If I could give you a summary of contemplative practice in one word, it would be: surrender.
I have gone back to this a lot of times in posts, but strangely, given the central importance of this to my practice, I have never written a whole post about it. I even forget about surrender when trying to practice, sometimes for whole months on end, practicing in ways that are not wholeheartedly saying yes to the present moment.
Surrender is often described as ‘acceptance’ but that still implies that I can choose it or not. As practice has gone along, one of the ironic aspects is that I know rationally that surrender is what is needed, but I can’t do it. Literally. There’s not that awareness of how. The trail of breadcrumbs has disappeared. I can’t get into the groove of it, can’t smell that delicious enlightenment and follow it. The causes and conditions are not always there. It is so alien to me (and I know, many others, though I do seem to be particularly bloody-minded) that I forget how to do it easily. It takes a large amount of tenderising of my soul, a defeat of all that willpower to struggle on, an exhaustion of the ego’s resources which build up when I am not humble.
Surrender is the humility to know you’ve already lost the battle, the battle that only you are fighting. The universe doesn’t know you’re trying to beat physics and biology and all the rest. It’s so bloody massive compared to you that it doesn’t even feel a pinprick. Or, to use another metaphor: you’re punching God out of anger, but he’s not hurt- he’s not even offended, just smiling at you paternally. Life, death, suffering, achievement, loss: they’re all just the way the world is, and it doesn’t occur to them that things should be different. That requires one jumped-up little shit who thinks that somehow they deserve to live forever, to have everything, because they have forgotten that only separateness could make part of God turn on itself and try to rip away from perfection. This is why ‘acceptance’ is not enough of a word. It implies this polite, relaxed, ‘oh ok then’ of an attitude. It implies a certain begrudging tolerance. But to surrender- that’s bowing, prostrating, falling to the ground and hugging the legs of the world like a child.
If you think surrender is a defeat then you’re still under the illusion that you could have won, and even more deeply, you’re deluded as to who is fighting who. Most of the time, the twinges in my body and mind tell me that I am still waging this war. I’ve come to deeply believe that suffering is masochism in a world full of delights we aren’t very well wired to simply appreciate for what they are. If you are affronted by this, somehow seeing this as a nasty way of saying people are at fault for their own pain, then you’ve misunderstood me, if I may say so politely. Pain is inevitable, as goes the phrase. A famous rock star died yesterday and was described as having ‘lost a short battle with cancer’. Was he at fault for dying of cancer? Was he expected to do more to ‘beat it’? Or was it a natural cause that his body could not defend against, given his advanced years, after a life that many have described as amazing? It’s all in the perspective.
If you are still in the fighting stance, then one of the ways of learning to surrender is in fact to adopt this to as much of an extreme as you can. If you’re going to insist on it being a battle, then lose. Lose hard. Notice how utterly feeble your attempts to not suffer are. Notice how all your willpower cannot make you a perfect meditator. Notice how all your desire to be saintly ends in abject failure. Lose so hard that there is no way to avoid the suffering that is there. Lose all the strength to resist. If you look at this way, even days of painful, crap meditation are worth it. You’re getting purified, the hard way. But you are getting purified; the new pathways in your brain are getting made. The new channel is being dug out, and by trial and error you will land in it again and dig it a little more deeply. Again, as I always say, there is enough suffering in really looking at the world as it is – looking God in the eye and realising oops, I’m not on a par at all – to gain insight, without having to inflict more on yourself, so don’t go out of your way to experience exotic forms of suffering that are a holiday from the mundane types you are trying to avoid.
I have been on retreat a number of times, but not in the last year or two, as the cycle of resistance and surrender was so pronounced that I was taught this lesson in a very explicit, nasty way. I’ve not made time to retreat recently for good reasons, but even for the year after my last one I couldn’t face such a wringing out- turned out time with a teacher in a more gradual training was what was indicated, anyway. With a little reflection and a change of emphasis it became obvious that the surrender was not in fact a loss, as it seemed to be at the time (meditate harder! Smash through to the truth!) but was in fact actually the whole point. The grace period after I had surrendered was always ridiculously pleasant, with refined forms of equanimity and calm arising that are unsurprisingly related in maps of meditation to that portion of the cycle after profound surrender has occurred. They were far more pleasant that the energetic, blissful stages of the early part of the cycle, because completion, relaxation and wholeness are far more deeply satisfying than even strong states of excitation and creativity. Less of the adrenaline and more of the oxytocin, thank you very much! I have described practices with huge amounts of vivid experiences as being clearly more intensive, but also possibly less mature. The nun with a massive amount of faith has no need for the clouds to part, in my thinking- she knows in her bones what her truth is. My obvious point is that I was being clouted over the head with mine: stop fighting. It’s nice when you don’t.
If you are less masochistic, better at following instructions, have more faith, are generally just wiser, or have developed a dislike for drama, go to the deepest source of stillness you can and surrender with gratitude and relief. Practice pointers such as ‘who are you fighting?’ can be helpful, as can resolving to abandon goals, praying as deeply as you can for God’s aid, or simply reminding yourself that you’re not in control of the process in the slightest. Once that channel had been dug relatively deeply in me, and I really started to see that it wasn’t my fight, I began to find surrender really joyous. There’s a relief in not having to strain, knowing that a ready apology immediately turns an argument with my partner into a grateful interaction, that letting the breath do what it wants stabilises the concentration, that not needing to judge and criticise removes a large burden of effort. Surrender has resulted in almost dazzling changes in practice, as if someone has flipped a switch and resistance has turned into interest and calm. This is described as the shift from Reobservation to Equanimity in Buddhist commentaries and can be as fast as the blink of an eye- especially if you’re not trying to force yourself into said equanimity and utterly accept whatever pain you’re in during this ‘reobservation’ of all the horrible states of mind that most make you averse to pain and to crave escape and pleasure.
While it isn’t possible to actually surrender – it is an experience, looked at closely – it is possible to want to surrender, honestly and courageously. Wanting to be with whatever is going on right now is deceptively powerful. How much can you really say, right, as much as I hate this level of suffering, I will stay here and learn from it? The relief in doing this is instantaneous in my experience, even if the actual suffering sometimes mounts as whatever has been avoided comes into the heart with full force. So it is clear that there are two kinds of practice here: a passive form of surrender, that says ‘may thy will be done’ to whatever is happening, a mantra for times of uncertainty and change, but also an active form in the middle of drama and suffering, that embraces it with both arms.