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To live in this world, you must be able to do three things: To love what is mortal; To hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; And when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.

—Mary Oliver

Autumn is always a reflective time. Perhaps it is the feeling of the world turning inward on itself, after a summer of growth, readying for the slowness and regeneration of winter rains and snows. In a way, autumn is nature’s time to say no.

A friend recently shared a phrase from the poet David Whyte, who speaks of “the essential no”: the declaration that, rather than limiting us, allows us to move forward in a new way because of the clarity it brings.   Particularly in the sustainability and social change arena—but found almost everywhere in our society—we’re incredibly dedicated to our work, tied to our plans or expectations of how ‘it ought to be’ and so conditioned to say ‘yes’ that we miss the opportunity to take a very different path by simply saying no.  That little word is so powerful and so often inappropriately seen as a negation or rejection.

I like to share with participants in my facilitation, conflict resolution and community-building workshops that usually no is simply a boundary. Spoken in graceful ways, it can offer tremendous clarity of purpose and seed possibilities we never thought existed by creating alternatives. It can seem paradoxical, but how might we actually say yes by saying no? Or, how do we practice saying no in an affirming way? 

There always comes a time for reflection, for slowing down. In nature, this is proscribed by the seasons, and by the cyclical rhythms that each life experiences in that context. Because we have created a different relationship with time and are encouraged by our culture to be constantly engaged, involved and on-the-go, we tend not to say no. It’s just as important—or even more so—for us to take advantage of the opportunity on a daily or weekly basis to create space in our lives for some other experience to enter.

How might you let go and say no in the coming days?  

September 2006