Sometimes the best meditation practice is simply to surrender.
This post is about how to let go. For many years, I took my meditation practice very seriously. I dedicated a significant portion of my life to daily sitting and occasionally going on long retreats, which over time proved to be very helpful. This dedication to putting in the time really paid off by improving my experience of life.
But another part of my dedication turned out to not be so useful: trying really hard. My concept of spiritual practice at the time was very masculine and heroic—the fierce lone yogi in a cave, battling the forces of illusion to gain the prize of enlightenment. Although it seems comic to me now, I was completely serious about giving everything—blood, sweat, tears—I had towards that goal. This image is, after all, exactly how the quests Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, and other spiritual masters are depicted.
It wasn’t that I was unaware of the paradox—striving towards a goal that eliminates all goals and striving; an ego attempting to overcome and ego. That 101 realization was well known to me. You cannot overcome the ego by force of ego.
But I knew that over the millennia two different ways to cope with that paradox had been formulated. One was very straightforward: give up the quest. In this model—popular in some forms of Zen, Dzogchen, Advaita Vedanta, etc.—you let go of all striving completely. While still doing quite a bit of meditation, you allow the mind to settle on its own.
The second method uses, as the classic formula puts it, “a thorn to remove a thorn.” (That is an actual quote of the Buddha, btw.) That is, it takes tremendous effort of will and tireless work to gain any insight into yourself, even if in the end that self is seen to be illusory. In other words, you use the force of the ego to uproot everything you can, and then at the very end you uproot the ego itself, by letting go.
I landed firmly in the second camp, so I applied myself with great intensity to my meditation practice.
Let go of your soul. Let go until there is nothing left. Last of all, let go of letting go.
Today, I see this aspect of things very differently. Making all efforts to meditate, and to go on retreats, is very important. That is the thorn to remove the thorn. But during the meditation practice itself, all of that effort must be relinquished. The moment your butt hits the cushion, let go of any striving, any pushing, any sense of force.
Instead, the only thing you have to do is to let go. Surrender all effort, surrender all sweating and striving, surrender all sense of doing anything at all. There is nothing that you need to do. Let go of all fears. Let go of all concerns. Let go of all your responsibilities. Let go of all your needs. Let go of everything that’s so important. Let go of anything you’re obsessing about. Let go of trying to get anything out of the meditation. Especially let go of the sense that there’s anything wrong with you, or that meditation is going to fix you in some way.
Let go of the content of any sensory experience. That is, whatever you’re thinking or feeling is fine, don’t try to change it in any way. The content or meaning is irrelevant. Let go of that.
Completely and utterly surrender yourself without holding anything back. There is no part of yourself that is outside of this surrender, somehow watching it, controlling it, or seeing “how it’s going.” Surrender your feelings, surrender keeping your shit together, surrender your mind. Let go of your soul. Let go until there is nothing left. Last of all, let go of letting go.
Allow yourself to effortlessly swim in the ocean of your internal experience. It will buoy you up every time. There is nothing at all that you need to do or be. In this place of total surrender, there is only love and support, only peace and clarity. These do not exist as their normal emotional forms—that is merely content—instead they exist as something like the nature of reality. They simply are.
Give Up All Striving
It is impossible to really touch this level of love and peace while you are still striving. It is not until you give up all self-striving that the source of love and peace will scoop you up and hold you. So let go, right now. Just let go. Everything is all right. You are perfect and fine.
There is nothing in this moment to change. Surrender into the reality of the now. It will take care of all your needs, and you will feel love, freedom, and peace. It only asks that you give up one thing: everything.
Here is a meditation script for letting go, called Let It Be.
Looking to let go in order to go to sleep? Try this guided meditation for sleep.
flowers photo by Rennett Stowe
girl photo by Greg Westfall