Is Surrender Always Spiritual?

I recently discovered the engaging, wide-ranging podcast Future Thinkers, and listening to one of their episodes from a couple years ago led me to the book The Surrender Experiment by Michael A. Singer. This book tells the fascinating story of the decision Singer made as a young man to “surrender” to whatever life brought to him, and how this decision led him not only to deep personal peace, but also to the creation of a vibrant spiritual community and, eventually, the running of a billion-dollar medical management corporation.

As someone fascinated by the role that coincidence/synchronicity plays in the shaping of our lives, I couldn’t help but be enthralled by Singer’s story and the way that the right people and the right resources continually walked into his life at precisely the right moments. Nevertheless, there was an aspect of Singer’s account that unsettled me.

Parts of Singer’s narrative imply that the best way to approach life is to just say “yes” to every opportunity that presents itself to you, even those opportunities that scare you or make you uncomfortable. I think I understand where Singer is coming from on this. One of the many examples he gives of his own moments of surrender is an occasion on which he returned to his home in the woods after a trip, only to find that a friend who’d previously been camping on his property had begun building a permanent home for herself there, without even asking him. Singer was a bit upset, but because of his commitment to surrendering his own preferences about things, he decided he would simply help his friend build her cabin. And that is how the spiritual community that eventually became The Temple of the Universe got started–because someone wanted to live near Singer in the woods, and he allowed it to happen.

I agree with Singer that life is more exciting and fulfilling when we stay open to the potential of the opportunities we are constantly being presented with, when we truly consider their potential instead of reacting with knee-jerk skepticism and distaste for anything unexpected or unfamiliar. But it could also be easy for someone to come away from Singer’s book and start feeling guilty whenever they said “no” to a request or an opportunity. And I don’t think that would be healthy.

I think many of us–women, especially–are constantly bombarded by requests to give our time and energy to others, and I believe it is part of the process of spiritual growth to learn how to say “no” to some of these requests. Also, there are people (of both genders) who have “surrendering” personalities and frequently err on the side of letting others’ choices direct their lives rather than allowing their own wants and needs to be taken into account. It’s actually a step in the right direction for those of us who have this tendency to learn how to refuse some of the offers we’re presented with.

Furthermore, there are certain requests that none of us should feel any compulsion at all to indulge. To use an extreme example, I doubt that Singer would tell a woman who gets sexually propositioned by a threatening stranger to follow that stranger home, no matter how many times the request gets made. And I don’t think that Singer would tell a woman who is in imminent danger of being raped to simply “surrender” and let it happen.

My point is that surrender is not a response that is uniformly appropriate to every situation. Simple answers are attractive, in spirituality as elsewhere. But life is complex. As are the people who live it. Some of us need to learn to surrender more. Others of us need to learn to stand up more frequently for our own wants and needs. All of us need to use our own judgment in determining the most beneficial response to the particular situations we’re presented with.

This is one of the central messages I work to get across in my book The Source and Significance of Coincidences: that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to interpreting the signs and synchronicities we encounter in our daily lives. We benefit most from the coincidences life sends us when we are able both to stand up for what we feel to be true and at the same time to remain receptive to new knowledge and experiences. I believe that Michael Singer’s The Surrender Experiment carries a valuable message about the need to stay open to new possibilities, but no one should feel guilty or less “spiritual” for using their good sense about when to say no.


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