Appreciation for how this moment came to be, coupled with the
understanding of one’s identity with the Transcendent, aids in the
development of the powers of awareness required to distinguish between
truth and falsehood in the mind. When what is true stands apart from
what is false, one can choose to pursue truth: ceasing to knowingly say
false words and believe false thoughts. This orients the whole of one’s
being with the truth. When one’s being is oriented with the truth,
intuition and interest can be readily trusted because they are
outgrowths of that which is true. That which shines forth against the
backdrop of the mundane, wholly gripping the beholder, can with
increasing certainly be understood as a real interest and not a delusion
born of the lower psyche. The path towards the development of the
highest form of Self is lit by that which most grips the beholder. To
heed this holy guiding force by pursuing one’s true interests is to
manifest the divine potential that lies dormant within and to fully
orient one’s being with the heartbeat of the Cosmos.
What for me has been one of the most important frameworks that I’ve come across for understanding how best to live one’s life can be found in Michael Singer’s teachings: to live from a place of surrender. This essay is my attempt to answer the following question about these teachings, which arose as I adopted them in my life: “Where exactly do you draw the line when surrendering?” We’ll take a brisk walk through the conceptual terrain of these teachings and the state of being they point to which will lay a foundation for understanding the above question and its context. I’ll then describe the results of the conceptual wrestling match that I’ve been engaged in to find answers which seems to have ended in a truce, at least for now.
Two appendices follow this essay - one on meditation technique and another on prayer technique - which are both relevant to the discussion.
To understand what it means to live from a place of surrender - a state of being promulgated by Michael Singer - we begin with the notion that God is the author of everything you experience; God is the author of this moment. Because the word “God” carries with it all manner of connotations, consider the notion in scientific terms: this moment is the result of the natural unfolding of the universe according to the four fundamental forces of nature (gravity, electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force, and the strong nuclear force) which has been ongoing since the Big Bang erupted 13.8 billion years ago (Williams, 2015). Whatever you prefer to call creation’s real or implied creator - God, The Universe, The Cosmos, Nature - the profundity of what we’re experiencing here cannot be overstated and yet is so easily overlooked.
We are the recipients of this billions-year long chain of events in which everything in the universe happened exactly as it did, leading to this very moment as you read these words from the page. This is the process by which our world came into being. It is how every atom in creation was created and how our bodies and minds were formed of creation’s building blocks by the process of evolution. Everything we can see, touch, taste, hear, smell, and feel as well as the mechanisms by which we perceive that which is perceivable are the result of this billions-year long process. This chain of events has been supremely complex to an inconceivable degree and yet it led us right here. This moment is a holy thing.
Our sense organs and our minds are a few of the gifts handed to us by the unfolding of the Cosmos. Our minds take in data from our sense organs and render a representation of reality for us to perceive. This is one of the primary functions of the mind. Without our minds, it wouldn’t matter if we had ears that could hear, eyes that could see, or noses that could smell. All of the sense data from these organs would go to waste with no system in place to process that data and with no one around to perceive what was processed. This is analogous to a webcam that isn’t connected to a computer; that webcam has the potential to generate a video feed of what it “sees” but we cannot access that video feed without connecting the sensor to a capable computer system. The sense organs and the mind are intertwined together as part of the body’s complex system of sensation and perception. This is the foundational layer of what we experience as humans: reality “coming in” through our senses. But there are more layers to what we experience.
Our minds have another very important feature: they produce thoughts. These are abstractions upon reality as rendered by the mind. Thoughts tend to manifest themselves as an ever-present voice that talks in your head, alongside other, less discursive as well as visual forms. A near-constant stream of thought flows through your mind every second of every day, and it has something to say about everything. Right now, this voice could be saying something like “What? There’s no voice talking in my head. That’s crazy. Who has a voice talking in their head? Not me.” This sort of thinking is the result of the failure to recognize thinking itself. Because this voice - these thoughts - are so subtle, especially when compared to our gross sensory perceptions, they can be supremely difficult to detect: so difficult that most of us hardly ever realize that we are thinking all the time, let alone realize how negative and limiting this thinking tends to be.
