When Should I Say No?

By Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche • 5 min read

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The altruism question

A typical dilemma among meditators goes something like this: “Love and compassion is my practice, so if someone really needs help, I should jump in. But so many people need help, so much of the time — how can I possibly say yes to everybody without getting completely depleted?” For practitioners who strive to be altruistic and generous, it’s a common concern.

Fortunately, the Tergar tradition provides guidelines. For one thing, our approach to helping others must be in accord with both our capacities and our limitations. Having love, compassion, and good conduct is not synonymous with having no boundaries, taking actions that fly in the face of common sense, or sacrificing your own well-being for another. In fact, establishing boundaries is crucial. Willingness, too, is key. If in doubt, “Don’t do it if you think you will regret it later” is a good guiding principle.

When Should I Say No

“You do it . . . my back hurts.”

If this seems like some version of letting yourself off the hook, you can always look to the Buddha as a role model. To say he was generous about giving teachings would be a vast understatement, yet a famous episode in the Sekha-patipada Sutta describes him responding with what you might call “a hard no.” Having spent the previous evening “instructing, urging, rousing, and encouraging” an assembly, he was asked to do it all over again the next morning. The Buddha turned to his disciple, Ananda, and told him to go on in his place, concluding with, “My back aches. I will rest it.” At which point he stretched out on the ground and took a nice little nap. Notice that the Buddha didn’t simply walk out on the situation — he found another solution, in this case by delegating responsibility.

You’re not tiger chow

Sustainability is important, and sometimes saying no is part of that. If you want to be able to come to others’ aid in the future, you might have to occasionally call a time-out to take care of yourself. Helping yourself in order to better help others is a virtuous circle. Yes, it’s true that there’s also a story about the Buddha giving his body to feed a hungry tiger in one of his lifetimes; but he was crystal clear that such activities are not for beginner bodhisattvas. For we ordinary practitioners who strive to be more compassionate, loving humans, it’s vital to look after ourselves so that we can better help our friends, family, colleagues, and society as a whole. Therefore, saying “no” can be an act of love and compassion. It can be a “no” of wisdom.

“Each moment provides an opportunity to turn toward awakening; and we are more likely to take advantage of each moment once we accept that these moments are limited.”

– Mingyur Rinpoche –

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About the Author

By Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

In his approach to teaching meditation, Mingyur Rinpoche integrates traditional Buddhist practice and philosophy with the current scientific understanding of the mind and mental health – making the practice of meditation relevant and accessible to students around the world. Mingyur Rinpoche is the author of the best-selling book The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness, as well as Joyful Wisdom: Embracing Change and Finding Freedom, In Love with the World: A Monk’s Journey Through the Bardos of Living and Dying, and many others.

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