The central theme of all spiritual traditions is surrender, the giving up of this person that we think we are. It can be said that surrender is the central theme of the Bhagavad Gita as well; again and again, Arjuna is instructed to surrender his will to the Divine (Krishna).
Yet, the concept of surrender is volatile and often misunderstood. Importantly, it is the most challenging (and therefore a significant) movement on the spiritual quest. The body, mind and intellect are what we think we are, and these obscure the inner divine light effectively and often totally. At each level, there is a strong sense of individuality, of being a person in control of life and its circumstances, as well as relationships with others and with God. This strong sense of individuality arises from upbringing, values instilled by caregivers and prevalent culture, life experiences that “teach” us to love or hate, to accept or reject, to be strong or timid, to choose this over that, and so on. All along, we have the strong sense that it is “me” that is choosing or doing out of my own “personal free will”.
Yet, there is hardly anything “free” about this will, since every choice made is dependent upon a cascade of circumstances that can (if one would want to) be traced all the way to infanthood (and beyond).
Doership, the Obstacle to Progress
Every action has infinite possibilities in terms of outcomes; yet, we ardently hope for one single outcome that is based on our experience of desirable and undesirable. When the outcome is what we had hoped for, we are temporarily satisfied (until the next expectation comes along, as it surely will). When it is not, we are filled with disappointment, regret, resentment and ill-will. This is how we live our lives on a moment-to-moment basis, each moment colored by expectations of the next and based on the experience of the last.
And then we arrive on the spiritual path and take up practices and studying.
Here too, the active issue is of control; specific outcomes are expected from sadhana. Practices and spiritual studies are taken up with certain goals; we remain fixated on these goals in a rigid sort of way, happy when a prescribed milestone is reached and disappointed when our experience differs from it.
When it comes to surrender, we can misunderstand it to be passive and that no effort is necessary on our part at all. However, because we have become experts at efforting and expecting, such giving up becomes frustratingly impossible. On the other hand, we may tap into tamasic qualities of inertia and laziness and think this is surrender.
In fact, the relationship between self-effort and surrender is one of the hardest concepts to grok on the spiritual path; both effort and surrender are necessary, and this is the entire basis of karma yoga.
The surrender that is required is of the active quality. All efforts arising from our passionate desire for God are consecrated to God. And this consecration is an art that has to be perfected along with non-attachment and equanimity.
Surrender can never be perfect if there is attachment to a specific outcome or aversion to another. Thus, we perform actions and continue with sadhana with utmost sincerity and engagement, but we are deeply okay with whatever the outcome may be. Why? Because any outcome is the most obvious evidence of Divine Will (all our choices and actions also arise from Divine Will, but the impurities of identification with the body-mind-intellect obscures the seeing of its role until a later stage).
For active surrender, this “okay-ness” needs to be at a level that is much deeper than the mind. It must permeate our physical and subtle bodies; our very cells must be bathed in this okay-ness for it to be active surrender. There can be no hope for anything that is not aligned with the greater will. Thus, we acknowledge the desire that drives an action and give it up with an affirmation for it to occur if it is Divine Will. When this giving up occurs at the aforementioned deepest layers, there is an unmistakable release and relaxation.
Although Divine Will will determine the outcome anyway, the acknowledgment of the desire and it’s concomitant release make it an active movement. Miraculously, such a practice, known as samyama, results in dissolving of our will into the Divine Will.
Samyama, the Practice of Active Surrender
The practice of samyama, as difficult and imperfect as it is, has been the most beautiful aspect of my sadhana. Read here for more on samyama as taught by Yogani of Advanced Yoga Practices. It is also described in my book, Shakti Rising.
Over the years, my life (like that of others who practice this) has become a steady stream of miracles. One such incident occurred on a trip to Costa Rica.
More than any other wildlife of this lush country, I wished to see the Resplendent Quetzal, a magnificent bird with vivid colors and a long two-feathered tail. As we toured the cloud forests of Monteverde, our many hours spent for one glimpse of this highly elusive bird were in vain. On daily guided tours, we saw every other species of native birds except the quetzal. On our last day in the region, we took a self-guided tour of one last rainforest, but the ranger at the ticket booth warned us not to expect to see a quetzal because of unfavorable weather conditions that day. Disappointed, I trekked along, hoping against hope that it might still happen.
Halfway through the tour, I suddenly felt the desire dissolving fully, knowing without a doubt that if it was Divine Will to see one, it would happen; it was no longer “my” concern. In a brilliant inner flash of release, there was a whoosh of relaxation down to the bones along with immense peace and joy of just being. The quetzal was forgotten and the magic of the forest captured my attention and heart.
A half hour later, a male quetzal alighted on a tree branch right next to us in a glorious flash of blue-green. As we gaped, a female (with shorter feathers) joined its mate and the two remained preening on the branch for a while and flew away just as a group of people approached (they had to see the above picture to believe it). Tears streamed down my face and I was humbled beyond belief.
Two days later and on our very last day in the country, I felt that our trip could not be complete without seeing a large snake. We had seen several varieties of smaller ones, but not a big one. Again, this desire was surrendered in a big release and a sense of being totally okay with not seeing one. Minutes later, we were strolling down to breakfast at the forest resort as a guide ran up asking us to hurry – a python had been spotted nearby and it was feeding. We rushed to the spot and watched the strikingly gorgeous creature finish its meal (presumably a small mammal) and leisurely make its way into the bush.
This beautiful country had been my guru for this valuable lesson in surrender. These are dramatic examples of the results of surrender, but not how it may work in daily life.
Active Surrender in Daily Life
In every moment, we can dive into this practice of active surrender. We can put in the effort and simultaneously call for Grace to release all “my-ness” from it and to pour our stubborn will into the fire of Divine Will.
The prerequisites for this are inner silence and unwavering faith in the Divine.
We have to know (not merely believe) that nothing in the cosmos occurs outside of Divine Will. Our effort, our path, our life and its saga, world events – all these are intricate parts of the cosmos, which moves as a whole according to Divine Will. Any action performed by anyone anywhere moves the whole in a specific direction, all of it dictated by this Will. No action is isolated and affects seen and unseen sentient beings and events in orchestrated ways.
Becoming okay with any outcome means that sometimes we are not given what we want, but always what we need. Sometimes, it is given, but not right yet. In every case, it is the perfect outcome.
By no means is this a fatalistic predetermination, for every action has infinite possibilities in terms of outcomes; all these possibilities and their resultant cascades of outcomes are contained within Divine Will.
In fact, the very movement of surrender is a sanction of Grace and of this all-encompassing Will.