Beyond producing commonplace discursive thought, the human mind is endowed with the great power to create. It was the human mind that in harnessing this ability conceived of scientific principles, discovered profound truths about the nature and structure of reality, built incredible machines of various sorts, devised systems that allowed billions to rise from poverty, and put a man on the moon. The mind is analogous to an instrument from which its player can strum powerful, moving music in the case of the experienced and wise musician, while the novice player merely manages to pluck a few stumbling notes. It is through this analogy that an additional layer of mind comes into view: emotions. Emotions color our experience with a heartful depth that would be lacking if all we ever experienced were thoughts and sense perceptions. As Singer called to mind, imagine a movie without its score. This would be a production lacking heart - lacking the depth required to draw you into the world it depicts. Emotions can be more beautiful than the most moving ballad played by a full symphony and more terrifying than the score of a horror movie. Emotions give form to the timbre of our experience.
You are not what you experience. You are the one who experiences: the experiencer. This may sound like a spooky concept at first but really it’s common sense. There is nothing you can see, touch, taste, hear, smell, feel, think, or otherwise sense that is you. How could this be otherwise? How could something be seen without a seer? There must be something, then, that is aware of what you experience - an experiencer - else there would be no experience to be had. This experiencer is what we call consciousness. Consciousness is what and who you are in the deepest and most fundamental sense. In the same manner that light cast out onto an object does not become that object, consciousness cast out onto form does not become that form. Light stands apart from whatever it illuminates: light is transcendent. In the same way, consciousness stands apart from whatever it illuminates: consciousness transcends form. Your identity with consciousness is identity with the Transcendent.
It is all too common to lose sight of who you are as the experiencer and instead identify with what you experience, especially your inner experience of thoughts and emotions, without realizing that you’ve been duped. You actually start to equate your identity - who you are and your sense of well-being - with the activity of the mind. When the mind’s voice is saying happy things - “I love this restaurant! This is the best food I’ve ever had and I can’t wait to come back!” - you’re feeling good. You’re happy when the mind is happy. But when the voice is upset - “This is the worst meal I’ve ever had. The waitress was rude and my food was cold. I’m never coming back here.” - you can’t help but lose yourself in that negativity, having no choice but to be angry and upset because the mind is angry and upset. Our well-being as conscious beings becomes dependant on what our minds are saying.
The mind, with it’s capacity to render for us the outside world and to create thoughts, is a tremendous gift. Without mind, we lose a fundamental part of what makes us human: our ability to abstract upon the current state of the world as we perceive it and to effect change in the world. Without mind, we would be unthinking beings incapable of conscious action. The mind in and of itself is not troublesome; it is the contents of the mind that can become troublesome.
Your thoughts don’t just materialize out of nowhere. Thoughts have been programmed over the course of your life by every event you’ve experienced as well as your reaction to those events, whether they were good or bad - beautiful or terrifying. You learn a tremendous amount from what you experience, as it is often said that experience is the greatest teacher. But experiences don’t always feel good as they come in. When something happened in your experience that you didn’t like, your tendency - if you’re like most people - was to resist it. What does it mean to resist something? Resistance is to say from deep inside: “No. I don’t like that. Get that away from me. I wish this wasn’t happening so I’m going to push it as far away from me as I can.” This is the simple, dangerous act of resisting: wanting the flow of life - this billions-year long process behind the moment you’re experiencing - to be different so that you can be okay.
But resisting isn’t the only action you take when confronted with life’s moments; you also cling. Sometimes you get to experience truly beautiful moments. Sometimes these moments are so beautiful that you want to keep them. You want to experience them fully and to go on experiencing them: holding on as they start to fall away, refusing to part with the beauty that has graced your life. Just as with resisting though, to cling is to chafe against the unfolding of the universe. To cling is to say “I want more of that. I don’t want other experiences; I want that experience. Whatever else you have in store for me, if it isn’t that I want nothing to do with it.” Clinging is to want the flow of life to be different so that you can be okay.
Something strange happens in the mind when you repeatedly resist and cling to the events of life: you begin to form all sorts of preferences. Preferences are what the mind has decided life needs to be like for you to be okay. They are mental patterns that drive behavior. You have formed preferences about all sorts of things and you form more each day. The acts of resisting and clinging to experience build and reinforce these preferences which in turn drive you to work, in a fearful manner, to make the future adhere to an increasingly stringent set of standards as defined by your preferences. You get all freaked out about making the events of life unfold in a particular way instead of simply allowing them to as they are, learning from them and moving forward.
