The Paradox of Surrender
By Will Tuttle, Ph.D.
April 7, 2009
The yearning for authentic creativity, spirituality, understanding, and happiness bring us inevitably to the paradox of surrender because we are all, undeniably, constantly surrendering, from moment to moment, day in and day out. The key is to realize that there is healthy surrender and unhealthy surrender. Unhealthy surrender is surrendering to the inner fears, delusions, and conditioning that reinforce the sense of contractedness and separateness. Healthy surrender is surrendering to the call of the present moment, letting go of fears and conditioning, and expanding to include all beings in the sphere of our compassion and benevolence. It is marked by a sense of looking deeply and seeing beyond outer appearances, a sense of freedom, an awareness of poignancy and of tremendous beauty, and a feeling of gratitude and a yearning to give and to bless others. It is marked by a sense of radical inclusion: as we surrender to the call of the present moment, we surrender to fulfilling our destiny, and we surrender to the infinite benevolent source of our life and of all life, and as we feel included and loved and blessed, we likewise yearn to include and bless all living beings. This felt sense of surrendering to an all-inclusive and loving truth that calls us into an ever-expanding adventure of greater awareness is the fuel on our spiritual journey. Surrendering to our life’s purpose brings irresistible determination and energy. When we surrender in this way, our little personal life dissolves and we become a force of nature.
Paradoxically, the more we engage in this type of healthy surrender, the more powerful we become. But it is not we who are powerful: we are the conduit for a universal energy of love, healing, and creativity, and we allow this to work through us to bless others. As we surrender more fully and authentically, we realize that there are, ultimately, no others. Every being is a manifestation of this one life we are surrendering to, and we are all so intimately related that we realize we are all interconnected; our welfare is interconnected, and the more we bless others, the more we are blessed, and as we heal and awaken ourself, we help heal and awaken others.
We can see clearly that we have all been born into a culture that encourages and teaches an essentially unhealthy type of surrender, and as we look around, we see the results of this. When we surrender to the pervading culturally promulgated attitudes of competition, materialism, exclusion, and might-makes-right violence, we become agents of separateness and delusion, and though we may be successful in outer forms, we will invariably experience inner landscapes of frustration, anxiety, and despair. Krishnamurti expressed it succinctly: “It is no sign of health to be well-adjusted to a sick society.”
What we refer to as “the ego” is the delusory sense of being an essentially separate self, locked into a struggle to get what I want and keep away what I don’t want, and competing with other essentially separate selves in these endeavors. This conviction of separateness breeds the various manifestations of violence, both gross and subtle, that pervade relationships in our culture. The ego is a manifestation of surrendering to the attitudes, stories, and practices of our cultural conditioning. The ego tends to surrender only to itself, and thus becomes obsessed with consuming, manipulating, and dominating in its quest for recognition, security, self-importance, and comfort. All our culture’s major institutions—religion, education, corporations, media—tend to reinforce this unhealthy surrender of the ego to itself and to the cultural patterns that reinforce separation, competition, conflict, and inequity.
Shining within us, though, is the light of wisdom and compassion that yearns to surrender to the infinite love that includes and manifests as all living beings. While the ego or conditioned mind can only surrender to itself and its essentially violent self-delusion of separateness, we can realize that this is not our true nature. This ego and its toxic surrender to culturally programmed activities is a counterfeit of our essential nature. What we are, essentially, is whole, complete, and benevolent, and our natural yearning is to surrender to the process of creatively and exuberantly fulfilling our unique potential to bless others and contribute cooperatively to the ongoing celebration of life on this planet.
I’ve found that when I surrender in a healthy way, I surrender the self-important ego that is cunning, manipulative, competitive, and insecure, and let it go. The irony here though is that the “I” who is doing the surrendering is closely related to the “I” that is the ego, and the harder I try to surrender, the more closely related it becomes! This is the great paradox of the spiritual path: “I” can never consciously or deliberately surrender to anything but projections that reinforce my assurance of my self-existence. Healthy surrender is spontaneous and uncontrived. It’s surrendering to being existentially vulnerable, open, and expanded. It’s an attitude of profound trust in the benevolence and pervasiveness of the larger order in which I am embedded, and that I am here to serve, and that lives as and through this self I think I am.
