The Paradox of Surrender: Finding Strength and Wisdom in the Struggle

By Robert D. Rossel, Ph.D.

I met with one of my favorite clients yesterday — a very deep and animate soul, a student getting an advanced degree in one of our local therapist training institutions— who shared an experience that touched me deeply. She is a bit of a psychic who frequently anticipates phone calls or animals crossing the road. She told me that she had one of her premonitions —a premonition that an animal was going to cross the road as she rounded a corner and over the crest of a hill, as she drove to our session.

She slowed her car, ready to break. As she cleared the hill and could see her way ahead, she was surprised because it appeared that nothing was there, no deer, moose, or other animal that she was accustomed to seeing when she had those premonitions. But something told her to slow down even more, almost to a complete stop. As she did this a little furry mouse scurried across the road, its legs all a blur, its little ears sticking up in alert attention, its whiskers alive with kinetic energy. She pulled over and started sobbing, filled with a complex mix of sadness, joy and a deep recognition of the subtle energies of the web of life surrounding her. She was aware as she seldom is of – what shall we call it — mouse consciousness, sensing its fear, its vigilance, its close-up mouse-view of textures, sounds, smells and vibrations, all the things that are such a basic part of its experiential world. I am not exactly sure why this story woke me out of a deep sleep this morning and why I was filled with an impulse to write it down. I guess it has something to do with our current life situation, its noise, frenetic pace, and shallowness, and a call to pay attention to the deeper currents of life that surround us, currents that we are often too numb, too distracted, too busy, to sense or notice. The “greater intelligence” our current life situation requires of us today is not just about paying attention to the “important” things that call upon us to notice, the distractions and preoccupations of our all too busy lives, it is also calls on us to stay connected deeply to the animate world; the trees, animals, earth tones and earth smells, the things the mouse knows. It is in our ability to pay attention, to sense beyond knowledge, to notice that our world is alive, animated with energies and possibilities that we easily miss if we don’t pay attention. It is also in our ability to connect with the mundane aspects of our lives, doing the dishes, making our beds, “doing the laundry,” in Jack Kornfield’s (2000) words. It is an invitation to awaken to the full spectrum of life’s possibilities—the good and the bad – dark currents as well as joy, noticing everything that surrounds our life. To enter mouse consciousness we must slow down, breathe, and listen deeply to each other. We must listen to the silence between the words, and, above all, as we would with any innocent child’s vulnerable self, be very respectful as we listen and respond. Eckhart Tolle, in his brilliant book, The Power of Now (1999) speaks of the importance of attending in this open way, discovering in this presence a way to free ourselves from the attachments of the ego that create suffering. As he says (1999: 79-80):

“Presence is needed to become aware of the beauty, the majesty, the sacredness of nature. Have you ever gazed up into the infinity of space on a clear night, awestruck by the awesome stillness and inconceivable vastness of it? Have you listened, truly listened, to the sound of a mountain stream in the forest? Or to the song of a blackbird at dusk on a quiet evening? To become aware of such things, the mind needs to be still. You have to put down for a moment your personal baggage of problems, of past and future, as well as all your knowledge; otherwise, you will see but not see, hear but not hear. Your total presence is required.”

In understanding this quality of presence, I am reminded of a client of mine who had just successfully finished the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii—a 54 year old woman who came to me because she had panic attacks in large crowds in the water and was afraid of being eaten by a shark – and how learning to surrender the ego in the moment-by-moment practice of mindfulness helped her deal with her panic and get through the race. I am amazed by her story and how she used the experience to transcend the ego through mindfulness and surrender—hardly the mentality one would assume is associated with the Ironman Triathlon. My client loves the poetry of Rilke and reminded me of his poem, “The Man Watching the Storm Approaching,” translated by Robert Bly, that we had shared in a session shortly before she left for Hawaii. Here is the poem (Rilke, 1993: 298):

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend
I can’t love without a sister.

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age;
the landscape, like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.

