The No that helps to connect

I was privileged to be invited to give the inaugural lecture at the Festival of Spirituality in Turin in September 2018. The theme of the festival was “I’d rather not”, focussing on the positive aspects of being able to say ‘no’.

My book “Saying no - why it’s important for you and your child" is a best-seller in Italy, having sold more than 300,000 copies. The Italian title, “I no che auitano a crescere” (The No that helps to grow” ) really grasped what I was trying to communicate. I believe that being able to say no, even though much more difficult,  is as important as being able to say yes. In the context of parenting, rather than being seen as a barrier, I prefer to think of limits as arms that encircle the child, as boundaries that make children feel safe.

The festival was an opportunity for me to expand on these ideas and to shift the context from the family to our approach to life in society.  It was also an amazing personal experience to guide two meditations to an audience of nearly 1000 people! 

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The title of my talk was "The No that helps to connect”. The idea of saying ‘no' is often associated with selfishness, with obstacles to connection and with force. For me it represents taking a pause, not going on in a mindless way, out of habit or because of pressure from our inner or outer worlds. When we say ‘no' to automatic modes of reacting, we establish a space to be in touch with the present moment, recognise what is going on and therefore to have a choice about how we respond. This allows for authentic engagement with ourselves and others.

When the mind operates in habitual ways, it is likely to function in a repetitive, circular and ruminative form. It also tends to gravitate towards the past and the future. This has an impact on our emotional experience, often leading to stress, anger and inner criticism.

In our present culture there is a strong emphasis on “doing” rather than “being”. In my practice and teaching of Mindfulness I have come to appreciate the importance of our experience in the here and now, rather than always being driven by past events or some ideal or frightening future.  This often means saying no to the pressure of society to function in compliant ways, to the general view that we are judged by our concrete achievements  and by what can be seen (money, status, physical appearance, possessions etc), and that success is about what we do rather than what kind of human being we are. Yet we are human beings, not human doings. 

When we are more in touch with ourselves we can go to the core of what makes us happy or unhappy.  And when we reflect on this, we realise that actually all human beings want more or less the same things. We want to be happy and healthy. We want to feel safe and loved. Once we are deeply aware of this, our compassion for ourselves and others grows. We can relate with more openness to others, to differences in opinion, to diversity.  When we are aware of our common humanity, we realise that we have common goals, common suffering, common joy. Then we may disagree about how to obtain those but the dialogue will be based on mutual respect. And that encourages co-operation rather than violence, be it in thought or action. The Dalai Lama, who speaks so eloquently about world happiness and compassion says : “any change starts with the individual”.

My belief is that when we are more in tune with our present moment experience, when we say no to carrying on mindlessly, to fulfilling others’  or our own perfectionist expectations of who we should be, we are performing an act of kindness to ourselves and to others. In order to relate and connect with others, we need to be ourselves.  It is only when we are fully in tune with our own selves that we can recognise our common humanity, that ultimately every human being wants to be safe, to be loved, to be healthy to be happy. It is only when we are truly ourselves that we can connect with others authentically.

In this context saying no is a force for change, for new solutions.

The legend of the hummingbird

Once upon a time, a huge fire blazed through  the forest. All the animas were terrified, running   around in a panic and watching helplessly as the disaster unfolded.  Only the hummingbird was keeping himself busy,  flying to and fro and  collecting  drops of water from the river to throw them onto the fire. 

After a while, the armadillo, annoyed by this flitting,  shouted : “Hummingbird, you’re crazy! It will take more than a  few measly drops to  extinguish this fire!”

The hummingbird answered: “I know, but I am doing my part”.

This Amerindian legend teaches  us that even the smallest gesture matters. Often, it is all  that we can do. Many people feel that their contribution will make no difference.  So why should we bother to recycle,  eat less meat,  drive less,  conserve water or electricity?  But by the same token - why smile more, why be kinder, more forgiving, more compassionate, more generous with people whom we don’t even know?

