Some years ago I was asked by a mainstream magazine to write an article about my spiritual search, but I simply couldn’t find a voice for it. I spent months, wrote maybe 20 different versions, stacked up hundreds of scribbled pages – all for a 3,000-word article. When finally I cobbled together my best paragraphs and sent them off, the magazine shot the piece back to me, saying that they didn’t think their readers could identify with it. Then another magazine invited me to write the same story. Knowing I had come to an impasse, I threw myself down on the ground, and asked the divine, the Guru – well, all right, God – for help. Actually, what I said was this: “If you want this to happen, you’ll have to do it, because I can’t.”
Ten minutes later I was sitting in front of the typewriter (we still used typewriters in those days), writing a first paragraph that seemed to have come out of nowhere. The sentences sparkled, and though it was in “my” voice, “I” definitely did not write it. A month later, I told the story to my guru. He said, “You’re very intelligent.” He wasn’t talking about my IQ. He meant that I had realized the great and mysterious truth of who, or what, is really in charge.
Since then I’ve had the same experience countless times – sometimes when facing the pressure of a deadline, a blank page, and a blank mind, but also in meditation, or when trying to shift some difficult situation or implacable attachment. My miracle-of-surrender stories are rarely as dramatic as the tales you hear of medieval Sufis, scientists at an impasse, and accident victims who put their lives in God’s hands and live to tell the tale.
Nonetheless, its clear to me that each time I genuinely surrender – that is, stop struggling for a certain result, release the holding in my psychic muscles, let go of my control-freak’s clutch on reality and place myself in the hands of what is sometimes called a higher power – doors open in the inner and outer worlds.
Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutra, famously describes the observance of ‘ishwara pranidhan ‘ – literally, surrender to the Lord – as the passport to ‘samadhi ‘, the inner state of oneness that he considers the goal of the yogic path. Among all the practices he recommends, this one, referred to casually in only two places in the Yoga Sutras, is a kind of ultimate trump card – if you can fully surrender to God, he seems to be saying, you basically don’t have to do anything else, at least not in terms of mystical practice. You’ll be There, however you define There – merged in the Now, immersed in the Light, in the Zone, returned to oneness. At the very least, surrender brings a kind of peace that you don’t find any other way.
You already know this. You no doubt learned it as a kind of catechism in your first yoga classes. Or you heard it on a mundane level from a marriage counselor or therapist who pointed out that nobody can get along with anyone else without being willing to practice surrender. But, if you’re like most, you haven’t found it easy to embrace.
Why does surrender engender so much resistance, conscious or unconscious? For that matter, why does the spiritual process of surrender get confused with giving up, or getting a free pass on the issue of social responsibility, or with simply letting other people have their way?
Don’t Give Up, Surrender
A few months after I began meditation, an old friend invited me to dinner. I said I’d like Italian food, but he held out for Japanese. When it was clear neither of us was able to embrace the other’s suggestion, my friend said, quite seriously, “Since you’re doing this spiritual thing, I think you ought to be more surrendered.”
I’m embarrassed to admit that I fell for it, giving in so my friend would continue thinking that I was a spiritual person. Both of us were confusing surrender with submission.
This is not to say that there is no value – and sometimes no choice – in learning how to give way, to be flexible, to let go of preferences. All genuinely adult social interactions are based on our shared willingness to give in to one another when appropriate. But the kind of surrender that shifts the platform of your life, the surrender that brings real breakthrough, is something else again. True surrender is never to a person, but always to the life force itself. The more you investigate surrender as a practice, as a tactic, and as a way of being, the more nuanced it becomes, and the more you realize that it isn’t what you think.
Fight for What’s Right
My favorite surrender story was told to me by my old friend Ed. An engineer by profession, he was spending some time in India, at the ashram of his spiritual teacher. At one point, he was asked to help supervise a construction project, which he quickly found was being run incompetently and on the cheap. No diplomat, Ed rushed into action, arguing, amassing proofs, bad-mouthing his colleagues and staying up nights scheming about how to turn the tide. At every turn, he got resistance from the other contractors, who soon took to subverting everything he tried to do.
