When our son was doing theater in high school, I learned about an exercise for improvisational acting (“improv”): no matter what another actor says or does to you, you are always supposed to figuratively (and sometimes literally) say yes to it. In other words, if someone on stage turns to you and says, “Doctor, why does my baby have two heads?” you should respond with something like, “Because two heads are better than one.”
Real life is like improv: the script’s always changing, and saying yes keeps you in the flow, pulls for creativity, and makes it more fun. Try saying no out loud or in your mind. How’s that feel? Then say yes. Which one feels better, opens your heart more, and draws you more into the world?
Saying yes to some part of life—to a condition or situation, to a relationship, to your history or personality, or to something happening inside your own mind—does not necessarily mean that you like it. You can say yes to pain, to sorrow, to the things that aren’t going well for you or others.
Your yes means that you accept the facts as they are, that you are not resisting them emotionally even if you are trying with all your might to change them. This will usually bring some peace—and will help any actions you take be more effective.
Say yes to something you like. Then yes to something neutral. Both of these are probably easy.
Then say yes to something you don’t like. Can you do that, too? As you do this, try to feel a sense that you are okay, fundamentally, even though what you dislike exists. Also try to feel some acceptance in your yes, some surrender to the facts as they are, whether you like them or not.
Try saying yes to more things that are not your preference. You’re not saying yes that you approve of them, but—for example—yes it’s raining at my picnic, yes people are poor and hungry across the planet, yes my career has stalled, yes I miscarried, yes my dear friend has cancer. Yes that’s the way it is. Yes to being in traffic. Yes to the job you have. Yes to the body you have.
Yes to the twists and turns in your life so far: large and small; good, bad, and indifferent; past, present, and future. Yes to the younger sibling whose birth toppled you from your throne. Yes to your parents’ work and your family circumstances. Yes to your choices after leaving home. Yes to what you had for breakfast. Yes to moving someplace new. Yes to the person you are sleeping with—or yes to not sleeping with anyone. Yes to having children—or to not having them.
Say yes to what arises in the mind. Yes to feelings, sensations, thoughts, images, memories, desires. Yes even to things that need to be restrained—such as an angry impulse to hit something, undeserved self-criticism, or an addiction.
Say yes to all the parts of the people in your life. Yes to the love in your parents and also yes to the parts that bothered you. Yes to a friend’s flakiness amidst her good humor and patience, yes to another friend’s sincerity amidst her irritability and criticalness. Yes to every bit of a child, a relative, a distant acquaintance, an adversary.
And yes to different parts of yourself—whatever they are. Not picking and choosing right now, but saying yes—YES—to whatever is inside you.
Play with different tones of yes (out loud or in your mind) related to different things—including the ones you don’t like—and see how this feels. Try a cautious yes, as well as a yes that is confident, soft, rueful, or enthusiastic.
Feel your yes in your body. To adapt a method from Thich Nhat Hanh: Breathing in, feel something positive; breathing out, say yes. Breathe in energy, breathe out yes. Breathe in calm, breathe out yes.
Say yes to your needs. Yes to the need for more time to yourself, more exercise, more love, fewer sweets, and less anger. Try saying no to these needs in your mind or out loud, and see how that feels. And then say yes to them again.
Say yes to actions. To this kiss this lovemaking this reaching for the salt this brushing of teeth this last goodbye to someone you love.
Notice your nos. And then see what happens if you say yes to some of the things you’ve previously said no to.
Say yes to being alive. Yes to life. Yes to your own life. Yes to each year, each day. Yes to each minute.
Imagine that life is whispering yes. Yes to all beings, and yes to you. Everything you’ve said yes to is saying yes to you. Even the things you’ve said no to are saying yes to you!
Each breath, each heartbeat, each surge across a synapse: each one says yes. Yes, all yes, all saying yes.