Pregnancy and motherhood are fantastic sadhanas for surrender. There is just so much uncertainty, so much opportunity to worry, and so much that you cannot control, all the while having to continue trekking forward.
Our children begin exerting their will, for example, long before they turn the infamous 2 years of age, they begin exerting it right from the time they are in the womb. And there ain't a lot that we can always do about it. But, even though we don’t (and shouldn’t) always have control, I don't think that surrender means to become lazy or to give up trying.
EFFORT & GRACE
Whenever I am faced with a situation in which I am called to practice surrender, there are two quotes that I often turn to. One is St Francis of Assisi's prayer:
"Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."
Sometimes, even with a typical, boundary-testing toddler, it can be really tempting to throw your hands in the air and give up. Or to think, “why even try at all in the first place? What will be will be.” But no, this is not what Yoga has taught me. I believe that we do have free will, and yet I also feel humbled by the willful movements of the Divine, of a benevolent Universe, and of Karma. Still, Yoga has taught me that I must always try, regardless of the result. Because it is a tragedy to hold little or no faith in my Self, myself, my children and our own abilities, and not at all a tragedy to strive and fail, no matter how many times. In fact, those failures are really masked successes if we have the eyes to see.
Yoga has also taught me that, often, the only choices I really have in this life are whether or not to try, and how I will respond (internally and externally). And these are really, really important choices in which I ultimately have to trust myself in a very intuitive way. I can think and think and think. Assess, analyze and compare. Yet, at the end of the day, there is a certain wordless way of feeling what is behind my decision, is it fear, reactiveness and self-doubt? Or is it courage, considering the facts, and faith in Life & my own abilities and intuition? As in St Francis of Assisi's prayer above, sometimes the right action is simply to decide not to act, or even to leave a situation. But this isn't a failure to act; when appropriate, the decision to leave or simply not to act are actions too, and courageous decisions.
The other quote that I frequently turn to in times of uncertainty is from my teacher and guide, Swami Niranjan Saraswati. He said that,
"Surrender is when you begin to flow with life naturally and spontaneously, and you are also making an effort to move forward. Both your effort and the natural flow together take you to your destination."
This is one of my favourite things that he has ever said. It is constantly relevant in my life and to the myriad of ways I worry about my kids, and strive to analyze if my worry is an appropriate call to action that is in-flow with life, or if it is inappropriate and out-of-flow.
My husband also happened to say something very wise recently. It set a light bulb off within me. He said that feeling scared is linked to feeling like I have control. If I feel like I can control something (like the safety and wellbeing of my kids), I feel responsible and that also makes me feel scared. Because what if I mess up and make the wrong choice? I reflected on this and a particular karma yoga I did while living in the Ashram in India. I was given the duty of Venue Manager for various large events, and the responsibility of that scared the pants off me. What if I made a mistake? If I did, would I get "in trouble"? (The answer was no, all that was expected was that I offer my best effort). Internally, I resisted and resisted this duty, but at a certain point it became sink or swim and I just had to dive in completely and let go of all my resistance, all my worries, all my what-if's, and just go full tilt. Once I did that, I was too busy to resist and worry, I stopped over-thinking and just did as much as I could, as efficiently as I could. Then, everything felt light inside, and everything on the outside began to flow.
Yet, when it comes to your own kids, it's just oh-so-much harder and scarier. You do feel SO responsible! And you are! But it is not necessarily responsible or healthy to control so much. For example, right now the world is watching the unfolding of the Coronavirus outbreak. Sometimes, I just want to lock my children inside the house for weeks, safe and sound, until it feels safe again. Yet, is this necessary? Is this appropriate? Certain strange, unlikely events have happened in my life to show me that, try as I might, I am not the one in control. I can do my best, but I cannot control the way everything unfolds. In fact, I have noticed that sometimes my excessive efforts to control a situation in the name of safety have actually somehow brought the thing that I didn’t want right to my doorstep, most likely because my actions were not dharmic, they were not appropriate or in the flow of life. It was too much.
Which reminds me of another story about a mother who felt guilty when her son fell when riding his bike and scraped his knee. He was crying and she thought, "This is my fault. I let him ride the bike. I shouldn't have let him ride the bike." But, actually, it would not have been worth the cost of a normal childhood if she had not allowed him to ride his bike.
