Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
What would happen if you stopped trying to force your destiny—and just let life be in charge? Michael A. Singer, author of the No. 1 New York Times best-seller The Untethered Soul, attempted to find out. He wound up going from a penniless yogi in the woods to the founding CEO of a billion-dollar public company, almost against his own will.
Singer tells his incredible story in the The Surrender Experiment: My Journey into Life’s Perfection Paperback (Harmony Books, June 2, 2015). We asked Singer how yoga and meditation helped him “surrender,” both internally and externally, and open himself up to life’s gifts.
Yoga Journal: What is “The Surrender Experiment”?
Michael A. Singer: The surrender experiment is a challenge I gave myself to try to allow life to unfold around me without struggling with it. We are all intelligent enough to realize that we are not in control of 99.9 percent of what goes on around us. Our hearts beat, our food digests, and our cells divide — all without any intervention of our own. Likewise, the planets stay in orbit, and the entire rest of the universe unfolds on its own. We are not controlling any of this, yet it has been unfolding in perfect harmony for billions of years. If the forces of creation can create and maintain the entire universe, every moment, are not the moments unfolding in front of me part of this same universal perfection?
When I was in my early twenties, I took one look at this and realized that all the moments of creation are part of the same interrelated perfection. They have nothing to do with me; they belong to the forces that created them. All that is happening each moment is that I’m seeing the result of 13.8 billion years of forces that interacted together to create exactly what is in front of me. That being the case, I decided to experiment with surrendering to that perfection instead of listening to what my preference-driven mind had to say about it. Specifically, when something appears in front of me, I try to honor and respect the enormity of its origins, rather than immediately judging whether I like it or not. That is the surrender experiment, and my new book is about what ended up happening as I aligned myself with life instead of struggling to align life to me.
YJ: In the book, you talk a lot about “the voice in your head.” Please explain what you mean by this voice.
Singer: This “voice in your head” was the main topic of my last book, The Untethered Soul, and it forms one of the most important aspects of spirituality. All day, all the time, our mind creates thoughts: “I hope she’s there already because I don’t like waiting,” “Why did he say that? I would never say something like that.” And on and on it goes. But how do you know that these thoughts are going on in your head? The obvious answer is because you are in there, and you hear them. Believe it or not, that answer is the basis for all of yoga: I’m in here, and I hear the thoughts. Who’s in there? Who is hearing the thoughts? And you must be separate from the thoughts if you hear them. Over 40 years ago, I began referring to this as “the voice in my head.” Finding out about that voice — why it talks all the time, and why it says what it says — is a fascinating topic. But discovering who you are, the consciousness that notices that voice, this falls into the category of mindfulness, witness consciousness, and self-realization. And that is the heart of yoga.
“I never took my eye off of the spiritual path, not even for a moment. My every breath is yoga; the very beat of my heart is yoga. Yoga has not played a role in my journey — my entire journey has been yoga.”
YJ: How did meditation quiet the voice for you?
Singer: When I first started to meditate, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I just wanted to shut up that incessant chatter in my head. So I took the time each day to sit by myself in a meditation posture and use my will to either push away the thoughts or struggle to turn my attention onto something else — like a mantra or visualization. That created some quiet, but it didn’t last, and it was a struggle to get into a really quiet state.
As I matured in my spiritual practices, I began to surrender inside, just like I was doing in my outer life. I just allowed whatever thoughts needed to arise, to arise, and simply tried to relax instead of engaging with them. No struggle, just deep relaxation — regardless of what the voice was saying. Over time, like magic, my awareness lost interest in the thoughts and ceased to become distracted by them. If I walk into a room with a television on, I can notice it is there, but I don’t have to actually watch it. Likewise, I can notice that the voice is saying something, but I don’t have to actually listen to it. That became my meditation: deeply relaxing and not engaging in anything the voice of the mind was saying. Over time, as I let go of the chattering mind, I began to fall into beautiful states within, like deep peace or waves of joy and love. This began happening both during meditation and during daily activities. Interestingly, when the inner state becomes beautiful, the voice of the mind has much less to say. It’s as though the vast majority of its talking was about how to be OK. If you are already OK, both the heart and the mind become still and melt into the beauty of the moment. That is the gift of yoga.
