Surrender is at the heart of many spiritual paths; it is taught to be a powerful and profound experience. But what does it really mean to surrender? I often hear the word “surrender,” (like empathy, compassion and love) used in casual psycho-babble and spiritual banter, but I feel it is misunderstood or distorted as a synonym for “letting go.” I have observed that “surrender” is frequently mischaracterized in mainstream self-help programs, leaving students with subliminal concerns about generally undefined but very possible losses or forfeitures.
The fundamental misunderstanding I have held about surrender, and which I am working to correct on my own path, lies in the sense efforting . . . that there is a doing associated with surrender. I find myself imagining I can accomplish it. Maybe I can sacrifice something, give something up . . . DO some letting go.
Ironically, it is in the trying that the true miracle of surrender is lost.
So far, I have learned that surrender doesn’t mean failure or defeat, punishment or diminishment, or a decision to let go. It is not a task that I can accomplish with my mind. It is not a state I can will myself into. It is not a decision I can make to be comfortable with “what is.” It is not the ending of something, or the loss of something.
Rather . . . at various stages of my life I have encountered situations that have rocked the foundation of who I think I am, what I think I am, and what I think I can bear; bringing me right to a threshold of feeling like I am utterly dissolving or dying. Some situations that have pushed me past my limits I actually lived with for a long time before they finally collapsed; and other situations were more sudden and overwhelming – like a rug being pulled out from under me. In both cases, my usual coping strategies were useless.
While the content of such events has shifted over the years, these experiences all have had in common the power to bring me to my knees, sometimes figuratively, and often literally. Surrender was a transformative power that happened to me when reality, as I believed it to be, literally disintegrated. Surrender was not something I did; there was no choice but to bow to a tsunami of truth and watch the debris of my hoped-for future float away.
My mind tries to control everything . . . ostensibly, to keep me safe, or better my life in some way. I have elaborate and seemingly endless strategies for trying to make sure that my life is comprised of the experiences I want and not the experiences I don’t want. My mind fights, rejects, ignores, pushes against, maneuvers and manipulates to alter unwanted circumstances. And then, inevitably, comes a time or a situation, when I can no longer fight for control, usually because it’s too painful, and eventually because I finally know at a body/heart level that it’s futile and some other, as of yet unknown path, is needed.
Surrender begins where all my other strategies end. Surrender is not a strategy; it is the profound absence of strategies. It is the absence of knowing or predicting or hoping or desiring an outcome. It's waking up to realize that all my strategies have failed, and I am entirely without new ones.
Surrender happens when I know that I don’t know. Surrender becomes my experience when I know that I cannot think or see my way through where I am. I don't have answers. In true surrender, I don’t know if what’s to come will be better or worse, more comfortable or more awful. All I know is that I can’t do life the way I have been doing it one moment longer. Surrender happens when it can’t not happen.
When surrender happens, there’s an ease to it. My capacity to control dissolves and as that happens, my ego lays down, quietly vanquished. It’s the path on the way to surrender that’s excruciating. It’s my resistance or grasping that creates the suffering. But what’s amazing is that when surrender does arrive, it creates space. Ease, relief, and peace emerge as new possibilities. It’s not as though the situation or circumstances get better or easier, but I feel better and more easeful when I know in my bones that I cannot fix or figure it out, when I know that the trying is over, it's truly not up to me, and I simply can't do anything. At the moment of surrender, when the ego lies down and mind is quiet, there's clarity. Deep within I relax.
Peace comes with the awareness that I don’t know how to do it, don’t know the way. More effort, more doing, more thinking, more plans won't work. I feel an inner softening when not knowing anything about external, outer world outcomes paradoxically reveals a sense of inner knowing that had been obscured by all the “have to’s” and “shoulds.” Brought to my knees, head bowed, I am finally relieved of having to prove myself, my worth or value, outwardly . . . and the suffering stops.
When surrender happens, I “wake up.” Awareness dawns that I have been acting and reacting from the fundamental misconception that I should be able to, or can manage the situation, that I can control other people and circumstances. I’ve been trying to get it right so that I will someday be worthy of love, someday be seen as valuable. Someday my existence will matter. Awakening to the mistaken belief that I am in charge, that I can wrestle my worth from the world around me, offers a profound relief.
Realizing I have been conditioned to do, to act and react in the world . . . I finally understand that I have not learned to receive. Surrender is the experience of being in a receptive state . . . it is the beginning of trusting that what I am, as I am, is enough. It is the beginning of faith . . . of opening to experiences I haven’t premeditated, calculated or planned.
When surrender comes, the results of my actions are less of a focus. When I am more awake to the present moment, when everything I’m doing, saying, and making is not entirely aimed at controlling the future, at producing a certain result, I’m able to drop into and experience each moment more directly, as it is. I become more of a collaborator than a controller, paying attention to how I am being from moment to moment, to what's actually here, to what my life is, right now.
I receive what emerges in each moment with the fresh understanding that this is the only thing I have any real say about; so, I might as well say “yes to everything!” In a state of true surrender, I know that the present experience I am having is the only experience there is. I am able to perceive choice and personal responsibility. I have the personal authority to either receive life as it is and live it thoroughly, or I can try again to control it and manipulate outcomes. I am at cause. At this point in the process of surrender, life becomes incredibly engaging and precious, and I discover surprise and an unfolding mystery.
Again and again, in the relief of not being in charge, in the humility of simply being, what really matters is revealed to be right here, right now, not some imagined future I may or may not achieve.
Surrender, when I am graced with it, is a true gift. I am finally able to sense the correctness of my place in the universe. Not worthless and not grandiose, just a simple being wending her way through a life. This is when I feel the river of life carrying me, taking me where I need to go, even though I have no idea where that might be.
But often, when surrender is imminent, and I can sense that I am about to go to my knees, in those moments just before the final dissolution, I don’t trust that anything will take care of me, carry me, or show me the way. That’s what makes surrender so unthinkable. It is literally impossible to think my way into it! Impossible to choose it with my mind!
Surrender happens at the end of the rope, at the end of hope. In that darkness glows the ember of a perpetual wisdom, the ever-present knowing of what I truly am. It’s like a homecoming, accessing something true and constant about my existence that I had forgotten. In acknowledging my absolute not knowing, Grace appears . . . remembering and realigning occurs. Once Grace enters and is experienced, the truth of “me” can never not be known.
Surrender, at its core, brings me to life as it is, it comes at the end of the fighting or trying to change what is so, right now. Surrender defines the space in which relief, gratitude, grace, awareness and wisdom can emerge, be known and experienced.
As I’ve said, surrender isn’t something the mind can accomplish, but thankfully, when I have had no other choice, I have been graced with the momentary experience of the profundity and aliveness of the present moment, and the gift of it. I have experienced the presence of a larger sense of self, an infinite sense of connectedness; I have experienced myself being flowed down the river that is life, the river I am part of. I can relax and trust—I can act with faith – I am home . . . I’m safe . . . Surrender, the gift of space from which arises Awareness and Grace . . .