Surrender – Is there always one hand on the controls?

Buddha on a leaf - Four Noble Truths

Surrender – Is there always one hand on the controls?

I have been studying and retreating with Doug and Catherine Sensei for 17 years. And for as long as Clear Sky has existed, I have been going there to do retreats pretty much every year. To surrender to the moment, watching my breath for days on end: heaven!

This year, back in late March and despite the COVID situation, I managed to get a flight to Clear Sky to start a month-long solitary retreat. Given the pandemic situation, you can imagine that Clear Sky felt like an oasis in the middle of a desert. 

The retreat went great and was exactly what I needed. I had reserved the next three weeks, too, not in retreat but to experience being with the community (sangha) and the teachers. I would spend the first week fully immersed in the center’s schedule. For the second two weeks I would do a “hybrid program,” working my daytime job remotely from the office there. I would spend my non-working time in community, contributing and taking part in the daily schedule where I could.

I thought it would be smooth sailing, having done it in various formats over the years. The reality was anything but.

Keeping one hand on the controls

As I mentioned, I had been there for a month already, in retreat. Then I was working to the center’s timetable, a schedule that runs from 7am to 8pm every day. I continued to sleep in the same retreat cabin, however, which doesn’t have electricity or Internet. To some people, this could be a sanctuary to chill and go offline. However, that’s not what my mind chose to believe.  Instead, it seemed to reinforce in me a feeling of being trapped.

By the end of the first week out of the retreat, my mind had already started planning what I would do after I returned to Toronto. Because of this mindset, by the middle of the second week I was very ready to leave. Part of my mind kept telling me I would be happier (i.e. less trapped) when I got back to Toronto, where I could do what I liked anytime.

One thing about being with the Teachers and trainers is—no view or personal preference goes unexamined. So, as my departure date loomed, the teachers proposed a new plan – why not stay a bit longer?

My first reaction to that idea was a big NO.  I had already set an expectation in my mind that I would regain my freedom once I left the center. I couldn’t wait to return to Toronto!

My conversation with Doug and Catherine Sensei went something like this:

“Bat, you should stay longer at Clear Sky, it would be beneficial for your growth and unfoldment.”

“I can’t. I have something VERY important to do in Toronto.”

“What is that?”

“I have to… pickup my mail.”

Putting our aspirations to the test

It was an interesting moment for me. At the depth, I knew staying at the center with the Teachers and the community would be a better and more awakening choice. And I didn’t actually have to be back in Toronto. However, my preference mind was screaming otherwise. The rubber was hitting the road, testing my true intention to put this spiritual work first in my life. I suddenly saw what that really meant—to surrender my preferences.

Before long, with the help of the teachers, Doug and Catherine Sensei, and my trainer Duncan, I was able to let this expectation go. I decided to extend my stay until the end of May, a total of five weeks after the retreat. Once that decision was made, I noticed an obvious shift. Now that I had let go of the preference, I could ease into being present, effortlessly. The part of my mind that had kept on planning, rejecting, and fantasizing, just stopped.

The rest of my stay was more than wonderful. There was a sense of surrendering, easefulness, calm, and serenity that prevailed in all my activities. It was just beautiful.

Surrendering our preferences, or just managing them?

For years, I’ve known that going against my preference mind breaks deeply rooted habits. Yet, this belief was really put to the test. By committing to seven weeks, I thought I had done enough. But it wasn’t about that. The fact that I was so ready to move on meant I wasn’t being present. Plus, though I am a dedicated practitioner, I didn’t recognize that I was still in charge of how much I wanted to give up and how far I would push my limits. So in a sense, I wasn’t surrendering my preferences, I was just managing them!

One thing I gained from this taste of surrender was a feeling of deep peace and tranquility.  When I didn’t care if I got what I wanted or not anymore, a true sense of freedom arose. Imagine, if we can surrender like this to every moment, not trying to change or fix what is, we will be constantly dwelling in that sense of joy and easefulness.

Another lesson I learned is that the stories I tell myself inside my head are pretty arbitrary. I’ve known this, too, for a long time, but I still choose to believe my stories because doing otherwise challenges my preferences. During my stay at Clear Sky, nothing outside of me changed; what changed were the stories I was fabricating inside my head. When the stories stopped… well, the suffering stopped.

I feel very grateful to my teachers (Doug and Catherine Sensei), my trainer (Duncan), and to everyone at Clear Sky who supported me during my stay and made it an even more transformative experience.

Bat Fung  By Bat Fung

Edited by Andrew Rogers