to it, not judging yourself. Mindfulness is as important as meditation – bringing your attention to the taste of the food, the conversations you’re having with people and really being aware of life.
John Parkin has written F**k It: The Ultimate Spiritual Way, £8.99, Hay House UK
It Lowers Stress -- Literally
Research published just last month in the journal Health Psychology shows that mindfulness is not only associated with feeling less stressed, it's also linked with <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/31/mindfulness-meditation-cortisol-stress-levels_n_2965197.html" target="_blank">decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol</a>.
It Lets Us Get To Know Our True Selves
It lets us get to know our true selves. Mindfulness can help us see beyond those rose-colored glasses when we need to really <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/19/mindfulness-understand-personalities_n_2886102.html" target="_blank">objectively analyze ourselves</a>. A study in the journal Psychological Science shows that mindfulness can help us conquer common "blind spots," which can amplify or diminish our own flaws beyond reality.
It Can Make Your Grades Better
Researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that college students <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/27/mindfulness-testing-focus-reading-comprehension_n_2957146.html" target="_blank">who were trained in mindfulness</a> performed better on the verbal reasoning section of the GRE, and also experienced improvements in their working memory. "Our results suggest that cultivating mindfulness is an effective and efficient technique for improving cognitive function, with widereaching consequences," the researchers wrote in the Psychological Science study.
It Could Help Our Troops
The U.S. Marine Corps is in the process of seeing how mindfulness meditation training can improve troops' performance and <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/22/marine-corps-mindfulness-meditation_n_2526244.html" target="_blank">ability to handle -- and recover from -- stress</a>.
It Could Help People With Arthritis
A 2011 study in the journal Annals of Rheumatic Disease shows that even though mindfulness training may not help to lessen pain for people with rheumatoid arthritis, it <em>could</em> help to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/28/mindfulness-meditation-rheumatoid-arthritis_n_1171685.html" target="_blank">lower their stress and fatigue</a>.
It Changes The Brain In A Protective Way
University of Oregon researchers found that integrative body-mind training -- which is a meditation technique -- can actually result in brain changes that may be protective against mental illness. The meditation practice was linked with <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/15/mindfulness-meditation-brain-integrative-body-mind-training_n_1594803.html" target="_blank">increased signaling connections in the brain</a>, something called axonal density, as well as increased protective tissue (myelin) around the axons in the anterior cingulate brain region.
It Works As The Brain's "Volume Knob"
Ever wondered why mindfulness meditation can make you feel more focused and zen? It's because it helps the brain to have <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/14/mindfulness-meditation-brain_n_2680087.html" target="_blank">better control over processing pain and emotions</a>, specifically through the control of cortical alpha rhythms (which play a role in what senses our minds are attentive to), according to a study in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
It Makes Music Sound Better
Mindfulness meditation improves our <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/06/mindfulness-meditation-music-engagement_n_2623292.html" target="_blank">focused engagement in music</a>, helping us to truly enjoy and experience what we're listening to, according to a study in the journal Psychology of Music.
It Helps Us Even When We're Not Actively Practicing It
You don't have to actually be meditating for it to still <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/15/meditation-emotional-processing-emotions-brain_n_2123753.html" target="_blank">benefit your brain's emotional processing</a>. That's the finding of a study in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, which shows that the amygdala brain region's response to emotional stimuli is changed by meditation, and this effect occurs even when a person isn't actively meditating.
It Has Four Elements That Help Us In Different Ways
The health benefits of mindfulness can be boiled <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/02/mindfulness-meditation-health_n_1070101.html#slide=309243" target="_blank">down to four elements</a>, according to a Perspectives on Psychological Science study: body awareness, self-awareness, regulation of emotion and regulation of attention.
