We read self-help books, listen to podcasts, hire coaches, and go to therapy, in an effort to change or fix all the things we think are wrong with our lives. This is why my team jokes that every guest on our podcast is a reflection of some problem I’ve been trying to solve in my own life.
“The premise of self-improvement is that we are inherently flawed and that some external coach/guru/course/retreat holds the keys to our transformation into the ideal versions of ourselves.”
I think that’s bullshit. I think there’s a far less toxic and more effective way to coming into your own as a person.
Surrender is the path
First, you must remember that everything you fight has power over you, and everything you accept doesn’t. This means radical acceptance of everything that happens. In battle, surrender indicates a loss. In life, it indicates a spiritual victory.
But understand that there’s a difference between surrender and resignation. When you surrender, you stop trying to control the circumstances and events of your life and let them unfold in the same way you let the weather change. Resignation is an assumption that your fate is sealed and the worst things about your life will never change.
Surrender, on the other hand, opens your life up to limitless possibilities.
What would happen if we respected the flow of life, and used our free will to participate in what’s folding, instead of fighting it? What would be the quality of the life that unfolds? Would it just be random events with no order or meaning, or would the same perfection of order and meaning that manifests in the rest of the universe manifest in the every day life around us? – Michael Senger, The Surrender Experiment
By participating rather than resisting, we become incredibly powerful. Before you can tap into the power of surrender, there are 4 illusions you must understand and accept.
1. The Illusion of Control
Nature is on a rhythm we don’t control. The ocean goes from calm to violent and back in a matter of minutes. Waves come in sets and then there’s nothing. We don’t control when it rains, or when the sun shines. We don’t control when it’s hot or when it’s cold. We adjust accordingly.
But when it comes to every other part of our lives, we spend copious amounts of energy trying to control the uncontrollable.
- We seek out the fast path to success, even though there are no shortcuts to true mastery.
- We seek validation from parents, peers, society, the opposite sex, and strangers on the internet. But we have no idea whether we’ll rub someone the wrong way or we are just not for them.
- We stress over metrics doing stupid things like refreshing Google Analytics thinking this will make the metrics go up.
- We stress over the timelines of our lives as if we’re in a race to the death.
- We worry about the kid who hasn’t married, the person who didn’t return our call, or the book that isn’t selling, as if worrying will somehow change the outcome. You can’t worry your way to happiness, success or anything worthwhile in life.
Ask yourself if what you’ve been trying to control can’t. This creates a lot of unnecessary suffering, robbing us of the peace that’s available when we can remain detached from outcomes.
Our desire to control what we can’t creates expectations. Expectations kill our joy. Events in our lives are neutral. But, our unmet expectations make those events negative. The project flops; somebody let us down, etc. But if we had no expectations, all that’s good is a bonus. All that’s bad doesn’t matter. As India’s most famous composer, AR Rahman, says, “When you expect nothing everything comes to you.“
This is easy to say yet hard to do. It takes practice. But when we finally accept that we control almost nothing, we can put our energy into the handful of things we can control.
2. The Illusion of Certainty
Once you accept that you control almost nothing, you’ll recognize that certainty is an illusion. Everything in life is uncertain. Nothing is guaranteed.
It’s uncertain whether the stock market will tank, the weather will suck, or your kid will do something stupid today. Someone you’re with may stay for the rest of your life or be gone tomorrow.
Because uncertainty creates anxiety, rather than accept that everything is uncertain, we try to mitigate it (control).
- We plan our vacations when the weather will supposedly be best.
- We change the way we dress to impress someone, hoping they’ll stick around.
But all this does is reinforce our anxiety. And the illusion of certainty puts us into a vicious cycle of suffering. We get upset when life doesn’t go according to plan. If you’re on the planet long enough, you’ll realize that it rarely does. Hence the saying, “Men make plans and God laughs.” That being the case, I’m sure my life has been like a comedy special for God.
