Why Surrender Is So Powerful, and How to Experience It

Surrender happens when we know that we can't think our way through our predicament
December 27, 2017 Updated: July 27, 2020

Surrender is at the heart of many spiritual practices; it’s both powerful and profound.

But what does it mean to surrender?

Surrender is too often misunderstood—boiled down to a few affirmations about “letting go,” and then misused as a self-help instruction. But, in our misunderstanding, we drain surrender of the true miracle that it is.

First, it may be helpful to define what surrender is not. Surrender is not failure, defeat, or punishment.

At some point, we all encounter a situation that rocks the foundation of who we are and what we think we can bear. Sometimes, it’s a long-term situation, and at other times, it’s a sudden event that overwhelms us and renders our usual coping strategies useless. While the details may differ, what these experiences share is the power to bring us to our knees, figuratively, and often literally.

They also have the power to change us.

Our minds try to control everything we encounter; that’s their nature. Ostensibly, our minds do this to try to make us happy and improve our lives. We have seemingly endless strategies for trying to ensure that our lives contain the experiences we want and don’t contain the experiences we don’t want.

Our minds will fight, reject, ignore, push against, and maneuver in order to change situations that we don’t want. And then there comes a time when we can’t keep fighting, either because it’s too painful or because we finally understand that it’s futile and some other unknown path is needed. Surrender begins here, where all other strategies end. But surrender isn’t a strategy; it is the absence of strategies.

Surrender happens when we know that we don’t know anything anymore, and certainly not anything that can help us. It arrives when we can’t think our way through our predicament. In true surrender, we don’t know if what’s to come will be better or worse, more comfortable or less. All we know is that we can’t do it the way we’ve been doing it a moment longer.

The Path to Surrender

Surrender itself is easy; it’s the path to surrender that’s excruciating. But what’s amazing is that when surrender does arrive, it’s accompanied by a great sense of peace. It’s not that the situation remarkably gets better or easier, but we feel better when we know deep down that we can’t fix or figure it out.

Oddly, something within us relaxes when we acknowledge that we don’t know the way. We feel an inner softening when we agree to turn it over to something larger—the unknowable, or simply the truth of our own helplessness. From our knees, paradoxically, we feel a remission from the suffering.

When we surrender, we give up, but not in the way that we usually think of giving up. We don’t give up on the situation, but rather, we give up the notion that we can manage the situation. We give up the belief that we can make reality different than what it is.

Giving up the mistaken belief that we are in charge offers profound relief.

Surrender is a true gift. It gives us the opportunity to feel the river of life carrying us, taking us where we need to go. Often, when surrender happens, we don’t trust that anything will take care of us or show us the way. That’s what makes surrender so unthinkable. But when we finally let go of the reins, the most remarkable opportunity appears, to directly experience a larger source of wisdom and grace.

So if surrender only enters when all other strategies have been exhausted, why bother? Do we simply wait for surrender’s arrival or is there anything we can do to encourage its presence?

We don’t always need to be on our knees to reach true surrender. In truth, we can practice it on a smaller scale, in the OK moments, before we are on our knees. This will help us in those times when even the idea of practicing surrender will be untenable.

How to Surrender

To practice, we simply surrender to what is, right now. We drop into our direct experience—what we are sensing, feeling, and living in this moment. We agree to feel life as it is, without our mind adding, taking away, manipulating, or doing anything whatsoever to it.

Try asking yourself: What would it be like if I let everything be just as it is? If I don’t do anything to it, what is my actual experience in this moment? Feel this, here, now.

Surrender, at its core, is the willingness to meet life as it is, to stop fighting with or trying to change what is so. And remarkably, no matter what the catalyst, or whether it’s a moment’s surrender or a lifetime’s, the resulting gift remains the same: relief, gratitude, grace, and sometimes even joy.

Surrender isn’t something that our minds can accomplish, but it is something that, with awareness, we can invite into our lives. And thankfully, when we have no other choice but to surrender the illusion of control, we can then experience the presence of something larger and unknowable. We can experience ourselves flowing down the river that is life—the river we are actually part of. Then, having experienced surrender, we can relax and trust that it’s safe to let go.

Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, public speaker, workshop leader, and author of “The Power of Off: The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World.” For more information, visit NancyColier.com