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  • Writer's pictureKatie Dunnigan

Surrender vs. Action - How to Let Go

Updated: Dec 29, 2023

“Surrender is the simple but profound wisdom of yielding to rather than opposing the flow of life.”-Eckhart Tolle

What is this situation calling for? Our intuition can guide us to the truth. If we get really still inside, the answer becomes clear. It is a felt sense or a “knowing.”

In our society, we are taught to take action – do something! And of course, sometimes we do need to act by removing ourselves from a situation or choosing new options (especially if we are in danger). But many problems of today are not life-threatening crises that have to be eliminated immediately, despite what our nervous system may be telling us. Through self-observation, we begin to notice that it is not just external problems arising in our lives, but repetitive patterns that are calling out to us to learn on a deeper level. They are showing us where we continue to get stuck.

What Does it Mean to Surrender?

Surrender involves letting go of the thoughts that cause suffering. It is accepting and working with what we are given in the present moment. It doesn’t mean liking what is happening, or finding it easy. It means trusting in life to unfold as it is meant to, not how we want it to. Surrender is not about becoming complacent or passive or free from emotion. It comes from a place of deep wisdom and inner strength. When we make the choice to surrender, we begin to learn lessons that help us evolve as humans and spiritual beings. We may learn patience, compassion, resilience, honesty, and faith. We begin to see that peace of mind comes from within, and we understand that it is our responsibility work at it.

Serenity Prayer
Serenity Prayer

How Do We Surrender?

In order to surrender, we must first notice our own defences as they arise (denial, blame, rationalizing, repressing, projecting, etc.) and catch our mind as it starts to spin out. We need to observe our emotions and accept that they are there without getting lost in them. We must become aware of our desires and be willing to approach life with an open mind rather than assuming we know what is best. The mindfulness therapy practices I teach my clients allow them to cultivate the presence necessary to participate in this type of observation.

So how do we put this into practice? When a challenging situation arises in life, we first get still inside. We might spend some time in silence, allow our reactivity to settle, and connect with our intuition which serves as a trusted guide. With our awareness open, we can see the situation from a wider and wiser perspective, which allows us to decide whether to take action or to surrender (or both). Then we make a conscious choice and come back to that choice gently over and over again when our mind resists. We may even ask important questions like: “What am I meant to learn from this?” Then we trust that the answers will come to us through insight.

It isn’t unusual to take action first and then surrender: we handle the external situation as best as we can, and then we let go internally. As an example, let’s imagine you are late for a doctor’s appointment and stuck in traffic. An appropriate action might be to call the doctor’s office and inform them of your situation. After that, it is really up to us to surrender to what is happening. If we don’t, we might spend the rest of the car ride creating stress and anxiety in our minds. We might imagine how the doctor’s office will treat us, or berate ourselves for not leaving early enough. We might mentally curse our partner for moving our car keys or start honking at other drivers who aren’t going as fast as we want them to. While not uncommon, these reactions create an immense amount of internal suffering over something that in that present moment is out of our control. Instead, we have the option to catch our ruminating thoughts and notice the impact they are having on us. We may need to do this over and over again, especially when we are getting used to the practice. But with time, we get really good at observing our patterns and stepping out of them immediately. And eventually, our mind may not even go there anymore.

Here are some other examples of moments to surrender (or to take action and then surrender):

• The server at a restaurant brings you the wrong food

• Your partner forgot to take out the garbage….again

• Your child is ill and you have to call in sick to work

• There has been a sudden change in your weekend plans

• A long-term friendship is coming to an end

• You planned an outdoor party and now it is raining

• A co-worker criticized your work

• You read a comment online that you disagree with

While some of these situations may seem trivial, they create built-up tension in our lives and can have a major impact. If we cannot surrender to these small moments, how can we support ourselves through our biggest hardships? Inner work is about looking at the entire picture of our lives and how we handle things, rather than trying to spot-treat our symptoms. Starting with everyday situations will strengthen awareness and support overall well-being.

Mindful Awareness Practice 1:

Think about a difficult situation you encountered recently where you took action but continued to feel impacted. What were the thoughts running through your mind? What made it difficult to let go?

Mindful Awareness Practice 2:

Spend some time over the next week observing how your mind reacts to different situations. Do you notice any patterns? How was your peace of mind affected by the way you were thinking?

This post was written by Katie Dunnigan. She is a therapist in Burlington, Ontario offering online mindfulness therapy, transpersonal therapy, and humanistic therapy. She believes in healing from the inside-out from eating disorders, depression, anxiety, anger, trauma, stress, and more.

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