When you hear the word, “Surrender,” you might first think about giving up, or giving in.  “I surrender” may conjure up the image of a war-torn battlefield, or a white flag waving in the wind.  Perhaps it is the human history of conflict that leads us, traditionally, to view surrender more as a weakness than a strength.

Allow me to share another side of surrender, which I’ve come to know as a powerful spiritual practice, offering peace of mind when facing uncertainty, and freedom with your thorniest of challenges. Surrender, as I now understand it, means to let go.  It means to release control and let go of worry about how things should go, or how something is supposed to work out.

Surrender is Practical.  It Benefits You Most When Facing Challenges

You can apply surrender when it feels like you just have to know all the details in order to relax, or your efforts to try to control something or someone seem to be causing you stress or anxiety.

Life also has a way of thrusting us into opportunities to surrender, whether we ‘re ready for it or not: a loved one falls ill; you get fired from your job, or your company goes under; a close friend tells you they are moving across the country.  These are challenging moments when the temptation is to resist it – to wish it were not true.  The opportunity to surrender meets you in that moment when you’re facing something you don’t want, yet you know you ultimately can’t change it.

Water as a Symbol for Surrender

The image of a river comes up a lot for me when I think about Surrender.

The Hopi people of the modern American southwest have a way of telling stories with rich, vivid imagery.  Water, the lifeblood of the earth, is a prominent feature in their folklore.  Here is my interpretation one of the most powerful stories (actually a Hopi prophecy) that beautifully illustrates surrender:

Survival and the Thinking Mind

On the winding river of life, it’s predictable that we’ll want to ask the typical questions: Where am I going?  When will I get there?  This is part of our nature – we want know how it’s all going to play out so we can prepare, be aware, and feel a sense of control.
We are comfortable when we have the details, and generally uncomfortable when we don’t. 

Oriented around our survival, our self-focused mind serves us well.  We are hard-wired to fight, flee, or freeze.
Developing a practice of surrender is a tool to counteract this hard-wired reaction when facing life’s uncertainties.  

The currency of surrender is flow.  Imagine sitting on a riverbank and observing the water flowing past you.  Water naturally makes its way around obstacles like branches and rocks. 

We too, can flow like water, when we learn to flow with life as it’s coming at us versus holding on to expectations. 

Attempting to force an outcome, like putting pressure on a child to follow a specific career path, or trying to control someone’s behavior to our liking – is like holding onto the shore when the current is trying to carry us down the river.  I believe that these attempts to hold on tight to what it used to be like, or what “should be” are a major source of discontent.

Two Misconceptions about Surrender

1) Surrender doesn’t mean you’re like a feather floating in the wind, twisting at the whim of the slightest breeze.

You may have heard before that courage is not the absence of fear – it is acting in spite of fear.  It takes courage to surrender, which isn’t a passive practice – it involves consciously letting go of the tight, white-knuckled grip of what you’ve been trying to control.

This is surrender – continuing to act in line with your own personal truth, while letting go with awareness of what you can’t control after you act. 

Surrender does not mean giving up, or ceasing activity.  Surrender means continuing on your journey without getting so wrapped up in how things turn out that you stop in your tracks.  You CAN control your actions.  You cannot control the outcomes of those actions.

2) Not caring is not surrender.

It’s easy to surrender when we’re not really invested in the outcome.  It takes no courage at all to kick our feet up on a sturdy raft, tilt our head back and close our eyes when life is flowing like a lazy river.  When everything seems to be flowing nicely, of course you want the status quo.

Yet the river of life winds around twists and turns that we can’t always anticipate.

It’s when your river is rushing, when the current of life has you turned around backwards and you hear the roar of the rapids approaching – THIS is when surrender is the most challenging, yet the most freeing. 

In other words, when something (or someone else) REALLY matters to you – this is when surrender really counts.  It may seem counterintuitive, but this is the inflection point when we must learn to let go if we want to experience the freedom and peace of mind of being carried by the current. 

Surrender is Impossible Without Trust

When I boarded a one-way flight to Iquitos, Peru in the Amazon Rainforest, I was taking the first leap of my mature adult life into surrender.  

I still had plenty of questions – where would I go next?  What am I going to do when I run out of money?  How is my Spanish going to hold up? 

Beyond those immediate concerns, larger questions loomed in my mind: doubts about leaving a relationship, feelings of regret for having given up the lease on a home I loved, a car, and a comfortable life and enriching community in San Diego.  The next steps in my career were not clear, and the bigger picture of my future seemed hazy.

Having recently read Michael Singer’s book “The Surrender Experiment,” it hit me as the plane rumbled down the runway in Mexico City that the elixir of unsettling feelings and racing excitement could be exactly what he was referring to.  

I had images of lush, green rainforest in my mind, but beyond that, I had no idea what I was going to find, let alone what my “plan” was after visiting the Amazon.  Having no plan was quite confronting, and very unlike me.

Despite the unsettling thoughts that made me question my sanity to leave all that I knew behind, I did have one thing that helped me immensely.  It was TRUST.

I trusted my friend Sebastian, who I was meeting in Peru.  I trusted a mantra I had come to know through my faith, that, “We are always provided for.”  I trusted my curiosity that led me to read countless articles and watch documentaries about the Amazon.  This rainforest, known as the lungs of our planet, had been luring me for ten years.  I sensed this vibrantly alive, sacred place was going to play a role in my life.  I had been putting off going until it was the “right time.”  

I finally trusted that feeling deep inside that I now know as my intuition.  I have come to know intuition as my North Star for navigating the unknowns of life.

Though my heart raced as the plane climbed into the clouds, the cars, buildings and trees becoming distant dots below, I felt this deeply satisfying sense that I was honoring something in my soul which had given me a simple command: GO.  I was finally willing to listen to that inner voice because of trust.

Let Go and Let Life Flow

Like anything, learning to surrender can be cultivated and become a habit.  This is not about mastery. I am still discovering how to truly let go, and that’s okay. 

When you catch yourself trying to control outcomes – pause.  Ask yourself, am I flowing with life?  Or am I gripping tightly to the known?

It may not seem easy, but having experienced the fruits of surrender on the other side of my fear, I can tell you that if you’re patient, and willing to be compassionate with yourself in the process, you too can experience the freedom of surrender.