The Generosity of Saying No



What happens when you see one of those emails? You know the ones I’m talking about. It’s from someone you know, someone you like. Maybe your boss, or a co-worker. Another parent at your kid’s school. One of the folks at the meditation centre. It might be sent to a whole group of people, or just to you.

But this email, you can see from the title, it’s one of those.

They want something. They want you to do something, or give something, or drive somewhere, or pick something up, or bake a thing, or organize an event, or clean up after an event.

They want something from you.

And: You. Don’t. Want. To.

Do you delete without reading?

Or do you open it, and read it, and let the guilt wash over you? I just can’t, you think. Maybe you feel guilty, or angry, or justified, or sad. I just can’t do this thing. I don’t have the time, the energy, the money, the ability.

And then what?

Do you say yes anyway? (sometimes/always/never)? Or do you say no? Or do you ignore it and say nothing? And in those moments of decision or non-decision, how much headspace of guilt or regret or annoyance does this thing occupy?

Whether you say yes or no can be powerful and freeing; or it can be diminishing and entrapping. It can be a profoundly meaningful choice, or it can be a habitual pattern that covers over our true hearts, our genuine self.

Yes or no: as with everything in life, there can be both a neurotic and an enlightened aspect, the confused mind of yes/no; or the wisdom mind of yes/ no. And why are those the only options anyway? What other answers are there? Maybe, not now, ask me again later, ask me a different question.

These questions around yes and no are questions that apply to much more than our emails. But it’s a useful, small, daily example. We go back to that first question: what happens when we see that email? What is the first thought? What happens in our body? Leap of joy in the chest, or cringing and backing away? Lean in, or back up? Something in the middle, or a big “ehhh” of nothing at all?

How do we know what to do? How do we parcel up our time, our most precious time, our most precious energy? How do we allocate our self?

I’m not really talking about productivity apps or time management tools or habit trackers or creative focusing (although these apps can be useful sometimes). As a person who meditates, who is on a spiritual path, whatever path that might be – as a dharmic person, how do we decide where to place our attention, what to devote our precious time to?

The bodhisattva vow is, for a Buddhist, one of the central vows for a practitioner, along with the refuge vow. If you’ve taken a bodhisattva vow, you might be thinking “well, the bodhisattva vow is all about helping others right – so if you’ve taken that vow, you devote yourself entirely to helping others. You’re taking a big deal, serious vow to do that. So, you have to say yes to the e-mails that are asking for your help, right?”

I’ve taken the bodhisattva vow. It took me a few years, after I had taken refuge as a Buddhist, to be ready to take that vow. It’s a big commitment. For quite a few years, after I first heard about this thing, my reaction was pretty much, yeah, no, I’m never gonna be able to do that. I’m too selfish. I’m too introverted. I’m too needy and protective of my me-time. Yes, I want to make the world a better place. I want to help. But I want to curl up and watch Netflix for a weekend sometimes too. I have to be able to say no sometimes.

But eventually, I felt comfortable taking the vow. Because the thing is, the actual vow is to work for the enlightenment of all beings. And all beings includes this being, me, right here. And if I empty myself out by giving everything away, by giving up all my time and energy and resources, I will very quickly be broke, dead from exhaustion, and unable to help anyone, including myself.

So that’s a short one paragraph way of stating what is actually really hard to figure out and put into practice. But to me, part of how we figure that out is to try and figure out what lies underneath those instinctive reactions, the lean-in vs cringe-back feeling we get when someone asks us for something. This is what practice is for, what meditation is for. We get to know our own minds in meditation, and develop that capacity to notice first of all that we are even having a reaction, before we’ve lost ourselves in twitter and instagram. And then to gently – very gently, lovingly, kindly, ask ourselves, with real curiosity, “so what’s that about, right there?”

And sometimes it’s not complicated, and sometimes it is very complicated. But it starts with practice, and it starts with recognizing that “always yes” and “always no” is probably not it. (Binaries are usually not it, to make a sweeping generalization. I usually make this point with more swearing, to wit, “binaries are b*lls**t.”)

In fact, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the ways in which saying no can actually be an act of profound generosity. It can be generous to yourself, if you need rest, if you need time, if you need to not overextend yourself. It can be generous by giving someone else an opportunity to say yes and therefore to learn and shine. It can be generous by helping the asker realize that they have the skills and competence and capacity to do something they’ve always been afraid of, that they’ve leaned on you to do for far too long. It can be generous by helping an organization realize that they are overextended and should be doing less, because they are burning out their people.

And sometimes saying no is none of those things. Sometimes it’s not generous at all. But neither is it always rejection, or failure, or a sign that you’re a bad person. Sometimes no is just no. And it’s fine.

If this makes sense to you, (or if it really doesn’t make sense) here’s an invitation to consider: The Ottawa Shambhala Centre is offering an opportunity to dive into these questions with our “Committing to Not Burn Out” weekend retreat, Dec 6-7th, with Alexis Shotwell. You can read all about it here. And consider whether yes, no, or something else altogether is what your inherent wisdom and basic goodness might be calling for.

4 thoughts on “The Generosity of Saying No

  1. I love this Loretta!
    And I understand how hard saying no can be, especially considering the spirit of helping in an area where volunteers offer the time and effort it takes to maintain a service offered to those that have a real need for those services.
    More often than not,if “no” is the only option, the need gets met by someone who is willing to say yes!
    My ego tells me that if I dont do it, then it wont get done! And that just isn’t true.
    I love volunteering my time,when it doesnt compromise my physical,spiritual,or mental well being. Knowing when to say no is so important.
    Thank you for this!

  2. Thanks, Loretta! Something we all need to be reminded of. Especially this time of year…

    The other facet of this is to say no and not feel you must justify yourself to everyone for having said it. And for those on the receiving end to accept a no without trying to come up with a thousand alternatives for the person saying no to be able to say yes. We are not all robotic replicas. We each have to find ourselves and what works for us, which may not be in sinc with others.

  3. Great piece, Loretta.
    Meditation practice as taught at our Ottawa Shambhala Centre has enabled me to pause before saying yes” or “ no” without guilt.