One of my favorite Zen stories goes like this. A prisoner is left to die in a dingy cell. Faced with total darkness, he focuses on a tiny pinpoint of light coming from somewhere above. He climbs the bars in order to get closer to the light only to find that his head becomes pressed against bars above. Doggedly focused on the light, seeing it as his only hope, he gradually weakens and dies. If he’d been willing to give up, and drop to the filthy floor and crawl around a bit, he would have discovered that the jailer had forgotten to lock the cell and he could simply walk out.
Our society gives us strong messages about success and excellence and admonishes us to “hang in there,” “never give up, never give in.” I often see people who tenaciously stay on course, whether it’s a job, a relationship, or a perspective on life, until it kills them in body, mind, and spirit. I believe that part of maturity is learning the value of surrender. People often tell me, “I’ve failed once and I won’t let myself fail again.” Well, frankly, I’m for throwing out this word “failure” when it comes to human life. Failure is a fine word when we’re talking about computers or cars, but humans are much too complex to think in such simple terms. Seeing ourselves as failures dooms our souls to insignificance, irrelevance. Banishing the word failure levels the playing field, making it possible for anyone to value himself and to honor his soul. It makes it possible for a street person to be of no less value than, say, Donald Trump, or you or me.
Even though the concept is cliched, I like the “learning experience” approach to living. I make a decision and step in one direction. I may keep going in that direction or I may change course based on knowledge learned along the way. I try to remain very gentle and kind toward myself, internally saying things like, “Well, that looked like a good idea, but now I think it best to step in a new direction.” Surrender often leads to unexpected rewards.