The Art of Surrender

No spiritual awakening is possible without surrender; until we get out of the way, we're unable to feel that power that is greater than our will, deeper than our thoughts and wider than our vaunting dreams. Humility is everything, we come to see. Our wagons are hitched to a higher star.
09/22/2014 11:53 am ET Updated Nov 22, 2014

Surrender has long been a dirty word in a culture steeped in do-or-die machismo, in which willfulness is next to godliness, and giving in (even when fighting is useless) is often seen as "giving up."

Even in spiritual circles, surrender is a point of contention. Just the other day, I asked 30-odd participants in a workshop what surrender meant to them and was surprised by the chorus of negative takes (defeat, resignation, cowardice, losing, and shame were the top five responses). Only one person spoke out in favor of surrender; he was a man in his 40s who had recently come through a terrible life-and-death situation and subsequent depression. "I wouldn't have survived without surrender," he said. "You can't fight natural law."

No, we can't, though we try at our own peril. I've always loved what Rachel Naomi Remen, an author and M.D., told me during an interview: "Confronted by enormous change, we're faced with an important choice. Either we come to surrender, go into the loss, attend to our own responses, and listen to ourselves, or we attempt to put it behind us and get on with the rest of our lives," Rachel said. "But does this really work? When we try to avoid loss and plow through our pain, our lives are actually diminished. On the other hand, there's an extraordinary wisdom and clarity that emerges in people who genuinely meet their pain. Not in theory but in life."

In his famous Yoga Sutra, Patanjali went so far as to describe surrender as the passport to Samadhi, or self-realization. But what exactly do we mean by surrender of this kind? For starters, true surrender is never to another person and always to that larger force that is coursing through us, call it God, Holy Spirit, the Tao, Shakti, Divine Will or, even, cosmic intention. In the act of surrender, we become aware of this power, accept and defer to it. As this sensitivity to spirit increases, we come to know -- intuitively -- how to harmonize with the energies at play in any given situation. We learn to advance when doors are open and to pause when they are closed, moving with rather than against these forces. Such surrender has nothing to do with waving a white flag, collapsing into complacency, or ceasing to make the world a better place. It is necessary to fight, resist, and express outrage at times, of course, when such action is called for. But surrender means relaxing our fixed agendas, and unclenching our fists, so that we can respond to what is unfolding in a humble rather than controlling way.

Humility is the operative word. Derived from the Latin root meaning "from the earth," humility provides a grounded awareness of where we stand in the universe and the limitations of our own power. Thus, humility becomes the antidote to pain arising from the grandiose belief that we ought to be more in control than we are. This surrender to our own limitations relieves us of an enormous burden. We are dancers in the dance, after all, but not the orchestra, players but not the playwright. With surrender, we can be deeply engaged, dedicated to social service and justice, putting in enormous effort while maintaining equanimity and openness (knowing that the outcomes are not in our hands). We can be surrendered activists, surrendered teachers, surrendered visionaries, and so on, working to improve the world while knowing we're part of a larger body whose welfare we cannot insure.

Surrender is harder than it sounds, of course, and requires a taste for paradox. To desire, aspire, and endeavor without attachment is a tall order. Surrender calls on us to work against the grain of the grasping mind, as do all spiritual practices, countering "natural" impulses with counter intuition, challenging habits, beliefs, and expectations. Surrendering to the practice itself opens a space between who we are and what we don't know. Being seekers, we're defined by the very urge to enter into this in-between space, to step off the road most traveled in favor of a more mysterious calling. "In a world of fugitives, the man taking the opposite direction will appear to run away," as T.S. Eliot wrote, and this applies vividly to the subject at hand. To surrender, in our triumphalist culture, is to go in a different direction completely (the direction of higher consciousness). Still, most of us are unwilling to do this until our backs are against the wall, when all possibilities have been exhausted and the illusion of control is ripped away. Then we're forced to either surrender or self-destruct, entering "the state of despair or the state of trust," as Sally Kempton teaches. Faced with what we cannot change, that is our choice, to move toward either despair or trust. It's a choice we make every day of our lives.

Of course, most of the things that truly matter require significant leaps of surrender. Without it there can be no love. Unless we learn to let down our defenses, to tolerate, forgive, and abide, no human relationship is possible. There can be no creativity without practicing surrender, either, since creativity springs from the unknown. The fight for justice requires surrender or we're likely to become self-righteous martyrs. Learning depends on surrender as well (you have to walk before you run), as do most forms of transformation and healing. Finally, no spiritual awakening is possible without surrender; until we get out of the way, we're unable to feel that power that is greater than our will, deeper than our thoughts, and wider than our vaunting dreams. Humility is everything, we come to see. Our wagons are hitched to a higher star.