In the midst of this classic impasse, Ed’s teacher called them all to a meeting. Ed was asked to explain his position, and then the contractors started talking fast. The teacher kept nodding, seeming to agree. At that moment, Ed had a flash of realization. He saw that none of this mattered in the long run. He wasn’t there to win the argument, save the ashram money, or even make a great building. He was there to study yoga, to know the truth – and obviously, this situation had been designed by the cosmos as the perfect medicine for his efficient engineer’s ego.
At that moment, the teacher turned to him, “Ed, this man says you don’t understand local conditions, and I agree with him. So, shall we do it his way?”
Still swimming in the peace of his newfound humility, Ed folded his hands. “Whatever you think best,” he said.
He looked up to see the teacher staring at him with wide, fierce eyes. “Its not about what ‘I ‘ think,” he said. “Its about what’s right. You fight for what’s right, do you hear me?”
Ed says that this incident taught him three things. First, that when you surrender your attachment to a particular outcome, things often turn out better than you could ever have imagined. (Eventually, he was able to persuade the contractors to make the necessary changes.) Second, that a true karma yogi is not someone who goes belly-up to higher authority, but a surrendered activist – a person who does his best to help create a better reality – all the while knowing that he’s not in charge of outcomes. Third, that the attitude of surrender is the best antidote to anger, anxiety, and fear.
I often tell this story to people who worry that surrender means giving up, or that letting go is a synonym for inaction, because it illustrates so beautifully the paradox behind “Thy will be done.” As the god Krishna told Arjuna in the ‘Bhagavad Gita ‘, surrender sometimes means being willing to get into a fight.
A truly surrendered person may ‘look ‘ passive, especially when something appears to need doing, and everyone around is shouting, “Get a move on, get it done, this is urgent!” Seen in perspective, however, what looks like inaction is often simply a recognition that now is not the time to act. Masters of surrender tend to be masters of flow, knowing intuitively how to move with the energies at play in a situation. You advance when the doors are open, when a stuck situation can be turned, moving along the subtle energetic seams that let you avoid obstructions and unnecessary confrontations.
Such skill involves attunement to the energetic movement that is sometimes called universal or divine will, the Tao, flow, or in Sanskrit, ‘shakti ‘. Shakti is the subtle force – we could call it cosmic intention – behind the natural world in all its manifestations.
Surrender starts with a recognition that this greater life force moves ‘as ‘ you. One of my teachers, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, once said that to surrender is to become aware of God’s energy ‘within oneself ‘, to recognize that energy, and to accept it. It’s an ‘egoless ‘ recognition – that is, it involves a shift in your sense of what “I” is – which is why the famous inquiry “Who am I?” or “What is the I?” is central to the process of surrender. (Depending on your tradition and your perspective at the time, you may recognize that the answer to this question is “Nothing” or “All that is” – in other words, consciousness, shakti, the Tao.)
Practice Makes Possible
The great paradox about surrender – as with other great qualities of awakened consciousness, like love, compassion, and detachment – is that though we can ‘practice’ it, invoke it or open up to it, we can’t actually ‘make it happen ‘. In other words, just as the practice of being loving is different from actually being in love, the practice of surrendering is not the same as the state of being surrendered.
As a ‘practice, ‘ surrender is a powerful way of unclenching your psychic and physical muscles, and a great antidote to the anxiety and frustration that shows up whenever you try to control the uncontrollable. There are any number of ways to practice surrender – from softening your belly, to consciously opening to grace, turning over a situation to the universe or to God, or deliberately letting go of your attachment to an outcome. (I often do this by imagining a fire and imagining myself dropping the issue or thing I’m holding onto into that fire). When the attachment or the sense of being stuck is really strong, it often helps to pray for surrender. It doesn’t matter who or what you pray to, simply that you are willing to ask. At the very least, the desire for surrender will allow you to release some of the invisible pressure caused by fear and desire.
However, the ‘state ‘ of surrender is always a spontaneous arising, which you can allow to occur but never force. Someone I know describes his experiences of the state of surrender like this: “I feel as if a bigger presence, or energy pushes aside my limited agendas. When I feel it coming, I have a choice to allow it or resist it, but it definitely comes from a place beyond what I think of as me, and it always brings a huge sense of relief.” This is not something you can make happen, because the small self, the individual me is literally not capable of dropping its own sense of ego-boundary.
