“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 these concepts further.
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 lived a typically delusional life, thinking I could control my world 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 an amazing book, with the somewhat disturbing title, “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 quite accept, that surrender wasn’t the same as giving up. It turns out, there is a significant but subtle difference.
Bernhard offered some great insights into surrender but it was my friend who pointed out, that the energy of both the word and concept of defeat is very different to that of surrender. Defeat, or giving up feels quite helpless, hopeless and lacks energy. Whereas surrender or acceptance, has a peaceful feeling about it. Surrender helps us loosen our white-knuckle grip of the wheel, and allow the unseen universal ‘field’, take the wheel for a while. Feeling defeated often occurs when we are hell-bent on controlling everything in our lives, despite numerous hints that we are not in alignment with where we should be, physically, emotionally and/or spiritually. It also occurs when we lack faith. As hard as some situations are, there could be something to be gained from it, a small nugget of wisdom, a learning that we can extract from the situation that will help us grow, and evolve as human beings.
In addition, giving up sometimes means we relinquish our personal responsibility to make the changes that are needed, sometimes, unfairly diverting responsibility to others. The roadblocks we encounter in life, can also 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 life’s unfolding. Perhaps it’s a timing thing, perhaps our egos are placing unrealistic demands on us, others or the universe. Perhaps it’s just unexplainable circumstances.
There is nothing wrong with positive thinking, striving for happiness etc., but we are often misled into thinking that if we control our lives, we’ll be spared heartache and hardship that comes with being human.
Control is a mirage….it doesn’t exist. We’re fooled into thinking we are the executive 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 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 pile of rubble. 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 incompetent in helping build resilience into our thinking minds. Lessons on resilience should also include learning about surrender, and acceptance.
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? A friend suggested that perhaps it’s exactly where I’m supposed to be, perhaps certain doors aren’t open yet because other events have yet to unfold, 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.”
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. 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 that burden, she found the freedom to live the life that she has, rather than fighting for what may not come.
The key here is that Bernhard hasn’t given up, she remains hopeful that advances in medicine may one day find a cure, but she also accepts that there may be no cure. She says that this acceptance has helped her find peace with her 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 Nepo spoke of. He says after surrendering into the flow, that we can practice acceptance when we find that we’ve into something like, driftwood, into the riverbank. He believes that accepting the blocked road, the interference or stalemate, gifts us a moment to look at the bigger picture, and view our lives from a different angle.
“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” – Elbert Hubbard
Teresa Bruni says when she was facing her own health crisis, she read an article by a psychologist suffering with the same illness. The psychologist’s advice was to never accept the illness. Bruni says that she had tried this approach for many years but it made her feel like she was in a never-ending battle. When Bruni surrendered, and accepted where she was and asked, “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. Instead, it’s an opportunity for emotional and spiritual development, a chance to look at life from a new perspective, and to know, as Lao Tsu says, that “there’s a time for everything”. We need 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. It’s not our preferred option, but sometimes, 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, and 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.