Self-Surrender (Ishvara Pranidhana)
Surrender is a word that I love to talk about in yoga class – but it’s not a very popular word in the mainstream. It conjures thoughts of losing a battle or becoming powerless. It brings up issues of losing control. It’s a concept that’s hard to picture as a practical application in our lives. Yet if we can learn to surrender – to surrender ourselves to something greater – the doorway to true peace and freedom begins to open for us.
Many spiritual teachers have spoken of self-surrender, in different ways. They may speak of it as having absolute faith, or letting go of attachments, or devoting everything to the Divine. It generally boils down to giving up something. Webster’s dictionary defines surrender as “to give up possession of or power over”. But to what? Certainly not to “someone” else – we’ve see enough of that with cults and dictatorships.
Who is in charge?
Does it mean we become powerless when we truly surrender? When we surrender in a spiritual sense, we discover that what we believed to be powerful before reveals itself as an illusion. For example, in Alcoholics Anonymous, the first step to recovery from alcoholism is to admit that one is powerless over the alcohol. Then the 3rd step is turning over your will and life to a Higher Power. This is the realization that we’re not really as in control of our lives as we would like to think we are. If we truly were, then we’d be able to drop all those bad habits just like that, wouldn’t we? We could pay off all those debts, heal our bodies, and anything else that isn’t the way we’d like it to be right now. Our belief that we are in charge of everything in our lives falls apart under a little scrutiny.
If we aren’t in control, then what is? Well, that’s the ultimate question, isn’t it. According to the yoga sutras and many spiritual texts, Divine Consciousness is the impelling force in our lives… whatever name you give it. In the Yoga Sutras, this force is called Ishvara. It signifies the ultimate consciousness that is inclusive of everything and limited to nothing.
Personal self vs. the Infinite
What energy do you think is more powerful: your individual personal energy, or ultimate, unlimited Divine Consciousness? I don’t need to give you the answer. This is where the idea of surrendering ourselves becomes more palatable, even exciting. If I allowed my life to be in the hands of that which is unlimited possibility and all-powerful, then the sky isn’t even the limit. Possibilities aren’t subject to just what we can imagine. Infinite ways of dealing with life’s challenges are available, that we can’t conceive of with our limited thoughts. If anything can bring us the energy, inspiration, and tools to heal and change our lives, this infinite force is it.
In the yoga sutras, Patanjali, the father of yoga, says that surrendering ourselves to that higher force (the practice of Ishvara Pranidhana) is one of the key components to becoming one with that greater Being. To become all of who we are, we need to surrender the limited sense of who we are – the small self – in order to realize the large Self, or divine potential.
Let’s use a practical, albeit materialistic example of this surrender. Say that you need a new car. You’re driving the one you’ve had for years, and you like it, but admittedly it isn’t always reliable anymore, and it has more than a few dents. In fact, it looks rather shoddy inside and out, and it may be a bit embarrassing to have friends ride in it with you. Not to mention that the repair bills are getting bigger and bigger.
Still, it’s the car you’ve had for so long… you’re comfortable in it. In fact, maybe you’re kind of emotionally attached to it in some way. You’re also comfortable with not having to make monthly payments, too. Plus, who needs to wash it – it’s already pretty messy, anyway. With a new car, you’d have to keep it clean, you’d have to work a little more to make the payments or give up something else to afford it, and – you’d have to give up the old car. One way or another, to have what we want, we need to give up something – in this case, the old car, and maybe some time and money in order to afford the new one. We’d have to give up or surrender our attachment to what isn’t serving us anymore.
Surrender self-limiting concepts
Maybe a car is easy to imagine letting go of, but what if you were asked to let go of who you thought you were? What if you were asked to let go of your negative beliefs about yourself, your self-imposed limitations, and your judgments? Imagine how it would be if you were free of all your fears. These are some of the things that we release when we surrender the small self for the larger one. Our divine nature, which is our true essence, isn’t limited by these things.
It’s also not limited by a sense of self-importance. When we surrender the idea of being important, we can better serve humanity. Our self-importance often gets in the way of giving to others from our heart. So along with letting go of our negative images of ourselves, we also surrender the idea that we are better than anyone else. We realize our humanness, which enhances our connection with others.
We surrender, too, the idea that our body is ours to do whatever we like with. When we do that, we can make choices for ourselves that are more nurturing and healthy. Essentially, this is letting go of selfishness – letting go of the small self for the greater Self – and being willing to take responsibility for our lives and our choices.
Letting go of expectations
The one power we have, and always will have, is the ability to choose how we respond to life. We have the power to choose our actions, but we don’t have the power to determine the results. That is out of our hands. Thus, part of self-surrender is letting go of expectations – surrendering the fruit of our actions to the Divine, as it is said in the Bhagavad Gita. That is a practice of trust. When we are surrendered to Spirit, we trust that we are taken care of and that everything works out for the best, regardless of appearances.
What’s the benefit of Ishvara Pranidhana, Self-surrender, in our daily life? I like to think of it as serenity. It is an understanding that everything works out in its own time. Doing my best and then letting go of the result. Not having to live up to some image I have of myself, and no longer needing to beat myself up for it. Relief from feeling I always have to struggle to get through life. A deep sense of being guided and cared for by something greater.
These gifts of self-surrender bring that deep, abiding peace, clarity, and calm that is serenity, and a sense of freedom from our self-imposed burdens. This rich reward may be worth letting go of our attachments, control, and to our limited sense of life. The sun doesn’t resist its own setting – it lets go, knowing that it will rise once again. As you practice your own surrender of self, know that you allow the dawning of greater serenity in your life.
Copyright 2002, 2011 by Constance L. Habash