The wisdom of surrender


Woman in front of a sunset lake, in a gesture of awe

Recently I was asked to answer some questions for a book on the topic of surrender. Here are the questions, and the first draft of my responses:

1. How would you define surrender? Who or what is one surrendering to, in your opinion? God, Universe, Self, Soul, What Is, present moment…?

Surrender is an important part of all spiritual practice. Ultimately it’s what we’re aiming to accomplish in practice.

What we’re surrendering to is the reality of impermanence and non-separateness. In reality, everything changes and nothing (including ourselves) is separate or self-contained. But we have deep-rooted assumptions that we exist separately from the rest of the world, that there is something in us (and others) that is permanent and static, and that happiness can be found outside of ourselves. We believe that happiness is to be found in external conditions, rather than in changing our relation to the external conditions in which we live — which is why two people can be in the same situation, with one of them happy and the other miserable. So our view of ourselves and of where happiness comes from is at odds with how things really are.

We’re left with the task of realigning our views with reality, and to do that we have to surrender those views, surrender the desires that those views give rise to, and surrender the actions to which those desires give birth. And we need to accept the reality of change, non-separateness, and that things “out there” can’t bring us lasting happiness.

2. Is there a practice/methodology to surrender that one can follow that does not cause suffering? Is there a joyful methodology?

Paradoxically, we have to put in a lot of effort in order to be able to surrender! The Buddha’s dying words were, “Strive diligently!”

To be able to let go we first need a mind that has enough focus, calm, and concentration to be able to notice the ways in which we presently don’t accept reality — the ways that we currently hold on.

A lot of the time we’re simply caught up in distracted thinking and feeling and not really paying attention to how we’re thinking and feeling. And a lot of the time we are caught up in the delusion that our unhappiness and happiness depend on things out there in the world. So we need to learn to slow down and pay attention. So, for example, when someone says something that pushes your buttons and an angry response arises, we need to become aware that it’s we who are becoming angry, and that the other person is not “making us” be angry. We need to “own” our anger and stop blaming the other person. We need to learn to notice the arising of an angry response at a very early stage — this comes with repeated practice — so that we can find a more creative way to respond to the words we’ve just heard. In this kind of way we can come to realize that there is no “self” to defend, and that defense is an unnecessary and counter-productive strategy for happiness. Instead we can simply acknowledge that we suffered when we heard the words spoken by the other person and communicate authentically with them, acknowledging both their point of view and what we ourselves think and feel.

I develop those qualities of paying attention and noticing what’s really going on by cultivating mindfulness in meditation — mainly by paying attention to the breath, and to investigating what’s going on when I’m not able to pay attention to the breath. The process of developing mindfulness can be challenging, but it’s also ultimately very satisfying. A concentrated mind is a joyful mind. But it does take a lot of work to develop mindfulness.

There are other practices that help us to develop the qualities necessary for surrender. If we have a basic attitude of distrust towards ourselves, others, or the world in general it’s going to be hard to surrender. We need to develop a sense of trust and confidence in ourselves, and in others, and in the wisdom of letting go. There are various meditation practices that can help here, such as the Development of Lovingkindness practice, which helps us to feel more at ease with ourselves, and to develop a sense of other people as beings who are fundamentally struggling to be happy. And there are various insight meditation practices that help us to observe impermanence and the non-separateness of the self. These practices, like mindfulness meditation, are both challenging and nourishing. There’s no escaping the pain of change, but also change brings its rewards.

Lastly, there are some meditation practices where the emphasis is less on doing and more on being receptive. These are practices of surrendering. There is sadhana, where we visualize a representation of reality in the form of a Buddha image, and where we let the compassion of the Buddha flow into us. And there are practices where we simply trust the mind’s basic goodness, letting the light of reality shine from within. In these kinds of practice we don’t do much but remain in a mindful state as best we can and let go into reality. But in order for these practices to be effective we have to have done a fair amount of work preparing the mind by developing mindfulness and lovingkindness, both in meditation and in daily life.

3. What happens when you surrender?

There can be long periods of wanting to surrender, but not being able to. There can be periods where we need to let go of some view or habit that’s holding us back, and when it feels like we’re just unable to change. But then then suddenly something shifts and the old way of being shatters. Sometimes this is temporary and we experience a shift of consciousness that may last for a few minutes or hours. Other times there’s a more long-term (possibly permanent) change in the way we see ourselves and the way we see the world.

In letting go there’s usually a sense of entering a much more profoundly satisfying way of being. We’ve laid down a burden that sometimes we didn’t even realize we were carrying. We’ve broken fetters that were holding us back in ways we couldn’t have known until we were free of them. And there’s a sense of joy and fascination with the new way of seeing things. Again, this can be short-lived or long-term.