I don't want to teach my children to fear reasonable risk, as it also greatly reduces opportunities to find the courage needed to strive and succeed. So, again, as it is in Yoga, I am looking to find the balance, and it almost always requires some degree of letting go, of surrender.
As a result, I now understand surrender as an attitude to keep while I:
1) continue to act while I try my best
2) strive to choose the most appropriate action for the situation
3) examine my intentions
4) distinguish the difference between going with the flow, applying appropriate perseverance and trying too hard to force a result
5) connect, align with and trust in a higher reality or power
6) know when to choose not to act or to leave a situation
When I remember and practice the above, I do feel like I’ve almost got this. I can almost surrender. But, deep down, there is still just the tiniest thing missing from it for me. I can’t completely do it yet, so I haven’t completely gotten it... yet.
SURRENDERING to CHANGING PLANS
A very common experience in the life of a parent with young children is "a change of plans." Often, what you think is going to be a fun activity that your infant or toddler is going to love... isn't. Or, the way you envisioned your child playing at an activity group or with a new toy may be way too in-the-box for them as they find new and unexpected (and sometimes problematic for you) ways of engaging with certain objects and environments. Or other times, they simply fall asleep in the car right as you're pulling up to the children's concert you bought tickets for almost a year ago. Or they tantrum, have a diaper blow-out, or even come down with a bug instead. No matter what plans we make for ourselves or our children, when you have littles, plans are very tentative. We all know it, and yet we can still become very, very attached to the plans that we make.
This teaching of flexibility and willingness toward a last minute change of plans reminds me of a particular experience I had in the Ashram during my 3 years of training in the traditions of Yoga & Sannyasa. The training was rigorous, and one had a much looked-forward-to Sunday afternoon off each week (besides the time it took to catch up on your laundry... that you did with your foot and a bucket.) But, seeing as upwards of 200 or more Ashramites still needed to eat dinner Sunday evening, a different, small group of people were called upon each week to help with dinner prep. And you were not informed that it was your turn to help until it was Sunday afternoon, you climbed into bed, breathed a sigh of relaxation, and then heard a knock on your door. This was a great act of surrender that I often failed at. "Nononononononono nooooooo, it can't be. IT CAN'T BE! So tired! So much laundry! I cannot wait another week for rest!!!" But one goes to help. People gotta eat.
However, one time when I received this duty, I contemplated not going as I really, really, reallllllyyyy wanted rest that day. When I finally decided to drag myself there, I was partnered with another ashramite sitting at the opposite end of my cutting board and we got to talking. It didn't take long before I realized that myself and this person were meant to have that conversation that day, because they found inspiration in an experience I shared with them that related to something they were currently going through. In that moment, I realized that this duty wasn't about me, my happiness or unhappiness, at all. It was about what that person needed to receive. And because I accepted the seemingly unpleasant change of plans and showed up (both externally and internally), something beautiful happened, I was made an instrument of service. And in those moments of service, I felt so, so much happiness and joy. Sometimes, Something may have a better plan for us, but if we are rigid in ours, we can block its unfolding and limit the beautiful things that can happen.
As a parent, I also have to continue making plans while constantly remaining mentally flexible enough to surrender and adapt to change. Additionally, I frequently need to surrender my desires (like eating, sleeping, shopping, writing, socializing) and expectations (like how the day's activities will go) to be of service to my kids, which includes being able to adapt and connect with them in unexpected, unplanned, and unforeseen ways. To do this, I often have to switch back and forth seamlessly between spontaneity and planning. I need to spontaneously find the teachable moment embedded in the current behavioural challenge or opportunity for learning (and create space and time for those) as we move throughout our plans for the day.
I find this especially applicable when my toddler is testing boundaries in one way or another. When he decides that he’s going to do what he wants instead of what we need to do, in that moment he is going "off-plan". As a healthy toddler ought to. Again and again. Yet, as a positive discipline parent, I am always looking for ways to connect with him and invite cooperation before turning to discipline and consequences, and a lot of the time I discover that he was just looking for a moment to connect in the first place. It can be as simple as stopping, looking at him with a smile and saying, “You monkey!” or in a silly voice, "are you kidding me?!" His frown cracks into a smile, I laugh, he laughs, it diffuses the whole thing and then we’re back on task again. So, instead of being upset when my toddler goes off-plan, I recognize the opportunity he is presenting for connection. And what is better than that?