Gandhi is quoted as saying: “Be the change you want to see”. This may not instantly revolutionise the world, but if we all take steps  to nurture  happiness in ourselves  and others,  if we hone  the skills necessary to treat ourselves and others kindly,  there can only be a shift for the better. The Dalai Lama says: “Happiness is not ready made. It comes from your own actions”.

Of course, true happiness  cannot be selfish. Only when we recognise our common humanity and the fact that every human being wishes to be happy, healthy and safe, can we relate to each other authentically and make the world a better place.


New Year 2018

So as we enter another year, another beginning I, along with millions of others, am reviewing my year, my life, my being.

We have just finished what is one of the fullest periods of the year, at least in the West, with Christmas celebrations, gifts, delicious meals and family get togethers. A time of “more, more, more”. For some it is a period of rejoicing, of being with loved ones and celebrating togetherness. For others it is a period of loneliness, need and sadness. For many it is difficult; family conflicts and financial stress intrude on the festive spirit.

But what about the new year? Can we do things differently? I am increasingly aware that the true riches of life come from being connected to others. I am lucky to have a roof over my head, enough food and heat to live comfortably. My basic physical needs are met. I have very little wish for objects. As my sister says, when it is her birthday, she would like presence not presents. The links with family, friends and the people I work with, are what makes my life wonderful. My relationships are what I wish to nurture in 2018.

Some will make resolutions, which are often concrete, part of a to-do list,  such as giving up smoking, drinking less, being on time, working harder, going out more etc. These are often framed in the context of correcting flaws.

I have decided this year that my resolutions or rather intentions are to do with having a positive mindset, to connect with young and old, to communicate with those I love and to be open to those I do not know. I will try to look at events with compassion and kindness, to take time to recognise the good intention behind people’s actions, even if the outcome is not always positive. I will smile more, grumble less, be friendlier and be more patient with myself and others. My guiding principles will be kindness, compassion and joyful, playful participation in life.

I will try to grow older engaged in human connection. 


My 2018 wishes for us all

May we be healthy in body and in mind

May we be safe from inner and outer harm

May we be free from fear

May we be playful

May we greet joy and sorrow with equanimity

May we be peaceful


Christmas Time is Here Again

It is nearly the 1st of December, time for advent calendars, planning family get togethers, delicious meals, Christmas carols, giving and receiving presents and a lot of ho ho ho cheer.

This of course is only one side of the coin. Many folk feel very isolated at Xmas time if their families are not nearby, if they do not get along or maybe even do not have families.

The weather has turned cold, and in my area there are increasing numbers of homeless people, sleeping rough, under bridges and street benches.

So think before you buy yet another present for your child or your family. Do they need so much, will they enjoy and appreciate the gifts? And then think about what you could perhaps give to a stranger, with no expectation of long term gratitude or recognition. Give because there is a need out there, give also because it feels good to be kind.

Particularly with children, reflect on what message you are giving them with tons of presents. There is an underlying communication that more or bigger is better. There is also the implication that nothing is too precious or needs looking after, that if something breaks or doesn’t work you can just replace it or not even bother because you have so much else to be playing with.

I think that it is never too early to show children that generosity and kindness are wonderful qualities. This is not simply done by example but it is a good idea to get them to practice this as well. 

We are on the whole very keen to teach children to share but not so much to give. Sharing is great but it also, especially for young children, has to do with division and subtraction. It is basically letting go of something they want. It implies that they will have less. Giving on the other hand means that you have enough, that you are the person who is in a position to offer something to another. 

My suggestion for an advent calendar for children this year is to create a list of what they can give daily until Christmas day. It could be a phone call to grandparents, helping load the dish washer, being kind to the lady at the till in the shop, greeting the bus driver, etc

You could make it a project with your child to devise ideas of kindness and generosity. It doesn’t have to be a major task. One option is to take a jar or a box, get your child to think of kind deeds for every day until Christmas and write them down on a little note and fill the jar. Take one out daily just as you would open an advent calendar window. An alternative, especially if your child is very young, is to write something daily and put it in the jar. By Christmas day you can see together how full the jar is and the child can feel proud of these acts of generosity.

