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Presented February 19, 2012, by Susan Morrison Hebble
Listen to a recording of "Surrender, But Don't Give Yourself
29:19 minutes - 11.7 MB - Surrender, But Don't Give Yourself Away .mp3 file.
Meaning doesn't emerge from longing for what we lack, things we have lost or likely will never find. We should wish to think instead for things closer at hand, like the sun's kiss good morning when it breaks through the blinds to inaugurate another miracle, another day.
Surrender--the idea, not the song--plays an essential role in most major religions. One religion whose foundation rests firmly on the commitment to surrender, you won't be surprised to hear, is Islam. The word "Islam" actually means "submission to God and God's law." And each of the five pillars of Islam reinforces this idea. "Unyielding expectations" (Searl) by which Muslims are expected to live, the 5 pillars of Islam are these: 1) Accepting that "there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His Prophet." ; 2) Praying, five times a day while facing Mecca; 3) practicing charity, with devout Muslims expected to give away a portion of their cumulative wealth annually; 4) strictly observing Ramadan, a month marked by fasting from sun up to sun down to "emphasize human dependence on God, as well as human frailty and vulnerability" (Searl); and 5) taking a pilgrimage, at least once in one's life, to Mecca, the holy center of the faith. You can surmise how each these pillars subordinates the believer to the religion in very specific ways.
Islam is not the only religion that expects adherents to embrace surrender as a means of proving and fulfilling one's commitment to the faith. Judaism links surrender with success and happiness, calling on followers to "Submit to God and be at peace with him; in this way prosperity will come to you" (Job 22:21). And Christianity calls on followers to "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your path. Do not be wise in your own eyes" (Proverbs 3:5-6). Indeed, Christians are encouraged to put their lives in God's hands, to pray to Him for guidance and for gratitude. "Let go and Let God" is a common Christian mantra. And remember, Jesus' teachings include His surrender to God, not only in life, but in death; "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit!" were his dying words upon the Cross. Indeed, committing to Christianity, whether one grew up in that faith or was "born again" into it, requires a complete surrender to God, to Christ.
In Hinduism, we see a call for unreserved surrender that echoes those in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Hindu emphasis is also on humility; Lord Krishnu promises love and protection for those who surrender to Him. The Hindu ideal is to focus not on the ego, but on the divine. And similarly, in Buddhism, the only way to achieve Nirvana is through complete surrender, or according to Buddha, one can find "the supreme, immortal joy of nirvana" only once she has "extinguished" her "self-will."
The common thread through these religious perspectives of surrender is a consciousness, a mindful willingness to set aside the earth-bound self in deference to God. In other words, complete selflessness promises God's blessings.
Surrender, submission, deference, obeisance: these are not terms with which UUs are comfortable. The word itself smacks of passive defeat at worst, silent resignation at best. Surrender seems, certainly, antithetical to Unitarian Universalism. Ours has evolved into a creedless faith, a faith that puts stock in reason, in action, in self-reliance, in humanity, in becoming not in giving up. And surrendering to God seems, well so theological! As UU minister Joshua Mason Pawelek says, "Surrender doesn't come easy to us. . . . [it is] not our collective spiritual norm."
But in many ways, we surrender throughout our lives. We are born, surrendering the womb for the cold cold world; we fall in love, perhaps marrying, and in doing so, we surrender "I" for "we"; we may have children, surrendering ourselves to a love immense and pure; we may surrender, too, to creativity, to that timelessness that comes from making or enjoying music or art or poetry or even sport.
And whether we realize it or not, the idea of surrender crosses over from the religious arena to everyday life, permeating our contemporary culture as well as religious doctrine. Almost twenty years ago, I was a new mom, one of a generation of women who were convinced we could--must-- "have it all"--the career, the kids, the marriage, yada yada yada. But like so many women, I found having it all to be overwhelming. I was doing a whole lot, but none of it very well. My mind was fried, and my heart ached over my sense of failure. A friend who had been down this road gave me as a gift a book that could help restore my sanity: the Iris Krasnow memoir called Surrendering to Motherhood. Krasnow tells of her own struggles to have it all--she'd had a very successful career in journalism, flying all over the world to interview movers and shakers of politics and pop culture and then getting home in time to tuck her children into bed. She finally resolved to, as she put it, sublimate her personal desires and yield to the "higher power of raising children." In doing so, Krasnow found that the chaos of working part-time from home and managing a household with four small boys demanded as much of her as her previous job had, but it also afforded her reserves of energy and joy of which she'd been unaware.