It Could Help Your Doctor Be Better At His/Her Job
Doctors, listen up: Mindfulness meditation could help you <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/01/mindfulness-meditation-doctors_n_1456870.html" target="_blank">better care for your patients</a>. Research from the University of Rochester Medical Center shows that doctors who are trained in mindfulness meditation are less judgmental, more self-aware and better listeners when it comes to interacting with patients
It Makes You A Better Person
Sure, we love all the things meditation does for us. But it could also benefit people we interact with, by <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/02/meditation-compassion-do-good_n_2993793.html?utm_hp_ref=healthy-living" target="_blank">making us more compassionate</a>, according to a study in the journal Psychological Science. Researchers from Northeastern and Harvard universities found that meditation is linked with more virtuous, "do-good" behavior.
It Could Make Going Through Cancer Just A Little Less Stressful
Research from the Jefferson-Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine shows that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/02/art-mindfulness-stress-relief-breast-cancer-patients_n_2219268.html" target="_blank">mindfulness coupled with art therapy</a> can successfully decrease stress symptoms among women with breast cancer. And not only that, but imaging tests show that it is actually linked with brain changes related to stress, emotions and reward.
It Could Help The Elderly Feel Less Lonely
Loneliness among seniors can be dangerous, in that it's known to raise risks for a number of health conditions. But researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, found that mindfulness meditation helped to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/29/mindfulness-meditation-loneliness-elderly_n_1702112.html" target="_blank">decrease these feelings of loneliness</a> among the elderly, <em>and</em> boost their health by reducing the expression of genes linked with inflammation.
It Could Make Your Health Care Bill A Little Lower
Not only will your health benefit from mindfulness meditation training, but your wallet might, too. Research in the American Journal of Health Promotion shows that <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21879945" target="_blank">practicing Transcendental Meditation</a> is linked with lower yearly doctor costs, compared with people who don't practice the meditation technique.
It Comes In Handy During Cold Season
Aside from <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/15/cold-flu-prevention-natural-immune-boosters_n_2474430.html" target="_blank">practicing good hygiene</a>, mindfulness meditation and exercise could l<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/14/meditation-flu-cold-symptoms-mindfulness-exercise_n_1671543.html" target="_blank">essen the nasty effects of colds</a>. Researchers from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Health found that people who engage in the practices miss fewer days of work from acute respiratory infections, and also experience a shortened duration and severity of symptoms.
It Lowers Depression Risk Among Pregnant Women
As many as one in five pregnant women will experience depression, but those who are at <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/12/mindfulness-yoga-depression-pregnancy_n_1760207.html" target="_blank">especially high risk for depression</a> may benefit from some mindfulness yoga. "Research on the impact of mindfulness yoga on pregnant women is limited but encouraging," study researcher Dr. Maria Muzik, M.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan, said in a statement. "This study builds the foundation for further research on how yoga may lead to an empowered and positive feeling toward pregnancy."
It Also Lowers Depression Risk Among Teens
Teaching teens how to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/15/mindfulness-in-schools-re_n_2884436.html" target="_blank">practice mindfulness through school programs</a> could help them experience less stress, anxiety and depression, according to a study from the University of Leuven.
It Supports Your Weight-Loss Goals
Trying to shed a few pounds to get to a healthier weight? Mindfulness could be your best friend, according to a survey of psychologists conducted by Consumer Reports and the American Psychological Association. Mindfulness training was considered an "excellent" or "good" <a href="http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/magazine/2013/02/lose-weight-your-way/index.htm" target="_blank">strategy for weight loss</a> by seven out of 10 psychologists in the survey.
It Helps You Seep Better
We saved the best for last! A University of Utah study found that mindfulness training can not only help us better control our emotions and moods, but it can <em>also</em> help us sleep better at night. “People who reported higher levels of mindfulness described better control over their emotions and behaviors during the day. In addition, higher mindfulness was <a href="http://huffingtonpost.menshealthmags.com/2013/03/11/mindfulness-emotional-stability-sleep_n_2836954.html" target="_blank">associated with lower activation at bedtime</a>, which could have benefits for sleep quality and future ability to manage stress," study researcher Holly Rau said in a statement.