The Tao Te Ching tells us:
Be careful with commitments.
Do not begin something
You may not want to finish.
(Tao, Chapter 63)
How many of us fill our lives with conflict by saying yes to too many people, too many commitments? This energy draining habit can cause stress overload, rushing, tension, anxiety, and, ultimately, exhaustion. The Tao reminds us of an important lesson: to balance the alternating energies of yin and yang, self and other. To do this, we need to watch our timing: knowing when to say yes, when to say no.
Growing up in a dysfunctional family, I developed a habit of mindlessly reacting to others, putting their seemingly "urgent" demands before my own needs. But after answering family members' demands and interruptions, I had very little time and energy left for what was really important to me. This made it especially hard while I was in college. After classes, daily chores, and cleaning up the kitchen after dinner, I'd go to my room to study, only to be told that I had to go to bed at 10 o'clock. To live my own priorities, I finally got a job at the local newspaper to support myself and moved out on my own to gain more control over my studies and my life.
But even though I packed up and moved out of my parents' house, I took the old reactive habit with me. In many a new context, with jobs, friends, and relationships, I felt I had to get others' demands "out of the way" before I could do what I really wanted. And at the end of the day, I was left with little time and energy for what mattered to me.
If this sounds familiar, then it's time to develop a new personal pattern. Instead of automatically agreeing to a commitment whenever you're asked, remember to follow the Tao: to pause and take time to look within in order to avoid energy drains and honor your own priorities.
To do this, think of a commitment or invitation you've received lately. Take a few moments to pause, take a deep mindful breath and ask yourself these questions:
- How do I feel about this commitment?
- What does it mean to me?
- Is it necessary?
- Do I feel personally called to do it?
- Do I really want to do it?
- Do I have the time?
Your answers should reveal whether you're making a meaningful commitment or not. If so, embrace it with heart. If not, then why do it? The Tao reminds us to say no to energy drains in order to say yes to our lives.
I wish you joy in the process.
Some of this post appeared in an earlier version in
Dreher,D. (2000). The Tao of Inner Peace. New York, NY: Penguin Putnam.