3. The Illusion of Security
When I got fired from my first job after college, I got a dose of the fact that there’s no such thing as job security. When I graduated from business school in 2009, the rest of the world did too. But we live in a society where security is the holy grail.
Security can be a determining factor in choosing life partners and career paths.
The ability to forego security, take risks and achieve anything that rewards its creator long after the average person quits is admired, but rarely encouraged. We admire the cultural icons in music, art, and business but we would not encourage our kids, friends or anyone else to pursue such a path.
We overlook the sacrifices people make to create the movies we love watching, the music we love hearing and the apps we can’t live without. We benefit from their willingness to forego security.
Financial security can change. Someone who is worth a fortune today could lose it all tomorrow. Someone who is poor today could be rich tomorrow. When one of my best friends got married, his financial future was uncertain. Within 6 months, he was earning five figures a month.
If millions of people woke up tomorrow and decided that money was worthless, the financial security of the wealthiest people would disappear.
The security illusion makes you forget that everything can be taken away from you—the house, the money, the car, the status, the guy, and the girl. There’s only one thing that can’t be taken away from you: what you create internally.
4. The Illusion of Permanence
One of my mentors used to say we live in a world of diminishing permanence.
What’s trendy today is an afterthought tomorrow.
The weather changes from day to day and season to season.
People who are young become old.
People who are popular in high school sometimes become nobody later in life.
The person who we think loves us today might break our heart a few months from now.
People who are poor become rich. And people who are rich lose everything.
The illusion of permanence causes us to cling to everything with clenched fists. It makes us believe good things are going to last forever and bad things are never going to end.
We stifle, imprison and repel anything or anybody that we cling to. Somebody once said to me that it’s like having a baby bird in your hand. If you hold on too tightly, you’ll smush the bird. If you do open your hands, it will naturally fly away. Or you’ll kill it because of your grip.
There’s impermanence to both good and bad. When we let go of the illusion of permanence, we are free to enjoy the good things while they last, and let go of the bad things once we’ve grieved accordingly.
During the worst year of my life, I fought a battle with my mind that seemed as if it was never going to end. My head was like a snow globe that had been shaken; and thoughts were like the flakes inside, chaotic and endless. Eventually, the snow stopped; I gained my sanity back and started sleeping through the night again.
Even love always changes over time because people in love are not static. They are not going to remain the same people they were when they fell in love. So love might last forever, but it’s current form doesn’t.
Human life is a cycle of impermanence. Hence, the saying, “The only constant thing is change.”
The 4 illusions operate as an interdependent system. We seek control in search of certainty, certainty in search of security, and security in search of permanence. These illusions trap us into a cycle of anxiety, despair and suffering.
Consider it All a Blessing in Disguise
Regardless of how dire your circumstances appear or how dark this chapter of your life seems, remember that life will go on. What seems like the end of the world today, won’t really matter that much 5 years from now. If you wake up before the sunrise, you’ll see that darkness always becomes light.
Assume that it all happens for your own good. Unfortunately, more often than not, this is only something we recognize in retrospect. In every heartbreak, you find a lesson about love. In every failure, a lesson about resilience. In every disaster, a lesson in tolerance for adversity.
Pause Between Stimulus and Response
When we immediately react to everything that happens, we suffer. We live in a perpetual state of anxiety. We think every car on the road will hit us and every plane we board will crash. We continually assume and expect the worst. This is not only exhausting for you, but for the people in your life.
Almost nothing is the catastrophe we make it out to be. Think about something you were really worried about. When that worry was put to rest, you realize all that worrying didn’t accomplish anything and wasted a lot of energy.
Respond to Your Thoughts
If you tell yourself you don’t want to think a certain thought, that is precisely the first thing your mind will produce! That is the nature of the human mind. – Sadhguru, Inner Engineering
We have an inner world of reactions, responses, emotions and thoughts. But, we’re paradoxically always trying to change the inner world in an effort to control our outer world.
- We think abundantly and visualize fortunes, in an effort to get rich.
