Wrestling with Surrender
Surrender is a common theme in yoga philosophy. But through the years, surrender and I have had a somewhat tumultuous relationship. In Sanskrit, when it’s expressed in terms like Īśvarapraṇidhāna or śaraṇāgati, it sounds beautiful and serene. But I’ve found the English word “surrender” to be a rather bitter pill to swallow.
Surrender to whom? To what? Why would I surrender? Am I being attacked or something? What would I surrender?
When I started to think about practicing and teaching surrender, I realized that I could use softer sounding words like “let go”, “release”, or “hold lightly” to express the concept more compassionately and in a more trauma informed way.
These terms feel a lot kinder and more accessible to me.
I can let go of the tightness in my muscles. I can release the weight of my body in śavāsana. I can hold an unpleasant situation or conversation lightly. I can let go of a relationship that is no longer healthy.
I’m much more likely to use this softer kind of language when I teach, as opposed to the more traditional translation “surrender.”
The word “surrender” is loaded with historically uncomfortable significance. It’s the defeat at the end of a fight. It stirs up images of war, death, powerlessness, slavery, and pain. It has been unjustly foisted upon innocent individuals and societies. And, of course, there’s the gender issue – women have always been the spoils of war. We’ve been acculturated to be really good at surrendering in our little daily battles because it’s something we have been historically expected to do in the big ones.
Also, many of the original translations of traditional Hindu texts were undertaken by Christian missionaries. So, the translations necessarily have some theological and worldview biases – as well as being heavily cloaked in colonialist and imperialist thinking that includes a white, western superiority about anything that comes from non-white, non-western, non-Christian cultures.
“Surrender” is super loaded.
But understanding the history and learning to employ softer words for the concept didn’t really solve my surrender issues.
I had to keep wrestling with it.
What I began to understand is that spiritual “surrender” is a totally different concept – it’s not about relinquishing power to others. And the only war that gets waged is an entirely internal one – fighting the dark forces of the mind that keep me enslaved in limited ways of thinking, particularly the ways that I see and understand myself and my relationships.
I realized that when it comes down to it, spiritual surrender is ultimately about freeing myself from the trappings of my highly constructed identity.
I once met an American woman who had lived in India as a nun in a yogic order – but she didn’t last very long. After a short time she left and returned to the states. I asked her why and she told me, “In order to surrender yourself, first you have to have a self. I realized my sense of self was so weak that I needed to leave in order to find out who I actually am.”
That conversation helped me understand something very important about practice – it is a way to know and understand my self and then make very conscious choices about what to do with that self – including, perhaps, surrender.
What I began to understand is that spiritual surrender is a personal, intimate way to release the trappings, disappointments, and pain of identity. I see my identity as something like an onion or a lotus. The petals are the labels – I’m a mother, a wife, a yoga teacher, a writer, a business owner. I am an American and a resident of Asheville. I have an education, a race, a hair color, an eye color, a body type. I think of myself as feisty, sensitive, thoughtful, disorganized, forgetful, overwhelmed, energetic, expressive, and exhausted (just the tip of the iceberg 😉).
When I sit for meditation, I have an opportunity to peel away all those layers and look at myself more honestly. What is useful? What arises from childhood stuff? What is kind? What is hubris? And what lies beneath all these layers of labels?
When I get to the core, I realize that I am my breath, pure awareness, pure existence, and a drop in an ocean of something that I can’t possibly understand but that I know loves me unconditionally. At my core there’s no one to be, nothing to do, and nothing to prove. My existence is intrinsically precious. That’s all.
It’s a blissful place to hang out, but I can’t get there without surrender.
And actually, once I do touch the core, I begin to understand that there’s something even greater beyond it, and there’s something freeing and blissful about surrendering that part as well.
In my life, I would like things to go well, but sometimes they don’t. Surrender is a way of living fully, of understanding that I’m doing my best, and I’m trusting the process, whatever the outcomes. Surrender is a practice. Every time I sit to meditate, I can loosen the grip of my layers of identity. Life builds them up, practice peels them away. It’s kind of simple, and it’s also the most complicated thing I’ve ever done.
My intention for this year doesn’t involve setting a goal or having a word of the year or creating a vision board. My intention is to deepen my understanding of spiritual surrender. I can’t say that I fully understand it, but I think there is something quite precious to be found in the practice.
I made this YouTube video a few weeks ago, it’s called “Slow Down and Let Go.” I wanted to convey an experience of spiritual surrender. Hope you enjoy it.