That time I got 'surrender' tattooed on my right arm.
“So we come to the strange conclusion that in madness, lies sanity.” ~ Alan Watts
In January I got the word “surrender” tattooed on my arm. It’s beautiful and, as usual, my tattooer, the extremely talented Karen Glass, created something so perfect for me and more then I could have ever imagined or hoped for. She’s a talented artist and compassionate healer. If you’re thinking of getting some ink, I highly encourage you to look her up.
The idea for my tattoo comes from the yogic ishvara pranidhana, one of the five niyamas, (inner laws to live by). Ishvara pranidhana translates roughly as ‘surrender to god’. It is said that to master this niyama, there will be no need to master the others, because it is that awesome. There’s a reason it’s the last one on the list. It’s a toughie.
The day after I got my new tattoo, I freaked out a bit. I had just permanently put something on my body—this time a word—and it was more visible on my forearm than any of my other tattoos. And surrender? At a time when people are rising up into action to fight the forces of evil and the patriarchy, I went ahead and basically got “give up” tattooed on my right arm. And so in the midst of this major anxiety attack, doubled or even tripled by my current life situation and environment, I felt like I was drowning.
As a student of yoga, self study and healing arts, I was very aware of what was happening, I could see my mind creating panic and I put it on like a pair of invisible sunglasses , looking at the world through anxiety colored lenses. I know all the tools—meditation, deep breathing, journaling, tarot, yoga asana, self-care—but it all felt so hard. So I did nothing. I surrendered to my anxiety and let it just wash over me. And it totally sucked. But it was literally the only thing I felt I could do at the time.
You see, surrender is usually a last-ditch effort to us in the West. When there’s absolutely nothing left and we feel so lost or so broken we’re beyond repair, that’s usually the cue to get down on your knees and to pray, or cling to others for help or advice we won’t really listen to, or go to the bar and get massively drunk or max out your credit card and try to numb the feelings. And none of that really helps. Praying while in that desperate mindset is low prana and probably isn’t going to help much. We can ask for help, but if we don’t actually listen to anyone’s advice, what’s the point? I used to choose the bar option. A lot. But all it did was make me feel even worse and send me into a vicious cycle of depression. So really, when you’re so overwhelmed it feels like there is absolutely no way you’re going to ever feel better or come out of this one, the best thing to do is to give up, surrender yourself to the feelings and let them go.
But what if to surrender was our primary objective most of the time? What if we remembered it more frequently in times of struggle or confusion? What if you had it tattooed on your arm as a reminder that the ego is not in control here and that worrying isn’t going to help anything?
The anxiety hangover of my tattoo started to dissipate. Slowly, the lessons I had been learning through the idea of ishvara pranidhana were gently and sometimes not so gently seeping into my mind and heart space. My wishy-washy definition of surrender was starting to take shape as a more solid and explainable idea. To me, it now simply meant ‘to let go’. Let go of grasping at straws or ideas of how things should be. Let go of the idea that I am completely in control, and that it’s okay to ask for help and then really listen. Let go of knowing, let go of fighting, let go of struggle, let go of the ego. Let go of ruminating thoughts. Let go of doubts. Let go of it all and choose faith instead; faith that my feet will land on the ground as I take the next steps on my path.
When we lie down in savasana at the end of a yoga class, we’ve moved through some work, we’ve calmed the mind and body into exhaustion and that is the time we move into sweet surrender, offering up our actions to the Universe, or God, or the Divine and face our palms up in a gesture of receiving—because, after all, when we let go, we receive. When we let go of the loud screaming voices of depression and anxiety, we can actually hear the messages of our guides and intuition and receive the gift of clarity.
The same thing happens when we fall in love. As British philosopher and writer Alan Watts puts it: “Taking this ghastly risk is the condition of there being life. You see, for all life is an act of faith and an act of gamble. The moment you take a step, you do so on an act of faith because you don't really know that the floor's not going to give under your feet. The moment you take a journey, what an act of faith. The moment that you enter into any kind of human undertaking in relationship, what an act of faith. See, you've given yourself up. But this is the most powerful thing that can be done: surrender. See. And love is an act of surrender to another person. Total abandonment. I give myself to you. Take me. Do anything you like with me. So, that's quite mad because you see, it's letting things get out of control. All sensible people keep things in control. Watch it, watch it, watch it. Security? Vigilance Watch it. Police? Watch it. Guards? Watch it. Who's going to watch the guards? So, actually, therefore, the course of wisdom, what is really sensible, is to let go, is to commit oneself, to give oneself up and that's quite mad. So we come to the strange conclusion that in madness lies sanity.”
In madness lies sanity?! I love this idea. People with strong faith seem mad to most of us. They look like the Fool at the beginning of the tarot deck: all dressed up, meditating on something beautiful and about to blissfully jump off a cliff while your dog friend, Ego, tries to stop you. Totally nuts, bat-shit crazy. And also the absolutely best thing you can ever do. Be like the Fool. When life asks you to take a leap of faith, adjust your focus to the Divine Mother and leap! Surrender. Fall into love.
My definition of surrender continues to take on new meanings and to reveal deeper depths and layers on a daily basis, and I’m sure it will continue to do so. And as Watts explains, I will keep searching for sanity in the madness. I will do my best to choose love, to commit to myself by giving up my ego and by choosing to trust. And when the waves of anxiety and depression come crashing down on me, I will surrender and let them crash over my whole body and wash me clean.