In yoga, we’re trying to become more balanced. And just like walking on a slackline or tightrope, the early days have frantic movements and many wobbles and splats from a lack of nuance. Then, after a period of failing and keeping on trying, we become nimble. This happens because the background (less conscious) aspects of mind-body adapts to the challenge and can process and respond to tiny sensory details more effectively.
So, back to action and surrender. The action in the example above is in trying again and again, even though you’re falling over, feeling clumsy, feeling like your efforts are producing zero results. The action isn’t necessarily in busting yourself, being aggressive or ignoring pain, it’s a mental effort. Sometimes it’s studying techniques. Sometimes it’s pushing past the sour voice in your head.
What then, is surrender? Surrender is the yogic concept of non-attachment, and it’s frequently misunderstood. Surrender is not complacency or apathy. It’s also not abandoning your worldly life, quitting your job, quitting your family, that sort of thing.
Non-attachment is actually this: abandoning expectations around the fruit of your actions.
Hey, we all want fruit. Ashtanga Yoga usually gives you a pretty reliable stream of results, rewards for your actions. That’s great, and it’s the reason we’re here in a physical existence. But sometimes we must face the perception of zero progress! That’s a true test of non-attachment. Completely trusting that your efforts are serving some purpose, even if you don’t get to enjoy them. This discussion can move into devotional territory; the Hare Krishna folk start talking about bhakti and serving their version of a God at this point. But it ain’t necessarily like that.
There’s a rational essence here that is self-evident when you contemplate deeply upon it.
Your actions always have consequences, and it requires some creative thought to really reveal the extent. Here are some scenarios, see if you can engage your imagination to come up with a story where these actions create an extremely positive outcome that you never get to see:
- You wave in thanks at someone for stopping at the pedestrian crossing to let you cross the road and they don’t acknowledge you for the gesture.
- You offer a product or service to someone free of charge and they still decline it.
- You attempt to give a speech in front of school assembly and you are so nervous that no-one understands a word you say and you walk off stage red faced with the audience sitting in stunned silence.
- You try to put your legs behind your head for the 500th time and it feels no easier than it did 1 year ago.
Now, in completing this exercise, I’m not seeking a whimsical upside. I want more than that. I would love to hear an elaborate fiction about how that one gesture started a chain of events that created wildly positive and helpful outcomes for people that you will never personally see. This is how the world works, and it’s crucial that you realise that you don’t get to see which of your actions have the strongest effects. Much of your impact in the world is unacknowledged, not witnessed by you. Societies thrive on unrecognised deeds that are anonymously performed with innocent good faith.
I’ve presented this challenge to people over the years in many settings and contexts, and it’s staggering how hard it can be to come up with a decent, specific tale. With practice it becomes much easier, and importantly: it becomes quite apparent that when you, in your mind, are not making stories that glow, well, your background processes are indulging in sour tales.
People as they age become more attached, they become conservative. In youth, you have no possessions and nothing to lose, so you act with the knowledge that we can do anything we put our individual and collective minds to. In middle age, however, you have assets and reputation to lose and this distracts you from the knowledge you once held. In old age you have (supposedly) fragile bones to protect and a sense of diminishing time. The yogis noticed this, and developed a system for reversing conservatism, for reversing attachment.
Yoga and its myriad techniques offer us a way to age without accumulating fear of loss, and it comes back to a nuanced, sensitive, and nimble approach to action and surrender.
How are we to act, knowing that the fruits are often not known? With awareness of the contents of the instantaneous moment. The internal monologue is not the instantaneous moment, the monologue follows the moment. Monologue is fine, have a chat to yourself in your head about your feelings. But the more you chat, the further away from the seed of the moment you travel.
Practice sensing the information present in the instant. Practice shushing the monologue. No need to strain or give yourself a hard time. Just practice, maybe it will be easier than putting your legs behind your head! You will get better at it the more you practice. Shhhhh the monologue. Notice the instants where something intriguing flashes before your consciousness.
Let those instants inform your actions. Trust in their value. Practice remembering their quality.
There is increasing awareness of overarching quality, and this is the thing to meditate upon, and this is the thing to notice as you travel through your physical life, moving from room to room, person to person. These qualities are what you feel when you wake up from a dream, having forgotten the specifics. Qualities live on the tip of your tongue, above materiality, beyond pleasure and pain.
To be nimble is to be awake to these instants as you act and as you rest.
Do your actions and surrender the fruits to this innocent, eager, curious moment.
PS. Action (abhyasa) and surrender (vairagya) are discussed in my book, chapters 1 to 3 and also chapter 8.