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!
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.