Krasnow's resolution to surrender to motherhood wasn't drawn in a single, epiphanic moment; rather, she got there through a series of unexpected encounters and self-conscious soul searching. And while I didn't love Krasnow's book, I loved the title, and I've always appreciated its premise: sometimes we just need to realize where we are in life, and go with it, wherever it takes us.
Surrender has resonated with Krasnow and her readers--she has since published best-selling memoirs cum manuals called Surrendering to Marriage and Surrendering to Yourself. But Krasnow hasn't cornered the market on a practical application of surrender. The bookshelves are full of self-help manuals that call on some variation of Krasnow's theme. And the basis of many self-recovery programs draws from the idea of surrender, some with a religious overtone, some more secularized. For instance, Step 3 of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step Program calls for one to make "a decision to turn one's will and one's life over to the care of God as we understand Him." And at least three of the subsequent steps expect the participant to relinquish recovery to God. But an Atheist version of AA identifies Step 3 as follows: "We each nominate greater powers to remind us there are things bigger than ourselves and not to play god -- then we begin to let go of self-will."
Many of us have incorporated meditation and/or yoga into our daily routines, both ancient practices originally associated with religious disciplines. Meditation and yoga have both become mainstream, highly recommended by mental and physical health experts, and both rely on a kind of conscious, willful surrender. The other word that we associate with meditation and yoga is "discipline," not necessarily a word we would see as compatible with "surrender." And meditation requires a kind of discipline that can be quite difficult to achieve. I know this from experience. Even as I sit in the pew of this church or my church in Hinsdale, I often find my mind wandering during the brief meditation portion of the service. I can't forget to pick up bread before heading home; I hope the Bears can win without Cutler; I wonder if I should grow my hair out again. I mean, I've been gifted a few minutes on Sunday morning just for meditation--often with a piece of beautiful music or inspiring words to get me in the mood, and I'm thinking about Jay Cutler's injuries? Apparently I'm not alone. In her memoir of spiritual healing, Eat, Pray, Love, author Elizabeth Gilbert chronicles her travels to three countries over the course of a year. Her biggest challenges emerge in India, where she seeks "communion with the divine" through ascetism and meditation in an Ashram. In an interview, Gilbert summarizes her frustration and her determination thus:
"Meditation does not come easily to me. My mind wanders relentlessly. . . . . For instance, here's what I caught myself thinking about in meditation one morning in India. I was wondering where I should live once my year of traveling had ended. Was I finished with New York for good? Austin is supposed to be nice, or maybe I should move overseas. I'd heard good things about Sydney. If I lived somewhere cheaper, I thought, then maybe I could afford an extra room. A special meditation room. I could paint it gold or maybe a rich blue. No, gold. No, blue.
Finally noticing this [disjointed and completely earthbound] train of thought, I was aghast. I thought, you sad, spastic fool. Here you are in India in a meditation cave in one of the holiest pilgrimage sites on earth, but instead of communing with the divine, you're trying to plan where you'll be meditating a year from now in a home that doesn't exist, in a city yet to be determined. Is this really the best you can do?" (qtd. in Block)
After days of effort, much discomfort, and distraction, and dozens of mosquito bites, Gilbert found herself surrendering to her circumstances, rather than fighting them, and she was finally "lifted . . . out of [herself] and into perfect meditation where [she] sat in perfect stillness for the first time in [her] life" (qtd. in Block). Gilbert eventually left the Ashram to return to her practical life, but she incorporates meditation into that life, just as she does the lessons learned from achieving that "perfect stillness."
Akin to meditation is yoga, a spiritual practice rooted in ancient India that has since become a staple of modern exercise. Its appeal is not only the physical manipulation of one's body that leads to greater strength and flexibility, but also the benefit of relieving mental stress as well. Like meditation, yoga requires a balance of mind, body, and spirit. It took me ages to achieve that balance. Yoga teachers have admonished me over the years to release the tension in my shoulders/legs/toes/ even eyelids as I try to flow gracefully from one pose to the next. While there's no room in my mind to worry about Jay Cutler's injuries while I'm doing downward facing dog, try as I might, resistance still seems my instinct. But as many a yoga teacher gently puts it, to achieve the optimal benefits of yoga, we must accept gravity and "surrender to the floor."