It is the proliferation of this preference-based fear that is foundational to humanity’s problems which are by and large the external manifestations of internal psychological problems. Instead of letting each moment come and go as you learn from your experiences - participating openly and wholeheartedly in the process of creation - you entangle yourself with passing experiences, collecting an ever-growing rat’s nest preferences: your psychic baggage. This is the result of resisting and clinging to the flow of life.
To live from a place of surrender is to cease this behavior. It is to surrender to life as it is, accepting life as it is, to learn from your experiences, lifting up each moment as it passes before you and living free from fear. This way of being is accessible to each of us in every moment.1
The Great Way is not difficult
for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent
everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however,
and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
If you wish to see the truth
then hold no opinions for or against anything.
To set up what you like against what you dislike
is the disease of the mind.
When the deep meaning of things is not understood
the mind’s essential peace is disturbed to no avail.
Concepts exist as a strata of understanding upon which one can gain an intellectual purchase, descending from ignorance down towards a concept’s very essence. It is all too easy to get hung up at the surface level of a concept and not do the intellectual exploration required to earn the right to believe in it.2 It was in this spirit of unearned belief that I took my first foothold of understanding near the surface of surrender’s conceptual strata, holding the following position.
In order to properly and deeply surrender, one must surrender fully to the outside world. The contents of the psyche are meant to be jettisoned wholesale as impediments along the path of spiritual development.
I oriented myself in the world using this map for quite some time, doing my best to be a preference-less servant of the moment in front of me. Many of my preferences indeed provided no benefit in my life, only cost, as described by Singer. Releasing my grip on these was and continues to be worthwhile. The same strategy proved pathological, however, when applied to aspects of my psyche that ran deeper than my superficial preferences.
These aspects of my psyche felt right in a way that was difficult to articulate. I admired particular qualities in other people, saw subjective beauty in art, and was innately interested in certain activities while disliking and being innately disinterested in others. Two aspects of my psyche clashed with one another as I endeavored to surrender my apparent attachments and aversions: one demanded surrender on all fronts while another defiantly and even courageously stood its ground and refused to acquiesce. Coming away from my initial reading of Singer’s work, I’d learned of no such tangible personality or “way that you are,” believing that innate interest was just another preference to move beyond. But over time it became evident that this approach to surrender meant denying parts of my psyche that were in some sense real, true and worthy for reasons that were still beyond my grasp. It wasn’t until I encountered the modern personality literature that I began to understand the psychological substrata that exist beyond mere conditioned preferences.
Human personality or temperament is not some made-up, mutable disposition but is instead a real set of psychological traits that are biologically based (in that they correspond to regions of the brain) and that we appear in large part to be born with (Peterson). According to Peterson, the Big Five personality traits comprise a widely used model for understanding this landscape of personality. These traits were empirically discovered3 by formulating a large number of questions regarding personality, administering this set of questions to a large number of people and performing a statistical method called factor analysis on the resulting dataset. This analysis enabled researchers to determine which questions “clumped together.” For example: say you run through this battery of questions and answer “7/10” on questions 1, 5, 52, and 103. The same battery is administered to a few friends who, on those same questions, answer “9/10” and “2/10” respectively. This means that these particular questions “clump together” - they are correlated with one another.
Factor analysis revealed the correlations between questions as well as how many of these correlations (factors) there were. As Peterson explained, it turned out that if you ask people enough questions about themselves, you get five factors. These are the five dimensions of personality. The same five dimensions emerge if the assessment is comprised of full questions, phrases, or adjectives. What’s more is that this holds true cross-culturally; when the set of questions is translated to another language, or if the entire lexical set is regenerated in another language, the same results are brought to bear. The five-factor personality model appears relatively stable in this sense, and can be reliably measured in that the results remain relatively stable across different administrations of the battery.
