Surrender your agenda and breathe peace

Sometimes, the only way to get what you want is by giving up. Every major spiritual strain I know of insists we can only discover true happiness by letting go of our own agendas and handing our lives to forces unknown.

Christians might recognize the concept as surrendering to God. Taoists call it “wu-wei” or non-action. Hindus call it Saranagati, surrendering to the underlying force behind the universe. The word “Islam” means surrender, among other definitions. Look at Jews, Buddhists, Jains. Pick any religious strain, and you probably will discover this universal thread embedded in the system.

Surrender features so prominently within every religious system, and they can’t all be wrong. But why is it so popular – do a few power-hungry leaders use surrender as a religious tool to subordinate the masses? Or does surrender actually help us to grow spiritually?

I believe it’s a seed for growth. Ironically, giving up fills the practitioner with a greater power than one person alone could manage. When you willingly become weak in the face of the Almighty, a divine force supposedly will encompass you. Once you have let go of your own agenda, you become a divine vessel. Your actions and your will no longer belong to you.

Although I recognized the concept of surrender from my Christian upbringing, my Taoism class this semester reintroduced the idea to me as “wu-wei.” The Taoists believe in an underlying force, Tao, within the entire universe that encompasses anyone who lets it guide them. When you surrender, you let the course of nature take you where it will.

The Tao Te Ching states in verse 22, “Surrender brings perfection / The crooked become straight / The empty become full / The worn become new.”

This sounded like a logical idea to me, and I decided to try it. I found going with the flow makes life less stressful, mostly because forcing my own will on what I do never completely works. Let’s say I’m driving during rush hour in the middle of a city. I have a few choices. I could make a fuss about getting home quickly or I could stay in traffic, quietly getting home whenever I arrive. Choosing the former means I watch every moment for a free spot in the next lane. I move over, forcing myself between two cars – blocking both lanes of traffic in the meantime – until I have enough room to move into the lane. I do this repeatedly. I honk my horn. I am spending most of my time stressing out about what to do next, my mind spinning with frustration and plotting my next move while the car continues to stand still.

Meanwhile, I could just keep my place in traffic. Sure, it will be slower, but what do you really have to do that absolutely cannot wait for 20 minutes? You at least will get home relaxed and stress-free. And besides, why worry about something you can’t control?

Whenever someone offends or aggravates me, I find snapping back in a spiteful and defensive manner doesn’t cool the boiling water quite like a humble and empathetic attitude does. I’m sure you can relate. On Sunday morning I was meditating – early, because I had to catch the 7:45 a.m. train back to La Plata – when my dad interrupted me twice to make sure I wasn’t still sleeping. The second time, I barked that I was awake and had plenty of time – in an ironically hostile tone for a meditator, I admit. I felt slightly guilty afterward, and my dad told me later that he was offended by my reaction. If I had quietly told him I was on time and would be out in just a few moments, I wouldn’t have been the cause of all those injured feelings from acting hastily and attempting to bend the situation to my will.

The Taoists would say strong winds will uproot a giant tree rather than the pliant, supple grass, which can withstand just about anything. That’s how surrender brings you power. A Taoist warrior trains for flexibility, because an effective warrior must stay attentive to changes and surprises – inevitable in the battlefield – and react to whatever comes their way. The alternative – planning a stoic strategy and training soldiers rigidly – will fail.

The Tao naturally directs the willing and guides them toward a natural perfection. The Tao Te Ching compares this to water: “Nothing in this world is as soft and yielding as water / Yet for attacking the hard and strong none can triumph so easily / It is weak, yet none can equal it / It is soft, yet none can damage it / It is yielding, yet none can wear it away.”

Christianity, moreover, asserts that when surrendering to Christ you become infused with him. I have heard many Christians talk about its most enthusiastic and loving followers as “shining with Jesus’ light.” The Bible itself states, “Whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be my disciple,” Luke 14:33. Although different paths conceptualize different reasons to explain the potentially divine force that replaces the surrendered human will, I see very little difference between them all. I have seen followers of many different faiths who seem to shine from an inner light of joy, which is almost contagious to witness. Their eyes beam with abundant generosity, solid devotion and an eagerness to share their joy with everyone. If such wealth can spring from surrender, then I’ll definitely allow the forces that be to guide my actions rather than go it alone.

