On Saturday, November 10, 2018, I presented at the first of three full days (spread out over a couple of months) of an Introduction to Wisdom. In response to that day of teaching, I received the following inquiry:
I attended your November 10th program at Holy Family and wonder if you could further clarify what you said about surrender. Per my notes, I know you were very clear to say surrender was NOT giving in or capitulating to evil [or other] forces; that it was NOT rolling over or being a doormat, but, rather it is a gesture of strength and that is how Jesus used it. He took surrender all the way. You went on to say that surrender (letting go) and kenosis (self-emptying) lead to abundance and fullness of life…
Could you say a little more about it being a gesture of strength, and how surrender and kenosis lead to abundance and fullness of life… I'm not quite sure I understand... I have a fleeting glimpse but can't quite "get" the meaning of these comments or what you were trying to say. Thanks.
My response to this inquiry gives me the opportunity to take a deeper look into Wisdom’s central dynamic of surrender. But before I undertake that and because this E-mail manifests it, let me first say a word about how most of us seem to learn. Although this participant got a “fleeting glimpse” of what was presented, she is here asking for a deeper foundation of understanding. This “fleeting glimpse” is most often an experiential reception of one of Wisdom’s insights—one that usually matches an underlying yearning. Often, too, this experiential intake is physical in nature; that is, it is often received in the body as a physical sensation and recognition. We experience something that in our body and in our being we’ve always known to be true. In this sense, we get a “hit” of a deeper experiential glimpse of Wisdom’s truth, but it often takes a while before that experience (a passing state or sensation) can be forged into an abiding stage out of which we can, more substantially, live.
This passage from a passing experiential state or fleeting bodily recognition to a firmer foundational stage seems to require at least two things. First of all, it seems to take time. It takes time for what has been experienced to seep down into the pores of our being in order to take up a more integrated residence within us. And, second, it seems to need a cognitive framework within which it can coherently rest. But more needs to be said about this part of the integrative process because at first blush it can seem to run against the stream of most spiritual thinking/understanding.
Often the sense of our spiritual trajectory of growth is that it is taking us beyond the reach of the rational and the intellectual. And it is true that much of spiritual encounter takes us beyond the ego’s ordinary thinking and its rational and temporal understanding of itself. But in order for that to be integrated into the self-system, it is useful (if not necessary) to have a cognitive understanding into which it can eventually fit. I sometimes refer to this cognitive understanding as a kind of “file folder” or series of “corresponding file folders” in which our spiritual experiences might be held and organized. This is why both an underlying theology and a foundational cosmology are important in our ongoing spiritual trajectories. While they cannot replace spiritual experience itself or the results of ongoing spiritual practice, they enable us to construct for ourselves an abiding stage out of which to live. Our conceptual understandings, then, enable us to hold our spiritual experience in a relatively coherent container.
Given, then, that surrender can best be learned through sensation and gesture from the inside, how might we tentatively draw some sort of conceptual picture that might shape our cognitive understanding? Again, I am not suggesting that we replace experience with intellectual conceptualization; but by having some sort of evolving framework, we might then have a better shot at integrating our experience.
I turn to Jesus’ teaching from the Gospel of Thomas to instruct us here. This is logion 8 [trans. Lynn Bauman]:
A true human being
can be compared to a wise fisherman
who casts his net into the sea
and draws it up from below full of small fish.
Hidden among them
is one large, exceptional fish
which he seizes immediately,
throwing back all the rest without a second thought.
Whoever has ears let them understand this.
Surrender suggests letting go of the anxious clinging of the ordinary self—the small fish. This doesn’t mean we have to push away all of the pleasures on the horizontal dimension. It just means that we don’t have to grab on to them quite so tightly in order to bolster our egoic self and push forward its programs for happiness. It is not necessary, moreover, to become an ascetic. It just means that we do not need to grasp things so compulsively.
This surrender, then, helps to occasion a deeper sense of selfhood—one that is not fed or propped up by the more usual conventional motivations of the ordinary self. We begin to sense our place in the family of things as an integral part of a greater whole. Because everything is held together in a vast field of belonging, we can relax a little and trust that we cannot fall out. Indeed, there is no place to fall!
This surrender is a relaxation in all dimensions of life, and it creates a greater spaciousness within which something new can come to life. When we’re not clinging to our props and when we’re not overridden with fear and anxiety, there’s room for us to find an authentic response to the situation at hand—the one large, exceptional fish. Thus, surrender is anything but passivity. It does, however deliver us from our reactivity.
This surrender results in our greater capacity to see the universe and our lives in the universe in a new way. Relinquishing those things we had been convinced that we so desperately needed—that is, those demands of the compulsive self—we come to see beyond the tight little world that we thought was supposed to revolve around us. More specifically, this ongoing and multi-dimensional gesture of surrender releases us from our usual (and unnoticed) subject-object perceptual configuration. No longer am I on the inside looking out at the world that is outside. No longer is everything split into the subject/object duality and separation. And no longer are we merely isolated beings obsessed with “procuring,” “protecting,” and “advancing.” In those moments of surrender, then, we can see that our subjective sense flows into and is coterminous with the subjective sense of the universe. A big fish, indeed! From this perceptual vantage point, then, we are one with the Whole, and we could never see our own enhancement apart from the Whole.
It is from this perceptual vantage point that we can see that, rather than a hostile world marked by scarcity and danger, the universe is flowing out to meet us. And whatever conditions we may find ourselves in, it is precisely right there that we will be met. What we see and experience, then, is life’s abundance conspiring on our behalf.
It is useful to remember that this way of seeing is not something to be achieved through demanding hard work. It is not a ladder to be climbed. Rather, it is the result of a relinquishment and a letting go. It is not “more”; it is “less.” Over time and repeated “letting go” the gesture of surrender can be woven into the very fabric of our being. Profoundly, it is this gesture than opens us up to see and experience the abundance of the life into which we are planted.
As much as it may be helpful to try to articulate the depth and immensity of surrender directly, it is also useful to approach it metaphorically, if not poetically. This need has inspired me to plan and organize a Zoom group that I am calling: “Learning to Fall: Finding Surrender from the Inside.” With the stimulus and the guidance of an amazing series of essays by Philip Simmons, “Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life,” we will embark on a deep inquiry of surrender, utilizing the shapes and patterns of our own lives.
This Zoom group will run for twelve consecutive Wednesdays, starting on Wednesday, January 9, 2019. Taking us through Epiphany and the first part of Lent, it will hopefully provide spiritual preparation for our work in Holy Week. (Watch for announcements about specific programs for marking Holy Week.) For specific information about this and other Zoom groups, click on “Programs” on this website.
I will have more to say about Wisdom Mentoring in groups and also more about the upcoming Holy Week program