Learning to Swim: The Importance of Surrender on the Tantric Path

What does it mean to surrender? And how is this relevant to the Tantric path?

I call surrender a skill because surrender’s importance to the effectiveness of sadhana (spiritual practice) is a bit like the process of learning to swim. In Tantra and Hinduism, the fish is used as a symbol of moving effortlessly through a murky world, remaining shining and free from those things that impede our clarity and vision. But we cannot become fish if we cannot first learn to swim.

I remember very well the sensation of learning to swim when I was a young child, and have taught others how to swim since then. Learning to swim requires patience and trust, the key ingredients in learning to cultivate surrender.

Surrender means opening ourselves with divine love to a more expansive way of being in the world, and being willing to face our deepest, darkest fears with courage and non-attachment.

The first thing you have to learn is how to float on your back. In order to do this, you have to do things with your body that may seem illogical or uncomfortable – you lie on your back in the water, feeling totally exposed. You have to arch your back, and stretch your head back. It can feel like your head is going to be overcome by the water, like you’re surely going to drown! But as soon as you tense and fold your body, or lift your head up, you sink. At some point, you have to let go of your fear, stretch out your body, and then relax into this position. You have to allow the water to hold you up, instead of struggling against it.

You do this by first learning to trust the person holding you up in the water, as they talk you through the process. The instructor has been here, they know what it’s like to go through this difficult first part of the process. They won’t let you drown or get hurt, but they do know that you have to get wet, that you have to stumble and make mistakes as you learn. They have one goal in mind – to teach you to swim on your own. And the first thing you have to do is to learn to do the most basic thing – to trust the water itself. One can always become a better swimmer, learn more strokes, learn to swim faster – and your instructor or coach can help you achieve all of these things, if you have the ability to do them. But you can’t swim a 1000 meter race before you first learn to float on your own.

Once they can tell that you are doing the right things, they begin to pull back. You think they are still holding you up, but they know that you are doing most of the work now. At some point, they let go. And then you lose faith, and you fold your body in fear, and you sink. And they try again, and you fail again. And they try again, and again, and at some point – you succeed.

After learning, after trial and error with what you’ve learned, at some point you eventually realize that you can float by yourself, that you can trust the water, and trust yourself. You can let go and surrender to the moment, and just float freely. When you practice this often, and get very comfortable, you can float effortlessly for a long, long time. You become one with the water.

This is the very same as trusting your guru, trusting the ocean of Infinite Being, trusting your ability to make it through the difficult moments and learn from mistakes. This is surrender.

As my gurus have told me, surrender doesn’t mean abandoning discernment. We choose our guru carefully by observing them for a long time. We cultivate patience, which is extremely important, especially in a culture that teaches us to want everything NOW NOW NOW. We learn to wait, and learn through the process of waiting. We learn to observe. We don’t blindly follow, but as we grow, we learn how to listen to our own Atman (divine Self). We also don’t allow ourselves to be governed by fear. Fear can be a powerful ally, or a brutal dictator. To be a Tantric sadhaka means, amongst other things, being willing and able to cultivate detachment from our fears, to use them as a roadmap for what is to be confronted and overcome. Surrender means opening ourselves with divine love to a more expansive way of being in the world, and being willing to face our deepest, darkest fears with courage and non-attachment.

This path isn’t for everyone, nor should it be. Each of us has our own karmas, which make us suitable for various paths. Regardless of the path, however, surrender is vitally important for spiritual progress. Trusting the Self, trusting the process of growth, and trusting the Mother who is nothing less than Infinite Being – these are keys in the movement toward liberation.

Photo credit: Life Saving Squad at Durga Puja Bisarjan 2006 in Kolkata, by Kulasundari Devi