Will and Surrender 101 • 10 December 2007

I ran around last week saying, in conversations all over town, such things:

I’ve little patience for those who are mystified by their own emotions. Outsmarted by their own samskaras. Why be so involved in and fascinated by yourself? Why be so terribly intrigued when you catch a glimpse of your own interior? Know thyself already!

And it was an amazing week in connections and conversation. Fatigue and openness, everywhere. Boundaries and schedules and conceptions all softened, all over this town, and new interpersonal understandings getting forged in atriums and cafes and parking lots. My mind was not so much with my work. It was with this town and its yoga archipelagoes—the ones I usually avoid in my shyness and unavailability for lunch and off-to-campus professionalism.

These are some responses others gave to my hard sell of the soul.

Well, ok. But how can you pretend to know it all? Are you only protecting yourself, putting too hard a definition on what you are? You contain multitudes—why close yourself off from that?

There’s a great oscillation in this exchange, I suppose, between how much of myself is what I stipulate—what I make happen—and how much of myself is what I receive—what I let happen.

For many people I know—both the academics and the yoga practitioners—some form of creative visualization—some kind of setting of the intention and then being present for that intention to manifest—is key to getting through life. Intention-setting and manifestation is a disposition important to the western contemplative culture since long before the The Secret vulgarized it with so much narcissism, and one which exists just as strongly if less clearly stated in academia. Go back to Shakti Gawain for an early, useful articulation of the principle.

But it has dawned on me in recent weeks that this is not how I operate. Which is bizarre, considering that for many years my life was about making happen exactly what I wanted—the scholarship, the job, the relationship, whatever. This was especially the case in my late teens and early twenties, as I was leaving behind one life and methodically opening up options and adventures for a better one. Those years were all guts and muscle and willpower, and I would not change them. Intentionality saved my ass.

For those who have known me all along, it’s not surprising that these are the questions plumping out between the lines of our dinnertime and holiday party conversation:

What do you want? What are your plans? Come on! Have you distilled your intention already? We're waiting.

God these are hilarious to me. And I’m irritating certain old friends by not offering sharp answers and clean calculations. It’s just that they want me to be happy and fulfilled, and they worry at how often these days I say that I don’t know. At how often I demur when the future comes up. How can I know who I am if I am not actualizing some brilliant plan day by day?

But the weird truth is that I’m not even interested in creative visualization right now. Forward-tilting, active intentionality seems nowhere near as rich as receptivity.

I am not endorsing passivity—but simply talking about the condition of being really interested in the dynamics of my environment. About letting things happen through me, even, without jockeying or asking for them to happen a certain way. It’s about realizing that my intentions and visualizations—the ideas of a single person—are boring in comparison to the real environment just outside my head.

To even begin to sense what is there—what doors are sitting there open—I have to turn the volume on the willpower way down.

Now that I’ve written this out it seems so obvious. Will goes stale if you cannot turn it off and tap into your environment. I do every day this practice that is the simplest distillation of will and surrender—a practice that illustrates perfectly how it works to bring activity and receptivity into balance.

The owl who has no patience for those who mystify themselves is the owl whose self is drawn down into a tight little self-propelling trajectory. Sometimes you have to make yourself small and simple to move around and get into position. But, having done that, I’m in a place where I can not know for a while. I am not operating on a vision or with the power of my will. And, in that, I’m comfortable with a little more mystery, which I find by letting the boundaries of my identity go a little bit slack in order to allow the unknown to talk back a little more audibly.

At least for now. It’s not an unfrightening place to live and who knows how long I can keep my nerve.