Victory by Surrender

girl jumpingThink of a problem that has plagued you for a long time—your weight, a loved one’s bad habits, fear of terrorism, whatever. No doubt you’ve tried valiantly to control this issue, but are your efforts working? The answer has to be no; otherwise you would have solved the problem long ago. What if your real trouble isn’t the issue you brood about so compulsively, but the brooding itself?

Psychologists who subscribe to a form of therapy called acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) call “clean” pain what we feel when something hurtful happens to us. “Dirty” pain is the result of our thoughts about how wrong this is, how it proves we—and life—are bad. The two kinds of suffering occupy different sections of the brain: One part simply registers events, while another creates a continuous stream of thoughts about those events. The vast majority of our unhappiness comes from this secondary response—not from painful reality but from painful thoughts about reality. Western psychology is just accepting something saints and mystics have taught for centuries: that this suffering ends only when we learn to detach from the thinking mind.

Judge not…

Learning to detach starts with simply noticing our own judgmental thoughts. When we find ourselves using words like should or ought, we’re courting dirty pain. Obsessing about what should be rather than accepting what is, we may try to control other people in useless, dysfunctional ways. We may impotently rage against nature itself, even—perhaps especially—when that nature is our own.

This amounts to mental suicide. Resisting what we can’t control removes us from reality, rendering our emotions, circumstances and loved ones inaccessible. The result is a terrible emptiness, which we usually blame on our failure to get what we want. Actually, it comes from refusing to accept what we have.

Victory by Surrender

Most of us see yielding as the ultimate failure, but that’s absurd when the war is between us and reality.

Surrendering allows the truth to set us free. And how do we surrender? Two words: Observe compassionately.

I recently watched television interviews with two actresses, both in their late fifties. Each was asked if she’d found anything good about aging. Both snapped, “No. Nothing. It’s horrible.” A few days later, I saw Maya Angelou on TV. She said that aging was “great fun” and gleefully described watching her breasts in their “incredible race to see which one will touch my waist first.”

“Sure, the body is going,” she said. “But so what?”

Ms. Angelou has said many wise things, but I thought “So what?” was one of her wisest. It expressed the sweet detachment of someone who has learned how to rest in her real being and knows that it is made not of flesh or thought, but of love.

The Fruits of Acceptance

There is enormous relief in detaching from our mental stories, but in my experience, the results go well beyond mere feeling. Surrendering leads directly to our right lives, our hearts’ desires. Whenever I’ve managed to release my scary stories and accept the truth of my life, I’ve stumbled into more happiness than I ever dreamed possible.

When I stop trying to control my mind—that verbose, paranoiac old storyteller—my thoughts become clearer and more intelligent. It’s a delicious paradox: By not trying to control the uncontrollable, we get what we thought we’d get if we were in control.

This thought pleases me greatly.


  1. Bridgette Hoskins says

    All I can say is: Yes. Thank you. I felt a certain amount of tension leave my body as I read this. I’m working on acceptance of all things, and this was a nice big stepping stone.

  2. says

    I love it. Thank you, Martha.
    The truth is, thoughts only hurt because we think it says something about who we are and our worth as human beings. As you say, thoughts are just there. They happen. They are not us. The power of the “so what?” is that it reminds us that the [hurting thought] has nothing to do with ourselves because the answer is always “so… nothing.”

    I’ve been beating myself up over having lots of anxiety about something. “So I suck at X, Y and Z. So what?” So… nothing. I am no less a worthy human being. It’s just something I’m going through right now but it doesn’t define me in any way.

    So, nothing. Liberating.

  3. says

    This is exactly what I needed to hear today, recommended by a friend for whom it was exactly what she needed to hear. Because of this, I’ll practice being gentler with myself and others. Wishing the same for all…thank you for this post!

  4. says

    I write a blog for women dealing with their husband’s infidelity and this blog post is EXACTLY what so many of us need to hear. We – society – so often think a spouse’s affair says something about the cheated-upon spouse: she was a nag, she was getting old, she was getting fat, boring in bed, blah blah blah. And far too often we believe that we could have controlled our spouse if only we (fill in verb here…). We can’t control others…but we can control our own thoughts. And by clinging to the storyline that we’re undesirable, unlovable, etc., we’re hurting ourselves and preventing that which we so desperately seek: peace of mind.
    Thank-you for this lovely and crucial reminder that only we write our stories…

  5. says

    A great post, thank you. What is is – not what we think about it is. I am sitting here in front of my pc. I am not lazy, sorry Mum (uuuppps, back to reality again) …

  6. Susan Smith says

    “Most of us see yielding as a the ultimate failure, but that’s absurd when the war is between us and reality.”