What we choose to fight with is so tiny!
what fights with us is so great!
if only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers in the Old Testament:
when the wrestlers’ sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who so often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.

She told me about the utter calm that came over her while practicing mindfulness as she rubbed the cramp out of her arch toward the end of the swim and was able to finish the swim and get on her bike. Then she described the powerful crosswinds that literally blew many riders off their bikes and how again she used mindfulness to stay present and centered on her bike. Rilke’s poem was particularly meaningful to her during this part of the race. She showed me photos taken of her as she ran across the finish line, and spoke of the amazing support she received from a multitude of people who where still there in the wee hours of the morning to welcome the runners home. The whole experience was a testimony to the power of mindfulness, the middle way, and the power of surrender.

But the connection to nature and the larger mind we establish through presence and surrender require constant practice—things like trance, mindfulness, dance, yoga, play, centered “belly” breathing, prayer—define the conditions where this connection to flow and presence is likely to happen but they in no way guarantee that it will happen. I think presence and the ability to surrender create the conditions where awareness opens up to currents that are always there but from which we are often distracted because of the imperiousness of our egos and because we become attached to particular fixed positions that shut down our capacity to surrender and be in the flow of our experience. I have found more and more that things begin to happen in therapy when I am able to sit with the discomfort or anxiety that invariably comes when I cut loose from my attachments to particular expectations or desired outcomes and look for the surprises that come into the field from the margins or gaps in experience. Subjectively, I sense this presence and connection with the larger mind when I find myself inexplicably chuckling at things that are said or done—the feeling tone and emotional quality of the interaction is playful and dead serious. What is said often has a poetic quality and perceptions open to make room for color, texture, vibrational qualities, and an increasingly rich and multi-layered non-verbal connection.

Far too often our associations with surrender and mindfulness suggest a kind of passiveness or resignation, having a distinct negative connotation, like giving up, becoming passive and fatalistic, or failing to rise to the challenges of life. In therapeutic situations, surrender has similar associations until one experiences the paradoxical transformational power of surrender, a power associated with letting go of struggle and resistance to change. It is the simple but profound realization that one can learn to yield to rather than oppose the flow of events in one’s life. There are many examples of this paradoxical transformation of perspective that come to mind from my clinical practice. I have come to see it as one of the most reliable indicators that therapy has begun to work. One of my clients, we will call him John, discovered the power of surrender when, after months of struggle with profound grief and unhappiness over the disintegration of his marriage, he finally let go of his resistance to this change in his life and the related story of loss and victimization to which he was fiercely attached. It was then and only then that things truly began to move in the therapy. He began to accept some personal responsibility for things that had gone wrong in his relationship with his wife. He began to open to some of the gifts in his suffering, a softening in his relationship with his kids, an awakening of a deep spiritual connection to life, the dawning of a new perspective on life that made room for irony, humor, and a deeper field of vision.

Pema Chodron, in her wonderful book, Start Where You Are (2001: 8) echoes these ideas when she says:

There is a saying that is the underlying principle of tonglen and slogan practice: ‘Gain and victory to others, loss and defeat to myself.’ The Tibetan word for pride or arrogance, which is nga-gyal, is literally in English, ‘me victorious.’ Me first. Ego. That kind of ‘me-victorious’ is the cause of all suffering. In essence what this little saying is getting at is that words like victory and defeat are completely interwoven with how we protect ourselves, how we guard our hearts. Our sense of victory just means that we guarded our heart enough so that nothing got through, and we think we won the war. The armor around our soft spot—our wounded heart – is now more fortified, and our world is smaller. … The words defeat and victory are so tied up with how we stay imprisoned. The real confusion is caused by not knowing that we have limitless wealth, and the confusion deepens each time we buy into this win/lose logic… Realizing our wealth would end our bewilderment and confusion. But the only way to do that is to let things fall apart. And that’s the very thing that we dread the most—the ultimate defeat. Yet letting things fall apart would actually let fresh air into this old, stale basement of a heart that we’ve got.

