Surrender is at the heart of all spiritual paths; no practice is more powerful or profound. But what does it mean to surrender? And what does it not mean? Surrender is too often misunderstood, boiled down to a few affirmations about “letting go,” and then misused as a self-help instruction. But in our misunderstanding, in trying to do surrender with our minds, like we do everything else, we drain surrender of the true miracle that it is.
What surrender is NOT: Failure or defeat, punishment, a decision to let go, a task that we can accomplish with our mind, a state we can will ourselves into, the decision to be comfortable with what is, an ending, a bad thing.
What surrender IS: Every one of us at some point encounters a situation that rocks the foundation of who we are and what we think we can bear—something that pushes us past our limits. Sometimes it’s a situation we’ve lived with for a long time and sometimes it’s a sudden event that overwhelms us and for which our usual coping strategies are useless. While the content may differ, what these experiences share is the power to bring us to our knees, figuratively and often literally. And it’s the power to change us.
Our mind tries to control everything it comes in contact with; that’s its nature—ostensibly, to try to keep us safe, to make us happy and our lives better. We have elaborate and seemingly endless strategies for trying to make sure that our lives contain the experiences we want and don’t contain the experiences we don’t. Our minds will fight with, reject, ignore, push against, and keep maneuvering to change those situations that we don’t want. And then comes a time, a situation, when we can’t keep fighting, either because it’s too painful, or because we finally know at a body/heart level that it’s futile and some other as of yet unknown path is needed. Surrender begins here, where all other strategies end. But surrender is not a strategy; it is the profound absence of strategies. It’s waking up to realize that all the strategies have failed and we are plum out of new ones.
Surrender happens when we know that we don’t know. It arrives when we know that we cannot think or see our way through where we are. We don’t have the answers. In true surrender, we don’t know if what’s to come will be better or worse, more comfortable or more awful. All we know is that we can’t do it this way, the way we’ve been doing it, a moment longer. Surrender happens when it can’t not happen.
The moment of surrender itself is easy; it happens when it’s ready. Control falls away and takes us with it. It’s the path to surrender that’s excruciating. But what’s amazing is that when surrender does arrive, it’s accompanied by a great sense of ease, relief, and peace. It’s not like the situation remarkably gets better or easier, but we feel better and more easeful when we know in our bones that we cannot fix or figure it out, when we know that it’s truly not up to us, and we simply can’t. In this moment of surrender or grateful defeat, there’s clarity. And oddly, something deep within us relaxes when we acknowledge that we don’t know how to do it, don’t know the way. More effort, more doing, more thinking, more plans won’t work. We feel an inner softening when we agree to turn it over to anything else, whatever is not us, the unknowable, or perhaps to just the truth of not knowing. From our knees, paradoxically, we feel a remission from the suffering.
When we surrender we give up, but not in the way we think giving up means. We don’t give up to or on the situation, but rather, we give up the notion that we should be able to or can manage the situation, that we can control any of it. We give up the belief that we can make reality different than what it is. As much as we are conditioned to never give up, in the case of surrender giving up the mistaken belief that we are in charge offers a profound relief.
When we surrender, we let go of the results of our actions. We accept that we can do everything right and well, and still not reach the goal we had set out to achieve. When we turn the results over, we are, amazingly, granted access to the present moment in a new and fresh way. When everything we’re doing, saying, and making is no longer aimed at controlling the future, at producing a certain result, we’re able to drop into the present moment and experience this moment directly, as it is. Surrendering the results of our actions puts our attention on how we are in this moment, what’s actually here, what life is now. We accept that this very moment is the only thing we have any real say about; we might as well pay attention to it. We surrender control of the results of our actions and suddenly, this moment is it, the one that matters. At this stage, life comes alive and we discover surprise and mystery. We’re not in charge and what matters is now, not some imagined future we may or may not achieve.
Surrender, when we are graced with it, is a true gift. When we finally acknowledge that we can’t do it, we give ourselves the opportunity to feel the river of life carrying us, taking us where we need to go, even though we have no idea where that might be. Often when surrender happens, we don’t trust that anything will take care of us, carry us, or show us the way: That’s what makes surrender so unthinkable. But we surrender because we have to, and luckily, surrender does not require our trust. When we do finally let go of the reins, and acknowledge our absolute not knowing, the most remarkable opportunity appears—to directly experience being supported by a larger source of wisdom, what I call “Grace,” which once experienced can never not be known.
So why talk about something that just happens, that we can’t actually make happen? If surrender only enters when all other strategies have been exhausted, and the strategies for the end of strategies are also exhausted, why bother? Do we simply wait for surrender’s unwelcome yet welcome arrival or is there anything we can do to encourage its arrival?
While I just said that we need to be on our knees to reach true surrender, in truth, we can practice surrender on a smaller scale, in the okay moments, before we are on our knees, which will only help us for those times when even the idea of practicing surrender will be untenable.
To practice, we simply surrender into what is, right now. We drop into our direct experience, what we are sensing, feeling, living in this moment. We agree to feel life, as it is, now, without our mind adding, taking away, manipulating, or doing anything whatsoever to it.
- What is it like right now if I let everything be just as it is?
- If I don’t do anything to it, what is my actual experience in this moment?
- Feel this, here, now.
Surrender, at its core, is the willingness to meet life as it is, to stop fighting with or trying to change what is so, right now. And remarkably, no matter what the catalyst, or whether it is a moment’s surrender or a lifetime’s, the result or gift that accompanies it remains the same: relief, gratitude, grace, and sometimes even joy.
Surrender isn’t something that our minds can accomplish, but it is something that, with awareness, we can invite into our lives. And thankfully, when we have no other choice but to surrender the illusion of control, we can experience the profundity and aliveness of this present moment, and the gift of it. And we can experience the presence of something larger and unknowable; we can experience ourselves being flowed down the river that is life, the river we are actually part of. Then, having tasted surrender, we can relax and trust—and know that it’s safe to let go.