The Art of Surrender

or Going With the Flow

by Robert Riversong

The cultural paradigm of all civilization is knowledge and control. The Judeo-Christian myth of its origin is the willful eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil as an act of personal, adolescent rebellion against God – a choosing to be as gods without the wisdom of a god. This is also the definition of arrogance, from the Latin arrogātus: to appropriate or lay claim to something for oneself without right. The 1913 edition of Webster’s Dictionary defined arrogance as “that species of pride which consists in exorbitant claims of rank, dignity, estimation, or power, or which exalts the worth or importance of the person to an undue degree”. The Greeks called this hubris, and the necessary precondition for tragedy. This marked the beginning of humanity’s separation from the natural order (the expulsion from the Garden, and a consequent lifetime of pain, suffering and embarrassment). It also marked the beginning of the false notion of human personal autonomy and the much later consequent idolatry of individual freedom.

In truth, we were not evicted from the Garden; we made a choice though our own act of willful disobedience. Thus, it can be only by an act of obedience to our true nature and the authentic order of the Universe that we might find ourselves once again in the embrace of a loving God (however we define the divine essence, the great Intelligence, the soul of the Universe).

The Cultural Paradigm of Civilization is Knowledge and Control

The act of knowing is like shining a bright light into every recess and corner of the world. Thus, knowing obliterates shadow, mystery and uncertainty. Control gives us a sense of power over the chaos and amorality of the natural order of the Universe. We impose order and ethics on the world we’re given and thereby create the world we think we want.

Unfortunately and inevitably, we eventually find ourselves, after struggling to create a heaven on earth, having instead created a living hell. We intend to build a dream by conscious effort, and instead create – like Dr. Frankenstein – a nightmare of our own creation. This is the law of unintended consequences, and it’s as immutable as the law of gravity or the 2nd law of thermodynamics. We create a state of Koyaanisquatsi, the Hopi word for “life out of balance”.

“The world is as you dream it,” say the Shuar of the Ecuadorian jungle. “In the North, you had dreamed of huge industries, lots of cars, and gigantic skyscrapers. Then you discovered that your vision had in fact been a nightmare that would ultimately destroy you. Change that dream.”

Or, better yet, wake up. Stop endlessly repeating the original act of adolescent disobedience and grow up into a sacred obedience.

Control is the Spawn of Fear

We choose to control the world because we fear what will (or might) happen if we let the world control our destiny. Control is the creature of fear; it is birthed, fed and nurtured by fear of the unknown and a refusal to accept that some things are simply unknowable and beyond our control. The tool of control is the will, and the exercise of the will requires constant effort and tension (much like the old saw about a frown requiring more effort than a smile).

But the lesson that a life bent on control ultimately teaches us is that “resistance is futile”; the House always wins in the end. So, perhaps wisdom suggests that an easier course would be that of relinquishing control; in other words, surrender. And such a course has been central to Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs since the adoption by co-founder William Griffith Wilson of a prayer that originated in the 1930s from theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and that we now recognize as the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.

This is ancient wisdom. A Mother Goose rhyme from 1695 went:

For every ailment under the sun

There is a remedy, or there is none;

If there be one, try to find it;

If there be none, never mind it.

And the 8th century Indian Buddhist scholar Shantideva expressed a similar sentiment:

If there’s a remedy when trouble strikes,

What reason is there for dejection?

And if there is no help for it,

What use is there in being glum?

Surrender – Giving Up or Giving In?

There are two forms of surrender. The one most commonly understood and most commonly enacted is giving up in exhaustion and defeat after a protracted struggle. This is the traditional white flag raised after battle when either there is no more fight in you or you simply recognize that you are defeated. The one least understood and least commonly enacted is giving in after realizing that resistance is not only futile but exhausting, debilitating and ultimately self-defeating.

Go With the Flow

The former is like paddling upstream, against the current, until we have nothing more to give and, more often than not, find ourselves battered onto the rocks or capsized and sinking to the bottom. The latter is like choosing to float with the current – go with the flow – and almost effortlessly guiding the vessel in a dance with the waves and eddies and obstacles. Even at those times when we find ourselves unexpectedly tossed from the vessel and immersed in the turbulent waters, we can choose to struggle and exhaust our resources until we begin to drown – or we can choose to let go, relax, breathe calmly and deeply, and simply allow the waters to support and carry us while we remain aware of the speed and direction of the current.

The more turbulent the waters, the more we tend to fight and resist. Those who have enjoyed the adventure of white-water rafting with a skilled river guide will remember the advice given about falling overboard and being sucked into a reversal (a sideways whirlpool that churns like a front-loading washing machine): curl up into a fetal position, trust that your personal floatation device will protect you, and let the river spit you out. Do not grasp, try to hold on, or fight the reversal. In other words, be like a helpless but trusting infant rather than like a willful, but foolish, adult.