Surrender in therapeutic contexts is most importantly associated with a deepening connection with soul and some form of spiritual awareness and practice. Often in therapy surrender is the gateway through which this deeper, more vital, connection to life begins to come about. Before that, spirituality often is something only read about, talked about, and thought about in an abstract, disconnected kind of way, if that. In surrender life suddenly is filled with new-found vitality, soulfulness and depth. This animation of soul, in turn, is capable of touching other lives, emanating a new kind of spirit, a new vibrational frequency that literally transforms the relational field, a silent but intense presence that dissolves the unconscious patterns of thought and action in others it touches.

In my own life I have come to associate this new enlivened vibrational frequency with what I call “life as a living prayer.” I have completely given up thinking of prayer as a way to get what I want or make something happen. I now feel that prayer is much less about asking for help, blessing, and other things we are attached to and more about entering a process of surrender and letting go. Indeed, I think the essence of prayer is the surrendering of attachments. The process allows us to join with something much larger than ourselves that can take us beyond fear and beyond hope, both of which are attachments that keep us in the small mind and the small self. This is one of the links I see between prayer and meditation as spiritual practices. When I pray I don’t so much change the world as I change myself. It is a process which allows me to shift into a “being with” mode of being, a place where I can move out of my isolated individual-holding-up-the-world consciousness to a sense of connection at the deepest level to a much larger reality—a place of mystery and not-knowing that forces me to let go and trust in that not-knowing. Prayer also allows me to let go of my arrogance and attachment to outcomes. When I pray I stop trying to control my life and instead begin to wonder at the being of my life. Naomi Reiman, in her wonderfully moving book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, beautifully expresses this humility that connects one to the very large. She says (1996:244), “Prayer is a movement from mastery to mystery. I used it [she is a M.D.] to pray for my patients. These days I pray for myself, too. Sometimes I pray for compassion, but more often I pray for harmlessness, the great spiritual quality embodied in the Hippocratic oath. As a human being, I know I can never hope to have the depth and breadth of perspective to know whether any of my actions will ultimately harm or heal. Yet it is my hope I may be used to serve a holy purpose without ever knowing. So sometimes, before I see a patient I offer up a little wordless prayer: Understanding the suffering is beyond me. Understanding the healing is, too. But in this moment, I am here. Use me.”

Her humility and honest sharing strikes me as rare in medicine. It is very moving to witness her openness to the fact that healing, if it is to occur at all, is likely to be deepened as we begin drinking in and trusting the deep currents of the larger mind. Spoken and enacted prayer has become an integral part of my work as a healer as well. This is what I mean by “life as a living prayer.” Later in the book she shares a wonderful Sufi tale that speaks to the humility of surrender and enacted prayer in a beautiful way (1996: 245-246):

There is a Sufi story about a man who is so good that the angels ask God to give him the gift of miracles. God wisely tells them to ask him if that is what he would wish. So the angels visit this good man and offer him first the gift of healing by hands, and then the gift of conversion of souls, and lastly the gift of virtue. He refuses them all. They insist that he choose a gift or they will choose one for him, ‘Very well,’ he replies, ‘I ask that I may do a great deal of good without ever knowing it.’ The story ends this way: The angels were perplexed. They took counsel and resolved upon the following plan: Every time the saint’s shadow fell behind him it would have the power to cure disease, soothe pain, and comfort sorrow. As he walked, behind him his shadow made the paths green, caused withered plants to bloom, gave clear water to dried-up brooks, fresh color to pale children, and joy to unhappy men and women. The saint simply went about his daily life diffusing virtue as the stars diffuse light and the flowers scent, without ever being aware of it. The people respecting his humility followed him silently, never speaking to him about his miracles. Soon they even forgot his name and called him ‘The Holy Shadow.’

