My Experiment with The Surrender Experiment
Everyone has turning points in life: events that define entirely new "chapters." Prior to the turning point, life is one way, and after that point, it's entirely different. Moving away from our parents, getting married, and losing a job are turning points most of us share.
At key turning points, finding the wisdom of a mentor or guide can mean the difference between slaying the dragon or falling into the abyss. If you're familiar with the hero's journey model of our personally-lived human stories, the "guide" is that person who imparts some form of wisdom the hero requires to complete his or her quest.
A relatively recent turning point for me was shutting down a business, and one of my guides was Michael Singer's book The Surrender Experiment, an autobiography that reads like an adventure novel.
The adventures begin when the author begins saying "yes" to whatever life, or people, ask of him—not unlike Jim Carrey in the comedy movie Yes Man. Over the years, Mr. Singer goes on to build a midsize construction company, a large, world-renowned spiritual center in Florida, and, eventually, a Fortune 500 company that revolutionizes medical billing in the United States and that ultimately gets acquired by WebMD.
Singer emphasizes that he never planned any of those things. Instead, "life" brought requests, for which he generally felt massive internal resistance. Ultimately, he learned that the more resistance he felt towards something that appeared in front of him, the more he should probably engage with it.
"I didn’t want to be in charge of my life; I wanted to be free to soar far beyond myself. I began to see this as a great experiment. What would happen to me if I just inwardly surrendered my resistance and let the flow of life be in charge? The rules of the experiment were very simple: If life brought events in front of me, I would treat them as if they came to take me beyond myself. If my personal self complained, I would use each opportunity to simply let him go and surrender to what life was presenting me. This was the birth of what I came to call 'the surrender experiment,' and I was totally prepared to see where it would take me." - Michael A. Singer, The Surrender Experiment
People who read The Surrender Experiment typically have dozens of questions about how this approach to living could possibly work in practice. Sure, it might work for Michael Singer, but he's a unicorn...the rest of us are average workhorses.
A friend who recently finished the book sent me this question:
"I like what he has to say...but I'm lacking a tangible way to practice this other than meditating. I'm left wondering if I should give in to all resistance I feel? That doesn't seem like a sound way to live a life, it sounds dangerous...Should I just give in to big directional changes in life? I'm left a bit lost and heady after this book, ironic because it is all about trust and feeling."
In the spirit of the Surrender Experiment, it would be more accurate to say that my friend's internal monologue—what Michael Singer calls "the voice"—is asking this question. The voice might insist, "If you say 'yes' to anything that comes into your life, you'll quit your job, abandon your kids, move to Peru and live off the land." To which Michael Singer might reply, "Why not take your kids with you to Peru?"
All kidding aside, the worry is real. People generally feel that saying yes to things that show up in our lives unexpectedly will lead us astray. For me personally, I was prepared to take that gamble. I had already led myself astray too many times to count. What did I really have to lose by saying "yes" to things that appeared? At least it would be an adventure.
I'm not in Peru, and I'm not living off the land. But I'm now living in Puerto Rico for most of the year. It's something I didn't plan, and I love it. In addition to launching my operations consulting business, I'm also now partnering with my wife in her creative agency, which is something I had actively resisted for years. And the company is now growing and making more money than it ever has.
I do my best to follow exactly what the book suggests: instead of planning my life I let life plan my life. When unforeseen projects and requests arise, I say "yes," even when it seems counterintuitive to do so—even when I'm "too busy" and "overwhelmed." Because in reality, I'm never too busy or too overwhelmed. Life only ever brings me exactly what I can handle: never more, and never less.
Granted, I still have to show up, try hard, and do my best. For example, when a lease comes to an end, I get on Trulia or Craigslist to search for a new place to stay, and I negotiate the best deal I can get. I don't surrender to another person's whims, I view the negotiation as part of the game life is asking me to play.
As Michael Singer says in this interview with Tony Robbins, "surrender" doesn't mean "give up." It means surrendering to the greater plan life has by giving up active resistance, which is rooted in our own fears and lack of courage.
Another example that might seem the opposite of the Surrender Experiment is how diligent I am about planning my calendar. But I don't see it that way. Life has thrown so many things at me, I assume the game is to figure out how to do all of the things it's asking to the best of my abilities. That involves focus, deep work and learning. It also involves delegation, leadership and organization. So I use everything I've learned to find ways to focus, show up, and be my best for everything life is asking.
My primary tools for connecting to what's being asked are my journal and meditation. But every interaction, every moment, there's the possibility of a deeper connection and awareness. That's the real game: how can I be present to everything, and not wander the corridors of imagined threats and fantasies?
Two additional books helped me to bring all of this into deeper perspective:
1. The Untethered Soul, also by Michael Singer, is a deeper dive into the philosophical underpinnings of the Surrender Experiment.
2. The Presence Process, by Michael Brown, is a 6-week journey into deep meditation practice. In my view, this is the "how-to" guide of Michael Singer's work, though I honestly don't believe the two men are connected in any way. It just so happens that I read these three books in this specific order, and one seemed to build on the next in a way that brought clarity.
Our internal monologue believes that only it should have full and complete decision-making power in our lives, that it's authority is utterly dominant, and that it should never be questioned.
The Surrender Experiment suggests that we question that monologue. Life brings us new requests and opportunities for new adventures every day. But we're so distracted by the voice in our heads that's narrating what it thinks it knows—"This is good! That is bad!"—that we miss what's happening here, now, in this moment.
What is life requesting now? My experiment in surrendering to those requests has built one adventure on top of another. My mind is often challenged and feels on the verge of overwhelm. Yet at the same time I feel an experience that's peaceful and still.
It's into that space of opposites, I suppose, that life invites us.