Just Say No

Paper wasps

Paper wasps’ nest, photo by Celia

How very happily we live,

free from hostility

among those who are hostile.

Among hostile people,

free from hostility we dwell.

How very happily we live,

free from misery

among those who are miserable.

Among miserable people,

free from misery we dwell.

How very happily we live,

free from busyness

among those who are busy.

Among busy people,

free from busyness we dwell.

How very happily we live,

we who have nothing.

We will feed on rapture

like the Radiant gods.

 ~ Dhammapada:197-208

Sukhavagga: Happy

translated from the Pali by

Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Dear Friends,

Thanksgiving is four days away and as I read these verses from the Dhammapada I wish that you too are able to find the happiness of being non-busy among busy people. I want to reflect on taking our time and more specifically being in charge of our time. Although we consider ourselves (sometimes with pride) as the busiest and most stressed generation in the history of the world, busyness is not a new thing. Time is a commodity that has always had value, even 2,500 years ago, the Buddha observed the pain of busyness. We don’t often acknowledge our relationship with busyness. For most people, there is a verbal push back and we decry how busy we are—but there is a hook in busyness. Despite the pain and discomfort, there is also reward.

We may believe being busy validates that we are worthy. Being busy means we have a role and meaning in our lives. Not being busy in a busy world means we unpopular, unwanted, and lazy. Those who prioritize creating space and time in their lives are rather suspicious in this frenetic world. Busyness may be a habit that feels comfortable. When there is no tension and time is vast and unscheduled, we may feel rootless and without direction. Being busy creates a pace and energy that can feel natural and despite wishing things were otherwise—we may not know how to be with ourselves when we have time and space.

We are entering the holiday season and it is characterized by busyness. For those of us with families, planning meals and celebrations, coordinating travel, gifts, and lodging, may all take their toll and turn this time of year into a heap of chores and resentments. For those of us who are longing to claim their time as their own, can we consider what would happen if we put down our tasks and prioritized ease? What would come crashing down? Who would we disappoint? Would we miss the chance to be someone in our own eyes or in the eyes of another?

Frozen water

Recently I was in a situation where I listened to the yes that was coming out of my mouth while I experienced a whole-body response of opposition and burden. The situation was not a big one, but I was reluctant to say no. It felt awkward and selfish, but I did. I said no. The no was scary. It meant I wasn’t that person who rearranged my life and put another person’s schedule above my own. The no was revolutionary because it helped me keep a heart of loving kindness. When we forget we have a choice about our commitments—even if our choice is to do more than we want because we want to keep our job, we already understand that we are free. When we work and live from a place of “have to,” and victimhood, we have lost connection with the element of choice that gives all life dignity.

In the Good Samaritan Study, research demonstrated that it is not one’s desires and intrinsic compassion, but the amount of hurry in our lives that determines if we are altruistic participants in life. This study is especially significant to demonstrate when we are rushing, we cut ourselves off from opportunities to respond with kindness.

Doing less, prioritizing our own wellbeing and spaciousness and commitment to practice gives us the basic ground of stability that allows us to touch our bodhicitta, the awakened heart we all possess. Freedom from busyness leads to gentleness. Freedom from hostility leads to consideration. Knowing we are sovereign over our time and our lives, restoring the sanctity of choice in our lives gives us agency, the sense that we matter. All this leads us to happiness.

When we slow down, we can listen to ourselves and stop the fragmented activity of the mind. Buddhist scholar and translator, Nyanaponika Thera (1994) writes: “Slowing down the hurried rhythm of life means that thoughts, feelings, and perceptions will be able to complete the entire length of their natural lifetime. Full awareness will extend up to their end phase: to their last vibrations and reverberations. Too often that end phase is cut off by an impatient grasping at new impressions, or by hurrying on to the next stage of a line of thought before the earlier one has been clearly comprehended.” We don’t realize that when we rush, we are training the mind to ignore the condition of the body and to ignore what the heart is longing for. We don’t have the time to listen to ourselves. We sacrifice our happiness for approval or compliance.

During this holiday week and the weeks ahead, I wonder what are we willing to let go of? What are we willing to renounce to give ourselves more space and ease? What aspect of doing can we release and along with it—perhaps the glossy image of ourselves as the superstar and achiever? Where can we be soft with our expectations and learn to forgive our undone and unfulfilled? Another aspect of this inquiry is to remember that even though we may feel helpless in the vortex of this mighty societal tide, we have a say in how we live. Instead of wondering how we are going to get it all done, putting our heads down and blindly pushing through until we can collapse in the New Year, we can remember that we are connected to all living beings on this planet and our welfare co-creates their welfare. Our happiness and suffering matters.

Instead of looking in from the outside and asking, “how am I doing?” we can flip the question and ask, “how is this for me?” Does doing this lead to ease and happiness for me and those around me? Does this activity connect me with my ability to love and support my deepest values? Can I work in a way that maintains my own dignity and supports the wellbeing of my body and mind or am I stretched thin? Could I love and accept myself if I said no? This week I challenge you in the words of Nancy Regan, to “Just say no.” Say no to taking on too much, to buying what no one needs, to being busy and small-hearted. In saying no to things that create smallness we say yes to what is infinite and available in our own stillness and solidity. We say yes to knowing our life in this moment instead of rushing past to get into that Door Buster Sale. Stay the course, slow down, take some breaths and remember that this moment is your life.

May we all trust our light,


Stop Calligraphy


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