To me this is a very comforting tale that allows me to see the value in surrender and the mystery and power of the therapeutic relationship as a living prayer, a power that goes beyond attachments to specific outcomes and cultivates a vital connection to the larger mind and the practice of surrender. In saying this I am not talking about relinquishing any techniques we know or the special knowledge we have. Rather, I am talking about a particular kind of presence that allows us to go on even when we have no idea what we are doing, a trust in our ability to “be with” and tune in to an intelligence larger than our own. This special kind of presence is far from passive or lacking in thought. It only means that the “doing” of therapy becomes nonreactive, in the same way Akido or some other martial art embodies the unique power that comes only when one learns not to resist the opponent’s force, but, instead, to yield and overcome. This kind of active non-doing, a practice the Taoists call wu wei, when fully understood and mastered, opens an intense presence capable of transforming people and situations. It is a presence that connects mindfulness and soulfulness in such a way that active non-doing becomes fully engaged in the larger mind and in the larger relational field. I believe that soulfulness cannot exist without mindfulness, but dwells someplace between the mind and the heart and adds something extremely vital and animating to the experience of mindfulness. Soulfulness seems to come from outside of myself whereas mindfulness comes from within and is dependent on ongoing practice, attentiveness to body and breath, and an ability to see beyond the polarities and contradictions of the conscious mind. Soulfulness, as I experience it, is a gift freely given by the gods. I do nothing to create it, deserve it, or even invite it. And yet, there it is, often when I least expect and, in retrospect, come to see that I most needed it. Together mindfulness and soulfulness fill life with presence, taking us to an entirely different place of being, a place that one would hardly think possible, and yet, paradoxically, a place where we lose ourselves, our self consciousness, our fear of making mistakes, our self-doubt, and the need to “perform.” Finally, it is a place where we are able connect to play, joy, mischievousness, abandon, and bliss.

In talking about this unique kind of presence, it is useful to look briefly at play as something that defines its special qualities. I recently ran across a quote from the eminent British psychoanalyst, D.W. Winnecott, ” . . .psychology takes place in the overlap of two areas of playing, that of the patient and that of the therapist. . . .The corollary of this is that where playing is not possible then the work done by the therapist is directed toward bringing the patient from a state of not being able to play into a state of being able to pay.” (Playing and Reality, 1982: 38) I remember reading this statement years ago when Winnecott’s influential book first came out. I was intrigued—the statement rang true—but I also knew that I didn’t fully understand it. It hit me almost like a koan—I meditated on it for weeks. The present consideration of the unique quality of presence found in surrender and self-abandon seems to provide a rich context for considering it once again.

Playing defines a relational field where there is an immediate connection of body, mind and spirit in experience, where being is a context of becoming, where consciousness of self and other are woven together in an intersubjective dance, where language vibrates with meaning—in short, playing is a place where creativity and spontaneity dwell. When I am playing I am not self-conscious. My actions and sense of self are experienced as free from the grip of rigid thinking and negative sponsors. I can share and receive without needing to judge. At the same time I recognize the underlying seriousness of what I am doing. I can laugh from a place of deep recognition and connection with something I recognize is much larger than myself. This larger self is experienced as safe and comforting. Curiosity guides my actions and opens space for deep listening and unguarded receiving. A relational connection between differences feels natural—play allows the letting go of fixed identities and the embracing of complementary truths. In play I move beyond reactive responding and choose to be where I find myself. Playing awakens relatedness and the ability to stay in the present and open to the rhythms and somatic resonance of embodied knowledge, the sublime form of presence I previously called, enacted or “living prayer.” Restoring the capacity to play is restoring the connection of mind and body in the unique dance we previously called, mindfulness and soulfulness. This is why laughter and play is contagious. If one person is interested in playing it is difficult for the other not to play. This is also why play and humor are integral to healing.

