A Failure to Surrender

A lovely place to go walking.

If you ever feel as though you’re becoming the model of some quality or character trait, be careful. The world has a way of reminding you that you have much to learn. At least that is my experience.

I’ve learned much in the last year about how to let go – to stop fighting and surrender. I felt like I was starting to get it.

Then last week happened.

***

there are some days
when you feel as if your world
is beyond your control
and you can do nothing

when you feel as if your world
for all your best attempts
is slipping through your fingers

is beyond your control
leaving you feeling
frustrated and powerless

and you can do nothing
but pause and remember
that control is an illusion

For a freelancing project I’ve been working on, one of my roles is a middle man between my client and another party. The day before our intended launch a few issues come up – missing information and technical problems. Meeting the deadline looks unlikely.

We’ve been working hard on the project, and everyone involved is excited about the launch. But now I have to go back on my word, and it’s my fault we’re not going to. I didn’t give enough allowance for last minute issues. Now I am about to disappoint my clients.

My mind runs through the worst case scenarios. I worry my clients are going to think less of me. I panic about not being able to do anything. The situation is out of my control. I am powerless.

I sit, staring blankly at the ceiling. All is lost. The world is going to end – or at least my part of it.

As I sit, I attempt to use logic to change my reaction.

I point out that I’ve spent the last year learning how to let go.

I observe that I wrote a post on surrender only a few weeks earlier.

I note how the circumstances are beyond my control.

I write a poem about how control is just an illusion.

I argue that worrying will not change anything.

I tell myself that these things happen, and I just need to roll with it.

I remember that people are gracious and understanding – my clients especially.

I show how my response is an overreaction to the circumstances.

I highlight several options for constructive responses – each far better than what I’m doing right now.

In my head, I agree with each of these arguments. The logic lines up. It makes sense. But that changes nothing. I still stare into space. I still hold on to the worry.

And so my logic fails me.

a castle of stone
is defenseless when its guards
are falling asleep

The body is pretty good at dealing with stress. It can supply you with the energy you need to push through and persevere. But if you go too long – if you neglect it’s subtle cues and warnings – your body will force you to stop.

So it is for me. Weakened by my worry, my body decides it’s had enough. It succumbs to a cold – a bad one at that.

I feel as though I have a massive sneeze coming on. But instead of ending with relief, the congestion just stays. Eyes tear. Pressure builds. My throat goes dry.

Frustrated, I try and force myself to ignore the discomfort.

I pace the room.

I mutter under my breath.

I stare intently at the ceiling.

I hit my head against the wall. Side note: this is not a good idea.

I tell myself to stop complaining.

Nothing seems to work. No matter how hard I try to disregard the sickness and stay positive, I struggle. Physical weakness creates mental weakness. It’s hard enough to fight using willpower when in full health. Being sick makes it near impossible.

And so my willpower fails me.

***

In each situation, I fail to surrender. I am unable to let go. It’s obvious to me that I need better systems to deal with and manage such stress. I need to create better habits of surrender.

***

coffee aromas
swirl with the grace and grandeur
of a symphony

Peaceful music playing, I go to the kitchen. Turn the kettle on. Get out the scale. Measure the freshest of coffee beans into my grinder. Twist the handle.

Twist the handle, each rotation sending grains of coffee into the container below. Keep grinding. Spin to the music. Spin to the rotation of the handle.

The water’s boiled. The coffee’s ground. Ready to brew.

Pour the fresh water over the grounds. Set the timer. Wait patiently.

Decant coffee into a clean, white mug. Take the mug and go to the bedroom. Sit on the puffy blue cushions next to the window. Look at the snow outside.

Raising the drink to my lips, I sip. Warmth floods into me.

The song starts over again. My thoughts focus on the notes – and only the notes.

I draw deep breaths. Slower. Slower. Slower. The noise in my head quiets.

Meditation – the brewing and drinking of my coffee – brings calm.

tails wagging with joy
playfully prancing across
the snow covered fields
dogs know the best place to be
is outside in the fresh air

Bundled up in my coat, I go outside. Walk out the front door. Head toward the lake.

Stop to pick up a bunch of snow. Pack it into a snowball. Rub gloves across the surface, smoothing it to perfection.

Toss it at a tree. Watch it explode into a shower of falling snow. Pick up more snow and start over again.

Pause to pet the dog, who wags her tail with delight. Laugh as she chases a ball across the field, skidding on an icy patch. Share in her joy.

Look at the patterns of ice on the lake-shore. Admire nature’s sculptures of sand and ice.

My legs move. My body loosens. I inhale the clear air and exhale my stress into the wind.

Walking freshens my spirits.

***

Maybe I don’t need to develop new systems and structures. Perhaps I don’t need to learn new tactics and strategies.

I have all that I need already. I just need to use what I already know.

***

The surrounding circumstances don’t change right away, but through meditation and walking I am better able to handle them. I’m not quite so grumpy. I even make a joke from time to time.

The project turns out fine. We push back the deadline, and everyone involved is satisfied with the decision.

And thanks to the wonders of modern medicine, I begin to feel better again.

***

What about you? What rituals help you let go?

###

PHOTO: A lovely place to go walking. Chicago, IL.

To Surrender

A place to sit and do nothing.

A year ago, I felt stuck at my job. In an effort to boost my career, I started a newsletter. My goal was to provide a biweekly summary of industry news.

I launched the first newsletter, summarizing several articles and adding a discussion on a new technology. Two weeks later, I wrote another. And so on. The newsletter seemed to be going well.

Except it wasn’t. For all I thought the newsletter could benefit my career, each edition was a struggle. I didn’t want to write them.

