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The Importance of Saying No

To live fully and authentically, one must sometimes say “no” to particular demands and expectations, not out of fear or avoidance, but as a declaration of one’s path and truth. Saying “no” is crucial to spiritual growth and self-care. It’s about setting boundaries and honoring our own needs and values. Let’s delve into the importance of this simple yet powerful word in life.

As a young man, I took the vow of a Zen Bodhisattva. In a nutshell, I aspire to work tirelessly for the enlightenment and liberation of all sentient beings, to overcome personal desires and attachments, to delve into the teachings and practices of Zen Buddhism, and to follow the path of the Buddha with unwavering dedication.

Sounds easy, right? It’d be a breeze if I were a monk who lived in a monastery on a distant snow-covered mountaintop away from all the mindless TikToks, AI, angry political divisiveness, and the day-to-day minutiae of modern life. But I don’t. I live like almost every other human being on this planet, I have mundane responsibilities, life stresses, fears, and past pains.

I often get asked, “As just another guy with no superpowers and a day job, is it possible to maintain this vow you took so many years ago?”

The simple answer is yes (oh, the irony), but it’s complicated.

In my journey to relieve others’ suffering, I often forget myself. I’m so eager to be of compassionate service and help others find a life free of attachment that I get in my own way and give up too much of myself. The highly influential Tibetan Buddhist Chögyam Trungpa called this type of compassion “idiot compassion.” He emphasized that true compassion should be accompanied by wisdom and not be confused with enabling negative behaviors or self-indulgence. Idiot compassion, as he described, is more concerned with one’s own comfort rather than genuinely helping the other person. Working so hard, holding on so tight that you lose yourself along the way. Simply put, it’s a reminder that genuine compassion involves tough love and the courage to make difficult decisions that serve the greater good, including yourself.

Due to severe burnout and idiot compassion fatigue, I recently quit teaching yoga asana and committed to practicing more self-care. I joined a small, locally owned gym where I could be anonymous and focus on my personal fitness. After working out there for about eight months, a few members told me they’d seen what I was doing and asked me if I would be interested in teaching them functional movement (one of my other great passions).

At first, I got excited and animated, telling them that’s no problem, “I’d love to do it,” blah, blah, blah. At home, in the shower, I thought about it some more; I realized I didn’t want to teach them. I knew where it would lead — away from my self-care journey and back to burnout. Even knowing that I was still reluctant to tell them no because I felt guilty for not being the helpful little Bodhisattva that I vowed to be.

I sat with the guilt for about a day before texting them to tell them, “No, I couldn’t do it.” It was liberating — maybe not for the greater good, but certainly for me.

Why Is It Important to Say No?

If you struggle to say no to people or demands in your life, here are a few things to help you understand the importance and power of saying no.

The Sacred Art of Declining

In a world that demands our attention and energy, saying “no” can be an impactful spiritual practice. It is a declaration of self-respect and an affirmation of our values. When we say “no,” we are not just declining an offer or a request but asserting our commitment to a path that honors our spirit and journey.

Understanding Boundaries

Boundaries are essential in all aspects of life, but they take on a special significance in the realm of the spirit. They help us define who we are and what we stand for. By saying “no,” we protect our time, energy, and focus, ensuring we dedicate ourselves to what truly matters.

The Power of Intention

Every “yes” carries an intention, a direction in which we channel our energy. When we say “no,” we consciously choose our intentions, aligning our actions with our deeper purpose. This alignment is the bedrock of a meaningful spiritual life.

Self-Care and Spiritual Growth

Saying “no” is an act of self-care. It allows us to step back, rest, and rejuvenate. In the quiet spaces created by our refusals, we find room to grow. Our connection with ourselves and perhaps something larger than us strengthens.

The Challenge of Overcommitment

We may find ourselves overcommitted and exhausted in our eagerness to serve and to belong. The spiritual path requires energy and presence, both diluted when stretched too thin. Learning to say “no” is honoring our capacity and limits.

Embracing Solitude

Solitude is a sacred space where the spirit can breathe. (Read my article on The Solitary Journey of the Spirit) In solitude, we often hear the whispers of the universe/intuition/divine, the subtle guidance that leads us forward. By saying “no” to the noise and the crowds, we say “yes” to a deeper communion with our soul.

The art of saying “no” might be considered a spiritual discipline in its own right. It requires courage, wisdom, and a deep understanding of one’s own heart. Sure, we’ve all been idiots at some point in our lives, but when we learn to decline with grace and conviction, we open ourselves to a richer, more authentic life. Embrace the power of “no” and discover the freedom it brings to our spirit. It’s about making conscious choices that support our path and allow us to live with intention and integrity.

“Maybe everything that frightens you is something helpless that needs your love.”— Andrew H. Housley

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This article originally appeared in Must I Evolve? on Medium

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