The Surrender Experiment by Michael Singer
Updated: Sep 13, 2020
I really think books are what have been keeping me sane through the apocalypse that is 2020. Books take you away, for just a brief moment, from this seemingly permanent position you occupy behind your eyes. As I write this, the sky outside is bright orange and ash rains down on us. Wild fires still rage all over the West Coast despite weeks-long attempts to contain them, the pandemic continues to kill and maim, politics feels caustic, we don’t have any idea when we might be able to be in community again, it’s seemingly every day that a black man is killed by the police, the economy is confusing as all fuck, and apparently the DHS now believes that white supremacy is America’s most lethal threat. What better time to attempt to surrender to the flow of the life.
A quick summary of the book: it’s the incredible tale of Mickey Singer, a man who just wanted to be left alone to meditate in the woods but somehow found himself the CEO of a multi-million dollar company (WebMD). It is an exploration of what might happen when you are able to quiet your mind and allow yourself to surrender completely to the flow of life. It’s an individual’s testament to what follows when you overlook your logical mind’s classification of things into “likes” and “dislikes,” or “pleasurable” and “unpleasant” because ultimately all that is baseless anyway. The book doesn’t go into much detail about how to surrender or spot where the flow of life is headed. Instead, it’s a faithful recantation of a series of steps, each building upon the one before, that led Mickey to a place he never could have imagined for himself. The whole book is predicated upon the question,
“What if life has more to give you than you could ever think to take for yourself?”
I love the idea of it, and it is not dissimilar to the way I live my own life. Lately, perhaps due to the forced solitude of quarantine or my newly established meditation practice, I find myself paying closer attention to what feels to me like the waves of life. Opportunities come and go across every realm of your life and sometimes you can hop on one of try to surf it. You don’t really know where it will lead you but you’re safe above the water and you know you’re on a ride that continuously builds momentum.
Ultimately what I liked about the book was Mickey Singer’s mental model of life itself. Growing up in the Silicon Valley as the child of immigrants of a "model minority,", I have inadvertently believed that professional success and productivity is the pinnacle of life. Worse, I have defined success itself through the narrowest of lenses: go to a good college, get a high paying and respectable job, make incremental progress in that job, get married and have a family - in that order and please dear god before 30 (sorry momma, not happening ;). The interesting thing is, although I have always fought against this ideal outwardly, my subconscious mind bought this definition hook, line, and sinker. This of course, caused a lot of struggle as I grew older and realized (1) that’s not really how life works and (2) it just doesn’t make me happy.
Mickey Singer views life as a child might, with wonder, awe, curiosity, and lightness. To him, there is a lesson to be learned in everything, and life itself is your greatest teacher. He personifies life and speaks of her as though she were a benevolent grandmother, sending you the opportunities you need to grow in the way you are meant to (and not the way you want to). Over and over again he shows that ultimately life knows better than you and the best thing you can do is get out of her way. And when you get out of her way, you get out of your own too.
I’m early in my personal experiment of surrender, but I see these themes echoed in my life. The key here is that surrender is not about non-action. It is simply about action that is in alignment with yourself and the world around you. It just feels different when you have the wind in your back rather than on your face. It’s the same when you work with life rather than against her. You totally can, you can battle the shit out of her, and resist the direction your life takes, but it takes a lot out of you. You might (and likely will) get where you want to go, but at what cost? This is a difficult idea for us “high achievers” and hustle warriors to digest, but it’s simply a truth of life. And doesn’t it ultimately make life so much more fun?
The question I always come back to, however, is “how can we assume that the force of life is benevolent?” What if you surrender to the flow of life and what life has in store for you is darkness, depravity, and pain? What about all the people in the world struggling to simply stay alive, do they just surrender to the circumstances of their life? Are ideas like surrendering to the flow of life ultimately only for the privileged few that have access to safety and support at all points in their life? My gut says that life itself is a neutral force, but people (especially groups of people) are not - and when you live in a society that is held up by destructive and manipulative beliefs, you will be affected by that. Obviously. And this work is simply harder to do when there are oppressive forces that seek to control your life.
On a completely personal level, however, I’m bought in. I intend to surrender fully to not only the flow of life but, harder still, the ebb. Fullness cannot exist without emptiness, and the lesson to be learned here is to embrace both. It's easy to surrender to life when awesome shit keeps happening, but probably a bit harder when it feels as though everyone has forgotten you and you are in a cocoon. But without cocoons, caterpillars will only ever be caterpillars, and I want to be a butterfly.