Saying "No!" (and then, "No, thank you."): The skill of filtering experience
Posted Aug 26 2008 4:29pm
Overcoming anxiety and depression has a lot to do with learning how to say "No!" then, "No," and eventually, "No, thank you." (There is much to be said about saying "Yes!" but I'll save that for another post.)
There is a story about the Buddha:
An old Brahman (of the priestly class in India) was feeling threatened by Buddha and his teachings, fearing that he would lose his congregation and income. He decided that the only thing to do was to go to Buddha's monastery split his skull. But knowing that Buddha was skilled at logic, the Brahman decided to not talk at all to Buddha, but just to go and commit his deed.
So the Brahman went to Buddha and approached him while he was alone in his interview hall. The Brahman came shouting and cursing, and Buddha said, "Old man, come sit, tell me your problem."
Here the Brahman steeled his will, wanting to not be swayed from his determination by Buddha's talk. He kept coming, cursing, and Buddha again said, calmly, "Come, sit, tell me what is upsetting." The compassion of the Buddha cleared the Brahman's mind for a moment, and he did indeed sit down with the Buddha.
Then the Buddha said, "Tell me old man, what do you do if someone comes to you home and brings you an unwanted gift?"
"Well, I would not accept the gift."
"Yes, and so it is that you have come to my house, and brought this unwanted gift of animosity--well, I refuse it. You get to keep it and take it away, since I do not accept it." At which point the cloud of ignorance lifted from the Brahman and he saw clearly. "How did you learn such a thing, Sir?" The Buddha smiled: "Sit, observe respiration, observe sensation, observe yourself [i.e., meditate]."
Another way of phrasing Buddha's lesson: learn to say no appropriately. The Buddha, because of his level of development, could easily say, "No, thank you," but being able to use some force and even some anger at the beginning stages is also good practice. Keep good company, think good thoughts, do not invite in those influences which bring you down.
The Ayurvedic doctor of a friend said it like this: "Negative people, negative thoughts, let them go. Say 'no' to them. Like my 5 year old son. If there is something he doesn't like, which is not pleasant, he says, 'No!' Be like that."
The path to this simplicity is to learn clearly what actually is toxic to us, and that requires examining ourselves and actually seeing, as if we were scientists studying ourselves, what input connects to what result. You may have ideas about this, but all ideas need to be put to the test if they are to be truly useful.
I remember a friend who, for political reasons, felt it both a right and duty to steal from corporate stores. She was pretty attached to her beliefs and their underlying anger (and hurt). Hot off a meditation trip, and practicing the Buddhist precepts, I tried to argue in favor of not stealing (one of the precepts). No go. Then I asked her what it actually felt like to steal, whether she experienced pleasure or pain. She was honest at heart, and genuinely wrestled with the question. When she realized that where she thought she was acting in her own interest, she actually was causing herself pain, then she stopped. When we realizing we're petting a hot stove and not a kitten, we automatically yank our hand away.
As the ideas of how life should work, or how you should be, gives way to a clearer understanding of what actually causes pleasure, what actually causes suffering, then the underpinnings of anxiety and depression start dissolving. You become able to manage these moods (when they do slip in your house) much more accurately, knowing more precisely what actions or inactions will feed the moods or let them dissipate.
But more deeply, your system starts learning that depression and anxiety are built up out of other things (low serotonin, suppressed anger, thoughts of despair, etc.) and therefore are not monolithic. They come and they go, and we either put out a banquet for them when the arrive, or we say "No, thank you," and let them out the back. We don't get tricked by their claims of permanence and power; we realize that we do have power to influence our mood, and that makes a world of difference.