    OK…I loved the article Martha…I really did. But I guess the question is, What is “Reality?” I mean, is it reality that I will always be fat…or that men will cheat on women? How do you accept what you have right now at this moment…and either not want to fix it or change it….or obesses about it?

    Yes, we have to accept some “obvious” things…like the fact that gravity will ravage our breasts over time (that part was too funny:). But what do we do when our spouses say…Yes I cheated on you…and I love you too much to lie and say it will never ever happen again. Should we detach and accept…or obesses…or find someone who will give us 100% fidelity (ha!)? That’s the gray area…figuring out what is reality…and what is not. I mean we can’t just accept everything?

    The scary part is that…I guess… “reality”actually changes as we age…

    Thanks for the insightful article!

    • susan phelps says

      I think sometimes we have to create our own reality or “change” what that reality is.If my spouse told me he loved me “too much to lie and say it will never happen again” it would certainly be time to change that reality.Best wishes to you for a brighter and happier future.

    • Fialka says

      I think ‘accepting’ (in this example, and how it’s often interpreted) doesn’t have to mean you accept something without responding/ taking any action – when that is in your power.

      Just talking about your example (hope you don’t mind!) while you can’t change another person, you do have control over your own response, and you do have a choice. E.g. to say, ‘I accept you are like that and I choose to stay with you regardless’ or ‘I accept you are like that and I choose not to stay with you any longer’.

      How I understand it, it’s accepting what is right there in that moment, not wishing it to be otherwise – at that moment – but then responding from that standpoint. Accepting also doesn’t mean you don’t respect your own boundaries.

      Accepting can mean SEEING the reality and saying, you know what, this is not right for me and I’m going to do something differently – instead of wishing things were different.

  7. Reena says

    I like this article. It is doable! I agree to each point. I changed my life script after becoming an adult. I am free of guilt, dilemma and most importantly I have accepted myself for who I am. For me reality is doing my part. Whether it is emracing my aging body or helping my spouse to lead a constructive life. Detaching oneself from situations does not necessarily mean becoming passive. It means becoming active in leading enlightened life and moving towards our positive self.

  8. says

    I think “reality” is (with a nod to 12-step programs the world over) accepting that which we cannot change. We can change our weight. We can change our hair color. We can change our job. Etc. What we can’t change is other people, laws of physics and so on. However, we can certainly change our response to other people, how we allow them to treat us, laws of physics, and so on…and therein lies the power.
    Just my (hard-earned!!!) two cents. :)

  9. says

    Susan, perhaps what you’re really asking is “What is acceptance?”? It doesn’t matter what reality is. It’s our view of it that makes or breaks the situation. I loved Martha’s recent post (A Formula for Happiness). She wrote, “Right now, make a list of everything you yearn for. Make sure that you realize that your yearning is for the emotional sensation that the experience would bring you rather than the form itself. (For example, you don’t just wish for the perfect lover, but for the sensation of knowing you are deeply loved. The perfect lover without that feeling would do nothing for you.)” She is right about what it is that we really yearn for–it’s the feeling we’re really seeking. Acceptance, then, is realizing it’s within your power to change your mind about your opinion (judgment) of the circumstance so that you can feel the way you want to feel. Feelings are produced by thoughts. We often choose to feel miserable as a form of self-punishment. Choosing to feel OK about the circumstance (i.e., acceptance) doesn’t make the thing “right”–you’re not condoning it. You’re just allowing yourself some self-respect by allowing yourself not to fall into the blame game (yourself or the other person) and instead realizing, as Ms. Angelou says, “So what?”! This circumstance does not define who I am or control how I feel.

  10. says

    Yesterday in yoga I was doing that inner thighs back thing I’ve done about 80 zillion times. And my teacher came and asked me to relax. “Why?”
    “You’re over-efforting” she replied.
    And then I got it. Opening in my sacrum (and letting all that breath in) is simply about acceptance.
    Now I read this and more just pours into that open space of receptivity. It really is about simply saying, “Yes, please. I’ll take what comes my way.”
    Golly, this is quite large. :)

    • Marsha says

      Me too. Thank you Martha. The daily inspirations are the 1st thing I read every day. It’s been my worst year ever but I’m still working hard to get better. I have a terrible time in LETTING GO. If only I could snap my fingers & feel all better permanently. Love & peace to all..

  11. says

    Again, another fine article, Martha, on Life experiences! As with the other readers above, I also do the same thing, in that, I allow my emotions to do all the thinking, and not realizing, of course, that this not who I really am, inside! (e.g.) The fact that a relationship of 13 yrs., that happened over two years ago, has left me feeling, inadequate at times, low self esteem, and continuous questions about woulda, coulda, shoulda, thinking! How wrong for me to put myself in such an emotional state of despair, when I can’t control it nor change what the other person chooses to think, feel or do? I AM more then someone else’s decisions, actions or feelings. Thank you, Martha, for the insight!