Here was an experimentally derived model that described a foundational structure of the human psyche, demonstrating personality to be a real and measurable set of characteristics in the same way that height, eye color, and skin color are real and measurable characteristics. This led me to the understanding that the sanctity of this moment never stopped at the boundary of the skin. Creation reaches down as deep as deep goes: to the very core of the human being. In retrospect, how could it not? How could we as humans stand apart from the causal line of cosmic events that created the very atoms that comprise our bodies, the structure of our brains and - deeper, more subtly - our personalities?
While the foundation of our identity lies with the Transcendent, this is only one aspect of a greater identity. We are consciousness, inexorably embodied in a human form that is endowed with a multifaceted, individualized nature and that certainly does not know this nature to the fullest extent. It is to the pursuit of this self-knowledge that we turn next.
A genius is the one most like himself.
- Thelonius Monk
Distinguishing those aspects of your psyche that are false from those that are right, true, and worth pursuing (insofar as such a determination can be drawn) is an endeavor without end that begs to be undertaken. To voluntarily come to know yourself and in doing so, to bloom into the truest embodiment of your being, provides the meaning that sustains and is the adventure of your life. To abdicate this responsibility is to leave your autonomy, well-being and sense of purpose in the hands of others - to wander aimlessly with no chosen destination, settling into delusion’s temporarily comforting but ultimately suffocating embrace.
How do you come to know who you really are? The best place to begin seems to be in refining the mechanism through which you come to know yourself: to build your powers of awareness.
Human beings vary in their ability to do calculus, play the piano, and ride bicycles; we can progress from novice (fool) to master (savior) along a multitude of dimensions of applied knowledge. However, there are limits placed on each individual’s aptitude for learning particular skills. For most of us, it is true to say that we do not have the interest or wherewithal to learn and master any skill under the sun. Yet most of us can make significant progress towards the mastery of a particular skill if we devote ourselves to it.
Focused attention is a skill just like anything else. But what exactly is this skill? It is the refinement of your capacity to see clearly and the ability to wield some degree of control over your attention. It is to cease mistaking the manifold forms that confront you for who you are and to instead relax back more deeply into who you fundamentally are - eternal, awake awareness. In doing so, you are calmly refusing to be drawn out into the drama which the mind layers over reality. This skill affords space between you and everything you experience: what you see, touch, taste, hear, smell, and feel, but more subtly, your thoughts and emotions. If you do not cultivate this skill, the state of your being will remain in the hands of the conditioned mind which means that you will be blindly directed by the parts of your psyche that you refuse to or are unable to look at. Whatever corners of your psyche where light has yet to reach will remain dark and unexplored; whatever seeds of individuality that lie within you will remain dormant and unexpressed, waiting for the water of attention. What you could be will be sacrificed for the comfort of staying the same.
Although the development of these faculties is difficult, it is also simple. The core practice for doing so is meditation. See Appendix A for a discussion of meditation technique.
A higher level of consciousness allows you to see more clearly into the wilderness of the mind. Over time, you will notice thought patterns and feelings that were once hidden in this wilderness. This is the unknown becoming known, the subconscious becoming conscious and the beginnings of chaos becoming order. This ability is the foundation of living from a place of surrender. But here the same dilemma from earlier arises: I am aware of my thoughts and feelings but how do I know what to pursue and what to let go of - how do I know what within me is true and what is false? The clearest guidance I’ve discovered on this point comes from Jordan Peterson: pay attention to what you say and only say what you believe to be true. This is how you build the skill of discerning between truth and falsehood which is in turn grants you an evermore-accurate bearing with which to navigate the landscape of mind.
Everyone knows what it is like to say something you know to be false. There’s a twinge of discomfort there, sometimes a torrent of discomfort if the lie is abhorrent. When you lie, you muddy your relationship with the truth. This leaves your true self shrouded in mystery: to you and everyone you interact with. The kicker here is that the articulation of true speech is no different from the embodiment of your true self. If you choose to never reveal to yourself and to the world who you really are, you miss out on living a life that is truly yours. The pain of this loss will be borne by you and everyone around you as resentment and even malevolence seep from you in rebellion against the suppression.
To speak only the truth is to slowly come to know who you are, increasingly with every word you say. You cannot just speak words and assume that they are true. To speak truth requires that you keep your eyes open and fixed on the ever present, internal constellation of thought and emotion. You will know when the words you speak are false and you will know when the words you speak are true as constrained by your current level of ability. You will at times need to stop yourself mid-sentence and restart or pause for a time as you search for true words. This is part of developing the skill.