THE BIRTH PLAN
Speaking of surrendering to changing plans. The birth of my first child did NOT go as planned. I'm an organizer and planner by nature. So, naturally, I had created a very... thoughtful birth plan. As I entered my third trimester and headed closer and closer toward my due date, I had the usual mix of ecstatic anticipation and mounting anxiety (because, how was this growing baby going to fit through the exit?!) But, aside from this common fear, I had a birth plan, I was excited, and I felt that I could do it (most of the time).
Yet, being the little Yogi that my son is, in the last month of my pregnancy with him, he enjoyed flipping orientations and positions on almost a weekly basis. One week breach, the next week head down, the next week breach again. My son was what is called an "unstable lie." He kept popping out of position (into different asanas, I like to think). Finally, my obstetrician (who was truly amazinggggggg) said, "You know what? Just come to the hospital on June 6th (2 days after my due date) and one way or another you will have this baby! Forget everything I taught you in the birth prep-class. If you go into labour before June 6th, go to the hospital right away."
To my planning self, this was a mind-boggling situation. No birth plan? No idea if he would be breach or not? NO IDEA if I could try a "natural" delivery or would have to go straight to a C-section?! No way to emotionally wrap my head around a likely scenario and prepare for that!? You know what they say. We make plans, and God laughs. Well, God was laughing! But God also gave me one of the best obstetricians in probably the whole country, so I wasn't so much worried as just left without the comfort or false sense of control from having a plan. This was definitely a sadhana made for me.
In the end, when I came to the hospital 2 days after my due date, it turned out that my son was pretty much sideways, and in such a way that it looked like a good idea to do a C-section. The only thing in my birth plan that I had absolutely not wanted was an epidural, and yet that is exactly what I had to have, a full epidural in preparation for the C-section.
So, yeah, surrender.
LETTING GO of the PARENT YOU WANT TO BE
Sometimes, in order to be the parent I need to be, I also frequently have to surrender being the parent I had wanted to be. I am not at all promoting giving up evolving, aspiring and improving as a parent, but that it isn't necessarily the same thing as trying to live up to an idea of the parent you wanted to be. I'll share a story.
When I became pregnant with my second baby, my toddler was 15 months old. As a mama who has had the choice and chosen to breastfeed, I liked the WHO's recommendation to nurse until 2 years and beyond; still, I mostly wanted to be toddler-led in the weaning process, and so I was going to take cues from my son. When I became pregnant, he was already starting to naturally wean, and feedings were mostly down to bedtime and when something upsetting happened for him. These decreasing feedings were assisted by the drop that occurred in my milk supply during early pregnancy.
With the birth of our second approaching, I thought on it and decided that we would continue with this child-led method and would not fully wean my son before the birth of our second baby. There were numerous reasons for this and I felt very passionately about my decision to tandem nurse both kids.
HOWEVER. It was SO HARD for me. For all of us actually. The point here isn't to dissuade anyone from tandem nursing; if that is what you want to do, I am your number one supporter. Many Mamas describe it to be such a sweet and beautiful experience for all. But it was not for us. On the contrary, it actually made things for my family so much more incredibly stressful and emotional.
For one, it is not really in a toddler's nature to share quite yet, and the competition that ensued between the two children meant that my toddler wanted to nurse all the time, not share, and all three of us were crying almost all the time for the first two weeks after the birth of our second. Next, my milk supply was alllllllllllll over the place and I got a mastitis infection as a result. And I was leaking all over everything all the time. I drenched shirts and bras. There was milk everywhere! I was sticky, it was driving me crazy! Third, my son acquired high fever my first night home from the hospital after the birth of our second baby, and I was washing myself alllllllllllll through the night between each child's feedings, trying to both protect my newborn from the toddler's virus, and also not wanting to abandon and deprive my toddler from fluids, comfort and connection when he was ill (AND while he was going through such a big transition with the arrival of the newest addition to our family).
Yet, the most difficult part of this tandem nursing that I was once so passionate about (and so utterly disappointed about now because I felt I was failing myself and my family since it was not working) was actually how I was feeling emotionally while nursing. I was completely touched-out and the very best I could do while nursing, instead of connecting with my children in this unique and loving way, was to try my hardest to check out so I could endure it. I was so touched-out that it was physically and emotionally painful to nurse, and if you haven't experienced it (as I hope you never do), it is probably hard to relate to. Not to mention the pain of the predicament it put me in with my toddler.
