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.
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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 writtenF**k It: The Ultimate Spiritual Way, £8.99, Hay House UK