When I was offered the chance to go Jan Day’s ‘Living Tantra’ one-day workshop in October, I snapped it up. The last time I’d been to one of Jan’s workshops was back in 2008, when we were filming it for a side project to the One Giant Leap movie documentaries. I’d had a great time, but as creative consultant on the project, I couldn’t fully immerse myself in the weekend. This time, I would be on my own and free to explore.
I arrived feeling relaxed and with no particular goal in mind, other than to enjoy myself and be open to whatever came up. As we waited outside the large sunlit room at the Study Centre in West London, I eyed my fellow participants with interest. It always fascinates me to see who’s attending any workshop I go to: is there a ‘type’, or even an archetypal workshop attendee? Broadly speaking, not really. There were people from all walks of life and ethnicity, ranging from their mid 20s to their late 60s. I suppose you could say that a unifying factor was that everyone seemed to be a bit nervous.
Now I don’t know if you agree, but I think one of the hardest things we encounter in life – apart from our relationship with ourselves – seems to be our relationship with other people. Yet the absolute fundamentals of relationship, especially intimate relationships – not just being able to say clearly and freely yes or no, but also being able to hear and receive a yes or a no – are skills that aren’t taught to us at school, or at any level afterwards. I say this because it seems most of us are so wounded that the devastating experience of hearing a no is something we avoid at any cost. It plugs us into our deepest fears of rejection, of not getting our needs met, of not getting what we want. It’s primal. I believe our society desperately needs the basic tools to be able to handle this and start healing these wounds.
In Jan’s workshop we explored these fundamentals, first through movement and then, in the afternoon, through touch. The first exercise was deceptively simple. After a warm-up, we formed two lines, women facing men, and the person directly opposite became our partner. We took it in turns to be a mover or a receiver. The receiver held their hands either open in a welcoming yes, or palms facing up and forward in a clear no. The mover then moved towards or away from the receiver, depending on what was going on for them. Throughout, we were instructed to remain conscious and focused on our feelings, what was going on inside us, and not to bother (if possible) about what was going on for the partner.
I could see on my female partners’ faces how intense this was for them. But I was thinking – hey, this is easy; I’ve got no problem with saying yes or no. It wasn’t until my third partner who did not move towards me once during the entire exercise that I started to feel my own wound opening up. It wasn’t easy to keep my arms open in a yes, when all the time I felt I was getting a no, or at best a circumspect maybe from my partner; but in doing so, it allowed me to feel my heart wound opening up inside me. The wound of rejection, of feeling unwanted, of not getting my needs met. I kept breathing and allowed the feelings to flow through me, without judging them. Afterwards we sat down and shared our experiences. My exercise partner said she could see me struggling with her not moving towards me, and how hard it was for her not to simply acquiesce in order to make me feel better. I felt so grateful to her for this, and to be reminded that everything starts with the pure power of an authentic yes or no.
I was so excited by this that I called my partner during the lunch break to ask her, in reference to a recent discussion we’d had, whether she could appreciate that when I said no, it was not a rejection. She said that she could.
In the afternoon, accompanied by the muted sounds of tube trains from beyond the large windows, we explored the yes and the no through touch. In groups of four we took it in turns to be the person in the middle who could control how, and where, we were touched by the others. This took the experience to an even deeper level; it was about being able to express truthfully not just a no – don’t touch me there, stop, pause, leave me alone – but perhaps even more profoundly, the yes: yes, I like that, yes, do it more, yes please. In the two minute warm up, I felt a bit uncomfortable being touched by these complete strangers and I could feel my body tensing up, but allowing myself the simple permission of being able to say stop, slow down, just one person, or no was a huge relief (afterwards, my partners in this process shared that it was a great relief for them too). The second time, which lasted about ten minutes, I relaxed into the process until I began to luxuriate in it. To be able to say truly - yes, I love this, all of you, please, do it more! - was liberating. I walked out of Jan’s workshop feeling like a million dollars.
It is only when we can trust someone implicitly that our relationships can truly flourish. And the foundation of this is authenticity. This means having the courage to say no, even when we feel we should be saying yes. It also means having the courage to receive a no, to really hear it. Because, as Jan explained, an authentic no is the greatest gift we can give the other; it brings clarity, truth and therefore healing. It is only from this point of complete honesty that we can build successful relationships. And this corresponds on every level – from our sexuality to our day-to-day communication.
In my life, it has taken me a long time to be able to say no, when my all my conditioning has been telling me to say yes. It’s often one of the hardest things to do. We are programmed to please the other, to seek reassurance and love from the other. We are so terrified of losing the approval of the other that we will often, if not always, say yes when we mean no. And this confusion fans out across society, meaning that abuse can flourish when the individual feels incapable of expressing their truth. All the recent revelations about the abuse that so many women have experienced (and men too,of course) highlighted by the #MeToo campaign are founded on this terrible fear: the fear of saying no, of hearing no and the terrible lack of clarity around the no. Boys and girls, men and women, all need to learn to hear and experience the no with confidence, with empathy and with understanding. If we can truly embrace this simple yet fundamental concept, we can finally blossom as a society. We can be confident in our relationships on every level, knowing that not only are we asking for what we actually want, but also expressing clearly what we don’t want. What could be simpler than that?