And yoga has helped me cope when life veers a bit out of control. My family laughs at me sometimes for my "yoga breaths." In moments of stress or intensity, I'll find myself breathing consciously, bringing the air in through my nose, down to my diaphragm--I imagine it flowing to my fingertips and toes as I consciously relax my shoulders, where I hold most of my tension--then out again with a slow exhale through nose and mouth. The whole routine takes about 30 seconds, maybe a minute. But that mini yogic/meditative exercise puts me in the moment, reminds me to focus on what's important, not on the jerky driver ahead of me or the downpour of rain I wasn't expecting or the burnt casserole in the oven or the butterflies in my stomach before an important presentation. It's a moment of surrender, I come to realize, not to God or the floor or any ephemeral higher purpose, but to the day, to my better self.
Let's go back, now, to the title of my talk, that catchy, 1970s song lyric, "Surrender, but Don't Give Yourself Away." If there were to be a UU version of the surrender creed, this might be the only one we'd with which we'd be comfortable: We're OK with surrender; just don't ask us to give up ourselves along the way. It's quite UU really: the only way we can get our minds around such a notion is to qualify it! But surrender can enhance our lives; in stepping outside of ourselves, giving ourselves over to something bigger than our own egos--call it God, if you will, or the Oversoul, as Emerson called it, or the Force, if you're a Star Wars fan, or Nature, or humanity--we can perhaps find peace, understanding, maybe even the self that we've buried under all the energy and expectations of our hyper-sensitive, fast-paced, competitive, ultra controlled world. So, ironically, as we resist the practice of surrendering because we might fear that it will minimize or threaten our sense of self, surrender may actually help us better understand ourselves and, perhaps more importantly, our place in the world.
The focus on self is a big appeal of UU-ism. After all, our UU principles "speak to the centrality of the self, to respecting the self, to working with other selves for justice and equality. . . . [to prioritizing] the individual's free and responsible search for truth and meaning and the right of conscious" (Pawelek). But Reverend Pawelek, to whom I referred earlier, cautions: "Those who train their spiritual focus on the self--on discerning the self, on building up the self, on using the self as a moral force--will always risk losing the self. While those willing to surrender the self into some larger reality will be transformed, will attain some new degree of insight and wisdom, will enter life with renewed vigor and energy." Or as spiritual writer Ekhart Tolle puts it, "Sometimes surrender means giving up trying to understand and [simply] becoming comfortable with not knowing." The art of surrender, then, is in acknowledging that space between mystery and certainty, between me and you, between what is and what might be. It is about "Letting go and trusting that the journey is as important as the outcome" (Swimming with the Current).
But the challenge of surrendering to something greater than the self is no small task. Indeed, we resist such surrender daily. One of our greatest adversaries is time: We try to convince ourselves that we have control over time: we schedule ourselves like crazy; when we're young, we do all we can to look older and more mature, but then at some point in adulthood we do all we can to look younger than we are (Botox, anyone?!); we seek life advice of Dr. Oz or Dr. Phil or whoever is on WGN in the afternoon. But time is still, undeniably, the unceasing river that carries us from birth to death--it's the cosmic unifying and poignant fact of life that we are all born and we all must die.
We also try to convince ourselves that we can manipulate nature: we groom our yards, we build skyscrapers; we decide what landscape shall be protected and what landscape shall yield to another strip mall; but still, nature has its own agenda on its own terms, in spite of--or to a degree, because of--us. In January, tornadoes ripped through the Southern states; and, as Elizabeth Gilbert found out, in India, the mosquitoes will feast on you, regardless of your noble pursuits. There always seems to be something to interfere with our plans, something to send our day awry--maybe something small, like encountering an out-of-order ATM when you need cash, or like discovering that your purse has been taken from your car while you've been enjoying a nice dinner with your husband; or something larger, like getting a call from your doctor that a blood test has provided some troubling information.
I'm reminded of the Serenity Prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference." We can put a UU spin to this prayer, can't we? We don't even have to call it a prayer, if we don't want to! So here's a try: "May I learn to accept the things I cannot change; may I find the courage to change the things I can; and may I rely on wisdom to know the difference." However you put it, these are words to live by, not only in times of crises, but in our daily lives.
