burning desires

Last week I walked on fire – really. No, you do not need to adjust your reading glasses and I did not suddenly turn into Marvel’s newest superhero. I attended a seminar appropriately titled Unleash the Power Within with 13,000 other energetic self-development junkies aspiring to take their lives to the next level – or at least glean some new insights that would result in a moderate improvement. The first night of this event entailed a “fire walk,” which in technical terms meant that we were going to walk barefoot across about twelve feet of burning coals. I was strangely unfazed in my anticipation of this endeavor. I was more concerned with surviving four, 12+ hour days that required me to step into an outlandish, energetic version of myself who sings, dances, chants and meditates surrounded by thousands of strangers…but I digress.

I actually walked into this event contemplating the elusive notion of surrender and how I could set extraordinary life goals – fire walking not being one of them – yet detach myself from the how and when I achieve them. How is it possible to desire something or someone so profoundly in our lives, but remain indifferent in a sense to its ultimate manifestation? As I learned over the course of the seminar (or re-learned through a new lens, rather), we achieve our goals through the power of momentum; and that drive is fueled by our mental and physical state, a clear passion and purpose (or as Simon Sinek would call it, our “why”), and finally, through taking massive action. Massive action entails modeling the success of those who have already reached the end zone, making a game plan, and doing something immediately while the goal is in sight. This differs from passive action like reading, thinking or strategizing alone. Conceptually, this formula makes perfect sense. But where does the action-measurement-assessment-new action system begin to clash with trusting in a higher power and letting go of controlling details once the intention is set and the ball is in motion? Is there a litmus test for massive action versus massive control?

It’s curious to me that the word “surrender” in many contexts is associated with giving up. If you consider a war between two nations, the one who surrenders is the loser forced to release his agenda because the cost of fighting has become too great to outweigh the potential upside of winning. In that vein, perhaps the idea of surrender is actually symbolic of an act of love or peace. The true question might be what is the war I am waging internally as a result of wanting a particular experience, result or outcome in my life? After all, the First Noble Truth of Buddha is “to live means to suffer” and Second Noble Truth is “the origin of suffering is attachment.” In other words, we suffer when we resist experiences that we deem uncomfortable and when we attach to expectations or experiences that we judge as “right” because of a temporary feeling of happiness or pleasure. In that sense, we are our own hostages to our best-laid plans.

I read a book recently by Michael Singer called “The Surrender Experiment” in which the author tells the story of his experiences when after a deep spiritual awakening, he decided to let go of his personal preferences a let the natural flow of life dictate his direction. I was indeed skeptical as I read the book clinging fiercely to my belief that we must have agency over our life decisions and take responsibility for the results. Yet the further I read, the more compelling the argument. This man led an extraordinary life spanning from being a complete hermit with no more belongings than he could fit into a small duffle bag, to becoming the CEO of a wildly successful, publicly-traded medical software company. As he so eloquently puts it in his closing paragraph: “The flow of life had served as sandpaper that, to a great extent, freed me of myself. Unable to unbind myself from the incessant pull of my psyche, in an act of sheer desperation, I had thrown myself in the arms of life. From that point forward, all I did was my very best to serve what was put in front of me and let go of what it stirred up within me. Joy and pain, success and failure, praise and blame –they all had pulled at what was so deeply rooted within me. The more I let go, the freer I became…It was not my responsibility to find what was binding me; that was life’s job. My responsibility was to be willing let go of whatever was brought up within me. At some point there’s no more struggle, just the deep peace that comes from surrendering to a perfection that is beyond your comprehension.”

I accept with a twinge of internal protest that when I believe I am controlling the outcomes of my life, I am only fooling myself. Maybe the choice to set my goals and then surrender is the only one I really control. One lesson of many that I took away from the fire walk experience was the following: most of our limitations are self-imposed and we can achieve the unthinkable to the degree that we can trust beyond what our practical, intelligent minds tell us. Yes, we deliberately prepared our bodies and minds in a way that enabled us to technically walk on burning coals. But that was only 20% of successfully crossing the path burn-free. 80% was the psychological process of setting an intention and then letting go of the preconceived beliefs of what would happen or the worst-case scenario. Triumph was achieved through the confident walk towards the cool grass waiting on the other side of the fire with a complete surrendering of the moment-by-moment technicalities. All fear was simply a result of assumptions or a projection of evidence from the past, and the critical moment was simply deciding to do it (not just that I could, but that I would). As I consider all that I aspire to achieve in my life, I see that I am in charge of deciding, committing, preparing and taking the action. But the magic comes with surrendering to the process and trusting my power. Now if that doesn’t light a fire under me, I don’t know what else will!

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