In the northern hemisphere, as the Earth progresses along its southern journey, its axis begins to lean away from the sun. Days get shorter and light becomes softer. Here in the northwest, leaves of the deciduous trees transition from chlorophyll-filled green into deep crimson, fiery reds, soft maroons, ruddy oranges, and vibrant yellows that eventually fall and gather on the cool, damp ground below. While this process appears to be a passive act of release, it is quite the contrary. Cooler temperatures and shortened daylight signal the deciduous tree to withdraw its energy from branches and leaves and direct its energy downward into the roots and deep into the soil, literally descending into the ‘ground of its being.’ Concurrently, the tree’s vessels are channeling impurities upward to be discarded as gases through tiny holes in the leaves. New cells are emerging at the edge of the leaves that slowly nudge the leaf, bit by bit, away from the stem. With this new delicate connection, the leaves are susceptible to the fall winds, easily separated from the branches, and gently fall to the earth. But even here, the activity continues. Decaying leaves are recycled into rich humus. Microorganisms and worms break down the tree’s fallen fruit into valuable nutrition for next year’s soil. During this beautiful season, the trees are actively disposing of unneeded resources, while retaining and refining valuable products that are essential for next year’s growth.
Each year as I witness this marvelous transition, I am inspired to mimic the natural rhythms of fall. Surrender is an essential part of my practice and my yogic lineage and is especially relevant in the fall. In the yogic traditions, surrender is an intentional process of releasing the interference that obstructs the experience of my own ‘ground of being.’ The Katha Upanishad speaks to the practice of surrender:
The wise person should surrender his [her] words to his [her] mind; and this [s]he should surrender to the knowing self; and the knowing self [s]he should surrender to the even greater self; and that (s)he should surrender to the peaceful self.
- Katha Upanishad 3.13
Surrender is a practice of consciously letting go of the tendency to identify with the fluctuations of the mind. It is an untangling of myself, again and again and again, from the thoughts and related web of attachments, aversions, attitudes, and habitual reactions to thoughts. The practice of surrender results in experiencing the vastness and boundless freedom of the self in its natural state, a state that resides just beyond my mind’s chatter. As with the trees, the practice of surrender is not passive, but instead imbued with intention, active participation, and deep wish to grow. Stephen Levine stated that surrendering is, “The hardest work we will ever do. It is also the most fruitful.”1
Surrender begins with mindfulness. Mindfulness is often translated as seeing with discernment and is a non-reactive, curious, and receptive awareness and acknowledgement of what is happening in the present moment.2 Through a robust mindful awareness, the vastness of my being wholeheartedly meets each moment that arises, whether it holds pleasure or pain, joy or grief, clarity or confusion, with equal interest and equanimity. This is in contrast to my typical tendency to seek and hold onto pleasure, and to avoid and escape from discomfort. Instead, I attempt to remain aware of what is happening internally, with an even and unbiased manner, as if gazing upon the internal landscape without interference. Just as the tree actively disposes of unneeded resources and impurities, through the cultivation of a mindful, nonreactive awareness, I can begin to soften and release my attachments and habitual reactions to my mind’s chatter. When I can regard an experience, or object of attention, with a balanced objectivity that is free from emotional agitation, the understanding of that experience or object is potentially transformed. Like the trees, I can learn to use the practice of surrender to transform my life’s obstacles into fertile soil for my spiritual growth.
Breath awareness is a powerful foundation for my practice of surrender. When I drop my awareness down into the physical sensation of breath, I narrow my attention to the level of flowing sensation. Sensations are perceived as they arise and dissolve, constantly shifting from moment to moment. I notice the plentiful sensations within each in-breath and the diverse sensations within each out-breath. I notice the sweet pause between the in-breath and the out-breath. I hear the soft vibration of the in-breath and feel the soft release of the out-breath. These sensations of breath become markedly distinct from my thoughts and habitual products of the mind, and thus, provide a backdrop against which to see all that is not sensation, including clinging and accusing, judgement or fear. When judgement arises, I softly explore the sensation of judgement and the resistance which tightly encompasses this discomfort in my mind and body. With the out-breath, I actively let go of the resistance entangled in judgement and return to the direct experience of sensations of breath. The practice of surrender involves continually releasing the tension and resistance arising, returning to the direct experience of the present moment, and attuning to the backdrop of awareness itself. In this way, I use awareness of the breath not to clench-on to the breath, but as a means to tune-in to the present moment. As Stephen Levine suggests, with this practice I can begin to experience the passing of judgement without becoming judgmental or the passing of anger without becoming angry. With continued practice of letting go of each thought, and most importantly, the resistance and reactions surrounding each thought, my identification of my habitual mind diminishes and the clarity of the heart flourishes.
But don’t trust me. Try it yourself. You can find a guided meditation on the practice of surrender on our website. In addition to your meditation practice, I invite you to take your practice off the cushion and witness nature’s miraculous display of surrender this fall. Take a mindful walk. Notice the softer sunlight, the longer shadows, and the cooler temperature of the breeze on your skin. Notice sounds of fall and the unique smells. Sit next to a healthy tree and drop into the present moment sensations with her. Allow your exhalations to lengthen and bare witness to the tree disposing of unneeded resources, while retaining and refining valuable products that are essential for next year’s growth. Let nature be your guide. She is a patient and kind teacher.
Levine, S. (1987). Healing into life and death. Anchor Books.
Witkiewitz, K., Roos, C. R., Dharmakaya Colgan, D., & Bowen, S. (2017). Mindfulness (Vol. 37). Hogrefe Publishing.
About the Author
Dana Dharmakaya Colgan PhD, C-IAYT
Dr. Colgan came to her yoga practice through a deep personal commitment to spiritual growth, social justice, and skillful service. She furthered her yoga practice while living in northern India, working with Tibetan refugees. Her personal practice and social action experiences led her to pursue additional studies in clinical psychology, specializing in integrated healthcare and mind-body medicine.
As an integral member of the YogaX Team, Dr. Colgan has a strong intention to deliver this ancient practice in practical, culturally-humble manner. She seeks to integrate her research investigating the effects of mind-body practices (such as yoga, mindfulness, and meditation) on brain function, stress response systems, pain processing, and psychological and physiological resilience seamlessly into her teachings.