4. What is the Ego or mind? What’s holding on?

The ego is a set of strategies for finding happiness. The ego attempts to find happiness by keeping at bay things that we think are sources of unhappiness and by clinging to things that we think are sources of happiness. But this strategy is mistaken. It doesn’t bring us happiness or keep unhappiness at bay because happiness and unhappiness aren’t inherent in the world around us. They are properties of our mind that are produced by our own actions. And the main sources of our own unhappiness are — ironically! — the very aversion and clinging that we think will bring us happiness.

It’s worth noting that our basic desire for happiness is fine. It’s not a problem and is actually a good and wholesome thing. It’s the strategies we adopt in order to find happiness that can be the problem. The question is, do those strategies work? And the ego strategy of clinging and aversion simply doesn’t work.

Clinging, or holding on, is simply the attempt to stay with those things that we think are sources of happiness. Ultimately this is fruitless because everything changes. If I see a new relationship or a material object as sources of happiness, I’ll suffer when that relationship or material object change — as they inevitably will. It’s not that I can’t enjoy these things: in fact I’ll enjoy them more if I don’t cling to them, because I won’t be surprised and disappointed when they change.

Where happiness comes from is accepting impermanence. The mind that lets go is a mind that is at ease. It’s a mind that’s no longer trying to “fight” reality by trying to grasp the ungraspable.

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5 Comments. Leave new

  • “The ego is a set of strategies for finding happiness.” Nicely put! Very helpful insights. Thank you!

  • Very well-expressed and illuminating perspective. The act of surrender is difficult to describe and for me difficult to do-its a lonely and painful feeling. But somehow this is what is coming up all the time. And I can see its a difficult place to offer help or advice Maybe its more about being patient and kind with myself for feeling stuck.
    Thanks anyway!

  • The “ego” is a word many Buddhists avoid using because it can cause confusion about what the problem is. I can misdirect us from dealing with the root problem.

    The mind perceives a self that doesn’t exist, perceives it as incredibly precious and desperately tries to secure it’s happiness in every waking and sleeping moment. This is a doomed exercise and gives rise to very specific pains such as dissatisfaction, separation and abandonment.

    When we try to see this appearing non existent self it proves very difficult to do with our gross mind. A bit like the eye trying to see itself in a way (just a metaphor.)

    That’s often when people start using words like “ego” etc. In my experience it’s much better to be patient at seeing the non existent mind using vedanta techniques that enable consciousness to observe the gross mind and the gross perception of self (like one eye seeing another.)

    Another often used technique is to invoke a strong sense of “self” and try and witness it. That didn’t work for me. I found that the strong sense of self caused the gross mind to become grosser and even less able to see the “object of negation.” I’m sure there are lots of other experiences different to mine. The main point in Buddhist practice is that the correct problem should be identified. If I’m trying to get rid of a mole from my garden there’s little chance of success if I keep waving away cats.

  • What we are ultimately surrendering is just a perception, mind. Absolutely nothing more, nothing less.

    It’s not like ordinary surrender.

    Ordinarily the surrenderer becomes vulnerable.

    In spiritual terms the surrender is stopping putting fuel into the mind of ignorance. If we stop fuelling anger it ceases naturally. In that way we surrender to anger. We don’t push it away, we don’t suppress it or represss it. We allow it fully to be here, we surrender to the now. The no fuels nothing. When the mind tries to get into the past and future (which is impossible) it fuels painful minds.

    When we surrender in a spiritual sense to pain, to now, to suffering, to being able to escape suffering our gross mind relaxes deeply, the clouds part and the ever present sun/wisdom naturally presents itself. In doing so vulnerability is rendered meaningless. The non existent self that appears but doesn’t exist, that we desperately protect and try to satiate just stops appearing. That’s all.

    If it happens temporarily then it’s a temporary liberation, if it happens permanently then it’s a permanent cessation (or true cessation – 4th Noble Truth.)

    Spiritual practice is a process of subtraction that relieves pain.

    Once emptiness is clearly experienced and understood then conventional truth can be understood, at that stage we fully understand what the self is. Mere name, mere appearance, no object. This is the process described in Zen “First mountain, then no mountain, then mountain again.”

    We can similarly say “first no surrender, then surrender, then no surrender.” We end with no surrender, no vulnerability, no fear so what’s to lose……

  • […] We have to reconnect with our fundamental human nature, the one that tells us that we are the sons of the Earth and not the opposite. We have to reconnect with the truth that tells us to stay humble by stopping the insane struggle, by surrendering to the natural state of thing. […]


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