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The Value of Surrender
a message from myself to myself
My favorite productivity tip is to surrender utterly to what your life is. Stop bullshitting yourself about what your actual inclinations, appetites, and interests are. Realize how much of your perceived agenda is designed to serve an outdated story about who you might have been, and what you might have wanted, in some other hypothetical existence.
This can narrow down your to-do list a lot. You can suddenly realize that four-fifths of what you had planned to do in life was completely irrelevant. Freed of crazy stories about what your life was supposed to be, you may find that the friction in your life is much lower. That is real productivity, that’s how you get shit done, by not doing most of it.
I think the word “surrender” often comes with a feeling of cowardice or a sense of giving up. But I am not advocating laying down in a ditch. It’s more like relaxing into the ongoing motion of what is already occurring. Surrender can look like two enormous chunks of air meeting and assuming cyclonic form together. Surrender can sometimes mean acknowledging that you really want something that you’re afraid to want, thus ending your paralysis.
This kind of surrender involves being fully awake to the current circumstances, instead of being stuck in a mental map of what is likely to be occurring according to some plan you had once. One circumstance which this difference is very apparent is when a large person is trying to physically aggress upon you. This happened to me the other day. I was sparring with a heavyweight in Brazilian jiu-jitsu class, and I was trapped in a story, the story that “I am the kind of guy who does triangle chokes,” so, therefore, I will triangle choke this person. I was forced to surrender to reality when my legs couldn’t really fit around him, when he had no apparent neck to choke from that angle, and he smashed me into the mat. It was only when I surrendered to the circumstances that I could defend myself, and I thus found some other more suitable neck access plan.
This might all sound like a scary bummer. It can be—but this kind of surrender goes along with self-compassion. In a way, surrender is a psychologically complete act, one that requires seeing through your janky mass of baggage, which typically requires love and openness. If you want to surrender fully to your existence, you can’t have any resentment about yourself, any denial about how things have shaken out. You can’t sit around saying, “I shouldn’t be writing vague spiritually-inflected emails on Substack, I should be a literary genius funded by European grant money.” Surrender involves a softness, where you turn inwards and see yourself in all of your perversity and peculiarity, and you say, okay, cool, what the fuck can I do with this mess.
With this mental motion, you can bring yourself some relief from the viciousness of comparison. I am not as handsome as Orion, or as clever as Ben, or as poetically brilliant as Michael, or as detail-oriented as Anastasia. That can be fine, that can all be fine. This is no problem as long as I give up on being those things forever, and consent to the humiliations of my own existence.
And, paradoxically, I find that it is only with surrender that some semblance of choice presents itself, some amount of seeming freedom. If I’m not surrendering to what is, I’m not playing the real game before me, I’m playing some other imaginary game, which is usually ineffective. It’s like trying to cook dinner by singing songs to your computer. Recently I realized that I was spending a lot of time whining about the fact that I don’t live in Los Angeles. This does not give me a great menu of options about what to do while I live in the Bay Area. I can start to form a plan when I remind myself that many people have been happy in dreary environments like Berkeley, and I can be, too.
The weird thing is that surrender requires a non-effort that is slightly effortful, in that it must be mindfully chosen over the default, which is flailing and self-deception. This is most apparent to me when I meditate. Lately, the only kind of meditation practice I’m interested in is the kind where you sit there and do absolutely nothing, and try to leave your mind alone, such that a natural state of clarity obtains. This is terrifically easy and incredibly difficult. What I have learned, through this variety of practice, is that reality is astonishingly beautiful if you don’t attack it with your mind constantly, and your mind is organized such that its default stance is “always attack.” There is a small, young part of me that is terrified of letting even a single solitary second luminesce on its own. It says: the world is not a safe place, so we have to do something about that. My response is, yes, you’re right: the world is not a safe place—but the relaxing, terrifying thing is that there’s no way to change this. If we surrender to the inevitability of death, maybe then we can fully consent to this before-death part.
Photo credit goes to William Eggleston.
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