“The way to practice true Zen is… just open yourself and give up everything… This is what it means to surrender… Without losing yourself by sticking to a particular rule or understanding, keep finding yourself, moment after moment… to have complete experience or full feeling in each moment.
– Shunryu Suzuki
If you notice, in the above quote, the great Zen Master, Shunryu Suzuki is saying that in giving up everything – in surrender – we find ourselves. This may seem like a nonsensical contradiction, but it is just another instance of intuitive truth revealing itself in typical Zen fashion through paradox, and as Zen emphasizes, Life is paradox because it is everything, so the ultimate contradiction is contradiction itself. Nothing can be separate from and in opposition to anything because it’s all Life, that which is inherently inclusive, connected and whole. Yet, somehow, human beings find themselves experiencing just this contradiction, dividing the whole of Life into this thing and that thing, drawing lines of separation that just don’t exist, an experience that Buddhism calls egoic delusion. That this delusion is so powerful and so much the common view is why it takes a considerable amount of willingness, and even courage, to open, to surrender yourself into the great everything that is Life. To experience “full feeling in each moment,” however, requires it.
“Open yourself and give up everything.” The “everything” here is everything-as-you-think-it. It is not everything-as-it-is. So you must be willing to give up the everything-that-you-think to realize “complete experience.” What we think comes from culture and society and family and all the sources of psychological conditioning that have created the everything-you-think, and it is not everything; it is very limited. The everything-you-think is full of what you like and don’t like. It is full of your prejudices and opinions. It is full of what you are afraid of and what makes you angry and uncomfortable. It is full of your culture’s prejudices and opinions, fears and dictates. It is full of denial, rationalization, and projection, and everything Western psychology calls ego defense mechanisms, protecting the ego from the discomfort of the full what-is of Life that doesn’t fit into its idea of itself. You must “open yourself” to the true infinite everything that is Life to “have complete experience… full feeling in each moment.”
We cannot have “full feeling” without surrendering our dualistic sense of conditioned self into the full thickness and totality of Life-as-it-is that is everything and our true self, what Zen calls “Buddha nature.” This means letting go of the ideas we carry of what the ego would call good, bad, pleasant, unpleasant, acceptable, unacceptable, beautiful, ugly, right and wrong, to realize the everything that makes up the necessary seeming polarities within the unity that is Life. To have a whole life, we must surrender into the whole world, into the whole universe. This is Zen, and this is mysticism as is expressed by every culture. If you look deep, you will find it at the heart of Jesus’ teachings, in mystical Judaism and Islam, and it is the very core of Native American spirituality.
It is also profound psychology, but since our conventional culture and our conventional psychology has little room or understanding for the mystical, we find such concepts alien, and so our culture and our lives are dualistic, materialistic and filled with strife. Our psychology has to settle for being a psychology of mental illness without the slightest understanding of the possibilities for true mental health. To “experience full feeling in each moment” is true mental health. And it is true spirituality.
Gerald G. May (1940-2005) was a unique Western psychologist who realized this deficit, and in his book Will and Spirit (1982) he explored the possibility for a Western contemplative psychology that could embrace mysticism, and he created a very useful vocabulary for deepening our understanding of the human experience. He explained how psychological health requires a vibrant experience of mystical spirituality, and he explored the dimensions of human experience he referred to as “will” (that which can be equated to the term ego as used by Eckhart Tolle), and “spirit,” which can be equated to Being in Tolle’s vocabulary, and how they interrelate.
May examined how Life is always a blend of these dimensions, with immense qualitative difference occurring by which dimension dominates our sense of self. When will (ego) dominates our experience, May described this as “willfulness.” From this perspective, true spirituality is quite impossible, even though we are capable of deluding ourselves into believing we are living a spiritual life by mistaking emotional or intellectual experiences labeled as spiritual or religious as the real thing, though they are not. On the other hand, when spirit leads will, May describes this as “willingness,” leading to true spirituality and a truly meaningful existence. To live in willingness, there must be a surrender, a release from searching for happiness and meaning in ego and the material world. Rather, ego must be the servant of Being, of spirit, and then ego is in its proper function as the tool for realizing, coping, managing, and creating in our limited existence that which originates in That-which-is-without-limit. Our true meaningful self is, and has to be, a continuation and expression of That, the everything that is Life. This is the mystical perspective, and, as Suzuki told us, true Zen.
Willingness implies a surrendering of one’s self-separateness, an entering-into, an immersion in the deepest processes of life itself. It’s a realization that one already is a part of some ultimate cosmic process. In contrast, willfulness is the setting of oneself apart from the fundamental essence of life in an attempt to master, direct, control or otherwise manipulate existence. More simply, willingness is saying yes to the mystery of being alive in each moment. Willfulness is saying no, or perhaps more commonly, “yes, but…” – Gerald May
We must stop pretending and bluffing that we have the answers to Life. They are not to be found in our religions, in our philosophies, in our politics, in our economics, or in our psychologies; not as they exist today. Life is mystery. Say “Yes!” Not “no” or “yes, but.” Unequivocally, we must say “Yes!” to That-which-is. We need mystery, and when we surrender into mystery something quite paradoxical occurs: in “complete experience or full feeling in each moment,” the answers needed for that moment present themselves through the medium of intuition. You cannot think your way there. Out of the silence of contemplative mind arises “knowing,” the realization of oneness within the moment, and what the moment needs. Do not however, be lulled into believing you now have the answer, for the next moment is always completely new.
May encourages the evolution of a new paradigm that merges spirituality and psychology he calls “Contemplative Psychology.” He tells us that we cannot think our way to the experience of mystery, to truth, to oneness with all that is. Thinking fractures the world. Contemplation is the holding of the moment in mental silence that allows the infinite wholeness and connectedness of Life to be realized in intuition. Intuition, “willingness,” the intelligent silence beneath and before thought, is where the voice of the Infinite can be heard. Suzuki, Gerald May, Jesus are all saying, just show up in the vast infinite moment that is the truth of Life, and as you are within and an expression of Life, you will know what is needed. This is surrender, and it is what Zen refers to as “emptiness.” In being empty of all preconceptions, sense of control, even sense of a solid self, we know not only what to do, we know who we are. When empty of egoic self, we are now available to be filled by Life, and we know we are It.
Gerald May tells us: “Mystery can indeed be known without being solved. Mystery can be experienced, sensed, felt, appreciated, even loved, without being understood. This may not be easy; it requires a surrender of all willfulness, a risking of self-image, and a nurturing of intuition. Mystery, says the contemplatives, can be ‘known’ without being known.”
And Shunryu Suzuki enlightened us: “Buddha nature is when you say ‘Yes!’ … When you forget all about yourself and say ‘Yes!’ That is Buddha nature.” And it is what is meant by surrender.