How do we attain this healthy surrender, trust, and vulnerability? Though it is, in a very real sense, unattainable by the separate self we are taught to identify with by our culture, we can create the conditions for authentic surrender and beckon it increasingly into our daily lives.
The two key practices are, I believe, nonviolence and meditation. Both of these practices help us to extricate our consciousness from the cultural programming that keeps us identified with egoic separateness, and both are profoundly healing for ourselves and for our culture. The central core of our culture is the mentality required by our routine violence toward animals for food and we’ve all been indoctrinated into this mentality by being forced to participate in eating animal flesh and financially demanding animal food products that require cruelty, theft, and killing. We’ve been forced into this by every institution in our culture. As long as we are violent toward other sentient beings, we will be confined to the shallows of consciousness, unable to trust or surrender deeply and spontaneously, unable to be vulnerable. Going vegan, which means simply changing our behavior so that we cause the least amount of violence to other living beings, is an essential prerequisite for authentic spiritual growth and healthy surrender. It is an active questioning of the assumptions of violence, exclusion, and disconnectedness that have been planted in us by our culture, and it liberates us by liberating those whom we, through our culture, are imprisoning and abusing. This frees us at a deep level from the low self-esteem that pervades our culture and gives us the authentic confidence and trust in our essential goodness that makes healthy surrender possible.
The second essential practice is meditation, which is the practice of letting go of the compulsive thinking that constantly reinforces the existence and ongoing story of the delusory ego. It is allowing our consciousness to relax its habitual contraction around being a solid, separate self, and to rest in pure awareness, free from dualistic conceptions of self and other. In meditation, we are no longer struggling with our life, others, or ourselves. We are present, and out of this act of being open and present, healthy surrender spontaneously arises. In Taoism, this is called wu wei, acting without acting. We act without being separate from or controlling our actions. We fulfill a greater purpose, and draw on vast inner resources of creativity and wisdom that are unavailable to the separate self we normally identify with.
As an improvisational pianist, for example, I’ve found that it’s possible to let go of thinking and technical control (after many years of practice, of course!), and surrender to a vast power and presence that plays through me and the more completely I can get out of the way and stay in a state of meditative non-thinking and non-acting, the more energy and beauty and power come pouring through. I have found this occasionally with public speaking also, though it’s more difficult it seems, perhaps because I find the language of words to be more conceptual and cerebral than the language of music, which flows from the heart. Nevertheless, it is possible to speak and act from the state of healthy surrender and be a source of immense inspiration and healing through this activity.
In Japanese Buddhism, the paradox of surrender is summed up in two words, jiriki and tariki. Jiriki is self-power, and tariki is other-power. The idea is that some spiritual paths, like Zen for example, rely on jiriki, or self-power, and other paths, like Pure Land (and also Bhakti yoga and most forms of Christianity) rely on tariki, or other-power, and by our temperament and circumstances, we will be drawn toward one or the other. Devotional people naturally yearn to surrender to an outside “other” who will save them and bring them spiritual progress, such as Amida Buddha, Krishna, Jesus, God, etc. More self-reliant people will tend to rely on their own efforts in spiritual practices and disciplines to save them and bring them spiritual progress. In the end, self-power and other-power both merge into silence and are transcended and unified. They are not actually separate.
Spiritual awakening calls for both refusing to surrender, and for surrender. The typical attitude and practice in our culture—of competition, might-makes-right, eating animal foods, ambition, self-centered striving, and of either struggling not to surrender or of compulsively surrendering to outside forces —this is, ironically, a product of completely surrendering to the cultural indoctrination that pervades all our institutions. As we question and refuse to surrender to these outmoded attitudes, we begin surrendering the ingrained dualistic sense of a surrendering self, and of an other to surrender to. We may begin to realize that there is only the infinite light of consciousness and we are none other than this light. This is radical surrender in the sense that it goes to the radix (root) of our unyielding dilemma of separation anxiety and dissolves it in a higher awareness of the truth that we always are. This surrender is both spontaneous and paradoxically beyond personal control, and is also the natural and inevitable result of cultivating kindness, nonviolence, and meditative equanimity. In initiates us into the truth of being, into healing, bliss, peace, creativeness, gratefulness, exuberance, and authentic and skillful compassion. The question is not whether we are surrendering, but what we are surrendering to, and who or what is doing the surrendering.
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