A very tender friend/reader/listener reached out to me personally after listening to my most recent podcast episode, “Let the Dead Trees Go.” I have a deep respect and love for this person, and when she asked me to send her some practical, what-do-I-do, strategies for surrender, I thought maybe she wasn’t the only one who might have that question and benefit from a response.
I have been really challenged and mulling over letting go of things that aren’t serving me – mainly fears and tendencies and behaviors – I am curious if you could share any like “boots on the ground” practical “how to’s” or steps? What helps you surrender when you know there is something you want to work on surrendering?
So here is my response to her and to anyone else who might be asking the same questions:
First, in order to understand surrender, we probably need to define what it looks like to be “un-surrendered.” This will help us identify where in our lives we might need the practice of surrender. Here is what a posture of non-surrender looks like:
- Obsessive loops of thinking
- Avoiding discomfort through food, drinking, shopping, media, etc. In other words, choosing excessive behavior of any kind instead of facing our feelings.
- Trying to solve and fix, trying to “figure it out”
- Distressful levels of anxiety and/or worry
- Fear of something that has not happened
- Refusal to admit and face your true feelings/thoughts on a particular thing in your life
- Telling yourself that you’re just working hard, when really you are working out of anxiety
Try to identify the places in your life where you are closed, defensive, anxious, and overly focused on solutions.
Next, it’s important to remember, as I defined in the podcast episode, that surrender is not just about a flagrant throwing up of our hands. Surrender is not just about giving up, resignation, shutting down.
The etymology of the word also means to give back. As in, we surrender something over to another person. This is the kind of surrender I believe is helpful as we are talking about our lives. What am I holding onto that I need to place in God’s hands? What am I gripping, trying to control, obsessing over, trying to fix, worrying about incessantly, or (and this is the opposite extreme) ignoring even though it is eating me alive?
Now, what do we actually do?
Here are quite a few things to either practice or consider, things that have helped me when I am death-gripping a particular area of my life and/or brainstorming all the great ideas for how I’m going to shortcut waiting, avoid disappointment, and take matters into my own hands. (Spoiler Alert: never works)
(NOTE: This is not a checklist to perform. Some of these may really resonate with you while others might seem weird. Go with what would be meaningful to you right now.)
Ignatian spirituality is a great thing to look into if you haven’t already as St. Ignatius offers us this beautiful concept and practice of “holy indifference,” which we might also define as healthy detachment.
“Ignatian indifference is the capacity to let go of what does not help me love God or love others – while staying engaged with what does.” (source)
Our model for this holy indifference is Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Not my will but yours be done.” We are not indifferent to God, to our own pain, to the situation. We are not saying, “I don’t care.” We are asking God to give us the grace to be detached from the outcome. Not my will, but yours.
Can I begin to relinquish the outcome? This happens through prayer. I sit and ask God to give me the grace to detach from my big plan.
Pray this as a breath prayer:
Not my will (on the inhale)
But yours be done (on the exhale)
As you exhale, imagine letting go of the thing or person or problem or behavior you are so deeply attached to.
Serenity Prayer as a Prayer of Surrender
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. Amen.
Pray through the above prayer every morning (20 times a day if needed). Use it as a journaling prompt: God, what can I NOT change in the situation I’m facing? What CAN I change? Then write out what you hear from God and what comes up in your own spirit.
Past, Present, Future
Are you struggling to surrender something from your past?
Are you struggling to surrender something that is happening in your present?
Are you struggling to surrender something that you are expecting of the future?
Use the above past, present, future questions as a journaling prompt. This will help you get clearer on what you might be holding on to.
Wu wei is an important concept in Taoism. It is a Chinese word that is literally translated, “non-doing.” It means natural action, or in other words, action that does not involve struggle or excessive effort. Wu wei is the cultivation of a mental state in which our actions are quite effortlessly in alignment with the flow of life. (source)
I often think of a willow tree. The wind blows through it and the branches flow and move. They are not rigid. Surrender is me being the willow tree, letting things come to me, move through, and pass on. I am not rigid and striving. I am the willow tree.
I find myself “trying to make things happen” or “trying to figure things out.” This is the opposite of Wu wei. When I want to force things in my own direction, I honestly picture the willow tree and I stop. I stop moving, trying, figuring. I decide to treat whatever it is as though it is not an urgent matter.
This has been a very helpful concept to me. Be the willow tree. 😉
Sometimes we are holding on so tightly to something and we are actually TOO terrified to let it go. We just can’t. This is a good time to engage with a spiritual director or therapist. Perhaps there is trauma embedded in our bodies and we need help releasing that trauma. Perhaps some of our beliefs about God and his trustworthiness are wrapped up in our inability to let go. These are important parts of our journey and process and cannot be overridden. We have to honor them, and we usually need the support of an empathetic other to help us untangle what’s actually going on. Do you know how to find a trained spiritual director or counselor? If not, please reach out to me so we can help you get the support you need.
On a personal note, I am IN THE TRENCHES OF THIS in my life right now. Every freaking day: wanting to find a new house, stressing about money, wanting the new book to do well, wanting love again someday, wanting a slightly smaller butt . . . it goes ON and ON and ON.
And when I get frothed up and obsessive, these are the things that help me, so I hope they help you, too.
We refuse to surrender because we believe our un-surrendered posture is paying off. Is it paying off? If you know it’s not, work through some of the above prayers and exercises and practices. Surrender requires the work of the Divine in our lives. We MUST bring our pet pathologies before God and ask for his strength in letting them go. So my #1 piece of practical advice is to carve out time in your day to get clearer on what it is you’re holding onto and then ask God to show you why and also how you might begin opening your hands in holy indifference. Not my will but yours be done.
I believe in you. I absolutely believe in you.
Love upon love,