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Posted: April 29, 2005

Spiritual Caregiving

Okay, I Surrender

On my birthday, September 6, 2001, I leaned against the redwood in the center of a labyrinth at Harmony Hill Retreat Center, where I am program director, and prayed for a word to guide my next birth-year. I kissed the soft, fissured bark and heard the word, "Surrender." 

My eyes startled open. Surrender? I was looking for something more comforting. Healing, perhaps. Or abundance. Or joy. With a shudder -- what would I be asked to surrender to? -- I reluctantly prayed to learn more of its graces and gifts. I've been a psychologist for more than 20 years and have worked with cancer patients here at Harmony Hill for five years. If I've learned anything, it is to pay attention to these gifts of the spirit. But surrender? Ouch! 

Five days later -- September 11, 2001 -- I was once more at the center of the redwood labyrinth, this time with the Harmony Hill staff and 15 women in gray overalls from the Women's Correctional Center who had been working in the gardens. We held one another and cried as the world erupted in fire and pain. In the weeks that followed, I woke up afraid of anthrax and went to bed terrified of nuclear attack. I cried at the pictures of the dead and families left behind. I didn't know if I was more scared of the terrorists or the political climate. 

Then my best friend, Gretchen, was hospitalized with cancer. When we first became friends, I was visited by a recurrent, touching image of us gardening together as little old ladies. After her diagnosis, I didn't know if she would live that long. Helpless to stem the tide of her nausea and pain, I swam through those months doing my best to keep my head above anger, grief, and despair. I wanted desperately to return to the ease and relative unconsciousness of my old life, but I couldn't. I felt betrayed by God. 

Contemplative Bede Griffiths described three paths to the center: a near-death experience, falling in love, and meditation. Trauma can be a fourth. It differs from Griffiths' three because trauma, whether personal like Gretchen's lymphoma, or collective like the devastation of September 11, can contract and harden our hearts and souls or it can break them open, allowing the unbearable to heal us into life. For the past five years, I have witnessed participants in Harmony Hill's cancer retreats surrender to the mystery of their journeys, and offer a passionate and unreserved "Yes" to life even in great pain and uncertainty. 

Surrender is a dirty word in our control-focused culture, smacking of defeat and failure (one cancer retreat participant called it "the S-word"). But Surrender, I would tell them, is not giving up: Its Latin root means "to give back." In surrender, we simply give back to God what is not ours, the ultimate "control" of life, to receive the love awaiting us at that Center which is our home. 

"Surrendering yourself to God," says Buddhist teacher Shantideva, "is giving up what you really can't keep in order to realize what you really can't lose." Surrender takes many forms. We may need to surrender to the truth of a situation, rather than resist it. The ultimate surrender is to the Loving Presence in whom we live and move -- letting go of outcome, trusting that it is cradled in the wide arms of the Beloved. "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well," said the medieval Christian mystic Julian of Norwich. 

I knew all this, but it didn't help. Back in college, my friends and I shook our fists at the stars, reciting, "Do not go gentle into that good night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light." I had vowed to go down fighting, and I was still shaking my fist at God. Nothing in my life, my culture, or even my own teaching, had shown me how to surrender. I needed to find a way to understand surrender that bypassed the desperate attempts to grasp it with my mind. 

But gradually I dropped down into my heart and body and I understood. I remembered the difference between "having sex" and surrendering to the sweet vulnerability of lovemaking; I remembered surrendering to the contractions of childbirth, the bracing joy of swimming laps, the ecstasy of performing Bach fugues and Beethoven sonatas. 

I searched for a practice to let my heart lead me into deeper surrender and discovered it in the five-times prayer, Salat, of the Muslims. I learned to bow before the immense grace of What Is under the tutelage of a teacher of Sufism -- the mystical branch of Islam. I added my own prayer to the postures: Oh God, I surrender my mind to Your wisdom, my heart to Your love, my life to Your healing presence. I prostrated myself right into the boundless arms of the Beloved. Nothing changed on the outside: Gretchen still struggled with chemotherapy's devastation. The world still wrestled with terrorism. Women widowed that September morning gave birth to fatherless babies. My response, for the most part, changed. Life opened up. I stroked Gretchen's hand, watching her wince as the chemotherapy needles pierced her skin, and I remembered to breathe, to soften, to surrender to the present moment: a room full of people suffering with cancer; an inhumane and overloaded medical system; nurses doing their best to dispense caring and hope as well as drugs. 

