And what we surrender, what we die to is, in the thought of Zen, not the self or the mind but rather that image of the self or the mind which we have mistakenly come to identify with who we really are. . . . what we are renouncing in prayer is, essentially, unreality. And the pain of the renunciation will be in proportion to the extent that we have committed ourselves to unreality, the extent to which we have taken our illusions to be real.
– John Main O. S. B.
Every time I sit in meditation I lose my life to find my life. How is this so? Those of us who have spent time consciously journeying on the spiritual path know all about surrender—at least in the abstract. We know that Jesus told the rich young man to sell everything and follow him. (Luke 10:2i) This is one of the most unsettling gospel stories to me because like the young man I don’t want to do this. As admirable as I think it would be to do so, at this point in my journey I am not going to be like St. Francis and forsake all my worldly goods to live a life of poverty. So by thinking in extremes—give up everything—I conveniently let myself off the hook. It is all too much so therefore I just won’t do any of it.
But this morning when I sat down to meditate I first read the above words by John Main, and all of a sudden it became crystal clear to me why it is so difficult for me to meditate. Even though I tell myself and others everyday how essential this practice is I still have to be very focused and intentional about it or I won’t do it. There are always dozens of things that need doing first, and I will never convince the restless voice within me that this isn’t so. I just sit in spite of it.
Making the choice to sit is excruciating because it is making the choice to give up my own particular agenda—the one that seems so tangible and real—but that is in actuality an illusion. This “agenda” is my life; it is the life of what Thomas Merton calls the false self and Zen points to as the illusion of the separate self—small mind as opposed to Big Mind. This small self or false self is not bad; it just isn’t real. So in order to find my True Self I have to lose the agenda of the false self.
This simply means stopping what I am doing and sitting in stillness for a certain amount of time. But simple is not easy. It is the stopping that is the surrender. I stop reacting to the voice that tells me to hurry and pack for the trip I’m leaving on in a short while, to write the letter that is overdue, to check my email and catch up with Twitter and Facebook and get the dishwasher loaded before I leave for work.
These are trivial thing when listed this way but they are my agenda—my life. I surrender my life or “lose it” in order to enter the “cloud of unknowing” where I gain the opportunity to find out who I really am in Christ. When I simply drop my agenda–surrender it to the Mystery that is so much greater than I am, I discover in some wholly unreasonable way that I am a part of this Mystery. With each surrender a piece of the illusion that obscures my vision falls away and I begin to discover my life. I lose it in order to find it.