Early in my practice, I had a dream in which I was dropped into an ocean of light. I was “told” that I should dissolve my boundaries and merge into it; that if I could, I’d be free. In the dream, I struggled and struggled to dissolve the boundaries. I couldn’t. Not because I was afraid, but because the “me” who was trying to dissolve itself was like a person trying to jump over her shadow. Just as the ego can’t dissolve itself, the inner control freak can’t make itself disappear. It can only, as it were, give the deeper will permission to come to the forefront of consciousness.
Many of us first experience natural surrender during an encounter with some great natural force – the ocean, the process of childbirth, or one of those incomprehensible and irresistible waves of change that sweeps through our life and carries away a relationship we’ve counted on, an old career, or, often, our health. For me, opening into the surrendered state often comes when I’m pushed beyond my personal capacities. And I’ve noticed that one of the most powerful invitations to the state of surrender happens in a state of impasse.
Here’s what I mean by impasse: You are trying as best you can to make it happen, and failing. You realize that you simply cannot do whatever it is, cannot win the battle you’re in, cannot complete the task, cannot change the dynamics of the situation. At the same time, you recognize that the task ‘must ‘ be completed, the situation must change. In that moment of impasse, something gives in you, and you either enter a state of despair, or a state of trust. Sometimes both.
One of the great roads to the recognition of grace leads through the heart of despair itself. But – and here is the great benefit of spiritual training, of practice – it’s also possible, like Luke Skywalker confronting the Empire in ‘Star Wars ‘, to move straight from the realization of your helplessness into a state of trusting the Force. In both cases, you’ve opened to grace.
Most transformational moments – spiritual, creative or personal – involve this sequence of intense effort, frustration, then letting go. The trying, the effort, the slamming against the walls, the intensity and the exhaustion, the fear of failure balanced against the recognition that it is not okay to fail – all these are part of the process by which a human being breaks out of the cocoon of human limitation, and becomes willing on the deepest level to open to the infinite power that we all have in our core. It’s the same process whether we’re mystics, artists, or people trying to solve a difficult life-problem. Einstein, after years of doing the math, had the special theory of relativity downloaded into his consciousness in a moment of stillness. Michelangelo, stymied on his scaffold under the Sistine Chapel ceiling, then stepped out into a field and ‘saw ‘ the whole painting in the sky. The Zen student, struggling with a koan, gave up and found himself in satori. You or me, faced with an insoluble problem, banging against the walls, then going for a walk and having a brilliant insight – the book’s structure, the company’s organizing principles, the right shift in alignment, the way out of the emotional tangle – from out of nowhere, as if your mind were a slow computer and you had been entering your data and waiting for it to self-organize.
When the great will opens inside you, it’s like opening the door that takes you beyond limitation. The power you discover in such moments has an easeful inevitability about it, and your moves and words are naturally inspired. You wonder why you didn’t just let go in the first place. Then, like a surfer on a wave, you let the energy take you where it knows you’re meant to go.
Though you can’t “do” the state of surrender, you can certainly invite it, through practices like this one:
Spend a few minutes looking at a situation in your life that feels (or felt) impossible. It might be an ambition you haven’ tbeen able to fulfill, a decision that will change the course of your life, a difficult relationship, a task that you haven’t been able to accomplish.
Write down the outcome you desire. Write down all the actions you’ve taken to bring this about.
Now, write down the reasons – external or internal – why you feel the outcome hasn’t panned out.
Light a candle, and place the two pieces of paper in front of you.
Read them through.
Close your eyes, and imagine yourself placing both pieces of paper on an altar, in a flowing river, or in a sacred fire. (If you have an altar or a fireplace, you can do it physically as well).
Say, out loud or silently, “I can’t do this myself. I offer the situation (decision or relationship) into the hands of grace. Not my will, but the great Will be done.”
Sit and feel the emptiness, the spaciousness of surrender. If feelings of disappointment, fear, or clinging to a desired outcome arise – and they probably will! – offer them to the altar as well. Sit until you begin to feel the freedom of having surrendered your will into the hands of the great Will.