Surrender is a particularly challenging concept in western cultures where we are encouraged to constantly be in control. We grow up thinking it is possible not only to control our bodies and our destinies, but other people’s perceptions of us and even other people’s actions. We think that if we do everything just right, we can control the unfolding of our lives. That is why, the yogic concept of Ishvara Pranidhana (Surrender) is such a critical observance. Ishvara Pranidhana instructs us to surrender -not to the state of the world - but to the unchangeable moment we are in. This is a critical distinction as we explore this concept, because so much work needs to be done in the world around equality, the environment and social justice. This type of surrender does not take away our ability to take action because it refers only to the suffering we cause ourselves by creating internal resistance to what already is, by seeking certainty that doesn't exist or by attempting to control what is beyond our control. This actually frees up energy to tackle the things we can change!
The idea of surrender is almost hard for us to grasp. How does anything get done? How do we get what we so desperately want? At the same time we long for it. We have all had glimpses of this surrender-- moments of being “in the flow” or “in the zone.” In these moments we cease forcing things, and what occurs feels like it is meant to be. Of course, it is easier to accept the idea of surrender when we like what is unfolding! But how do we embrace surrender when we are suffering?
Pema Chodron, one of my all-time favorite Buddhist teachers, points out that when we think something is going to bring us pleasure, we really don’t know exactly what is going to happen. And when we think something is going to give us misery, we cannot be sure of that either. So we can learn to let there be room for not knowing--- surrender. She uses the unlikely affirmation, “Abandon Hope.” The idea is that hope, as well as fear, comes from a feeling that we lack something, from a sense of poverty. We can’t just relax with ourselves. We hold onto hope, and in doing so, hope robs us of the present moment. So we have to renounce the hope that our experience could be different from what it is. We renounce the hope that we could be saved from being who we are. (Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart) We begin to experience this when we resist grabbing onto something every time we feel like we can’t stand what is coming. When we give up hope that insecurity and pain can be exterminated, we can then have the courage to relax with the groundlessness of our situation. We can apply this to our spiritual practice as well. If we do our meditation practice, our yoga practice, and read self-help books and go to counseling with the hope of getting security, this will only lead to disappointment and pain. There is no security to be had. Instead do all these things as a way to embrace groundlessness.
We can practice this by greeting whatever arises in our awareness with a silently whispered “yes.” (Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart) At first your “yes” may be mechanical, grunging and insincere, but even so, each time you say it, you will feel something relax inside you. Not only accept whatever comes your way, but welcome it. When your mind suggests that you are using a gimmick that won’t work for long, say yes to that story, and allow the thought to dissolve. This teaching is echoed by Tara Brach in her book “Radical Acceptance.” She instructs that when you feel the grip of anxiety, anger or guilt, imagine bowing to it with a sense of genuine respect. You can place a hand on your heart and send a message of acceptance and care about whatever is arising in you.
Surrender is about relaxing in the present moment, relaxing with hopelessness, relaxing with death, not resisting the fact that things end, that things pass, that things have no lasting substance, that everything is changing all the time - that is the basic message. (Pema Chodron) Our surrender is an acknowledgement of all the things over which we have no control. At first, it may seem frustrating or disheartening to admit we don’t have control over the vast majority of things we have been trying so hard to manage! But that quickly gives way to a deep sigh of relief, as we can let go of our kung-fu grip on everything and relax into what is.
In order to be comfortable with “what is,” it is important to cultivate a couple of critical underlying beliefs. One is that everything is going to be alright. Rob Brezny, philosopher and astrologist, coined the phrase “Pronoia”-- the belief that the universe is conspiring in our favor. Choose to believe in this because it is so much better than believing the alternative. Look back on your life and all the things that you thought were going horribly wrong, but ended up, in retrospect, to have worked out in wonderful ways you never could have imagined! This is evidence that all the experiences we have are exactly what we need for the evolution of our spirit. (Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now). With these beliefs in our pocket, we can safely surrender, knowing that whatever comes our way, it is an opportunity-- for growth, for softening, and opening our heart. Instead of experiencing contraction (the feeling of fighting or being fearful of life) we will experience expansion-- an opening, a space of wonder and curiosity!
As we begin to release our rigidity and our need to control, we notice there is a purpose hidden in each event of our lives. If we trust this, life will always surpass our expectations. Think about how many times you have felt like you had a “bad” day because things didn’t go the way you had planned. We can be so busy feeling cheated or victimized when life doesn’t go the way we want it to, that we often miss a new opportunity that life is offering us in the moment. Joseph Campbell, in The Power of Myth explains that when you follow your bliss, it is as if invisible hands are helping you and doors will open that you didn’t even know were there. Perhaps these doors and hands are always there, but we don’t notice because we are too busy steam-rolling through life! If we are aware of what is right in front of us, we will get clues into our own development and direction.
For me, prayer is the best method of surrender. Especially when I am worried or anxious and trying to control things-- by pausing and saying a prayer, I can let it go. It is then that I surrender and find peace, trust and relief. It is a simple and effective method for letting go of what I cannot control. No matter what we believe, as human beings we all tend to reach out to something in moments of desperation. Students of buddhism often wonder if this reaching out/prayer reinforces the notion of a separate and wanting self. We do seem to be beseeching someone or something greater than our small and frightened self. (Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance). Tara jokes that as Unitarians, they grew up praying “to whom it may concern”. “While prayer does suggest a dualism of self and other, it can be a direct path to the non-dual experience of fully belonging. Because not only are we reaching out, but we also turn inward and listen deeply to the suffering that is giving rise to our prayer. When we are willing to touch the pain of separation, our longing carries us to the tender and compassionate presence that is our awakened nature.” (Tara Brach)
Surrender may not feel natural, after a lifetime of habit-forming and conditioning to control-- but that’s why they call it a “practice!” Try pausing to pray to your own personal higher power, whatever that means to you. Quietly whisper “yes” to your experiences, the ones that feel good and the ones that are challenging too.
“When you surrender your will you are saying, ‘Even though things are not exactly how I’d like them to be, I will face my reality. I will look it directly in the eye and allow it to be here.’ Surrender and serenity are synonymous; you can’t experience one without the other. So if it’s serenity you are searching for, it’s close by. All you have to do is resign as general manager of the universe. Choose to trust that there is a greater plan for you and that if you surrender, it will be unfolded in time. Surrender is a gift you can give yourself. It’s an act of faith. It’s saying that even though I can’t see where this river is flowing, I trust it will take me in the right direction.” -Debbie Ford
* (For further reading, check out “When Things Fall Apart” by Pema Chodron, “Radical Acceptance” by Tara Brach, “Pronoia” by Rob Brezny, “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle, “The Power of Myth” by Joseph Campbell. Much of the content of this essay was taken from or inspired by these insightful works.)