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Natural Awakenings Washington DC Metro

A Mindful Way to Say No

Dec 26, 2014 05:45PM
By Grace Ogden

Do you have a hard time saying no to extra work demands, good causes or friends in need? Variations on the Golden Rule to “do to others what you would have them do to you” date as far back as 2040 B.C. in Egypt. Some of us automatically say yes to requests, driven by a mashup of the Golden Rule and the one about putting others before ourselves that we heard in Sunday school. Some view helping out as a form of social insurance or quid pro quo, “if I help you, then I can count on you to help me.” Others of us give aid in order to practice personal vows of compassion or loving-kindness.

Regardless of motive, the ethic of reciprocity is an important social pact. Yet these days, the needs of millions of other beings stream into our minds and hearts across multiplatform channels and gadgets, from smart phones to gas pump video screens. How can the ages-old human faculties of sight, hearing and feeling handle the epic flood of others’ needs?

The difficult truth is that habitual, unchecked reactivity to stressful conditions undermines our health and well-being, generating anxiety, insomnia and digestive problems that can lead to chronic disease. Practicing mindfulness offers us a way to develop integrity with the life of the body that connects us to our own desire for self-care.

To experiment, ponder the flip side of the short-form Golden Rule, “Love others as yourself.” Do you treat yourself with as much care and kindness as you give others? For encouragement, consider that the recorded source of the ancient word for no, nay, is the 13th century Ancrene Riwle, the Rule for Anchoresses, according to the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. The holiest of Christian women and men intentionally practiced saying no as a form of spiritual athleticism.

Monastic wisdom has always recognized the necessity of withdrawal and quiet for well-being and service. The contemporary Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron calls the deep inner self our basic goodness. Heed this quote from the Rule for Anchoresses, “You shall always with all might and strength keep well the inner… For each one shall maintain the outer according to how she may best serve the inner with her.”

To “keep well the inner” with mindfulness, begin by turning your attention inward to the sensation of breathing. Where is your breath? Bring your awareness to that place, wherever you feel it most clearly—the chest, nostrils or belly. Staying with your awareness of in-breath and out-breath, come home to your body in this present moment.

Closing your eyes for a few breaths, extend your inner sensing to the surface of your body, becoming aware of the envelope of skin that encloses you. Breathe with awareness of the finite circumference, your finite capacity.  Notice what your body needs now. If you cannot tell, silently ask it. Do not be surprised if it communicates a need for more rest.

Try using this practice when external demands provoke the first inkling of frustration or annoyance, the sinking feeling in your chest or upheaval in the stomach. Take a mindful breath or two and sense an inner awareness of your body. Notice and allow the response to come from your embodied being, your basic goodness, instead of your habit-mind.

Consider this your personal invitation to bring self-care into closer alignment with the care you provide others. Extend your mindful breath practice to include noticing when you get enough rest, what your mood is like after a brisk walk and how your energy level changes after a nutritious meal. May you enjoy the pleasure of hearing your inner voice say yes, I can count on myself too.

Grace Ogden is the founder of Grace Productions, which offers transformational consulting and Living Sacred events. She teaches mindfulness at the GW Center for Integrative Medicine. For more info, visit 


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