“At fifteen life had taught me undeniably that surrender, in its place, was as honorable as resistance, especially if one had no choice.” – Maya Angelou
My commitment to writing regular posts fell by the wayside some months ago, not because I wasn’t writing, but because I seemed unable to finish anything I’d started. While I felt I had a lot to share, I’d become frustrated at my non-existent output, until I realised that the best course of action was to do nothing, let things be, surrender to life as it is right now.
But what does surrender really mean? Is it like giving up? And where does acceptance fit into all of this? I knew that these were concepts that would be helpful in living a more balanced life, so I thought I’d explore their true meanings.
As I journeyed through 10 years of poor health, I thought the only course of action was to fight! I accepted the western medical model of humans as machines, something was broken and needed fixing. I was delusional, thinking I could control my life and even the lives of others, I thought that taking the bull by the horns was the way to success. Well, a 10 year fight resulted in little change, except that my bank account was now gasping for air. It wasn’t until I read the amazing book with the disturbing title of “How to be sick” by Toni Bernhard that I knew I had it all wrong. I’d heard about the concept of surrender through various books on Buddhism, but couldn’t get accept that surrender wasn’t the same as giving up, throwing in the towel, accepting defeat. It turns out, there is a difference.
Bernhard has the ability to speak about surrender in simple terms, and in ways that most people can relate to. But even my wise friends pointed out that the energy of defeat is very different to surrender. Feeling defeated occurs when we are hell-bent on controlling everything in our lives, despite often being given numerous hints that we are not in alignment with where we should be, or how we should be changing. It also occurs when we lack faith that perhaps, as hard as some situations are, that there is something to be gained from it. If we look close enough, there may be some nugget of wisdom, a learning that we can extract from the situation. In addition, in some situations, giving up often means we relinquish our personal responsibility to make the changes that are needed, often and unfairly, diverting responsibility to others. The roadblocks we encounter in life, can be processes that redirect us to a path this is more in alignment with our unique gifts, whilst providing us with an opportunity to use them.
When I sit with the true energy of surrender, it feels more like a gentle letting go of the wheel, and allowing my life to unfold in ways I don’t know or understand. Because we often come from a place of control, at some point, we can lovingly, as opposed to angrily, accept that the way we are doing things just isn’t working. Perhaps it’s a timing thing, perhaps its our egos interference, placing unrealistic demands on us, others or the universe.
There is nothing wrong with positive thinking, positive psychology, striving for happiness etc., but we are often misled into thinking that if we control our lives, we’ll be spared heartache and hardship. Control is a mirage….it doesn’t exist. We’re fooled into thinking we are the directors of our life story, but this is no more real than the Truman Show. There is a greater force, or sheer luck, depending on your beliefs at work behind the screen. Some of us are just lucky enough to be kissed by a unicorn when we’re born. You know the type, everything just always falls into place for them. Then there are those who seem to do all the right things, and yet one disaster after another crushes these poor souls into a corner. Is it luck, is it a person’s viewpoint, is it like attracting like? I don’t know the answer, but I do know that our society is really pitiful in helping build resilience into our thinking minds. Lessons on resilience should also include learning about surrender, and acceptance. This blog is just my feeble attempt at trying to understand these concepts and open what I think is much-needed dialogue into “real life”.
Back to understanding surrender. The poet Mark Nepo says the act of surrender is like a fish finding itself in a different current from the one it was swimming in. The fish could try to swim upstream to escape the current, but it will get nowhere except become exhausted. Surrender also allows us time to ponder our journey and discover the new place we find ourselves. My new year plans to create great change in the world have turned to custard and I now find myself asking, where to now? My friend suggested that perhaps it’s exactly where I’m supposed to be, perhaps certain doors aren’t open yet, or because other events have to unfold first, certain learnings have to be attained, planets realigned.
Writer Sally Kempton says of surrender, “…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 the energies at play in a situation.” Nero says of his fish story, that we have to be prepared to surrender into whatever current appears at any point in our lives. Kempton also speaks of flow, and adds the importance of intuition. In our modern world, we are all misled into thinking that because we have achieved great feats like curing diseases, redirecting rivers, and landing on the moon, that our cleverness means we can control all aspects of our lives, both our inner and outer world. But our brains are also prone to the whims and fancies of our ego, which is prone to the dominating fears of the day. When we tap into our intuition, we’ll often see that attempts at controlling our lives, are often ego driven and behind our ego, is usually our deep-seated fears. I now see surrender as pulling my fear-driven mind, out of the driver’s seat, and letting my intuition speak to me. Notice I didn’t say take control! Intuition is more like our guidance system. It suggests the best route for us to take, but never controls our lives against our will.
“Make the best use of what is in your power and take the rest as it happens.” Epictetus
In her second thought-provoking book, ‘How to live well with chronic pain and illness’, Bernhard, who suffered with chronic health issues since 2001, after contracting a mysterious virus, knows all about the need for surrender. Despite trying all available treatments over many years, Toni’s health has not improved. She speaks of the day she realised she may remain chronically ill for the rest of her life, but rather than feel overcome by sadness, she says that eventually, using Buddhist practices of surrender, she felt liberated, “as if a great burden had lifted: the burden to get better.” Without the burden she says, she found the freedom to live the life that she has, rather than constantly fighting for what may not come, restored health. The key here is that she hasn’t given up, she remains hopeful that advances in medicine may one day find a cure, but she is also accepts that there may be no cure. She says that this acceptance has helped her “be at peace with my life as it is.”
Which brings us to Acceptance. Surrender is that moment when we take our ego’s hands off the wheel and we find, often reluctantly, that our car is heading in a different direction, like that current Mark Nepo spoke of. Nepo says after surrendering into the flow, that we can practice acceptance when we find that we’ve “run into driftwood, or a stone, or you run into the bank”. He believes that accepting that block, the interference or stalemate, allows us a moment to look at the bigger picture and perhaps view our lives from a completely different angle.
“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” – Elbert Hubbard
Teresa Bruni says that whilst facing her own health crisis, she read an article by a psychologist suffering with the same illness, whose advice was to never accept the illness. Bruni says that she had tried this approach for many years and made her feel like she was in a never-ending battle. When Bruni said, “Okay, this is where I am. I accept it. Now what?”, her health began to improve.
As Bernhard discovered, surrender and then acceptance did not improve her physical health, but it did improve her mental health. They were the keys that helped her to live her new kind of life, with more meaning and peace.
Bruni says that acceptance and surrender “released so much counterproductive energy that my body was able to use that energy in a productive manner, to heal.” Of course these two principles don’t apply just to health, they are just as powerful in relationships, in work situations, in all aspects of life where we find ourselves hitting a brick wall.
So acceptance and surrender don’t mean we simply throw our hands up to the heavens, rather, it’s an opportunity for emotional and spiritual development, a chance to look at life from a new perspective, to understand that as Lao Tsu says, “there’s a time for everything” and to know, that with courage, and patience, a great unfolding and evolving may be taking place. Sometimes growth comes in the most challenging and difficult circumstances, but often, from the greatest pain, can come the greatest insights and understanding.
So whatever challenge you may be facing, whether it’s in relationships, in health or other areas of your life, remember that life is full of paradoxes, don’t give up, but loosen the need for control, accept and surrender into where you are right now. With your eyes open, lie back into the stream and see where the current takes you and what it has to teach you.