Why Surrendering to Life is the Key to Positive Change

Written by on May 4, 2018 in Conscious Evolution, Conscious Living with 0 Comments

By Joshua Kauffman | Tiny Buddha

“Surrender to what is. Say ‘yes’ to life and see how life suddenly starts working for you rather than against you.” ~Eckhart Tolle

“Surrender” in current colloquial language equals failure. According to the Oxford Dictionary, without an object, surrender means to “stop resisting to an enemy or opponent and submit to their authority.” With an object, it gets even worse: “Give up or hand over (a person, right, or possession), typically on compulsion or demand.”

How then can surrender be the key to joy?

At age thirty, I was defeated by life. Down for the count. But, I did not get back up on my feet until I surrendered.

I had led a charmed life until then. I got into every college to which I applied and went to my top choice. I graduated summa cum laude and got into a similarly impressive grad school, where I also graduated at the top of my class.


After a White House internship, I landed a job at a top investment bank and had moved to an equally prestigious consulting firm. I had lived in and traveled to dozens of countries. I was a winner.

Or was I? Life had thrown me a string of curveballs: health problems, friend problems, romantic problems, professional problems.

While, to an outsider, I might have appeared to be “living the dream,” the “dream” entailed eighty-plus hour workweeks and constant travel. After a few years of this, my life had totally unraveled, and after knowing nothing but success, I encountered nothing but failure.

The stress and over-work likely contributed to a string of illnesses, hospitalizations, and surgeries.

I was exhausted after more than ten years of sleeping on average less than five hours a night, and my weight had yo-yoed drastically.

My partner of three years had left me, telling me, to boot, that it was essentially never “a real thing” to begin with anyway. A second equally intense relationship ended in a similar way.

All of this happened when I was living as far away from my hometown as you can get on the globe, and after being so busy for so long, I had almost no one to turn to where I was living. I was completely untethered.

I just wanted it all to end, to make the pain go away. One day, I literally found myself on the floor with a bottle of pills in my hand, contemplating suicide. I almost followed through, but something happened, or actually, a lot of somethings did.

One of the very first somethings that happened was that I became aware of the self-talk in my head and was able to disassociate from it, listening to it as a separate entity.

Perhaps its most recurring commentary was some version of “this isn’t how it was supposed to happen.” I had achieved so much so early in life and worked so hard. I should have been rich. Happy. Successful. Instead, I was a mess.

It was all these “shoulds” that almost killed me because they left me stuck in a mental construct of my own making, set up in opposition to what was actually happening.

At the beginning of a long recovery process, perhaps the key moment came when I was able, however briefly at first, to occupy a reality without these shoulds and instead face whatever was at that particular moment.

It was only later that I was able to grasp the significance of that first moment of surrender. Surrender is not giving up on life but giving up fighting with life. And, when you’re not fighting with it, you’re working with life.

At first, our moral sense is offended by this. In a totally just world, there are a lot of things that should be. People should be nice to each other. Good things should happen to good people. But, if we take this to its logical conclusion, we’re all born innocent, so shouldn’t everyone just get what he or she wants? Shouldn’t only good things happen to everyone?

Beyond the facts that what is “good” is often in the eye of the beholder, and the “goodness” of what appears to be a “bad” or painful or unfair event is often not revealed until later, all of these good things that should happen are far beyond our control.

However, there are a lot of shoulds we can control. We can control our own actions and reactions (while of course allowing ourselves to err). We can act in this world how we should according to our own convictions.

This is how surrendering, far from waving the white flag, becomes the ultimate tool for empowerment and positive action.

When I was able to stop wallowing in the unfairness of what life dealt me and all of the shoulds that never came to be, my mind was free from the rumination and recrimination that led me into that deep state of depression.

When I stopped fighting with my situation, my scope and options for positive action became clear, and at that point I was in full control of the little space in life that I actually could control—me.

I stopped questioning the situation in which I found myself. Some of it was unfair, the result of what I took to be other peoples’ unjust actions, but at the same time, a lot of it was the result of my own actions, as well as pure chance. While I learned some lessons looking backward, the key to my recovery was accepting where I was and look forward to how to get myself out of it.

My immediate action was to seek help, first from friends and then from a therapist, something I would have previously stigmatized as self-indulgent. Overcoming the shame of that opened the floodgates of what was possible for me, and everything was up for grabs.

Within six months of that, I changed so many of the things that were not working for me—my job, my location and my relationships. I crafted a life that worked for me rather than fighting the one that wasn’t.

By dropping the shoulds, I am now able, in my clear-thinking moments, to act without opposition from life and more quickly move to consider my course of action.

Not only has this been emotionally liberating, but I know I have made countless better decisions as a result. Each day there are a thousand little victories, all thanks to surrender.

The logic neat and simple, but the practice is difficult. I get confused and caught up and stuck, but the state of surrender is progressively becoming more and more of my natural default. Some of the lessons and tips I’ve learned to get to this place that I would recommend:

1. Allow yourself to vent—up to a point.

As imperfect beings, total, ongoing, and permanent surrender is unrealistic. We will feel negative emotions about experiences not meeting our expectations, and we need to allow ourselves to feel those feelings. It often helps to express them to a sympathetic ear. To a point.

Venting of negative emotions is useful insofar as it allows us to liberate ourselves of them. However, prolonged or frequent venting can also lend momentum to these feelings. It can actually serve to build up opposition to life by hardening feelings of injury and strengthening those shoulds.

So, pay attention to your venting. Is it releasing the negative energy around opposition to life, or is it adding to that energy? If you’re the one listening to the venting, ask yourself the same question of the person doing it. If the venting is adding to the negative energy of the situation, consider trying to divert that energy toward something positive and creative.

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