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.
I really resonated with this.
I have ‘controlled’ so much in my life.
As I start a journey into yoga teacher training I feel that spiritual surrender is important.
Thank you for the thought provoking article.
Thanks for your comment Angie, I find the balance between what I can control and what I can’t to be quite an elaborate dance. God grant me the serenity!
Nice reflections. It is really a pinnacle practice on the spiritual path. All efforts co-incide with that moment where surrender is the next step. That precipice edge is both terrifying and liberating. Despite the frantic effort to avoid it, there is a joy, and a freedom for the battle worn warrior, beyond the shame and the blood, when s/he raises the white flag. “I am ready to go beyond myself…”
Thank you Kamaleshji. ❤️
A lovely peek into the layers. Thanks
Lots of great insight here except for this whopper about some presumed biases by Christian translators: “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.”
Why make this terrible assumption that the Christian missionaries performing translations were guided by “colonialist and imperialist thinking”? Or that only white religious people have this issue? Were you in their heads? Why stoke anti-Christian hate with this sort of talk without any evidence?
Having recently watched the Hindi movie Padmaavat on Amazon Prime, I was surprised to discover it had inspired riots in India. Not because of the troublesome feminist issues it brought up, but because certain Hindu sects were offended at an alleged scene where a Hindu woman is romanced by a Muslim man. So they didn’t just complain on Twitter. They literally rioted.
In other words, the so-called purer Hindus were acting in a sense of “superiority about anything that comes from non-Hindu cultures.” If you bother to read any hardline Hindu websites, you’ll find that this sort of parochial attitude is not restricted to white cultures or Christianity. Zealotry and bigotry is an unfortunate part of the human condition that transcends skin color and permeates pretty much all religions and political affiliations.
And until we can see that we are ALL sometimes acting terribly, rather than trying to blame one culture over all others, we will stoke more resentment, hatred, and violence. The hardliners will look at comments like yours and feel justified and not learn from it but double down.
What do you think happens when a devout white Christian stumbles on your blog and reads this? Did you just open their hearts to yoga with that? Nope. I guarantee not. They might just said “screw this, I’m tired of being constantly attacked, what the heck, I’m gonna go vote for Trump now.” Quit handing votes to Trump. Thank you!
Thank you for your comments Gene. I’m not sure why you read anti-Christian sentiments into my blog however. My comments about Christian missionary translations are simply historically accurate, that doesn’t mean that I am saying that present day Christians hold the same sentiments – although some do of course. And the blog is not about the crimes of Hindu nationalists, who I agree are as dangerous as any other radicals. My suggestion would be to read that paragraph from a historical perspective.
Well said! I was going to reply to Gene, but as always, Kaoverii, your wording is perfect.
I personally loved the blog.
I was going to suggest that Avator ought to read about your background & where your knowledge & experiences stem from.
Thanks Diane. Sometimes even blog comments provide an opportunity to surrender. ☺️
At no point is the author “stoking anti-Christian hate” during her discussion of the definition of surrender …rather she has made an observation about how history has affected our interpretation of language. Also it appears that in getting hung up on this detail you have missed the point of the piece…letting go.
All the best working thru your anger and Trump issues 🙂
I, too, grapple with surrendering. In many of the same ways you describe. Years ago, I had a bit of an aha moment and began the PRACTICE of surrendering, adopting what I considered to be the more Eastern approach to the definition of surrender. It’s a different interpretation of the concept and, as you described, is more of a spiritual thing. Instead of waving a white flag in defeat, it’s more of a recognition of being one with something, a letting go of the need to control (a perennial issue for me), a softening.
I really enjoy your thoughtful and thought-provoking writing. Thank you!
Hey Paula, thanks so much for your comments. Yes, I agree surrender is a practice – and it’s not about giving up.
I loved this blog, Kaoverii. It dovetails beautiful with a spiritual quest I have recently embarked upon for the new year. The term “surrender” has never been particularly troublesome for me and I often use it my class, but after reading this, I am more “trauma-informed.” I will ponder this….
As I was reading your words, I kept thinking of the first 3 steps of a 12 steps program…although the word “surrender” doesn’t appear in them, the concept is clear: (1) We admitted we were powerless over debt—that our lives had become unmanageable (2) Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. (3) Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
Happy New Year.
Hey Karen, thanks so much! I like to remember the first 3 of the 12 steps with “admit-believe-commit” – it’s a beautiful reminder to surrender. Thanks for the creating the connection!
Absolutely Lovely, thank you!
Thanks Terri! BTW, I love the name of your site! so cute!
Inspiring words as always Kristine and a wonderful intention to carry us into the new decade. May we all find peace in surrender. I read this after peeling onions and love the analogy! Thank you XX
Thank you for sharing. I appreciated your insights and explanations, as I’ve often thought of surrendering as letting go & trusting the universe. So that we can find the magic of the moment, sharing it, receiving it, being in it. Especially moments of joy. I’ve often wondered how I lost the magic of the moment and how to get it back. Your lotus & onion analogy has me thinking that it’s the layers & expectations we’ve put on ourselves or had placed on us. And to peel those away is how to surrender, there’s so much opportunity to practice. I also appreciated your alternate words, especially hold conversations lightly.