I don’t know how to do this.
I repeated this phrase over and over again as I lay in my hospital bed. Recently diagnosed with a rare heart and lung condition, I had been told that I had a very short time left to live.
And I kept having the very same thought:
I don’t know how to do this.
The phrase invaded my mind, taking root in my psyche. And when I pondered those words, they seemed silly. I was doing this. I was dying. Indeed, my body knew precisely how to go about this business of dying. As my organs were approaching and then entering failure, my body seemed to always just do the next thing -- take the next labored breath, circulate the blood pumping through my erratically pounding heart. Everything was slowing down, preparing to close up shop.
But the rest of me -- my mind and emotions, my ego and all those personality bits?
They did not know how to release this life, to allow to end the only existence they had ever known.
It became apparent to me that, even though I had spent a lot of time thinking, writing, and teaching about death, had even built my academic career based in large part on the study of death, I had never practiced for my own death.
My childhood and young adulthood, spent in the US and Europe, had not prepared me to die in any way, even though my religious background had much to say about death and my culture had presented me with a multitude of romanticized death scenes in novels and movies.
I had never been taught how to surrender, to let go.
The one thing I needed to do was to release my hold on this life. That releasing is challenging enough for the few folks who have practiced surrender during their healthier days. For someone like me, who did not have any “letting go” muscles, it seemed nearly impossible.
That near impossibility, that huge difficulty in letting go can be found in any sort of transition, not just our final leaving of this physical form.
In a culture that teaches us that “surrender” is a bad word, something to be avoided at all costs, many of us refuse to experience loss altogether. When a relationship ends, we begin a new one. We lose a job, we begin finding the next job immediately.
But every single transition -- even the most joyfully anticipated and beloved of transitions -- involves some amount of loss and therefore invites us into a new level of surrender.
And, like me, you may find that you just have not ever practiced surrender.
Whether you are experiencing a health crisis; changing homes, jobs, or relationships; caring for a loved one; or navigating the passage of a period in your life, a season of the year, or simply of daytime to nighttime, surrender practices can serve as treasures in your transition.
Here are three of my favorites:
Corpse Pose: Many yoga practices end with the asana (posture) of savasana or “corpse pose”. The benefits of this posture can be experienced at any time, not merely at the end of a yoga sequence. And they are available to almost every person living; if we can lie down, we can practice this pose. Lying flat on our back (or in some variation of that, if injury or illness prevents us from this posture), we allow our body to relax into the surface on which it rests. We feel gravity pulling us heavily toward the yoga mat, ground, or mattress, and we release our muscles. Often in yoga classes we may be instructed to use this pose to receive the benefits of the entire practice. When we lie prone on our death beds, we are receiving the benefits of the entire practice that is our life. Just as the class is finished and cannot be altered, the action of our lifetime may be over.
Gestures of Clinging, Renouncing, and Being Emptied: Using our hands and perhaps our entire body, this practice allows us to feel the energetic movement of surrender. Begin by making a gesture of clinging; imagine holding on to something that is being taken from you. Allow your entire body to take this posture and hold it for one minute. Release the posture. Next, assume a stance of renunciation; imagine you are pushing away something that is being thrust upon you. Let your body remain like this for one minute. Release the posture. Lastly, allow your body to take the position of surrender; imagine that you are relaxing into being emptied. Retain this position for one minute. Release this final posture and notice the differences amongst the three.
Breath of Surrender: Breathing exercises are available to everyone; if we breathe, we can use our breath as a spiritual practice. What I call the Breath of Surrender is a practice that focuses on our exhalation. In a culture that is infatuated with accumulation and creation, we need to support ourselves in learning how to release; and we can do that with every single breath. Sitting or lying in any position, begin to focus on your breath. Pay attention, in particular, to your outbreaths, eventually beginning to lengthen each one just a bit. Allow the inhalations to naturally follow from each conscious exhalation. After several rounds of breathing in this way, we can introduce a silent phrase to repeat with every exhalation: I surrender, I release, I let go. (I created this practice and call it the Breath of Kenosis, which is based on a specific theology; email me for more information, if you’d like!)
These exercises can be used individually or in conjunction with one another. As we engage in them, we often will have thoughts, sensations, emotions, and memories arise. When this happens, we use the experience of these arising to deepen the practice by consciously releasing everything as it comes into our awareness. After we have engaged them consistently for some amount of time, we likely will notice ourselves performing any one or all of them throughout our days. We might find that we are doing the Breath of Surrender as we drive in rush hour traffic or the Gesture of Emptying throughout our prayer time or Corpse Pose each night before we fall asleep.
All spiritual practices are designed to be used throughout our lives to give us the comfort, structure, and familiarity required to stay present to our lives. These practices are not meant to be mastered as goals. We do not do them to achieve proficiency, finally to “graduate”. Spiritual practices strengthen muscles and provide opportunities to focus on what we value -- in this case, that valued thing is Surrender. And hopefully these practices become so interwoven with our daily lives that we naturally do them as we lie on our deathbeds, having performed our final act of letting go.