Probably the biggest challenge of surrender--if the word is too off-putting, perhaps we can think of it in terms of "acceptance" or "letting go"--is in knowing when and how to do so. When do we accept a situation for what it is, rather than try to mold it to our expectations? When do we let go of an old hurt or an unlikely desire rather than cling to it? When do we, as another 1970s icon put it, "know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em"? For those questions, I think the answer is in each of us, and we know that we know they are there. Sometimes we have to peel back some layers of detritus to get to the answers, but they are in each of our hearts.
OK, while I believe everything I just said, I know you want something more definite, something to apply to your life when you walk out these doors. I don't know that I'm equipped to give you that--I'm just a wanderer, like you--but in a sermon to her Boston UU congregation, Reverend Sue Mosher offers up some practical advice.
First, examine yourself to see what you are holding onto most tightly. Is there an area of your life in which you exert so much control that this area feels rigid? Does some question keep drawing your attention, even though it has no apparent answer? Dare to think small, really small; maybe it's even something as trivial as being obsessed with finding one particular brand of toothpaste when you go to the store. Sometimes an inner rigidity may be mirrored by stiffness or soreness in some part of the body, so listen to what your physical self might have to say. Next, if you find an area of your life being so tightly gripped, consider things: What might happen if you let go and surrendered it. . . . Be willing to see what happens if you release your expectations in this area.
In letting go of a mundane obsession or of an unsolvable problem, we may find the first hints of personal liberty.
Reverend Mosher suggests, then, that letting go of those things we can't control, those things that cause us to clutch the steering wheel too tightly, that make us anxious and irritable, that cause us sleepless nights will release us to focus on other potentialities, to a universal acceptance of mystery.
And sometimes letting go frees us to be who we really are, to see the world for its beauty and its power. Surrender in its most spiritually productive form isn't about giving up or submitting or losing, it's not about obeisance or avoidance. It's about letting go of what you can't hold onto in the first place; it's about accepting life in the short term and the long term, accepting and receiving each moment for what it can offer. I am reminded of some the best parenting advice I got, not from Iris Krasnow, but from my cousin Robin: Choose your battles, she always told me. If the kid wants to mix plaids and stripes or wear snow boots in July, let her! Save your energy for the stuff that really matters. Sometimes it's about what we don't do--not snapping at the waiter for spilling water, not hitting the gas to get through the yellow light, not fretting about "the small stuff"--and most of it really is "small stuff." But sometimes--most importantly--it's about what we do: flopping down on the snow to make a snow angel, dancing around the living room when no one's watching, taking an Italian class just for fun, stepping outside to see--really see--the sun set, turning the radio up really loud when, say, a Whitney Houston song comes on, sitting in silence just for the sake of the silence.
Surrendering to the moment, surrendering to life, can lead to a heightened awareness of what's truly important to each of us; it can lead to a sense of community and gratitude, as we recognized deep down that common bond we all have of sharing this earth for a short time; it can lead to sense of peace in our own souls.
Look well to this day, for it is life, the very life of life. In it lies all the realities and verities of existence: the bliss of growth, the glory of action, splendor of beauty. For yesterday is but a dream, and tomorrow only a vision. But today well-lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness and every tomorrow a vision of hope. Look well, therefore, to this day, for it and it alone is life!"--Sanskrit proverb
Block, Melissa. "In India, Learning the Powers of Meditation." NPR
17 Apr. 2006. Web. 2 Feb. 2012.
Hawkins, Vince. "An Atheist's 12 Steps." Vince Hawkins' An Atheist's Unofficial Guide to AA. Web. 2 Feb. 2012. http://www.alcoholics12steps.com/atheists-12-steps.php
Krasnow, Iris. Surrendering to Motherhood. Hyperion: New York, 1997. Print.
Mosher, Sue. "Surrender Naturally." 5 July 2009. Universalist National Memorial Church. Web. 31 Jan. 2012. http://www.universalist.org
Pawelek, Rev. Joshua Mason. "The Art of Surrender." 13 Mar. 2011. Web. 31 Jan. 2012. http://uuse.org/the-art-of-surrender/
Searl, Ed. "3 Islam and Surrender." Essential Truths: Seven Great World Religions. Web. 31 Jan. 2012 http://7religions.blogspot.com/p/3-islam-and-surrender.html
"Swimming with the Current." Daily OM. 12 Oct. 2004. Web. 31 Jan. 2012. http://www.dailyom.com/articles/2004/267.html
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The list of Selected Sermons.