Avoid Entrapment

Those who are expert at navigating white-water rivers also know that, if one is tossed into the water, the last thing you want to do is follow the advice of the self-made man to “stand on your own two feet”. Standing up in a shallow but fast and powerful river is likely to result in what is called “foot entrapment”, which can lead to being forced under and drowning. The force of the flow is often greater than one might guess, and standing still in a current might just dam(n) you to hell. The appropriate technique is to float on your back, with your feet downstream to serve as bumpers, your arms outstretched to serve as water wings for steering, and your head just slightly raised to keep your eyes on the prize. It can actually be enjoyable.

It’s a Habit

But, sometimes, we fall into the waters of trouble and, out of habit, thrash around believing that we’re in danger. You may have seen this depicted in cartoons, where a character is struggling to keep its head above water, flailing its arms and legs – before realizing that the trouble is only knee deep, after which it simply stands up and walks away.

My Life in Five Short Chapters
by Portia Nelson


I walk down the street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I fall in.

I am lost … I am helpless.

It wasn’t my fault.

It takes forever to find a way out.


I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I pretend I don’t see it.

I fall in again.

I can’t believe I’m in the same place.

But it isn’t my fault.

It still takes a long time to get out.


I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I see it is there.

I still fall in … it’s a habit.

My eyes are open … I know where I am.

It is my fault.

I get out immediately.


I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I walk around it.


I walk down another street.

The clever man climbs out of the hole that the wise man avoids.

– Hebrew Proverb

Don’t Muddy the Waters

Some might have had the experience of dropping a shiny object into shallow water and wading in to retrieve it. The more you flail around, the more you stir up the bottom mud, and the more difficult – and aggravating – it becomes to try to find what was just moments before glinting in the sunlight as if calling to you. In how many of life’s situations do we willfully muddy the waters? If, instead, one takes a deep breath, relaxes and simply does nothing (“don’t just do something – stand there!”), the silt eventually settles and the precious thing once more calls to us.

If we find ourselves, however, in deep water and we trust there is a prize for us at the bottom, we must take a breath, ignore our fear and plunge downward into the depths in order to retrieve the golden coin.


David Whyte

Those who will not slip

beneath the still surface

on the well of grief,

turning down

through its black water

to the place we cannot breathe,

will never know the source

from which we drink

the secret water

cold and clear

nor find

in the darkness glimmering

the small round coins thrown

by those who wished

for something else.

Surrender is a fine art that, like any art, requires practice and patience, particularly given the power we’ve already surrendered to our personal will in a vain attempt at flow control. The river has its own destination and will not be dammed. We can choose to relax and float or struggle and sink. The only difference is in how much suffering we will have to endure.

Suffering, contrary to the dominant mythology, does not come as a necessary side effect of living (any more than authentic medicine necessarily has toxic side effects – that’s a drug, not real medicine). Yes, life is challenging, for it is through challenge that we grow and transcend our sense of limitation. But challenge requires acceptance and courage – not a struggle but an embrace. Suffering arises in direct proportion to our struggle – to the force of our resistance. The river has its own force – it can level mountains over time – but that force is not felt when one goes with the flow, only when one tries to resist the flow. You can’t push the river, as the old saying goes. Resistance is the cause of suffering, not the river of life itself.

We learn the art of surrender by embracing life fully, here and now. 

Learning the Art of Surrender
by Kip Mazu

If you want to learn surrender,
then the next time
you are caught out in the rain
without a raincoat or umbrella,
rather than run for shelter,
allow yourself to get wet.

You will be very aware
of the resistance to getting wet,
that instinctual urge
to run for shelter,
the sense of ‘me’
that wants to protect itself.

This is what
must be surrendered
in order to stay out in the rain.

When this resistance
is surrendered,
and you allow yourself
to fully feel the experience
of being soaked,
then there is a sense of freedom
from yourself that carries with it
a sense of deep
unfathomable peace.

It has nothing to do
with liking the rain
or not liking the rain.

Rather, it is letting go
of the one that likes
or doesn’t like,
the one that separates
itself from the rain in the first place.

And when you do that
you are simply left
with what is.

There is no you
and what is,
there is simply what is.

And the experience
of what is
is peace,
is delight.

It is completely
open and vulnerable
and complete
in itself.

If you apply
this experience
of being in the rain
to any situation,
any emotion,
then there will be
incredible freedom.

It has nothing to do
with the particular experience,
rather it is about
letting go of the one
that separates itself
from experience,
letting go of the one
that tries to control
the experience.

Because it is that separation
that creates all conflict.

“The most strongly enforced of all known taboos is the taboo against knowing who or what you really are behind the mask of your apparently separate, independent, and isolated ego.”

“We do not come into this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean waves, the Universe peoples. Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total Universe.  This fact is rarely, if ever, experienced by most individuals.  Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated egos inside bags of skin.”

– Alan Watts, The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (1966)

One of the most widespread and powerful methods for practicing the art of surrender – not simply surrender of the self to something greater, but surrender of the self, itself – is meditation. The various forms of meditation are simply means to an end: the surrender of attachment to self and the consequent experience of total immersion or immanence in the Universe.

Hopi Prophecy 

To my fellow swimmers there is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift, that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore, they are being torn apart and will suffer greatly. Know that the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our heads above water . And I say see who is there with you and celebrate. At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally, least of all ourselves, for the moment that we do, our spiritual growth and journey come to a halt. The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves. Banish the word struggle from your attitude and vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration. We are the ones we have been waiting for.”

