Surrender and Joy in the Pursuit of Excellence: Going Deeper

There have been many excellent questions raised at the end of the previous post, Surrender and Joy in the Pursuit of Excellence. I have no definite answers, but I’d like to give my perspective on them here – and encourage my readers to give theirs in the comments section.

A Prison of Their Own Making

Eric Grey of Deepest Health, a practitioner of Chinese Medicine, told of the patients he had seen in clinic. Some of them have built up “such a heavy head of negativity and even hatred towards their own bodies because of some disability or illness they become their own biggest barrier to healing.”

A perfect example – they have trapped themselves in their own negativity; a prison where they are their own keeper. In the medical field, it is increasingly accepted that a patient’s emotional state is intimately connected to their physical state.

A depressed person, despite words of courage, despite going to a doctor, is silently crying inside – “What do I have to live for?” Is it any wonder, then, that someone with a strong zest for life will have a higher chance of recovery? This much is common knowledge.

Yet this trap is easier to see when it revolves around our body. But it leads to the question: Why can’t we see that this applies to the every other area of our lives?

I don’t care anymore!

Eric goes on to describe patients who have simply resigned themselves to their fate. They simply stopped fighting it, and refused to go for treatment.

Such an important point! It was one that I missed out on in the initial writing of the article. It really struck me, because I was in that situation, many years ago – I know what was going through their heads. “What’s the point?” they are asking. “Nothing works anyway!”

I struggled with depression many years ago. It felt like everything was wrong with my life – I was a mere twig, tossed around by a raging hurricane. I felt powerless to do anything, and so I just gave up. All I did was sit in my room day after day, ruminating endlessly, swinging between anger and despair.

This attitude isn’t surrender. My example is a strong one, but it applies just as well to subtler forms of “giving up”. Another hidden form of negativity – that is all it is.

The trap of anger

Which leads perfectly to a point brought up by Kirsten of Circe’s Kitchen. She thought that anger could fuel a drive to change one’s life. And she was right.

There are many traditions out there which give a ladder of emotions. Despair – self hatred, apathy – universally rank at the very bottom.

The ladder rises up towards what we call the positive emotions – courage, peace, happiness. But right in the middle are the breaking points – the barriers that one has to break through – and the trickiest one is anger.

The problem with anger is two-fold. The first: the moment my despair swelled towards anger, I got afraid. From the weakness of apathy, there was a sudden surge of energy, and it felt uncontrollable, a wild horse I had not tamed.

This energy was let loose in the form of destructive behaviour – shouting, slamming doors, road rage, and driving at dangerously high speeds. It seemed that despair, moping around at home, was much more acceptable. And so I dropped back into it – at least there was no chance of hurting anybody. I never knew it was something I had to break through.

The second problem became clear when I stopped fearing my anger. Like Kirsten said, I used it, this wild stallion, to try and take charge of my life. But no matter what I did – working on my self-esteem, getting back out into the dating world, rededicating myself to my career – the anger was always there. No matter how I tried to hide it, no matter how I convinced myself it wasn’t there, it showed up in every thing I did. It was always there in the background, repelling people, ruining opportunities.

It wasn’t until I had finally broken past the stage of anger that I began to get real results.

If you have given up, then anger is your first burst of energy, perhaps the first time you feel you are back in charge – but sooner or later it will have to be dropped. If it is at all possible, one should drop the anger before one does anything at all. For nothing done in anger, no matter how noble your intentions, will result in anything but more misery.

What do we surrender to?

Evan of Well Being and Health then raised a great question – what do we surrender to? If we surrender to everything, where does compassion, for others and ourselves, come in?

To a very large extent, one’s inner state determines his actions. Inner surrender leads to peace, and from there compassion is a possibility.

Just a minor example, then – recently I had a commenter who was upset with me. He believed I was deceiving my readers by calling myself a monk, when in fact I wasn’t, and he made his low opinion of me very clear.

My first reaction was one of anger, resistance. “What is he, stupid?” I thought. “How is it deception when he found out from my own pages what I was? What a huge hole in his logic! Why is he so vile, so abusive, why is he making such a big deal out of nothing?”

I typed up what I thought was a polite response, and then went about my day. Not long after, I noticed I still had a lot of anger about the issue, and decided to set aside a few minutes to surrender to the anger; accepting it, letting it be, and letting that surrender change to peace.

When I returned to my computer, I was surprised to see just how much defensiveness was there in my reply, even in what I thought was a well-thought out, polite comment.

It revealed to me just how obvious our inner state is to an alert observer. Just a small burst of anger, pushed down and contained, and yet it was right there on the screen for all to see. It struck me how obvious my depression and anger must have been, years ago. No matter how we dress it up, veil it in pleasantries, our internal state flows into everything we do. It is unavoidable.

Compassion from Surrender

And finally we get to compassion. Where does that come in? My final response wasn’t perfect, but it was slightly more compassionate than my initial one. With much reduced reactivity – resistance – I realised that he wasn’t doing anything wrong.

Different people attach different meanings to objects and labels. I had picked the name Urban Monk in a spirit of fun. I was partially inspired by a friend; he was an aspiring hip hop artist and rapper who called himself the Lyrical Assassin. We meant no disrespect, both to monks in a monastery – or to professional hit men.

But just as I felt strongly attached and defensive of my self-image when he attacked me, he felt attached to Buddhism and monasteries. There was nothing wrong with that; he was defending something important to him. With that in mind, I changed my final reply.

Again, this is just a minor example, but one I hope illustrates, however imperfectly, the connection between an inner state of surrender and compassion.

Surrendered action

The second part of Evan’s comment revolved around action. If we surrender to everything, does that mean that action is impossible? Do we take steps to change the situation or remove ourselves from it?

Eckhart Tolle put it wonderfully in A New Earth; surrendered action simply means that you take action according to what the situation needs, and not from your own petty reactivity. My initial response to the commenter was a perfect example of non-surrendered action – I was out to defend myself and thought nothing of anyone else.

Perhaps another example would be best here. Again – a minor one, but interesting because the various states of resistance and their results were displayed for all to see.

I was recently at a barbeque; it was in a public park and the grill was out in the open air. A few short minutes after we started cooking, though, a heavy rain began to fall. We gathered what we could, and ran for shelter.

Once at the shelter, one could see the varying states of resistance people were in – to the rain! Something uncontrollable, unchangeable!

Some people were in extreme resistance; they started complaining loudly about how everything had been ruined, how wet they were, how they knew from the start it was a bad idea. Others were in mild resistance – they were grumbling quietly under their breath. Yet others were just sitting around with a blank expression.

But a couple of people remained happy – it wasn’t a fake happiness, but one that came from simply accepting the situation as it is. And so their actions came, not from reactivity or negativity, but from what the situation needed.

They did their best to brighten the mood. They ran out into the rain to pack up what was left behind, they fetched umbrellas from the cars, and began making plans for the party to be continued elsewhere. In doing so, they managed to salvage the night. What if they had resisted the rain as well? Everyone at the barbeque would have gone home unhappy.

It is easy to take surrendered action in such a scenario; it is harder to catch your reactivity and emotions when real tragedy strikes. But it is a must; the bigger the tragedy, the more important surrender is.

How do we know?

And to close off this post, a quick answer to a quick question I got in an email – how do we know if we are surrendered?

There might be other ways, but here is my favourite: Simply be alert, mindful, at all times. Be completely honest and diligent when you ask yourself: how much peace do I feel?

Thank you to everyone else who had also commented – Akemi, Andrea, ReddyK, John Torcello, Adrian, and Life Reflection. This blog would be nothing without you!