I have recently returned from a ‘F**k it retreat’ in Italy which is a cross between a holiday and a personal development experience. For six days I attended morning sessions on the roof terrace of a small hotel on a volcanic island near Sicily called Stromboli (pronounced strom-bolly). In the evening I practiced Chi Kung (sort of like Tai Chi) on a small black beach, and dove into the sea afterwards for a swim before dinner. It was upper-lip dripping hot. In between morning and evening sessions I swam in crystal clear water on volcanic beaches, avoiding the dreaded ‘medusa’ jellyfish that plagued the waters, ate lunch at the local wine bar, drank Aperol spritz, had a siesta, or strolled down to the port to visit the small array of shops and bars along the waterfront. I met 20 wonderful new friends from all corners of the globe and came back relaxed and rejuvenated.
The F**k it philosophy is an approach to life developed by John Parkin. Parkin had experienced a burn out after working in advertising in the 90s in London and had an epiphany and came up with a controversial approach to life where you just said ‘F**k it’ to help change your normal mode of negative thinking and put things in perspective. The idea is that the word is so emotive it stirs us into action, it is not intended to make you go around shouting out profanities, in fact it has been proved that if you overuse the phrase it loses its impact.
John met Gaia a spirited Italian lady who shared his interest in alternative therapy and they married had twins, and turned their back on the London lifestyle to set up home in Urbino Italy, where they started running F**k it retreats in 2005 where people could take time out and learn the F**k it philosophy. Parkin wrote the first F**t it book in 2008 titled ‘F**K it – the ultimate spiritual way’ and it gained a huge following with many people attending retreats year after year. It has been described as truly life changing.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I booked. Four years ago my 23 year old son Toby killed himself. It was a complete shock and I have spent the last four years discovering how to carry on and rebuild my life. By any standard, I was coping well, but felt the need to take some time out and reflect myself on how I was living with my grief and somehow I found myself drawn to the F**K it way.
‘Stromboli’ is a five hour ferry from Naples. The island is small and has about 500 permanent inhabitants which is supplemented by a few thousand visitors over the summer. The volcano towers over the coastal community and is constantly smouldering. It is not particularly active at present but up to recently it was erupting about every 15 minutes and was a spectacular sight. There is not too much cause for concern as when the volcano erupts it conveniently spews lava down the uninhabited side of the island, and you can see the path it takes by going out on a boat trip which takes you round the island. However it was slightly unnerving to see warning signs with instructions of what to do in the event of a tsunami.
The houses are white, the beaches are black, and the sea crystal clear. The streets are small alley-ways and the main modes of transport are scooters or golf cart type vehicles. As you walk through the streets you have to listen out for the buzz of an approaching vehicle and be ready to jump into a doorway as you hear it is nearly upon you.
It is very hard to describe what we did in our morning sessions. I think I was expecting it to be a combination of talking and doing exercises to change our way of thinking about things. Instead we did a lot of relaxation and breathing, guided by John and Gaia who were the perfect combination of down to earthiness (John) and intuitive spirituality (Gaia). Gaia had an unnerving ability to just look at someone or touch their arm and know exactly what was going on inside. She could sense the energy of the group, the struggles going on inside and what we needed. The week did not come across as slick and rehearsed. I honestly believe that every week would be different depending on who showed up and that each morning the exercises we did just flowed from what John and Gaia could sense we needed.
This all sounds a bit airy fairy, but the combination of the heat, the beauty of the surroundings, the teaching from John and Gaia, and the energy from the group of 20 souls who had all turned up from all corners of the globe, made it an intensely rewarding experience. We did do some ‘sharing’ and as expected there were lots of stories of struggling with divorce, family issues, work pressures and burn out. There were writers, journalists, executives, scientists, artists from far and wide. Canada, New York, Paris, Germany, Sweden, Australia, UK, Denmark… people of all ages, nationalities and professions coming together with one common purpose, to find some peace and some release from what was ailing their spirit.
We talked, we listened to music, we breathed, we relaxed and we supported each other. I am quite opened minded to self-development, I have had a life coach and walked on red hot coals in order to find enlightenment. However I was surprised at the insight and emotional response that was triggered by just lying down and concentrating on breathing in a certain way. One morning we did this breathing exercise known as ‘rebirthing’. I was completely sceptical and was lying on the floor breathing, thinking ‘I have no idea what I’m doing, am I doing this right?’ when suddenly it was if I had been punched in the stomach with a rush of emotion. I started sobbing, it felt like a huge emotion that needed to get out. Next I was laughing and crying and sometime later I just felt more at peace than I had done for a long time. As the week went on I felt more relaxed and physically well than I had felt for years. All this came from just ‘letting go’. I was hit by a huge realisation that I was actually OK, I was doing fine and I didn’t need any major life changing transformation. All I needed was to get away for a while with a bunch of kindred spirits to reflect on my life and just relax.
Eva-Maria from Germany describes her experience after attending her 2nd F**K it retreat. She says:
“What I love most about F**k it is the authenticity. For me the beauty of this approach lies in getting real – allowing yourself to feel how you really feel and not trying to feel how you think you should feel (like, I should be over this by now,…). It’s incredibly relaxing, even when you feel like shit, and it’s much easier to heal when you’re relaxed. When you struggle in life it’s additionally exhausting to pretend that you don’t struggle and put on a smiling face. Just admitting that, yes, life sucks right now, feels like a big exhale and this realness is a ground on which I can stand, or sometimes lie, and eventually start walking again. It’s like I’m finally meeting the real me, not the façade that I often not only show to the world, but also to myself. This façade is a phantom, there’s no one real there to meet. And I have to say, it’s a pleasure to finally meet myself”.
There were a few bars and nightclubs on the island for those who wanted night life after dinner but most nights I retreated to bed well before midnight to get a good night’s sleep in my cool air-conditioned room. There was an option to hike up the volcano for the more adventurous, but I decided it was too hot and would wipe me out so passed on that experience. It was lovely though, each night to look up to the volcano and see the tiny lights of the torches of all the intrepid explorers who chose to hike up there starting at about 6 pm and returning at 11.30. You could see the trail of lights snaking down under the stars.
On our last evening we walked up to the observation point 400m up the volcano to view the ‘Sciara del Fuoco’ (the blackened laval scar that runs down the mountain’s northern flank). There is a pizza restaurant there and we ate outside under the stars looking up at the crater, it was magical and I reflected on what I had gained during the last six days.
F**k it, yes my son killed himself, I can’t do anything to change that. But taking time out to go to the retreat made me realise I’m doing OK, I may be alone but don’t have any angst over an ex-husband and am not stressed out doing a high status job that I hate. I am actually handling my grief exactly as is right for me and at my own pace, and just having a holiday would not have given me the insight I gained on my retreat. My F**k it experience was amazing, it was just the right balance between retreat and holiday and I made 20 wonderful new friends in the process.