The primary element that is both the basis for, and the learning gleaned from, meditation practice is that all things flow, all things pass away, and so nothing can be held or possessed. Just as holding on to the shore causes pain, so holding on to things, people, dreams, desires, hopes, and even the mind which longs for all these – is also a source of pain and suffering. We experience no sense of loss for those things that we never hold tightly to. Thus, we must even eventually let go of meditation practice and not make it into a religion.

There is a commonly-told story about a student struggling to learn meditation practice from a great master. The student went to his meditation teacher and said, “My meditation is horrible! I feel so distracted, my legs ache, and I’m constantly falling asleep. It’s just horrible!”

The teacher said matter-of-factly, “Keep practicing – this will pass”.

A week later, the student came back to his teacher. “My meditation is wonderful! I feel so alive, so aware, so peaceful, and at one with the Universe!’

The teacher replied matter-of-factly, “Keep practicing – this too will pass”.

“When you get the message, hang up the phone.”

– Alan Watts, The Joyous Cosmology

Surrender often feels most challenging in moments of crisis when there is no time to consciously decide the “best” option. We are living into increasingly challenging times, and it often feels beyond our intelligence and judgement to figure out the ideal course of action or direction to follow. Those are the times when the “right” thing to do may be to pick one direction at random and begin moving toward that decision. If it’s the “wrong” turn, it will be revealed to you almost immediately, as you will start to run into road blocks and see signs that you’ve missed your turn. Then all you have to do is turn around and go the other way with confidence.

“If we are facing in the right direction, all we have to do is keep on walking.”

~ Proverb

The Zen Archer, so they say, is capable of hitting the bullseye blindfolded. How is that possible? Intention and surrender (and many years of diligent practice). But, while the practice of the art is essential to get to a point of maximum potential, that potential cannot be realized by an act of will. The archer puts his bow in-tension – that is, he creates the powerful and pure intention of the arrow becoming one with the bullseye. Once that in-tension is prepared, the Archer releases the arrow into the hands of the Universe. The arrow, the tension, the intention is surrendered to the Greater Self, which joins the intention with the destination because they were never but one and the same. Neither the eyes nor the mind nor the will can return the arrow to its source. It is only surrender that releases the false separation of the two and restores them to oneness.

Another powerful tool or practice for learning surrender is the ancient labyrinth – the seven circuit unicursal (one path) maze that has but a gateway and a destination, which is the center, the source, the alpha and omega.

Because there is only one path, there is only one decision required: the decision to enter. Once across the threshold, no choice is required so no mind and no will are necessary. The best way to walk a labyrinth is to “check your mind at the gate”, and allow yourself to be drawn to the destination just as the Archer’s arrow becomes one with its target. This is an act of surrender.

In all acts and practices of surrender, we learn the power of consent vs. will, participation vs. control, releasing vs. attachment, and heart vs. mind. These are the weapons of the spiritual warrior. The sword of power is the one that cleaves the true from the false, the wheat from the chaff. The warrior’s code is that his sword never serves his ego, but always his greater master.

Intention starts us on the way, surrender opens the gateway to the unicursal path, the sword of discernment clears the path of obstacles, but it is gratitude which transforms the mundane into the magical, the coal into gold, and allows us to receive the gifts of the Universe and recognize them as precious.

We are born into a cultural paradigm which elevates personal freedom above all else – above family, community, and universality. Democracy is not merely a political system; it is a church for the worship of the self, the autonomous being. The story goes that we were prevented from entering the Promised Land for worshipping a mere gilded calf. How much more so will we be barred from enlightenment if we worship the self.

By following the path of the labyrinth, the path of surrender and gratitude, we will alchemically transmute autonomy into autochthony (literally “native to the soil” or “springing from the land”).

To be autochthonous is to be native to the place we live, indigenous, arising from place. “We do not come into this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean waves, the Universe peoples”.

At one time or another, each of us confronts an experience so powerful, bewildering, joyous, or terrifying that all our efforts to see it as a problem are futile.  Each of us reaches the end of reason’s rope.  And, when we do, we can either grip harder and get nowhere or we can let go and fall.  For what does mystery ask of us?  Only that we be in its presence.  That we fully, consciously hand ourselves over.  That is all, and that is everything.”

– Philip Simmons, Ph.D., address at Harvard Medical School about healing

In 1992, Philip Simmons – Ph.D. (University of Michigan), M.F.A. (Washington University) and A.B. (Amherst 1980), 35 years old, an English professor on the tenure track at Lake Forest College in Illinois, a published writer of short fiction and criticism, partner and husband of sculptor and painter Kathryn Field, and proud father of two healthy children – was diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”). Philip Simmons died at age 45, July 27, 2002 at his home in Center Sandwich, NH, with family and friends by his side. Robert Riversong was a classmate of his at Amherst College in 1976.


 by Robert Riversong: may be reproduced only with attribution for non-commercial purposes


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