I read the news, grieved for the women and children in Afghanistan, fumed over Americans' quiescence as civil liberties fell away. The more I practiced surrendering it all to God's wisdom and care, the more I could open my heart to it all. I lit candles for peace, signed petitions, and surrendered the outcome of everything back to where it belonged, in God's hands. When I was frightened by the possibility of Gretchen dying, I prayed to let go and trust the larger unfolding. I began to viscerally understand Reinhold Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference." 

Gretchen's last CAT scan came out clean. At the time of this writing, the world is relatively calm. We have just completed our 33rd cancer retreat at Harmony Hill, once again reminded of the tremendous healing inherent in surrendering to the love that shines through us all. 

I am now tempted to quit my prostrations, dismissing them as medicine for an acute ailment now cured. But I know that this relative quiescence will pass. Gretchen, like all cancer survivors, will live with the uncertainty of being in remission. We all live with tremendous fragility, so I will continue Salat, knowing that my prostrations will ensure neither peace nor a "happy ending" for myself or anyone else. They simply remind me, breath after breath, to keep opening my heart wide to love and the wild adventure of living in these times. Jelaluddin Rumi, a 12th-century Sufi mystic who also lived in wild times, wrote: 

Gamble everything for love,
if you're a true human being.
Half-heartedness doesn't reach
into majesty. You set out
to find God, but then you keep
stopping for long periods at mean-spirited roadhouses. 
 

Trauma shocks us out of half-heartedness. Surrender keeps us out of those mean-spirited roadhouses, and on the path of love. 

Opening to Grace 

Surrender is not about not caring; it is about allowing ourselves both to receive Divine Love and to love more wholeheartedly than we dreamed possible. Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopal priest and contemporary mystic, writes in Mystical Hope that "The great tragedy of human life is that we struggle so hard against that which, once yielded into, becomes the immediate fulfillment of all we have longed for." Surrender graces us with the immutable joy of being fully present to life: not just the pain and suffering, but the love that connects us with family, friends, and -- as we all learned after September 11 -- strangers. 

Surrender opens us to trusting the wisdom of uncertainty, to being flexible and openhearted no matter what comes down the pike. In surrendering, we find a deeper seat of power and wisdom from which to act in the world according to our own values and visions. 

With surrender, we tap into something greater than our personal energy: the "electromagnetic field of Love," as Sufi teacher Kabir Helminski says. Far more love and intelligence are available within this field than we can ever find in our small selves. Letting go of resistance to what is, right now, we surrender to the present moment, the holy field of love and power. 

You might want to try these practices:


Salat: This five-times-a-day prayer practice is a devotional prayer of supplication, surrender, and blessing. Each prayer posture initiates a deeper level of prayer, moving from dignity to humility to surrender to blessing.


Surrender bowl: Find a small bowl that appeals to you. In the morning, fill it slowly from the tap, asking that all of you, dark as well as light, be used to serve Spirit. In the evening, go outside and slowly pour the contents on the ground, letting go of the day, asking Spirit to fill your emptiness at night.


Find a symbol for the process of surrendering: a flower opening, a pair of open hands. Draw, paint, sculpt, or dance your symbol: the more you do, the deeper will be your release into the arms of the Beloved. During one traumatic time, I made a bowl of papier-mâché, held by two open hands. I painted the winter solstice sky into the bowl, symbol of the darkest moment turning to light. If you have an altar, place your symbol upon it and light a candle.


Surrender visualization: Close your eyes; take several deep breaths. Breathe into your heart, allowing it to soften and open. Imagine standing before a figure of Divine love and compassion: the Buddha, Jesus, Quan Yin, Krishna. Hold the world (or whatever else you are called to surrender: a relationship, a cherished belief, a way of being in the world), the size of a ball, in your hands. Feel the weight of the planet's suffering. Offer the earth to the figure to be cradled in the Beloved's infinite compassion, love, and wisdom. Notice what an immense relief it is to let go of the weight of the world and stop worrying about its future. Thank the Beloved and return gently to the room.

_____

Melissa Gayle West, M.A., is a psychologist and program manager for Harmony Hill Retreat Center in Union, Washington. She is the author of Silver Linings, about trauma as a catalyst for an extraordinary life.


This article originally appeared in Spirituality & Health magazine, www.SpiritualityHealth.com. For subscriptions call 1-800-876-8202 or see www.SpiritualityHealth.com/subs. Editor Stephen Kiesling and his staff contribute weekly columns, features and articles published every Friday as "Spiritual Caregiving" at www.caregivershome.com. Contact staff directly via email at ASKspirituality@spiritualityhealth.com.

© 2005 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.

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