I was so worried that if I weaned my toddler now, he would misinterpret the reason for weaning and feel as though he was being replaced, and so I stuck it out tandem-nursing for another 6 weeks. Until I was a complete mess and had to admit that there was something worse than what I worried my son might think and feel, it was what we were all already feeling.
One of the best decisions I ever made in my parenting "career" was to seek the advice of an excellent child psychologist to help us wean my son in the most gentle way possible, preserving his sense of identity, belonging and significance in our family. I really didn't know anything about other weaning processes, having had a completely different toddler-led plan until now. And so, with this fantastic advice, we weaned, and I let go of being the tandem nursing parent that I had wanted to be in order to be the parent that I had to be, both for the wellbeing of my family and for myself. And everyone felt so. much. better!
LETTING GO of RESULTS AND CONTROL
Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to mention Patanjali's Yoga Sutras in a Yogic article about surrender. I am not at all an expert on this text, but I do know that in all the 108 sutras, there is only one single mention of God, and it is in one of the five prescribed Niyamas called Ishwara Pranidhana, surrender to God, or a higher source.
It is intriguing, as the scripture contains many guidelines and insights into the theory and practice of Yoga, including "do's" and "don'ts." But, if you can just simply surrender, why bother with all the rest? Well, I guess it’s because surrender includes doing our part too, which is what I think Swami Niranjan meant when he said that, to achieve something, it takes both “effort and grace.”
There was a time when I thought that surrender would be the easiest part of that equation, as it seems somewhat more of a non-action (versus the effort part), and yet surrender is almost always the most difficult bit for me. When a scary situation arises and someone says to me, "don't worry, everything will be okay," or, "have faith," I don't exactly know how to let this make me feel better, even with all the extraordinary experiences I have had in Yoga, Sannyasa, and living in the presence of my Teacher which make it impossible for my heart and intellect to deny that there is something higher. Because I know that even if I do my best, heartbreaking things can still happen. This makes surrendering really tough for me. I don’t want those things to happen. This is when I recall a quote from the great Neem Karoli Baba-ji. When asked by Larry Brilliant (a devotee who was a doctor working to eradicate smallpox at the time) how to reconcile the things he saw while working to eradicate smallpox that were so terrible that it made him question his faith, Neem Karoli Baba said something like, “you cannot understand in your current state (read: embodied human with limited mind). You just have to continue trying your best.” Neem Karoli Baba had said that God would relieve mankind of this disease, for one because of all their efforts. And they did eradicate smallpox, as Neem Karoli prophesized, even though many said it was impossible.
As I write this, a lightbulb is beginning to go off. Surrender may not have anything to do with outcomes, and everything to do with an even-further attitude-shift. I don't stop:
1) continuing to act while I try my best
2) striving to choose the most appropriate action for the situation
3) examining my intentions
4) trying to distinguish the difference between going with the flow, applying appropriate perseverance, and when I'm trying too hard to force a result
5) connecting, aligning with and trusting in a higher reality or power
6) choosing when it is best not to act
AND I also surrender to, accept and am at peace with the result (more or less). Because I can’t see nor understand the whole plan. But I trust that it is a good one. that somehow on some plane it’s what is best for me, and that I will receive the inner strength, support & love to get through whatever comes my way (especially if I cultivate the connection with my inner Self).
There were times during my stay in the Ashram when I wondered why Swamiji allowed certain small situations to go sideways instead of pre-emptively intervening. He is an extremely aware person and I personally don’t think much gets passed him. What's more, I also felt that things did always get rectified afterwards. Feeling as I do that the Ashram is a microcosm, I started to understand that this situation might actually be the universal price of having free will, and that with Karma (sometimes across more than one lifetime), justice is also kept. Maybe it is the only way that we can have it all, both free will and justice.
So, I surrender when I acknowledge that doing the above is what I can do, it is what I should do, it is all I can do, and it is all I can ever do. AND it is never going to guarantee that I get the result that I want.
Surrender, then, is both a call to action and to letting go. I can still worry and doubt as I try to do my best for my kids, but I won't necessarily feel quite that same weight of over-responsibility and false sense of control.
After all, Yoga has taught me that when one gives something, something else, something even greater, floods in to fill that space. Perhaps there is something even more to this surrender and letting go, perhaps it also creates a space and an invitation for something greater to take the reins.