- We fill vision boards with Ferraris, supermodels, and McMansions.
We do all this so we can have the biggest house, sleep with the hottest member of the opposite sex, and drive the nicest car that money can buy. New age hippies call this manifesting.
But trying control the outer world by taking control of our inner world is almost as insane as trying to control nature.
I could visualize perfect waves all day today. But when I look out the window, the ocean will still look like a lake.
Our thoughts are like waves. There’s always another one coming. You might have a positive thought while reading this. Then, something might trigger a negative thought. Sometimes we’re happy; sometimes we’re angry.
You can try not to think about something, but of course, you will. Try not to think about sex and chances are your hormones will be raging. Try not to think about food and now you’ll be horny and hungry.
So there’s no sense trying to control your thoughts. But you can control your response to those thoughts. You can accept the thoughts and they will pass. Or you can question them. But if you resist them or try to change them, you’ll become imprisoned by your mind.
Responding to your thoughts is surrender. Reacting to them is resistance.
Forgive People Who Hurt You
Resentment, anger, jealousy, pain, hurt, and depression are poisons that you drink but expect someone else to die. – Sadghuru, Inner Engineering
The fatal flaw of our humanity is that we can not go through life without unintentionally hurting another person. As I’ve said before, eventually I’ll disappoint you. If I haven’t, that just means we haven’t known each other that long.
Unless you’re a hermit sitting in a cave, not interacting with the world, then someone is going to hurt you, disappoint you, or let you down. The price for being in the arena is that you take a few blows to the face.
If you want the people who have hurt you in the past to lose their power over your future, you have to forgive them. Forgiveness dissolves resentment. Resentment solidifies it.
Resentment is excess baggage. And it’s hard to create anything new when your present and future are cluttered with the baggage and bullshit of your past. You take out the injustices of your past on the situations and people in your future.
This, like most of what I’m suggesting, is easy to say, and yet hard to do. Right now, someone in my life has disappointed me. I’ve found myself feeling resentful towards that person. But, that’s not going to change a damn thing. All it’s doing is making me unhappy.
Forgiveness does not mean forgetting. It means acknowledging what has happened and letting it go. Just because you forgive someone, it doesn’t mean you let them back into your life. Chances are, the person you have forgiven will not even know about it.
We seek acceptance, love, validation and just about everything we think will make us whole through external sources. But any sense of well being or happiness you derive through something external will never last. It’s a bottomless pit, in which you always need more.
The most important relationship you’ll ever have is the one you have with yourself. Until that relationship is intact, any form of external validation is a band-aid on a bullet wound.
When you stop seeking validation and give it to yourself, you start to find inner peace and wisdom that no external source can ever give you. You come to to the realization that everything you’re seeking is already within you.
Spend Time in Nature
Spending time in nature forces you to surrender, suspend judgment, and just observe. Nature also has a positive impact on your creativity.
As you do, you’ll see that the sun rises and sets without your involvement. The weather and the seasons continually change.
When it comes to the ocean, I feel like I’m in a relationship with a temperamental woman whose mood is always changing. Some days, she’s kind and gentle. Other days, she’s violent and wants nothing to do with me. And I’m willing to put with any amount of bullshit (aka lousy surf conditions) for an ounce of her affection (a perfect wave).
You can’t force the timelines of nature and more than you can the circumstances of your life. No matter how much you meditate, chant mantras or read self-help books, nature is on its own schedule.
Understand that Loss Creates an Opening in Your Life
In my first self-published book, I said that loss creates an opening in our lives. But when we fill that space with panic, anxiety, and fear, there’s no room for replacing that loss with something better.
Shortly after I wrote that, I was let go from a freelance writing gig that was paying me over 1000 dollars a month. The editor thought I’d outgrown the role. and she was right. For once in my life, I didn’t freak out. I had the space to write whatever I wanted and ended up writing the book that became a Wall Street Journal best-seller.