Why YOU should take the Art of Living course

When stress or emotions cloud any thread of rationality existing within me, breathing brings me down to earth. As Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar said breath is the link between your body, your spirit and your mind. Take a deep breath now and notice what happens. The outside world disappears. Tension releases. Your mind clears. If you keep it up for a few minutes, you might notice your heart slowing and your muscles loosening up. A slow, conscious breath relaxes your mind and body at the same time, thus refreshing your spirit. Ever performed a speech or a piece of music and felt unbearably nerve-shaken beforehand? Next time, try breathing very slowly. This physically slows down your heart rate, soothing your restless worries. There’s a reason for the classic instructions to stop and take a deep breath when you feel angry. The breath frees the mind from the overpowering clouds of frustration and anger. When we take a moment to breathe, we allow the light of perspective to shine through our clouds of insatiable anger or sadness.

We always breathe – every second of every day, as long as we live, but unlike our body’s other automatic functions (like the heartbeat or stomach digestion), we can control the breath. We can take quick, piercing breaths or slow, full breaths. Or we can let our breath fade into the background and do its own thing. But by attending to the breath and manipulating it, we can utilize it to relax our mental and emotional states of mind.

By delving deep into Yogic breathing techniques – also called pranayama – you can actually start to transform yourself over time. Sudarshan Kriya, also known as the “healing breath,” is a technique taught during part of the Art of Living course offered at Truman. Sudarshan Kriya incorporates specific natural breath rhythms, each one corresponding to a different emotion. Used correctly, you can shed negative mental scars and release huge amounts of stress with this technique. You emerge feeling fresh and renewed. Although it’s hard to believe such extraordinary results can stem from sitting and breathing, I speak from experience when I say it works. I always surface from Kriya feeling as if I have shed a few pounds of worry and stress.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

Lloyd Pflueger, professor of philosophy and religion, offers the Art of Living course every semester, and the next one is Feb. 19 to 22. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, an Indian spiritual leader and activist, founded the Art of Living Foundation in Bangalore in 1981. Shankar has transferred his extensive amount of personal growth knowledge to teachers all across the country who host a variety of transformative courses through the Art of Living foundation. Now, instead of trying to make time to head to an ashram for years to gain knowledge from a guru, you can simply take a weekend out of your life right now and learn some ancient techniques to mentally and physically energize and de-stress while connecting to deep levels of your being. You learn practical knowledge to remove your current stressors and prevent future stress.

The idea is that when you shed stress through the techniques taught in the course, you gain peace and contentment. From my perspective, I found peace and contentment surfaced naturally when I relaxed and let go of my frustrations. This taught me that I don’t always have to stress out ensuring my life circumstances are at optimum happiness potential: impeccably perfect and safe so that, consequently, I could be happy. Happiness is right here, right now, in every moment – if only we slow down and relax long enough to notice it. Contentment doesn’t depend upon the external world. It doesn’t simply expand or contract depending on how much homework you have, how much you think people like you or how broke you are. I quote Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: “Peace and contentment … are our very nature, to be nurtured and encouraged.”

If you are interested in attending the Art of Living course, come to an interest meeting at 7 p.m. today or Feb. 16 in McClain Hall 209. The four sessions in the course are scheduled as follows: 7 to 10 p.m. Feb. 19, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Feb. 20 and 21 and 6 to 10 p.m. Feb. 22. I highly recommend you consider attending. The course offers a unique opportunity to uncover culprits like anxiety, frustration, insecurity and weariness. I can pretty much guarantee that you will emerge feeling renewed, energized and peaceful.

You can register for the course at the website: http://us.artofliving.org. If you need discounts, email Lloyd Pflueger at lloyd@truman.edu.

