Waking Up To Surrender
In his book Practical Work on Self, the contemporary Fourth Way teacher E.J. Gold once posited 100 questions for silent contemplation. Forty years since I first read that book, one of E.J.'s questions has stayed in my mind: "Why is the pursuit of man a necessary function of God?"
Embedded in this modest little Sufi koan is a challenging conceit for Western society, where many people are conditioned to perceive the spiritual quest as a race in pursuit of an idealized, exalted state, dressed up in robes made of light and levitating above the grit and soil of daily life. In reality, the divine depths we seek are in fact seeking us, in every moment of existence. Our earthly lives contain the de facto raw material of enlightenment, from our humblest, simplest activities to the most complex entanglements that reflect our patterns, mistakes, and limitations. The wisdom we seek is embedded in nature, in relationships, in work and play, in our potential for inner stillness.
Think of water, soft and permeable, but capable of eroding even the hardest substance — that's the cumulative effect of unconditional surrender to the teachings of daily life. Surrender often demands we let go of things we hold most dear: social identity, emotional and mental attachments, and sometimes our most treasured notions and beliefs. Surrender demands we deliberately abandon society’s fragmented, episodic, competitive illusion and replace it with a cohesive reality of loving. For most of us, walking that path requires some type of spiritual practice that supplies tensile strength within the storms we encounter every day... from a person's most private personal struggles to the multitude of external forces that threaten our collective earthly existence. The toughest moments, when we feel the furthest removed from enlightenment, actually place us on the brink of spiritual surrender.
You'd be justified in asking what “surrender” has to do with the state of the world. In secular culture, the very word reflexively exerts a tsunami of negative inferences. How can we possibly reconcile with a higher concept of surrender in an era of exacerbated public paranoia, where the work of peaceful interconnectedness remains under siege by institutionalized and individual violence alike? Our efforts to heal the world from a cumulative volume of destruction can feel like enduring perpetual childbirth labor on a four-hour epidural anesthetic. For social justice and planetary stewardship to manifest, organized activism is unquestionably essential; but, as Medgar Evers pointed out, legislation alone can’t transform and uplift the world. Near the end of his life, when asked what was needed for durable civil rights to take root in our social fabric, Evers unequivocally stated, “People’s hearts have to change.” From a purely spiritual standpoint, any authentic change of heart demands a permanent pilgrimage of surrender through the most perilous minefield known — the territory of consciousness. The heart-opening of a lifetime is too often delayed till a person’s last breath leaves her or his body. And the longer that a heart-awakening is shoved aside in favor of fleeting worldly kickbacks, the further away is our collective potential for deep, lasting change.
In reality, the search for liberation always coexists with terrifically opposing extremes. Many of us feel stuck at an impasse where misconceptions of enlightenment collide with the messiness of our actual condition. The concept of “lotus flower arising from the mud” frames that impasse in broad terms. While this idea has long presented a good basic analogy for spiritual growth, popular over-use might have diluted some of its deeper intrinsic meaning. On the material plane of human frailty and imperfection, our muddy mess is unavoidable; it’s the product of our personal and collective karmas alike. But our human mess is fertilizer for the lotus bloom’s emergence from the muck, the soil we must patiently nurture to grow the seeds of awakening, season after season, in our hearts and on the land with every waking hour.
Sunrise Teahouse Lesson
"When you practice Zen, you laugh harder and you cry harder."
That teaching was given to me many years ago by the late Yamada Sensei, my Urasenke Chanoyu tea ceremony master in New York City. I wish you could have seen the radiant, self-knowing smile that broke over his features when he turned to me and said those words, apparently out of the blue one early morning during our little three-person, three-mat tea ceremony. But his statement was not a spontaneous utterance for no particular reason. He was clearly addressing me directly, from his perception of a deep struggle I was personally, silently engaged in at the time. He said the words once. Then, not shifting his gaze from mine, he repeated: you laugh harder, and you cry harder.
This occurred in the middle of a sunrise tea class with me playing guest, a Japanese student playing host, and Yamada Sensei kneeling between us, quietly observing the practice underway. I was stunned. What could possibly have caused him to suddenly break our silence with a statement that seemed utterly out of context with the ceremonial proceedings at hand— much less directed to me in particular? After all, there I was, silently and seriously engaged, taking in my fellow student’s effort to seamlessly and gracefully produce a perfectly-balanced cup of tea for our shared enjoyment. I had no idea that the maelstrom in my being was visible through the disciplined stillness of my body. It was certainly of no import at all in the context of our meticulous, painstaking ritual.
Like his words, Yamada Sensei’s smile didn’t arise from an urge to impress, nor was it the backwash of some ingrained kindly-monk habit. After fifty years of unbroken habit, he was intimately acquainted with the unsettling internal conflicts that give birth to a spiritual search. He knew and recognized its vicissitudes and its cost, and stated the plain truth he saw within me. Yamada sensei was so surrendered he could feel the subtle storm churning within a person sitting three feet away, a person whose hidden, unverbalized pain was, in fact, the highly sensate expression of a truth he had himself known, survived and transformed into compassion itself. In an instant, his recognition of my struggle, and my recognition of his awareness, created a synapse in the air between us... a spontaneous, deep, and unsentimental understanding of a fleeting moment in time.
Yamada Sensei’s statement revealed that our greatest vulnerability is actually our greatest strength. when we embrace and unconditionally surrender to whatever state we’re in at a given moment, our struggles become resolved at a higher level. We all face challenges to process the intense penetrations of life experience. A person’s emotional life constitutes a living Bardo— a series of miniature death and rebirth processes in which old patterns and preconceptions can be transformed into a richer, deeper, active realization. And what are emotions but a map of circular, repeating encounters with our unresolved griefs? Those encounters represent the raw material of enlightenment, at once accessible and elusive, transitory and enduring, refreshingly simple and infinitely complex. They remind us we are capable of, and meant to seek, the evolution of childish attachments into mature, loving detachment.
In Kundalini practice, this is a natural byproduct of the chakra system’s cleansing, strengthening, and cultivation. That process enables us to more clearly witness the karmic cycle of worldly experience: we invariably attract the people and circumstances that arise to catalyze our growth. It also becomes clear that the act of resisting growth is actually evidence of new potential to spiritually grow beyond our limitations. As we become accustomed to the dance between resistance and change, we build a delicious habit of deepening into surrender, opening to the unknown, and nourishing a robust foundation of trust and love for the process itself.
We’re all born with the seed of liberation-consciousness wired into in our brain development centers. Most of us carry that seed with no knowledge of its existence or purpose. In all yogas the hippocampus, pineal, and pituitary are just three of the myriad crucial areas that are nourished by the breath. Without training, we unwittingly bury their higher functions beneath heaps of external stimulus, tangled emotions, and repetitive behaviors — all karmically inherited, socially imprinted, and habitually self-generated. Breath is the exquisite tool and the living source of the divine creative power that gives rise to all existence. Authentic, enduring shifts in consciousness will occur when we free our breath to break down and recycle emotional and mental rigidities into spiritually-refined energy.
Consciously used, breath transmutes the latent raw material of all karmas into purifying energy for enlightenment, redirected to the healing and benefit of all living beings. Its power exceeds all dogma, and moves us to transform the harshness of the world into a collective higher Self, the encompassing sacred web that reveals the interconnectedness of all life. The heart of that oneness is the Zen of understanding the nature of extremes, and finding the centering breath in every tear we shed, every laugh that escapes our lips. In Yamada Sensei’s eyes, I saw and welcomed the chance to laugh harder, cry harder, and quietly inhabit the spaces between, where Self and Other abide as one.