It takes practice not to fill the space created by loss with fear, panic, and anxiety. Despite writing about it, I’m hardly an expert at it. I’ve spent months crying over breakups, freaked out over losing clients, and struggled to maintain my sanity when things haven’t gone according to plan.
At some point in your life, you will lose something. It might be a person, a job, or even a prized possession. It’s up to you whether you’re going to make meaning or madness of out it.
Surrender to Your Mortality
You must stop treating your time as if you have an infinite supply. A glimpse into your mortality will make you see you that you don’t. Accepting the fact that you will be dead one day is the ultimate surrender. Certainty is an illusion, but death is the exception to this illusion.
In the face of death, nothing will matter as much as you think it does right now. The projects that fail, the people who hurt you, the promotion you didn’t get—none of it will mean anything the moment you take your last breath.
When my friend drowned last summer, he uploaded a picture to Instagram with a picture of himself by a swimming pool with the hashtag, ‘never take it for granted’. But all of us do.
We take it for granted that we’ll be able to tell the people who matter most to us that we love them.
We take it for granted that we’ll have the time to take the risks we want to take, start the projects we want to start, and make the art we want to make.
We take it for granted that we’ll be able-bodied enough to have the adventures we want to have.
Mortality doesn’t discriminate based on age, race, religion, social status or income. Regardless of our circumstances, we’re going to die. As Frank Ostaseksi said to me, “It’s an absurd gamble to think we’re going to have the clarity to do the work of a lifetime when we’re on our deathbeds.”
I have no idea how long I’m going to be here. All I know is that the clock is ticking every minute, every hour, and every day. So, I don’t feel as if I have the luxury of waiting to act on the things I can control. Even if it doesn’t turn out the way I thought it would, I want my time here to have meant something, to have made a difference.
My friend, Kamal, says that he’s probably saved more lives by writing his book than he ever would have by becoming a doctor. I hope I’ve done the same with my creative work. Every creative project I ship could be the very last. So I treat events like our upcoming conference like, “This is it, the final curtain call.”
Waiting until the perfect time is not much different than waiting to die because there’s no such thing as a perfect time. By the time this mythical date in the future arrives, you may not be alive to see it. Think about all the things you and millions of people haven’t done because they’re waiting.
The paradox is you must think with a lightheartedness of someone who has all the time in the world but acts with the urgency of someone who is going to die tomorrow. You charge every wave harder, you choose the most ambitious project, and don’t sit around waiting for permission, validation or approval from anyone.
It’s impossible to have no regrets when you die. It’s impossible to live without any regrets. We will all say and do things we regret. But it is possible not to let your regrets determine the way you live your life.
If you surrender to all of this, you’ll find that it becomes motivating and not morbid. It will light a fire under your ass. You will begin to understand viscerally that nobody gives a shit what you’re going to start. All that will remain of your time here are things you finished.
By the time the world wakes up the day after you die, there will be a billion other tweets and status updates that bury the thing you said you were going to start. But, what you finish will still be here long after you are gone.
One day, there will be no tomorrow. You have no idea what day that will be. It’s of course not practical to live each day as if it is your last. Otherwise, you’d make insane decisions. But you should live each day with the awareness that it might be your last.
Surrender runs counter to nearly every instinct we have. As a culture, we’re goal-oriented and driven by the desire for peak performance and extreme success. Surrender is not a life hack or a tactic. It’s a practice.
But think about all the times in your life when you’ve obsessed, stressed and worried about something. Either the shit hit the fan or the problem got solved. But all the self-inflicted misery didn’t make a difference.
Every event or circumstance in your life is a test of your ability to surrender. Whether you just lost your job, just got dumped, or you hate this article, it’s a test of your ability to say, “Ok, I surrender.”
Every time you surrender, you become a bit more free from the self-inflicted prison of your temporary thoughts and emotions. With each surrender, you drop a bit of excess baggage. You go through the world with lightness and rhythm that creates momentum and progress.
When you surrender, the circumstances and events of your life lose their power over you. You end up having power over them. And that’s a much better way to live.