During a 2022 lecture in Melbourne, Peterson laid out a metaphor to further illustrate this concept which I’ve paraphrased here.
Imagine you’re walking across a swamp and the water is murky. You know there is a path of stones just beneath the water but you cannot see them. If you stay on the path, you won’t drown and the crocodiles won’t devour you. As you walk forward, you can feel with your foot where the next stone might be. If you feel that your footing on this stone is solid, you take that step and in this manner you progress forward, feeling for each step. This is the same thing you do with your words: you feel your way along. “Is this the right word? Is the fact that I’m uttering it putting me together and making me intact and stronger, or is it tearing me apart and making me dissolute and weak?”
See Appendix B for a writing technique surrounding inner exploration and alignment with the truth, or said another way, prayer.
Just as a hunter tracks an animal, you can track the spirit of the truth: an ever-moving target, inexorably intertwined with the reality of the moment. Through our tracking of this illusive spirit, it seems that our minds increasingly conform to it. This conformity is quite distinct from representational knowledge (Peterson, Vervaeke 2022). Representational knowledge is the construction of mental structures that abstractly represent the object of knowledge, while conformity is analogous to water poured into a glass: the water fills the exact shape of the glass’ form and thus comes into unity with the reality of the glass. Water does not engage in a detached analysis of a number of potential relationships with the glass. The water simply embodies the shape it has come into contact with in that moment. In the same way, our minds conform to the shape of the spirit of truth as we zero in on that aspect of reality.
As this conformity to this spirit grows, the outgrowths of your being increasingly become reflections of that which is true. Where before you questioned your intuition and interests, now these spontaneously arising aspects of your being can be increasingly trusted and worthy of honoring. The line to walk here is fine. It is always possible to place stock in false outgrowths of your being - to mistake falsehood for truth - and to act improperly and untruthfully as a consequence. To guard against this actuality, the railing of only speaking what you believe to be the truth must always remain in place, lest you attempt to twist the very fabric of reality which will inevitably snap back on you in just the way you were seeking to avoid with your lie.
How do you know what to pursue in life? How do you find your purpose? How do you find the meaning in life that sustains you? The answers to these questions lie dormant in the depths of your being. Only coming to know who you really are will bring them forth from the darkness, as there is no difference between coming to know yourself and finding the answers to these questions.
Singer recommends a meditation technique that I use and have found to offer a helpful amount of structure without being overbearing. The method is as follows (paraphrased):
Sit down and pay attention to your breath. Count each breath until you get to 25 then start over. When you find you’ve become distracted by thought, bring your attention back to the breath and start your count over. Do this twice a day for 15 minutes.
The following questions and answers are an attempt to clear up general confusion around this practice and to explain the logic behind its structure.
Writing can be a scaffolding around the process by which you pray which involves distinguishing between truth and falsehood within yourself. The technique is as follows. Describe a problem you’re facing, taking care to do so in as truthful a manner as you can muster. Write it down. Write down a question about this problem that you’d genuinely like to know the answer to. Maybe the answer to such a question could help you solve this problem. Close your eyes, ask yourself the question and listen. Responses will come forth from the depths. Relax and allow them to surface. Write down something that came to you that is true, or as true as you can currently muster, and continue on in this manner.
I’ve found that writing in this manner allows me to clearly approach a problem in a way that can’t be done by merely thinking about it. You can write down more than you can hold in your mind at one time so use writing as a tool to bring all the complexity to the surface and to hold that complexity for you. This frees up your attention to attend to what you really think about it all, making space for creativity to manifest.
I recommend engaging with Singer’s work directly if this brief exposition calls to you. See References.↩︎
This is in part what explains blind adherence to ideologies: misplaced belief and an absence of real understanding.↩︎
Two key axioms underpin the Big Five model: (1) it is reasonable to assume that human lexicons (the entire vocabulary structure of language, including the meaning of words and phrases) have captured the essential elements of personality and (2) people know enough about their own personality to report on it accurately in a valid and reliable manner, in that their self-reports actually correspond to their personality and remain reasonably consistent across time (Peterson).↩︎