Surrender Has No Goal

In the last post I talked about the differences between surrender and submission. I’m basing much of this on a new book by Zen teacher Barry Magid, Nothing Is Hidden: The Psychology of Zen Koans. I want to discuss this just a little more, because it’s something that a lot of us (me too) need to clarify.

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Of course, I’m not using “surrender” in the military sense, but in the sense of liberation from clinging and from our self-imposed limitation of, well, self. This is not something we can will ourselves to do; it happens when conditions are ripe for it to happen.

Submission is something we choose to do, and of course if we’re in anything like a traditional practice we choose to submit to the disciplines of practice. And that’s fine; gotta start somewhere. As we continue, we find that it’s not always fun to practice, and sometimes we get shoved outside our comfort zones a bit. But we choose to continue, usually because we think we will benefit from it somehow. Again, up to a point, that’s perfectly normal.

This practice we choose may enable genuine surrender. But for some people, submission metastasizes into a stubborn pathology, which can take many forms. It can take the form of submission to the will of authority, the teacher; or to a kind of groupthink, or both. When this happens, students are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

Even when the student isn’t exploited, sometimes his or her practice turns on gaining acceptance and approval from the teacher. Then practice becomes all about being a model student who will please the teacher. Barry Magid writes that the defining difference between submission or surrender is that submission is “tied to eliciting a response from another person, whether simple approval, love, or just an absence of criticism or abuse. True surrender, on the other hand, has no goal.”

I’ve also heard of people denying themselves physical comforts, like sleeping on a board instead of a mattress. or forcing their legs into full lotus even when it’s bone-crushingly painful. I honestly don’t see the point, except to give oneself something to brag about.

I said earlier that we may choose to continue to practice even when we run into difficulties, because we believe we will benefit from it. That might be a phase most of us go through; I know I went through it. But if this phase drags on for month after month, year after year, and practice is something you are making yourself do because you think you are supposed to do it, then something’s amiss. At some point practice begins to pull you like a current, and then it’s not just a chore, or a duty. That may be the beginning of surrender.

Ultimately, it’s up to us as students to be very honest with ourselves about what we’re doing. After an abusive teacher-student situation is finally made public, I’ve heard members of the sangha, more than once, admit that they were uneasy about the teacher’s behavior, or with relations within the sangha-group, and they ignored their unease.  So, at the very least, try to not do that.

[This post originally was published on Buddhism on October 3, 2013.]

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