“Surrender to what is. Say ‘yes’ to life and see how life suddenly starts working for you rather than against you.” ~Eckhart Tolle
“Surrender” in current colloquial language equals failure. According to the Oxford Dictionary, without an object, surrender means to “stop resisting to an enemy or opponent and submit to their authority.” With an object, it gets even worse: “Give up or hand over (a person, right, or possession), typically on compulsion or demand.”
How then can surrender be the key to joy?
At age thirty, I was defeated by life. Down for the count. But, I did not get back up on my feet until I surrendered.
I had led a charmed life until then. I got into every college to which I applied and went to my top choice. I graduated summa cum laude and got into a similarly impressive grad school, where I also graduated at the top of my class.
After a White House internship, I landed a job at a top investment bank and had moved to an equally prestigious consulting firm. I had lived in and traveled to dozens of countries. I was a winner.
Or was I? Life had thrown me a string of curveballs: health problems, friend problems, romantic problems, professional problems.
While, to an outsider, I might have appeared to be “living the dream,” the “dream” entailed eighty-plus hour workweeks and constant travel. After a few years of this, my life had totally unraveled, and after knowing nothing but success, I encountered nothing but failure.
The stress and over-work likely contributed to a string of illnesses, hospitalizations, and surgeries.
I was exhausted after more than ten years of sleeping on average less than five hours a night, and my weight had yo-yoed drastically.
My partner of three years had left me, telling me, to boot, that it was essentially never “a real thing” to begin with anyway. A second equally intense relationship ended in a similar way.
All of this happened when I was living as far away from my hometown as you can get on the globe, and after being so busy for so long, I had almost no one to turn to where I was living. I was completely untethered.
I just wanted it all to end, to make the pain go away. One day, I literally found myself on the floor with a bottle of pills in my hand, contemplating suicide. I almost followed through, but something happened, or actually, a lot of somethings did.
One of the very first somethings that happened was that I became aware of the self-talk in my head and was able to disassociate from it, listening to it as a separate entity.
Perhaps its most recurring commentary was some version of “this isn’t how it was supposed to happen.” I had achieved so much so early in life and worked so hard. I should have been rich. Happy. Successful. Instead, I was a mess.
It was all these “shoulds” that almost killed me because they left me stuck in a mental construct of my own making, set up in opposition to what was actually happening.
At the beginning of a long recovery process, perhaps the key moment came when I was able, however briefly at first, to occupy a reality without these shoulds and instead face whatever was at that particular moment.
It was only later that I was able to grasp the significance of that first moment of surrender. Surrender is not giving up on life but giving up fighting with life. And, when you’re not fighting with it, you’re working with life.
At first, our moral sense is offended by this. In a totally just world, there are a lot of things that should be. People should be nice to each other. Good things should happen to good people. But, if we take this to its logical conclusion, we’re all born innocent, so shouldn’t everyone just get what he or she wants? Shouldn’t only good things happen to everyone?
Beyond the facts that what is “good” is often in the eye of the beholder, and the “goodness” of what appears to be a “bad” or painful or unfair event is often not revealed until later, all of these good things that should happen are far beyond our control.
However, there are a lot of shoulds we can control. We can control our own actions and reactions (while of course allowing ourselves to err). We can act in this world how we should according to our own convictions.
This is how surrendering, far from waving the white flag, becomes the ultimate tool for empowerment and positive action.
When I was able to stop wallowing in the unfairness of what life dealt me and all of the shoulds that never came to be, my mind was free from the rumination and recrimination that led me into that deep state of depression.
When I stopped fighting with my situation, my scope and options for positive action became clear, and at that point I was in full control of the little space in life that I actually could control—me.
I stopped questioning the situation in which I found myself. Some of it was unfair, the result of what I took to be other peoples’ unjust actions, but at the same time, a lot of it was the result of my own actions, as well as pure chance. While I learned some lessons looking backward, the key to my recovery was accepting where I was and look forward to how to get myself out of it.
My immediate action was to seek help, first from friends and then from a therapist, something I would have previously stigmatized as self-indulgent. Overcoming the shame of that opened the floodgates of what was possible for me, and everything was up for grabs.
Within six months of that, I changed so many of the things that were not working for me—my job, my location and my relationships. I crafted a life that worked for me rather than fighting the one that wasn’t.
By dropping the shoulds, I am now able, in my clear-thinking moments, to act without opposition from life and more quickly move to consider my course of action.