Wishing one and all a happy, generous and kind Christmas.


Advent Jar.

Advent Jar.

Can't Get to Sleep?

Can’t Get to Sleep?

I am very lucky to be one of those people who usually falls asleep as soon as my head touches the pillow. However yesterday sleep totally escaped me as it occasionally does.

So what I have I learned?

  • Switch off all electronic devices

I am on holiday and rather foolishly before bed I leisurely checked my emails, read the news online, looked at and posted on social networks and ‘hey presto!’ two hours had flown by and it was past midnight. I liken browsing the internet to a kind of a “time quicksand”, it simply swallows it up.

Research is now clear that electronic devices are noxious to sleep and over stimulate the brain when it is meant to slow down towards rest and sleep. Best to switch everything off at least an hour before bedtime.

  • Whatever is going on, mind chattering won’t help.

Afterwards my mind was jumping about like a flee, here, there and everywhere, nothing particularly important but it just wouldn’t settle. I started to go over my return journey. I had done my homework and knew the answers to all my questions but on and on they buzzed like an annoying mosquito. The internal dialogue went something like this: What time should I leave? Would the trains be running on time? Should I allow an extra half hour just to be safe? Yes, it’s better to be safe than sorry. But then I’ll have to wake up at the crack of dawn and be hanging around at the airport for even longer than the required three hours. Should I check the train timetable again because it’s a Sunday? You’ve already done that a few times. Should I take a taxi instead? There’s no need, the subway is probably more reliable than the traffic. Yes, but, but, but… the loop is endless and totally boring. I know I am not alone in this.

I have purposely chosen a trivial example. Our mind can ruminate over the tiniest look we got from somebody at work, a small mistake we made or endless anxiety provoking scenarios in anticipation of a conflict.  If the mind chatter is so insistent in those circumstances, just imagine what happens when you are worried about something serious.  But even in those circumstances there is usually very little you can do about it in the middle of the night. The likelihood is that you will be thinking more clearly in the morning. 

If you are ruminating about wounds inflicted on or by you, going over and over them simply increases your distress and actually does not help the healing process. 

Nor do any thoughts of retribution or self criticism pacify you. When we are under attack we go into fight or flight mode. Unfortunately this also happens when the attack comes in the shape of thoughts. In order to sleep we need to be in a rest and digest state. 

  • So what can be done?

I first tried just to relax, taking a few deep breaths and becoming aware of my body lying on the bed.

I proceeded with a slow body scan, shifting my focus, slowly and gently up from my toes to the top of my head.

I felt more relaxed but still not at all sleepy, just filled with meandering repetitive thoughts. 

I decided to have a little chat with my mind. I have found this extremely useful. The brain although incredibly sophisticated and awesome can also be a bit like a hyperactive child with a toy or a puppy with a bone. It just won’t let go and be quiet. In that case I often speak to it kindly and patiently as I would to my child. “That’s all very interesting but it’s time to sleep now. We can talk about it in the morning”. If the thoughts are about trying to solve a problem, again a compassionate and kind voice works best “I know you are trying to help but it’s really not the time now. I can’t really concentrate. Let’s pick it up in the morning, shall we?” 

If all else fails, it helps simply to accept the situation with kindness and compassion. “I’m so sorry it is difficult to get to sleep tonight. You will eventually drop off and you are resting in the meantime.” 

Wish yourself well and for all you know the next thing you will remember is waking up.

You may well be thinking I’m a little bonkers by now but it works for me, so why not try it out?


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A visitor’s impressions of NYC and DC

I am in the USA at the moment and am struck by the stark contrast between the two great cities of New York and Washington DC, albeit as viewed by a visitor.

NYC aptly named “the city that never sleeps” is vibrant, dynamic, endlessly fascinating and constantly on the go. Streets are teeming with locals and tourists. You hear so many languages spoken, you stop trying to figure out where people are from. Something interesting is going on everywhere. 