Also see Guided Meditations
YJ: Explain what you mean by opening yourself up to the flow of life. How can we open ourselves to life’s gifts, and let the “flow of life” be in charge?
Singer: You open by not closing. Events are unfolding in front of you, and this flow of events has been going on for billions of years, everywhere. Can you handle that? It’s really that simple. Are you ready, willing, and able to allow the universe to manifest in front of you without freaking out?
The problem is that we can’t do it. Even though moments are unfolding everywhere, and that’s fine with us, when we see reality unfold in front of us, we judge it: “I like it”; “I don’t like it”; “I wish something else was happening.” We have already made up our minds how we want reality to be — and now we struggle with creation, or at least the part that’s in front of us. To let the “flow of life” be in charge means we first put aside our made-up preferences and respect what is unfolding in front of us. After all, it is the result of everything that has happened for 13.8 billion years, and now it is presenting itself to you. First respect it, then with love and compassion raise it as it passes by you. That is how you become open to life’s gifts.
YJ: How has yoga played a role in your journey?
Singer: Since I was 22 years old, and I am now 68, yoga has been my entire life. I was not a business person who was into yoga — I was a yogi who was led into business (Singer was the founding CEO of the Medical Manager Corporation from 1997-2000, when the company merged with WebMD). I was not a husband with a beautiful daughter and now three grandchildren who happened to also practice yoga. I am a yogi who was gifted with a beautiful wife, daughter, and grandchildren. I never took my eye off of the spiritual path, not even for a moment. My every breath is yoga; the very beat of my heart is yoga. Yoga has not played a role in my journey — my entire journey has been yoga.
YJ: How did your practice help you stay centered (and peaceful) during your amazing rise to success as founding CEO of a billion-dollar public company and also during your indictment on federal fraud conspiracy charges (which were later dropped)?
Singer: Though I have consistently maintained daily practices, my true practice of yoga is done inside at all times. It is this internal practice of constantly letting go of whatever disturbance arises within that has allowed me to stay centered through these amazing situations life has presented to me. Yoga is like a fine wine that becomes better over time. You start by letting go of the little things that irritate you for no reason, like the weather, or someone else’s attitude. Of what purpose is it to get disturbed by things that are just passing by and are pretty much out of your control? So you begin the practice of allowing the shifts in your inner energy to just pass through internally. You do this by deeply relaxing and giving them the space they need to pass. It is very much like relaxing into an asana. The more you relax, the easier it becomes, until at some point it becomes an enjoyable experience. It can be the same inside if you begin relaxing and releasing early enough in the process. Then something bigger happens in life that challenges your willingness to relax and let the reactionary disturbance pass by within. Your tendency is to resist the uncomfortable feeling and control your environment so that you don’t have to deal with the inner disturbance. But your commitment to yoga demands that you let go and use each situation life puts you in to go beyond your comfort zone. This is the true practice of yoga, and it becomes your way of life.
But what will happen to my outer life if I commit myself to letting go within? That is the subject matter of The Surrender Experiment. What happens is phenomenal. You begin to see a perfection between what you need to let go of inside and what unfolds outside. You are presented each moment with the perfect situations to bring up the issues you have stored within, which in yoga we call samskaras, and you are then given the opportunity to let them go. If you do this each time, you will achieve the goal of yoga — a liberated energy flow that constantly bathes you with love and bliss as it rises within you. So becoming CEO of a public company and being wrongly charged by the federal government are both the same — they are amazing opportunities to let go of yourself at a very deep level and learn to surrender to the phenomenal perfection of a life devoted to yoga.