The Power of ‘No’

Being gentle, loving, understanding, and kind are important qualities that we all want to cultivate within ourselves. But there is another quality that is equally important and often neglected, the ability to say ‘No’. This quality was strongly modeled to us 30 years ago by one of our teachers, Pir Vilayat Khan, who recently passed into the light.

Barry and I spent the summer in Chamonix, France with Pir Vilayat in a camp high in the French Alps during the summer of 1974. Amid thunderstorms, snow, ice and rain we huddled together in a small white tent on an alpine meadow. Most of the campers were in their twenties, Pir Vilayat was almost sixty. While we suffered from the cold and damp, he hardly seemed to notice. When we rubbed our hands together dreaming of a sunny beach or a least a hot shower, he seemed to thrive in the atmosphere of the mountains. Every day he sat and gave us inspirational talks. Often he would remind us, “Unless you can say ‘No’ to what is not right, you will never be able to fully say ‘Yes’ to life.” Though this sounded very good, it didn’t really register in our minds.

Finally the day came when the sun came out for the first time in two weeks. We were all very happy to finally be warm again. Along with the sun came the tourists. Though most of the tourists avoided us altogether, curiosity got the better of a few and they would wander over wondering what this group of young people were doing with this unusual looking older guy with the long gray beard. We politely answered their questions and usually they went away quickly. This particular day brought a large man who smelled strongly of alcohol. He came barging into our camp after lunch. (Pir Vilayat had gone back up the mountain where he was staying in a cave.) This French speaking man was well over 6 feet and appeared intimidating. He started yelling and waving his arms around in a threatening manner. The French campers tried to talk to him, but this made him even more agitated and he yelled all the more. We looked at each other, not knowing what to do. Someone suggested that we sit in a circle and send him love. Very quickly the circle was formed and we sent him love. The man became even more agitated. Then someone suggested that we sing to him. And so we sang. More yelling! We backed up and he started lunging at us flinging his arms. We cowered.

Someone suggested that we get Pir Vilayat and immediately a scout ran up the mountain in search of him. Shortly Pir Vilayat, who was a short, thin man, was seen marching down the mountain. He marched right up to this man and in a powerful voice spoke these words in French, “No! Go back!” Then he pointed down the mountain. The man meekly left.

Then with his piercing brown eyes he looked at each one of us in silence. We felt uncomfortable and embarrassed at our inability to handle the situation, and stunned by the sheer force coming from our “little” teacher. In a powerful voice he spoke, “When are you going to learn to say ‘No’ and use your power.” He then marched back up the mountain leaving us all in silence.

I contemplate this scene many times. Each time I continue to learn a little more about the importance of using our power and saying no, and maintaining healthy boundaries. Our good friend and musician Charley Thweatt wrote a song based on this story:

“If I never say no, can I ever mean yes?

If I don’t let you know, will you just have to guess?

If I never say stop, can I ever mean welcome?…”

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