  12. Sino says

    Very insightful & very very helpful, especially because we have been conditioned to harshly criticise and judge ourselves. This gives me the tools to understand what is happening when I harshly judge myself and allows me to make a choice to detach meaningfully knowing that the act of detachment is an act of love.
    Thank you so much Martha. This will help me with my healing process.

  13. maryann thompson says




  14. Christina says

    This is so true! You just have to remember this when you get caught up in your own story. Thanks for the lovely reminder.

  15. vicki says

    This is what Byron Katie writes about:all events are neutral until we put our ‘stories’ on them.

    Believing negative thoughts is the source of pain, not the painful events themselves.

  16. says

    This speaks greatly to me today! I have heard similar message from different sources and hearing it again with slightly different words but same truth, it is sinking in deeper. Wonderful post!

  17. Heather says

    For weeks I have been plagued by fear OF an upcoming presentation. I decided to simply observing my fear and not try to control it. My fear pulled out a lot of stops, played a lot of tricks, and my body gained a few pounds in the process, but today was my presentation and because I decided at the beginning of this process that I would show up no matter what, it felt like I had a date to jump out of an airplane and I was not going to back down. When you jump, you surrender. It was so strange this morning to be at this place in my life where I realize the material I am presenting is my joyful contribution to the world and I was standing with my fear but not overcome by it – more like I was holding my own hand and walking along. I was unable to prepare in the way that would make me comfortable – the whole process has been VERY uncomfortable – but I surrendered and took a leap of faith. The presentation flowed well and I learned a lot. I felt I spoke with my whole self – I have integrated my self. When I got home I laid down to rest and felt something I have not felt in years: my heart was warm and full of energy. Giving up control allowed me to find extreme healing in my body and renewed self-confidence.

  18. says

    This was sent to me by a friend, obviously suggesting I read it. I have quite a few different chronic illnesses that battle each other, and then cause other illnesses that I have trouble heLing from. With all I am going through, I do practice ACT for my pain…but, I never took it to the “story” level if the illnesses that transpire due to the other two main ones.
    This was an eye-opening read. Being a Health Coach fir people with Chronic Illness, I see that you have a lot to offer us as far as advice,and support..
    My friend told me she adores you, Martha Beck and I see why!!
    You are on the top of my list is too…and I will have yo work you into my program! Thank you.

  19. Marsha says

    Thank you Martha. The daily inspirations are the 1st thing I read every day. It’s been my worst year ever but I’m still working hard to get better. I have a terrible time in LETTING GO. If only I could snap my fingers & feel all better — permanently.
    Love & peace to all..

  20. Heather says

    Yes! Thank you Martha, for taking the time to write about this quality of observation and surrender in your usual brilliant and compelling way. I may not always be able to describe my stance in life, or the value and humor I find in the experince of observing my thoughts without attachment, or my on-again off-again relationship with my ego as I am seduced or entertained, but I can easily link family and friends to your words when my own words fail me. You say it so well. Thanks again for your generous and loving contribution to the evolution of humanity. PEACE and LOVE always.

  21. lyn says

    My pattern also includes ‘could’ happen. And I chew on all the ways I might react or actions I might take if this catastrophe should occur. Always worrying about a darker future. Have to have a talk with Fang!

  22. Annie says

    What do you do if accepting things the way they are now is too painful? I can’t imagine accepting that I will be living here the rest of my life and might actually die and be buried here. I’ve already given up most of my soul since I’ve been here. Acceptance would mean giving the rest of it away.

  23. says

    I suffer from terrible anxiety and panic attacks and am working so hard on just that right now…accepting. “By not trying to control the uncontrollable, we get what we thought we’d get if we were in control.” I also love this.
    It’s funny how hard it is to let go of trying to control things, but it definitely helps a great deal. Great article!

  24. Anil Paranjpe says

    What a wonderfully simple and direct way of communicating…wonderful….the paradox of surrendering or is it of control?? whatever….

    I simply loved this …Observe compassionately => Surrendering => truth sets you free!! Delicious

  25. says

    I am just beginning another summer searching for the right job and had already begun going down the path of “should have saids” in the post interview days. I don’t want this to be a summer where I am to stuck in my head and detatched from my family to enjoy life and what I have. Thank you for the reset button!!

  26. Shelley says

    I cannot even begin to tell you the wisdom you have imparted upon me. Thank you for being wholly and wonderfully you.

  27. selma says

    just as I was thinking about acceptance, your post totally ruined all my carefully built theory – which as predicted was all wrong; your wonderful humor cures from thinking and worrying, cause it is so simple – so what? then my ego cannot find any answer relevant enough to get me trapped – thank you for my today’s light which came to me with your wise and funny post !


leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>