Children run and play ball in local parks, musicians busk on street corners, quirky statements are printed on pavements and interesting art adorns door frames and walls. Bins are overflowing. Poverty and mental health problems are apparent. Strangers on the subway express their grief and shame at having such a terrible president. It all feels organic and touchingly human.

Washington on the other hand is beautifully designed. The roads are clean. Trees line the broad avenues, reminiscent of Paris.  A panoply of colours from the many flowering shrubs make the space feel open and fresh.  There are not many people on the streets. I cannot remember seeing a child just playing. It all feels very adult. In the centre, beautiful monuments catch your eye wherever you look. Fabulous museum after museum offer a treat to the eyes and food for thought.


Life seems more leisurely. The metro is wide, clean and pretty empty, maybe because it is August. On my first evening here I am invited to a silent meditation followed by a reading and discussion.  I see signs for Mindfulness meetings outside a local church, of which there are many. I counted 6 on the way to the metro.  My friends attend book clubs and avoid any talk of Trump, “we don’t want to bring him into our home”.

This gets me thinking about two opposing attractions which probably live in all of us. 

NYC appeals to the urge to do everything, see everything, taste everything, hear everything and not lose a minute of precious awake time. It is 'Doing' personified.

DC inspires breathing deeply, reflection, 'Being' rather than 'Doing', choosing what you wish for and how you spend your life, if you have that luxury. It feels like a city that gives you time to pause.

My outsider’s view is most likely totally skewed and purely impressionistic.

I imagine that it is harder work to make a space to cultivate peace of mind in NYC and maybe less exciting and stimulating to live in DC. 

Yet I can truly say I have fallen in love with both cities. Maybe the unifying factor is how kind and friendly everyone I have come across has been. If you look in the least bit lost, people ask if they can help. Service staff are warm and sound genuine when they wish you a pleasant visit.  Random encounters lead to engaging discussions.

Perhaps what I take away most powerfully is the sense that wherever you are, if people take time to greet and speak, to share and communicate then your life is enriched by the contact.  In that moment, nobody is a stranger. 


The Two Arrows

Pain and Suffering: The Two Arrows.

In practising Mindfulness, we aim to be more aware, more of the time. A powerful influence taking us away from being “fully present” in each moment is our automatic tendency to assess and often to judge, like a constant running commentary on our experiences: “is this what should be happening?” often leading on to “it’s not good enough, or not what we expected or wanted”. 

There are two forms of distress we may think about:

  1. The first arises from the inevitable events life sends our way: the hurts, rejections, betrayals, disappointments, physical injuries, illnesses, losses, separations, the list could be endless. It is important to note that these are often accompanied by physical as well as mental discomfort, headaches, knotted shoulders, feelings of nausea, stomach ache, tightness in the chest/heart area, a sense of heaviness in the whole body etc. This is the first arrow, the arrow of pain, which we can do nothing about.
  2. The second lies in what we make of this first pain. Do we blame ourselves or others? Do we feel anger or self pity? “Why me?” We may then spiral, sometimes out of control, into a catalogue of self criticism or recrimination against others or into activities which numb or anaesthetise our pain. Our thoughts go round in circles about blame or how things could or should be different. We easily drift down some fairly well-worn paths in our minds. This is the self inflicted arrow of suffering.

For instance if we have been badly treated we can get into a terrible state. We may question ourselves: what did we do to deserve this? Or we may want revenge, want the other to feel the hurt they have inflicted on us. We may then act impulsively and hit out, at ourselves, at the other or even at the world at large. We may believe we have really thought our reaction through, only because we have ruminated over it again and again. But as Gandhi said "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

In this way, we may lose awareness of the moment and also the freedom to choose what, if any, action needs to be taken. We can regain our freedom if, as a first step, we simply acknowledge the actuality of our situation, without immediately being hooked into automatic tendencies to judge, fix, or want things to be other than they are. 

The poet Keats praises what he calls 

‘Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”. (John Keats, Letter to George and Thomas Keats, 21 december1817)

Mindfulness provides opportunities to practise simply bringing an interested and friendly awareness to the way things are in each moment, so that we may choose a response wisely.