Not only has this been emotionally liberating, but I know I have made countless better decisions as a result. Each day there are a thousand little victories, all thanks to surrender.
The logic neat and simple, but the practice is difficult. I get confused and caught up and stuck, but the state of surrender is progressively becoming more and more of my natural default. Some of the lessons and tips I’ve learned to get to this place that I would recommend:
1. Allow yourself to vent—up to a point.
As imperfect beings, total, ongoing, and permanent surrender is unrealistic. We will feel negative emotions about experiences not meeting our expectations, and we need to allow ourselves to feel those feelings. It often helps to express them to a sympathetic ear. To a point.
Venting of negative emotions is useful insofar as it allows us to liberate ourselves of them. However, prolonged or frequent venting can also lend momentum to these feelings. It can actually serve to build up opposition to life by hardening feelings of injury and strengthening those shoulds.
So, pay attention to your venting. Is it releasing the negative energy around opposition to life, or is it adding to that energy? If you’re the one listening to the venting, ask yourself the same question of the person doing it. If the venting is adding to the negative energy of the situation, consider trying to divert that energy toward something positive and creative.
2. Remind yourself that surrender is not giving up.
At the beginning of this blog post I deliberately focused on the commonly used definition and connotations of surrender because of the strong biases language can impart on our subconscious thought.
Prior to my own awakening, my brief forays into new age thinking and the new consciousness had always ended up with me dismissing it all as a bunch of hokey-ness that turned people into vegetables. If they were always just so accepting of what happened, how could they ever actually accomplish anything difficult or messy or complex?
I still sometimes revert back to this thinking, but then I recall: surrender is not giving up on life but on fighting with life. Indeed, not surrendering to reality—questioning the fairness, goodness, or logic of the present moment—is crippling. You’re saying “no” to reality: “No, but that’s not fair! It’s not right!” Okay maybe that’s true, but where can you go from there?
Surrender is saying “yes.” “Yes, I accept that this is a terrible situation, and the way I can make it better is…” This is how surrender becomes the key to taking positive action and frees us from so many of the negative emotions that we strengthen by opposing reality. We don’t say that what’s happening is okay, but we accept that it’s happening and move onto what we can do about it.
3. Be the happy warrior.
It’s something of an oxymoron, but the “happy warrior” tends to be more effective vs. the angry warrior, or, what we see more commonly, the person plodding along with grim determination. In fact, the war imagery probably misses the mark altogether, but we all can relate to the happy warrior type, so let’s stick with it.
When we haven’t surrendered to reality and are still fighting it, negative emotions are inevitable, and we are, by definition, engaging in a futile endeavor. In this case, we become the angry warrior or the grimly determined one. That was me for so many years—I hunkered down, determined to endure all of life’s slings and arrows, all the while missing the joy of the journey.
Maya Angelou once said, “What you're supposed to do when you don't like a thing is change it. If you can't change it, change the way you think about it. Don't complain.” If you’re still complaining or not accepting the reality, how can you change that reality? You’re probably still stuck in the complaining phase.
That aura of negativity or hopelessness that comes with a failure to surrender is, to be blunt, a real turn off for most people. If you want to be the change you want to see in this world and inspire others to a cause, the angry warrior type is probably not going to work.
This is vitally important in these times of so much social strife, and as fundamental questions of what kind of society we want to be arise every day. Eckhart Tolle has addressed this very point when talking about “angry peace activists” and agents of change.
Think about some of the most socially impactful figures in the last 100 years—Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Mother Theresa—these are happy warriors.
Their optimism was infectious in winning people to the cause, and this optimism stemmed from accepting reality as it was and moving on immediately to the “how do we change this?” phase. They began by surrendering.
Remember the Buddha. While sitting beneath the tree of knowledge, he was able to turn all of Mara’s arrows into flowers and remain in a state of equanimity. In a sense, you too can do that by not turning the obstacles that life puts in your way into personal affronts against you.
When you accept what life gives you—when you surrender—you avoid creating all of the negativity that rejection entails. You do not disrupt your own peace. From that place of peace, you can affect change.
In my journey, I eventually wasn’t able to continue fighting life, brought down into depression by the impact of all of those arrows. Nowadays, I can’t say that I immediately accept all that comes my way, but my willingness to surrender to life, if not turning the arrows into flowers, certainly makes the journey more joyful.
And, when you have joy, you are more likely to achieve the end you seek, or better yet, find peace in the journey regardless of the destination.
It all starts with surrender.