Life without liberty is like a body without spirit. – Kahlil Gibran (The Vision)
When you look back on your life, what verbs do you use to describe it? If you’re like me you probably use words like “searching,” “seeking,” “fighting,” “chasing,” and “striving,” among other words like loving, laughing, and crying.
In life, it seems very normal for us to fight against despair and disaster, and it seems just as normal for us to continuously seek for freedom and joy.
But what if I was to tell you that we’re going about it all wrong? What if I was to tell you that the happiness, peace, and liberation that we search for can be found by simply surrendering – not resisting, not battling, not pursuing – but simply . . . surrendering?
What is “Surrendering”?
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. –Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)
When we hear the word “surrender” we equate it with “defeat,” “failure,” and even weakness. But in reality, surrendering takes a lot more strength, bravery, and determination than fighting.
Because surrendering our fears, surrendering our mistaken beliefs, surrendering the biases, preconceptions and judgements we cling to about ourselves and the world takes a lot of guts. Surrendering requires us to challenge ourselves, it requires us to question every assumption we have ever made about the world. It requires us to see that life doesn’t have to be a struggle as we so commonly believe, but life can be serene—NOW.
This can be impossible for us to believe . . . it seems so ridiculously simple! And maybe it is. But we seem to have a very strong, very tenacious tendency to fight and resist in life. Whether this is biological, socially conditioned, or both, our deeply ingrained habit of resistance often gets in the way of simply surrendering.
You might even be resisting now with thoughts such as “This is a load of baloney,” “I’ve tried surrendering and it does nothing but make me suffer,” “This doesn’t work,” “I don’t believe this.”
This is normal and natural, and I didn’t accept the notion of surrender either when I first heard it. But what I learned was this:
Surrendering doesn’t make you a martyr.
Surrendering doesn’t make you weak.
Surrendering doesn’t make you a coward.
Surrendering doesn’t make you a failure.
As Niebuhr’s well-known “Serenity Prayer” eloquently puts it, you don’t have to stop caring, or stop trying to circumvent the unfortunate things that happen in life—but you do need to know when you can’t. Many things in life are out of our power to change, alter, or control.
Let me give you a few lessons I’ve learned in my own life as an example:
I’ve learned that I can’t change those who are close to me without their consent. I’ve learned that I can’t force anyone to see my perspectives, to hear my thoughts, or to truly understand where I am coming from UNLESS they are first open and receptive. On the other hand, I have learned that I can change myself, I can change the way I think, feel, and perceive the world. And through my learned ability to change myself, I’ve also learned to change the outcome of events: I’ve learned to avoid unnecessary mistakes or misfortunes that I could have brought on myself.
What about you? What can you genuinely change in your life, and what do you need to surrender control of? What is in your power to change, and what is completely out of your hands?
Hint: Outer people and events are very difficult to oversee and contain. On the other hand, the feelings, perceptions, judgments, and decisions we make within are more in our scope of changing.
Why the “Pursuit of Happiness” Makes Us Miserable
Always say “yes” to the present moment. What could be more futile, more insane, than to create inner resistance to what already is? What could be more insane than to oppose life itself, which is now and always now? Surrender to what is. Say “yes” to life — and see how life suddenly starts working for you rather than against you. –Eckhart Tolle (The Power of Now)
What does the pursuit of happiness have to do with resistance and surrender? A whole lot, really.
The pursuit of happiness is essentially one of the biggest forms of resistance in our lives. We spend our lifetimes searching for what will make us truly happy. We travel the world, learn languages, get degrees, get married, earn lots of money, and start businesses to try to achieve this elusive “happiness dream” that so many speak of and worship.
Instead of simply surrendering, instead of simply accepting what we have right here and right now, we eternally crave for more. And thus we are stuck in a never-ending cycle of misery.
As Sol mentioned in a previous article on paradoxical truths:
Happiness can never be pursued. The more you chase it, the more it runs away. Pursuing happiness makes you anxious and frustrated. In fact, happiness only comes when you’re relaxed, when you’re not pursuing it, and it’s always the by-product of another activity—usually something that brings meaning or joy to our lives.
A really powerful place to start when we are learning to surrender to life is to challenge the idea that happiness must be “pursued.” We often get into an unconscious habit of dwelling in future dreams and possibilities, and fantasizing about what we “could be doing,” or where we “could be” rather than soaking up the beauty, tranquility and joy that can be found right now.
If you would like to experiment with surrender, try to focus on being present today (not tomorrow), and try to notice every little detail and nuance that occurs in your life right now. Yes, your life might not be perfect, and no, it most likely never will be, but you can re-program your mind to get the very most out of life despite what you are experiencing right now. Beauty can be found in even the darkest of places.
When I attempt to re-train my thinking patterns to enjoy life to the fullest, I like to do what I call “somatic mindfulness.” Somatic mindfulness is basically a way of using your body (your breathing and your five senses) to anchor you into the present moment. You can do this by tuning into what you are tasting, what you are touching, what you are hearing, what you are smelling, and what you are seeing, and focus on experiencing these sensations fully—not halfheartedly as is often our habit.
For example, you might like to go outside, sit down, let the sunshine hit your face, and fully feel its heat and warmth on your skin. Or you might like to absorb yourself in the taste of your cereal and full experience the nuances of flavor. You might like to focus on your breath as you walk to the bus stop, or listen to the sounds of the birds chirping or crickets trilling in the evening.
If you would like to actively put into practice surrender or non-resistance, try this method (and let me know how you go below!). You will not be perfect at it—none of us are—but fierce persistence is the key.
Despite what we are taught: liberation is not a search, it is surrender. Despite what we believe: liberation is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of strength.
Surrender is about acceptance, it is about consciously choosing not to resist life, it is about developing the wisdom to know when our intervention is unnecessary, and it is about developing the courage to embrace whatever comes, knowing that everything in its own time will pass.
What are your experiences with surrender and liberation?