Finally, to conclude, surrender is the path through which we most directly reclaim our humanness. Surrender allows a discriminating way of knowing and seeing that transcends the circumstances of our conditioning and makes room for inspiration, novelty, and genuine insight. This potential for brilliance and decisiveness is always there and a natural gift inherent in our humanness. Unfortunately this capacity for freshness, novelty and inspiration is far too often obscured by pain, suffering, and distress. One of the core challenges of therapy is the task of awakening the recognition of our essential human goodness and brilliance. Perhaps the most important gift that comes with the discovery of paradox of surrender is the awakening of our connection with these qualities. I was recently reading some of Chogyam Trumgpa’s early writing about the “primordial dot” which was his articulation of I call the tender human core at the center of our being. As he said in Great Eastern Sun, (1999:27):

There’s always the primordial dot—that spark of goodness that exists even before you think. We are worthy of that. Everybody possesses that unconditioned possibility of cheerfulness, which is not connected purely with either pain or pleasure. You have an inclination: in the flash of one second, you feel what needs to be done. It is not a product of your education; it is not scientific or logical: you simply pick up on the message. And then you act: you just do it. That basic human quality of suddenly opening up is the best part of human instinct. You know what to do right away, on the spot—which is fantastic. That is what we call the dot, or basic goodness and unconditional instinct…

Basic trust is knowing that there is such a thing as that spark of basic goodness in all human beings. The Buddha taught us that life is suffering. It is difficult to honor the currents and impulses flowing from our tender core when so much of life seems to conspire to sink us and pull us into despair as we awaken to the great suffering in and around us. The challenge that the path of surrender offers is the challenge of learning to remain awake and work with suffering without being sunk and discouraged by the continuous and relentless way the human situation pulls us into despair. It is easy to succumb to the distractions society offers in warding off suffering; things like addiction, consumerism, and rigid categorical thinking. Those of us who are not completely pulled into these distractions recognize the value of being on the path of surrender in resisting their seductive pull and the false promises they offer. In the same book, Trumpka talks about “renunciation” as an integral part of warriorship and as a particular skill that must be developed lest we become pulled apart by the deep currents of sorrow we touch when our tender human core is fully awakened to the suffering it sees and feels. Renunciation as Trumpka uses the term I associate with the active process of surrender, it is surrender used as a discipline taken into life. I believe the active use of surrender ultimately must be explored and fully exercised if the full potential of therapy is to be recognized. It is the aspect of surrender that allows the learnings of therapy to be brought into the world. As he says (1999:36):

Seeing the basic goodness in oneself and seeing the sadness of the setting-sun possibilities [by which he means all the distress, pain, suffering and ignorance we see as a part of the human condition], one is willing to make some kind of sacrifice… The negative aspect of renunciation, so to speak, is what you reject or avoid. In this case you are rejecting self-indulgence, purely pleasuring yourself… What you accept, on the positive side, is the development of genuine warriorship.

There are many specific lineages or traditions of warriorship that are available to be explored in therapy. What remains important is that therapy explicitly strive to be an instrument that puts one on a path of warriorship. Being a warrior, among other things, is a disciplined way of “holding your seat” and staying with the breath when you find yourself in the midst of great suffering—your own and that of others. It is a disciplined way of being fully, genuinely, and personally present wherever you are, sharing compassion and great kindness with others without giving away your self.


Chodron, Pema, 2001. Start Where You Are. Shambhala.

Kornfield, Jack. 2000. After the Ecstasy, The Laundry. Bantam.

Remen, Rachel Naomi, 1996. Kitchen Table Wisdom. Riverhead Books.

Trumpka, Chogyam, 1999. The Great Eastern Sun. Shambhala.

Winnicott, D.W. 1982. Playing and Reality. Routledge.

About the author:
*Robert D. Rossel, Ph.D. is a Life Coach living and practicing in Los Altos Hills California. He is a long-time practitioner of self-relations psychotherapy and Ericksonian hypnotherapy. With an abiding interest in music, art, yoga, and other mind-body practices, Dr. Rossel is also a Buddhist who has sought for many years to find ways to apply meditation and mindfulness in his practice. He may be reached at 10490 Albertsworth Lane, Los Altos Hills, CA 94024. Address all correspondence to his E-mail address:

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