It wasn’t they were hard. Read the industry news. Summarize the interesting articles. Put them all in a single document. Post the document to the company’s electronic bulletin board. Ten minutes a day was a reasonable time commitment.

It wasn’t that I was afraid. It wasn’t that the newsletters took away from my other work. It was that I didn’t care enough. I wasn’t truly interested in what I was doing.

Two weeks became two and a half weeks. The number of unread articles and magazines in my queue got bigger. I put off writing until the last possible moment. Every newsletter was a fight. And I grew frustrated.

The sands of time slip
Away never to return
Better use them all

Time is a precious resource. Once a second is gone, it’s gone for good. You can’t get it back. As I took up more projects and explored earning money outside of my job, I knew I needed to manage my time more efficiently. If I wanted to do everything, I needed to be regimented about how I worked.

No messing around. No second wasted. I created a schedule.

With the exception of a few breaks – you have to go to the bathroom sometime – I mapped out my entire week. Super productivity was on the way.

Except I couldn’t keep the schedule.

I’d get home from work and turn on my computer, intending to read the news for a few minutes before getting started. Three hours later, I hadn’t done any of the work I’d planned to do.

I’d stay up late at night and sleep through my alarm the next morning. My plans to write before going to work went out the window.

I grew frustrated. The more I fought, the more I seemed to slip. The more I slipped, the more I felt guilty. The more I felt guilty, the more I felt a failure.

All our weaknesses
Can defeat and overcome
The best intentions

Before I founded the Bright Army, I had another website on energy and sustainability.

I didn’t have a posting schedule. I assumed I’d just feel like writing and post something. I thought a schedule would be too restricting.

It turned out that I was wrong.

I’d make a post. Days would pass. Weeks would pass. Sometimes, even months would pass. And as the gap between articles widened, each post became harder to write. The failure weighed me down.

I fought my will. And, more times then not, I lost. It wasn’t that I didn’t care. I did. But I was lazy. I procrastinated. I let my weakness overcome me.

***

So much fighting. So much struggle. I fight to accomplish projects and goals. I strive to become someone. I battle to control the circumstances around me.

But what if we aren’t meant to fight? What if we’re meant to do something far more difficult? What if we’re meant to surrender?

***

The gift that is life
Is too great to spend it on
Work you don’t care for

I surrendered the work I didn’t want to do.

Accepting that I didn’t care about the newsletter, I stopped writing it. Making that decision was like dropping a heavy weight. It freed me.

Instead, I focused on work that didn’t require motivation – work that interested, challenged, and excited me.

I created programs and tools to automate my work. I tweaked and improved the design of my website. I started the Bright Army and wrote stories and poems. A few months later, I gave up my job so I could devote even more time to those interests.

Nothing I tell you
Is often the recipe
For the perfect day

I surrendered the idea of being productive in every second of the day.

Abandoning my rigid schedule, I embraced freedom.

When I had a spare minute, I didn’t attempt to accomplish anything. I’d grab a book and lose myself in a story. I’d take a walk outside and enjoy the afternoon sunshine. And sometimes I’d just sit there, doing absolutely nothing. Those times of stillness are now among my greatest treasures.

As a bonus, I found myself doing more. Work became an activity I chose to do. And because it was my choice, it was enjoyable.

The will is not strong
Allow systems and habits
To do the lifting

I surrendered my attempt to overcome my weaknesses with force of will.

Focusing on what drives me, I set up systems and habits that enable me to do what I enjoy and care about.

When I launched this site, I set a schedule of one post a week. Every Tuesday morning, whether I want to or not, a story is going up.

Where I thought the schedule would restrict me, it freed me. It directed my energy into writing. Because I didn’t want to disappoint my readers, the cost of not posting became higher than the cost of posting. I had no choice but to write.

And so I have. Today’s story marks the completion of one year of consistency.

Along the way, I’ve created a few other habits to help me. Every day, I write at least three pages – my thanks to 750words.com for the helping me start that habit. Every day, I post a poem on Google+. Every day, I make time for silence – space to think and reflect.

***

Surrender requires giving up control. It demands you put aside your ego and pride. You don’t know where life will take you. You can’t guarantee the outcome. But that’s OK.

In place of the battle, you find peace. In place of the struggle, you find meaning. In place of the fight, you find contentment. You have enough. You are enough.

***

When the best laid plans
Fall victim to circumstance
Will you surrender

My parents, wife, and I take an afternoon trip to Geneva, IL. The downtown area has several fun shops to explore – handmade clothing, art, and food. Best of all is a coffee shop that roasts their beans fresh every day. We are going to sit for a while and enjoy a cup. It’s the perfect plan.

Except it’s New Year’s Eve, and we forgot to check what time the store closed. A call from the car reveals the coffee shop will be open for only ten minutes after we arrive. No time for a coffee.

I fight with myself, wondering why I didn’t think to check the closing time. I get frustrated at the others. They should have checked the time too. I wish I could control the circumstances and make everything perfect for me.

The whole afternoon is ruined. We might as well turn around and go home.

Yet again, I have to surrender. Yet again, I have to give up control.

There is nothing I can do to change the fact that the coffee shop would close. All I can do is make the most with what we have and have a good time anyways. So I do.

We walk through the shops, stopping at tables here and there for a sample of delicious food. We admire the art. We enjoy being together.

And we find another coffee shop. At a table by the fireplace, we sit enjoying our treats – hot chocolate for my dad, ice cream for my wife and my mom, and an espresso for me.

I surrender to gratitude.

###

A place to sit and do nothing. Slovenia.