By nature I’m a struggler, raised in the belief that if what you’re doing doesn’t work, the solution is to do it harder. So naturally, I had to learn the value of surrender the hard way. About 30 years ago, as a relatively early U.S. adopter of meditation, I was asked by a curious editor at a mainstream magazine to write an article about my spiritual search. Problem was, I couldn’t find a voice for it. I spent months, wrote maybe 20 versions, stacked up hundreds of scribbled pages—all for a 3,000-word article. When I finally 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 universe, the inner 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 teacher. 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 many times—sometimes when facing the pressure of a deadline, a blank page, and a blank mind, but also when meditating, or when trying to shift some difficult external situation or implacable emotional attachment.
My miracle-of-surrender stories are rarely as dramatic as the tales you hear of scientists who move from impasse to breakthrough discovery or of accident victims who put their lives in the hands of the universe and live to tell the tale. Nonetheless, it’s 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 both the inner and outer worlds. Tasks I couldn’t do become easier. States of peace and intuition that eluded me show up on their own.
Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutra, famously describes the observance of Ishvara pranidhana—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 Sutra, is presented as a kind of ultimate trump card. If you can fully surrender to the higher will, 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 probably already know this. You may have learned it as a kind of catechism in your first yoga classes. Or you heard it as a piece of practical wisdom from a therapist who pointed out that nobody can get along with anyone else without being willing to practice surrender. But, if you’re like most of us, you haven’t found this idea easy to embrace.
Why does surrender engender so much resistance, conscious or unconscious? One reason, I believe, is that we tend to confuse the spiritual process of surrender 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, a friend invited me to dinner. But we did not agree on where to eat. He wanted sushi. I didn’t like sushi. After a few minutes of argument, 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 partly for the sake of having a nice evening, but mostly so that my friend would continue thinking that I was a spiritual person. Both of us were confusing surrender with submission.
This is not to say there is no value—and sometimes no choice—in learning how to give way, 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 surrender that shifts the platform of your life, that brings a real breakthrough, is something else again. True surrender is never to a person, but always to the higher, deeper will, the life force itself. In fact, 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 proof, bad-mouthing his colleagues, and staying up nights scheming about how to get everyone to see things his way. At every turn, he met 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 and said, "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. "It’s not about what I think," he said. "It’s 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; instead, he’s a surrendered activist—a person who does his best to help create a better reality while knowing that he’s not in charge of outcomes. Third, that the attitude of surrender is the best antidote to one’s own 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 Krishna—the great mythic personification of higher will—tells 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 an 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 also call it the cosmic intention—behind the natural world in all of 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?" can be a powerful catalyst for 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 qualities of awakened consciousness, such as 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 being in love, so the practice of surrendering is not the same as the state of being surrendered.
As a practice, surrender is a way of unclenching your psychic and physical muscles. It is an antidote to the 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 yourself 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 on to 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, it matters only that you are willing to ask. At the very least, the intention to surrender will allow you to release some of the invisible tension 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 would 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 own shadow. Just as the ego can’t dissolve itself, so too the inner control freak can’t make itself disappear. It can only, as it were, give the deeper will permission to emerge in the forefront of consciousness.
Many of us first experience spontaneous 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 sweep through our lives and carry away a relationship we’ve counted on, a career, or our normal good health. For me, opening into the surrendered state typically comes when I’m pushed beyond my personal capacities. In fact, 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 something happen, and you’re failing. You realize that you simply cannot do whatever it is you want to do, 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 enter either a state of despair or a state of trust. Or sometimes both: One of the great roads to the recognition of grace leads through the heart of despair itself.
Trust the Force Within
But—and here is the great benefit of spiritual training, of having devoted yourself to 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 either case, what you’ve done is opened to grace.
Most transformational moments—spiritual, creative, or personal—involve this sequence of intense effort, frustration, and then letting go. The effort, the slamming against walls, the intensity and the exhaustion, the fear of failure balanced against the recognition that it is not OK 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. You’ve probably heard the story of how Einstein, after years of doing the math, had the special theory of relativity downloaded into his consciousness in a moment of stillness. Or of Zen students, who struggle with a koan, give up, and then find themselves in satori.
And then there’s you and me, who, when faced with an insoluble problem, bang against the walls, go for a walk, and have a brilliant insight—the book’s structure, the company’s organizing principles, the way out of the emotional tangle. These epiphanies arise seemingly 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 going through the door that leads beyond limitation. The power you discover in such moments has an easeful inevitability about it, and your moves and words are natural and right. 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.