Meditation’s fruits: clarity, peace, relaxation

“You get all that by just sitting there?! I don’t believe you.” That was my dad’s abrupt response when I tried to explain how meditating actually improved my mood and concentration. Somehow, the idea of “just sitting there” seems almost daunting. No text messages, no Internet, nothing to look at and not even music to listen to. It sounds dull at best, frustrating at worst.

Like my dad, I also was skeptical about meditation – until I tried it. One day I couldn’t focus on my homework – my mind was buzzing, and I was flat-out lost in distraction. I was curious to test the lofty claims of meditation, so I went down the hall into an empty lounge and played a guided meditation I found on YouTube. Surprisingly, I enjoyed it so much that when the 10-minute video was done, I kept sitting. I found when I least expected it, a massive wave of peace hit me. I felt completely open, loving and content. I didn’t want anything. When I finally stood up, I found “just sitting there” for a few minutes had left me feeling lighter and more alert. I left feeling the inner glow of true contentment.

You know how you feel when you can’t concentrate – like there’s a cloud of thoughts buzzing around your mind like gnats? Whenever I sit down to work, and my mind is restless and flighty, it’s usually a symptom of some unresolved worry I am subconsciously trying to wrestle with: stress about all of my homework, people in my life, the cold weather or any number of things. Meditation clears away all of that clutter. Somehow, when you “just sit there” for a few minutes, no longer distracted by the endless enticements of the external world, you temporarily surrender control of all those concerns – you are letting go. Ironically, when you sit down to meditate and stop trying to solve everything, you leave feeling more alert, thus more capable of fixing your problems.

Millions of Americans regularly meditate to reap the priceless mental and physical health benefits. Meditators generally have low stress, a relaxed demeanor, a boosted immune system, mental clarity and improved health overall. A huge body of research exists on the benefits of meditation. One study that caught my eye was conducted at University of Madison-Wisconsin. Brain imaging of meditators suggested meditation gradually rewires the brain, conditioning it to react favorably to stressful situations. Instead of the typical fight-or-flight response, regular meditation cultivates an attitude of acceptance, which fosters contentment. A Harvard study found that meditating shuts down the parietal lobe, which integrates sensory perception. This allows the subject to loosen their sensory limits and achieve a feeling of “oneness” and connectivity with the wider world.

A few months ago, I upped my semi-regular meditation practice to twice a day for 20 minutes per session. But those 40 minutes a day bring me astounding results, my favorite being that most days I can sit in a classroom and do something I’ve never done before: effortlessly pay attention. I am absolutely convinced the change was due to meditation. For years, I always had my Adderall prescription on hand so I could focus and work efficiently, but now I easily do without. I tend not to sweat the small things quite so much. As a general rule I’m less irritable, more pleasant and happier.

The point of meditation is not necessarily to clear your mind of all thoughts. That’s nearly impossible, because all your life you have been conditioned to constantly think. If you try to force yourself to stop thinking, it will not work unless you have been meditating heavily for many years. Rather, the point is to let go of the world for a few minutes. If your mind overflows with thought, let it happen. If you think something unpleasant, let it happen. If you feel some emotion, let it happen. If you get bored, let it happen. The only thing you can do wrong in meditation is to try to do it right. As soon as I started grasping for moments of deep contentment during my meditations, they slipped away. The sensation only struck me when I wasn’t looking for it. That’s when I learned that meditation only works if you don’t try to do it right. This gets difficult, because once you experience the joy and lightness that can occur during and after meditation, you naturally want the same effect every time. But as the Buddhist ideal dictates, only by giving up your desire for something – in this case, peace – can you truly find it.

If you’re curious about meditation but would like some help, try a guided meditation hosted by the Art of Living club (for all of you at Truman) at 4:30 p.m. each Wednesday in McClain room 209. All are welcome. You might leave with a clear head, a lighter load and a smile on your face. I leave you with the words of Remez Sasson: “Your mind is your instrument. Learn to be its master and not its slave.”

Zazen meditation instructions
Online Meditation center