“Just surrender”, “just be” – thus they say. We may see it almost everyday online. Posts with inspirational quotes, spiritual stuff, apparently deep and “so true” (if you want to believe the comments below the quotes). While we might use the words “surrender” or “letting go”, we often don’t question it on a deeper level. Thus many end up with a very superficial comprehension of these profound statements. The result of this trend is more people who think they know and less people who actually know. The illusion of knowledge is one of the foremost problems in these days where we are getting used to eating wisdom without digesting it.
In this article I would like to encourage deeper reflection on the topic of surrender and finding peace. As the idea of surrender is gaining popularity we could ask questions such as: “What do we surrender to?” and “Why or when should we surrender?” or even “What is it that surrenders?”. I find the that the spiritual path is a deeply humbling experience. The longer I walk on it, the less certain I feel about those shiny things that concepts, ideas emotions and thoughts are trying to sell me. In a world of scrolling, swiping and rushing I encourage to stop and reflect properly. Accepting a statement because it sounds “inspiring” might well be like ingesting poison because it tastes good.
Giving up Everything, Here and Now?
One of the most popular misunderstandings concerning the idea of giving up or letting go is that we have to give up everything here and now. Sometimes, when I speak about letting go, people come up with the conclusion: “But if we would all let go of everything, nothing would work anymore!”. Over the years I have observed that there seems to be this idea that when we subscribe to doing a spiritual practice, we have to do it at all times and perfectly – right from the start. Some complain about distractions after their first meditation practice as if there shouldn’t be any distractions. Others don’t even start to practice Yoga because they are “not flexible enough”.
So forget this idea about giving up everything here and now perfectly for all times ever after. It doesn’t serve you! It’s an unskillful (and unkind) idea that should be discarded and replaced. Instead I recommend cultivating kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity (“The Four Sublime Attitudes“) a bit more. Replace the rush for perfection with the thought “right now I could give up what is unskillful and harmful” or “right now I could cultivate what is skillful and beneficial”. Do one step at a time, and do it as good as you can right now. And when it comes to the idea of “giving up everything” – there’s a time for that too: It’s when you don’t need it anymore! Suppose you are drowning, find a raft (lucky you!) and make your way to a nearby island. Would it be wise to give up the raft before you reach the island and have firm ground beneath your feet?
Skillful and Unskillful Surrender
There’s things to let go of and there’s things to hold on to. It’s when people get the idea that they “should” do what some great guru told them in a book and “let go completely” – that’s when trouble starts. The self is like a raft. It gets us to to the point where we really don’t need it anymore. Having served it’s function, it can be released with appreciation. Letting go of the self prematurely is a BIG mistake! Unfortunately many do attempt it, inspired by a plethora of various online teachings. Having no real teacher themselves they are open and vulnerable to thousands of opinions, traditions and words.
Skillful surrender is based on good company, right learning, right contemplation and proper meditation practice. While giving up what is harmful we keep holding on to what is beneficial – until we reach the point where we don’t need to hold on to anything at all. A great example is climbing a ladder. You only let go of the previous rung when you have a firm grasp of the higher rung or a solid stance. Letting go at the wrong time (unskillfully) will lead to a fall. And the higher you are up on the ladder, the deeper you can fall. Advancement requires a very skillful mindset that is able to support the practice until we reach the end of the ladder. Then we are free to let go of climbing and enjoy the view.
Surrender – But to What?
In order to find out whether we are surrendering skillfully or not, it is important to raise the question what we intend to surrender to. Besides, it would be helpful to know what it is that we want to surrender and why. In the case of Anger for example, we could ask ourselves if it is a state worthwhile pursuing and holding on to or not. Once we came to a conclusion we can then follow through with either cultivating or giving it up. If we want to surrender this state, what could we surrender it to? Well, we might consider surrendering it to kindness, forgiveness or equanimity for example. Another – though advanced – option is to surrender it to emptiness.
In our practice we focus on giving up what is harmful while cultivating what is beneficial. We can thus slowly purify the mind and let it settle properly. As the practice advances, it becomes more and more refined in its approach. Not in the sense of complication and abstraction – but more in the direction of simplicity and ease. I am writing this with the wish that it might serve those who are trying to work through the higher levels before having really built a solid and reliable foundation. This error is widespread and very common these days. The ego loves “fast-food-spirituality” that is cleverly packaged and sold to the masses in the disguise of being easy, direct and instant. So let’s stay wide awake and make sure to cultivate proper insight and knowledge with integrity and respect for longterm benefit.