I was reading Sally’s latest article in Yoga Journal today, “Waking Life”, which is excellent, by the way, and decided to check out her web site. She has a number of other excellent articles posted there, including this one which appealed to the engineer in me. Surrender is probably one of the most difficult concepts on Yoga for me (or any spiritual practice).

Sally Kempton, meditation teacher, Swami Durgananda

My favorite surrender story was told to me by my old friend Ed. An engineer by profession, he was spending some time in India, at the ashram of his spiritual teacher. At one point, he was asked to help supervise a construction project, which he quickly found was being run incompetently and on the cheap. No diplomat, Ed rushed into action, arguing, amassing proofs, bad-mouthing his colleagues and staying up nights scheming about how to turn the tide. At every turn, he got resistance from the other contractors, who soon took to subverting everything he tried to do.

In the midst of this classic impasse, Ed’s teacher called them all to a meeting. Ed was asked to explain his position, and then the contractors started talking fast. The teacher kept nodding, seeming to agree. At that moment, Ed had a flash of realization. He saw that none of this mattered in the long run. He wasn’t there to win the argument, save the ashram money, or even make a great building. He was there to study yoga, to know the truth—and obviously, this situation had been designed by the cosmos as the perfect medicine for his efficient engineer’s ego.

At that moment, the teacher turned to him, “Ed, this man says you don’t understand local conditions, and I agree with him. So, shall we do it his way?”

Still swimming in the peace of his newfound humility, Ed folded his hands. “Whatever you think best,” he said.

He looked up to see the teacher staring at him with wide, fierce eyes. “Its not about what I think,” he said. “Its about what’s right. You fight for what’s right, do you hear me?”

Ed says that this incident taught him three things. First, that when you surrender your attachment to a particular outcome, things often turn out better than you could ever have imagined. (Eventually, he was able to persuade the contractors to make the necessary changes.) Second, that a true karma yogi is not someone who goes belly-up to higher authority, but a surrendered activist—a person who does his best to help create a better reality—all the while knowing that he’s not in charge of outcomes. Third, that the attitude of surrender is the best antidote to anger, anxiety, and fear.

I often tell this story to people who worry that surrender means giving up, or that letting go is a synonym for inaction, because it illustrates so beautifully the paradox behind “Thy will be done.” As the god Krishna told Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, surrender sometimes means being willing to get into a fight.

A truly surrendered person may look passive, especially when something appears to need doing, and everyone around is shouting, “Get a move on, get it done, this is urgent!” Seen in perspective, however, what looks like inaction is often simply a recognition that now is not the time to act. Masters of surrender tend to be masters of flow, knowing intuitively how to move with the energies at play in a situation. You advance when the doors are open, when a stuck situation can be turned, moving along the subtle energetic seams that let you avoid obstructions and unnecessary confrontations.

Such skill involves attunement to the energetic movement that is sometimes called universal or divine will, the Tao, flow, or in Sanskrit, shakti. Shakti is the subtle force—we could call it cosmic intention—behind the natural world in all its manifestations.

Surrender starts with a recognition that this greater life force moves as you. One of my teachers, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, once said that to surrender is to become aware of God’s energy within oneself, to recognize that energy, and to accept it. It’s an egoless recognition—that is, it involves a shift in your sense of what “I” is—which is why the famous inquiry “Who am I?” or “What is the I?” is central to the process of surrender. (Depending on your tradition and your perspective at the time, you may recognize that the answer to this question is “Nothing” or “All that is”—in other words, consciousness, shakti, the Tao.)