What Is Surrender?

Surrender may be one of the most misunderstood terms of the spiritual path. It comes from Buddhist teachings, and I equate it in many ways to the Islamic term of submission. Submission has even worse connotations in English, so I don't use it very much. In Islam, submission is to God's will, and in many ways, surrender isn't really different. I'm sure philosophers and theologians can have a field day with connotations and minutiae about these terms, but ultimately, that's a lot of mental masturbation. Spirituality isn't something that can be found in minutiae, although it is in that too. Spirituality really is a very simple thing, and subsequently, both surrender and submission are very simple concepts: they mean to accept, let go, and let God.

The Car-Wreck That Is Your Life
Most of us don't want to let go until we're smashed to pieces. Good news. A car-wreck is coming for you. Something tramautic or tragic is often the only thing powerful enough to get our attention and to show us that for how ever hard we've been trying, we're really not in control. But even in a car-wreck, many of us still cling to that idea of control. Mentally, we'll deny the situation. We'll blame the other person. We'll wish it had never happened. We'll threaten to sue somebody--anybody or everybody involved. We'll do ten to fifteen things before we surrender to the reality of it, which is: we're in a world of hurt. Only when we fully accept something and submit to this smoking, steaming, burning rubble that is our life can we make changes to effectively put out the fire and fix things. And of course, because we've been so busy fighting through life and trying to control everything, when we surrender to that reality, we quickly figure out that we have no f'ing clue what to do.

Phone a Friend or the God Hotline
This may be one of the first times we have to ask for help. And depending on how bad things are, we may even start talking to God. It usually only happens if death is looming for some people or some other severe collapse has happened. Here's how the call to God's Hotline goes:

"Dear God. I'm in deep sh*t. Please help!"
"Oh, hey Tom. How's it hanging? I've been working with these people starving in Rwanda. What have you been doing?"
"Ummm, well, I've been trying to make a lot of money and buy this really big house in this really expensive area."
"Oh yeah. I heard you praying for that. How's that working out?"
"Not so hot. Hey, but I really need you to help me out on something out."
"Oh yeah?"
"I think my back's broken."
"In two places."
"I promise if you save me, I'll do whatever you want."

God, of course, knows that is likely to be a temporary plea, but usually, most of us get the help we need. Everyone's life path is different, so I can't really generalize. But you also get the idea about what it usually takes before anyone lets go and lets God.

Profound Acceptance and Opening to Life
Deep surrender to our lives is a profound space of acceptance. We stop putting our filter of what we want onto life, and we fully accept what is. This is amazing because it can transform our lives almost instantaneously. Some of you will wonder if this is awakening. It's more like a teaser, although for some it can be the spark for a deeper awakening. But you will start to see clearly what's right in your life for you and what needs to change. This isn't being thought of in the same ego judgment way. There's always ego in saying something is "right" or "wrong" for you, but that's not a bad thing when it comes from a deeper acceptance of what is. You say to yourself, "Oh this really is a crime-ridden neighborhood, and it isn't good for me. I need to move." You say this now instead of deluding yourself with the idea that it will improve or is improving. You see what things really are the more you surrender your ideas about what you want.

In turn, you also can open to the deeper connections that are available to you in this life. A woman or man whom you really wanted to date may transform into an amazing business colleague, mentor, or student when you surrender to what is actually present in the relationship instead of trying to force it into something else. A lot of things can flow to you when you surrender to the reality that is actually before you. And surrender isn't passive. You can see where you need to take action. It becomes increasingly clear where you need to change and do things. The spiritual path is never one that simply allows itself to be run over by everyone else--although it can look that way to a lot of egos at first. I think Gandhi is a great example of an incredibly active and persuasive individual who understood the reality of India in his times--surrendered to that reality--and then took action to galvanize his country. How powerful was that? Just how powerful might you be? Does that last question scare you?

Submission to God's Will
I know. Ick. Submission. Give it some space and go with it.

Submission is pretty much inherit to surrender (as I said, they're mostly the same term for me). Let go of what you cannot control. There's a deeper flow in life. When we submit to that flow, to God's flow, we can be pulled along. It can make life so much easier, but we still need our paddle. We still must steer our little boats so we don't run aground or hit rocks in the river bottom. It is, however, far easier than trying to avoid the flow (sitting on the riverbank wondering why we never get anywhere) or trying to paddle against it (Are you tired of that yet?). So we learn to accept how things are and submit to these currents.

That said, we also learn how to shift different currents (like Gandhi did). We collect others, and together, we move the currents, then the waves, maybe even the tides (I know I'm weaving in an ocean metaphor and muddying things up). That's how we can create global change. As more of us come together in cooperative partnerships and we surrender to our realities, then can we birth the new reality we want to have on this planet.

So don't think of surrender as giving up. Don't think of submission as selling yourself out to some figurehead deity that you don't even know. Think of these terms as a call to see clearly and a call to the most profound and sacred action possible. Think of them as the first and final steps to letting go of the old and building the world that you've always dreamed possible.


  1. I'm having trouble understanding the active part of surrender. I feel like when I surrender, I see my bad habits take over. I end up watching myself succumb to my lower nature and give up on fighting it. It really doesn't seem to end well. If we really should give and surrender, how can we be active and reinstate our thoughts and actions? It seems contradictory.

    1. If you are acting out your old bad habits, that isn't surrender. Observing the ego and the impulses to behave poorly is surrender. When you observe, you now have a choice to act differently than you once did.

      However, you will also have to learn to do inner work. In doing inner work, you learn to observe your old thought patterns and habits and get to the root experiences that caused you to learn to act and think that way. In the process, you'll learn how to let go of those initial experiences. In so doing, the habits start to dissolve, and you feel less inclination to act them out.

      There's plenty more for me to say, and I have said it. Be sure to check out my Starting Out section to find more tools to use to work on your ego.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. Thank you Jim - great article. Been wrestling with surrendering to God vs the ego's desired way.

    1. You're welcome, David. Thanks for the comment.


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