In the West we grow up with the sense that we must learn to take control of our lives. Little is left to the workings of fate. By the time we are adults, we must be able to make decisions and take responsibility for the direction of our lives. We must become self-sufficient individuals in a society that is ever more competitive and demanding. Central to this entire process is the ego. Having a competent, effective, and confident ego is crucial to success in the world.
As a psychotherapist, I am fascinated by those times when—through factors outside of our control, like illness, loss of work, or a change in circumstances—this entire edifice begins to crumble. At such times we enter a period of uncertainty about the form and direction of our lives. The ego begins to recognize that it doesn’t have real control over what’s happening. We feel lost, unsure of our ground, fearful of the unknown, and powerless. These times of liminality are like a bardo—an intermediate phase between states of being—and can lead to a kind of breakdown as familiar forms begin to dissolve and new forms have yet to emerge. It is tempting to grasp at something that will rapidly patch up the cracks and create a sense of security. We can experience these fearful times as periods of great danger, or we can see them as opportunities to change the orientation of our life. On our journey to freedom these are significant experiences, because they allow us to go beyond the ego’s dominance.
This is an uncomfortable process, often accompanied by great resistance, fear, and even depression. We are required to let go and open to the unknown, and yet we still cling to what once felt secure. It can seem as though there are greater forces at work actively trying to change us. As Buddhists we may not find it easy to make sense of these apparent forces, since we do not ascribe such phenomena to God or other omnipotent agents.
There is a Sufi tale of a man on a quest who finds himself trapped in a huge public bath. The man is alone and knows that if he does not escape he will die. A parrot suddenly appears and tells him that if he can shoot it with his bow and arrow, he will be free. The man has three arrows and quickly fires the first. The parrot flutters into the air, and the man misses. The man turns to stone from the feet to the waist. He fires a second arrow, misses, and turns to stone up to the shoulders. He has one arrow left. What should he do? If he misses a third time he is dead.
This riddle beautifully illustrates the challenge of those times when our conventional ego strategies fall apart and will actually lead to our demise if we go on. The story ends when the man closes his eyes, says, “God is great,” and fires the arrow. This time he hits the parrot and is freed. When faced with no other options, he has to give up to something greater than himself to find a different source of resolution.
Buddhism can lead us to live with a worldview in which there is nothing greater than ourselves that we can give up to. We experience the emptiness of self but remain within the ego’s sphere of consciousness. With no other sustaining presence, not even the wisdom of the Buddhas, we may feel alone. To what or whom do we offer our prayers? Are we like Coleridge’s Mariner, alone on a vast sea with nothing or no one to hear us when we call out for help? Where has the divine gone?
To understand the psychological process that is at the heart of these times of crisis, it is useful to consider Carl Jung’s view on individuation. Jung used the term individuation “to denote a process of becoming a psychological ‘individual,’ that is, a separate, indivisible unity or whole.” To individuate is to gradually actualize our innate capacity to live as a unique individual. Jung recognized that there would be times on this journey when we are challenged to surrender the central dominance of ego to the deeper significance of what he called the “Self.” For Jung, “Self ” refers to the center of our totality—a deeper seat of wisdom that holds a sense of our innate potential as we unfold in our lives. He was not implying that the Self had some kind of ultimate existence, but that it is nevertheless experienced as a center of wholeness, just as the ego is experienced as a center of consciousness. The Self individuates us—that is to say, its “intention” is that we evolve in such a way that the relationship between the ego and the Self matures. At certain times on our journey, the ego begins to realize that it is not the prime mover, that there are forces at work that have far greater influence. The Self asserts a kind of psychological pressure on us to change and become whole, a pressure that can be extremely disquieting as the ego loses its safe, familiar ground. A major aspect of this undercurrent of change is the need to shift our understanding of what is really at the center of our lives. The shift of emphasis from the ego to the Self has been described as the shift from “I will” to “Thy will be done.” While as a Buddhist I find the notion of a Thy somewhat untenable, I have always found the sentiment of letting go to some deeper sense of purpose profoundly meaningful.
As Buddhists, we do not use the term “Self ” to denote the divine, but we should understand that Jung’s “Self ” is an inner expression of our totality, not some form of external God. We could substitute “Buddha-nature” for “Self.” Indeed, Jung saw the deities of the Tantric tradition as symbolic expressions of the Self. In the seminal Mahayana text the Uttaratantra Shastra—said to have been dictated to Asanga by the bodhisattva Maitreya—Buddha-nature is described as our primordial nature, undefiled but not recognized by the ordinary mind. It is “like a golden statue wrapped in filthy rags.” When the obscuring veil is lifted, Buddhahood is realized.
In our journey of individuation as Buddhists, we come to the same points that Jung describes. We are asked to let go of the domination of the ego to surrender to a more profound wisdom. If we do not do this consciously, then the course of our lives will often demand that we change. When it does, we can either fight or accept the process. Perhaps the most dramatic examples of this I have seen are when people are diagnosed with cancer or suffer a heart attack—some crisis that requires them to radically reflect on how they have lived their lives. A woman I know who, in an attempt to sustain an unhealthy organization though a time of internal conflict, found herself holding a huge amount of other people’s emotional stress. Only when she was diagnosed with cancer did she begin to understand the impact this was having on her. She realized she had to stop sacrificing her own welfare and let the organization go.
Buddhism asks us to relinquish the domination of the ego and its habits. We can do this by understanding the emptiness of self or ego. We can also understand this as the surrender of the ego to a deeper aspect of our nature that is transforming us. We may find that surrendering in this way is unfamiliar, but there are Buddhist practices intended to facilitate exactly this, particularly the practice of prostration.
I am often asked why prostration—the ritual of bowing, kneeling, or lying face down before an image of the Buddha—is so important in Tibetan Buddhism. Although most schools of Buddhism have this ritual, it is particularly emphasized in the Tibetan tradition. Prostration can seem quaintly medieval; indeed, it has origins in a time when kneeling or lying prostrate on the ground before a king or emperor was expected. The way this has become translated into Buddhist practice therefore needs to be understood more deeply if it is to make sense as a spiritual practice.
Traditional Tibetan teachings on prostration give many examples of its benefits: prostration can purify countless aeons of negative karma; the degree of purification is determined by the area of ground one may cover; the result of practice is rebirth in a beautiful body; and so forth. Personally, I have never found these ideas particularly convincing and have no way of knowing if they are true. I could see how the practice could counter pride, but always felt there must be more to it psychologically. When we understand that the figure, often a deity, to which we prostrate ourselves is an image of our totality—or, to use Jung’s language, an image of the Self—then we are performing a practice that involves the ego’s surrender to the Self. If we translate this into Buddhist understanding, the ego is honoring the more profound wisdom of our Buddha-nature, manifest in the deity.
Having performed around two hundred thousand prostrations in India between 1980 and 1985, I became very aware of the cleansing or purification power of the practice. Even just treated as a repetitive physical exercise, prostrations release huge amounts of emotional toxins held in the body. During periods of intense prostrations in Bodh Gaya beside the Maha Bodhi Temple, I experienced an extraordinary shift in the energetic nature of my body. Sometimes I found myself in agony, at others, ecstatic. What became particularly apparent as I continued this practice, however, was a powerful feeling of surrender. I sensed a deep shift in orientation as my Buddha-nature became the center of my journey, the root of meaning and direction. I was gradually giving up some level of self-will in order to align with a deeper sense of what must unfold. It has often surprised me that in the process of surrender what I give up is fear and struggle. A kind of strength comes from truly giving up. Something changes when I genuinely let go and ask for help. The challenge is maintaining this openness, rather than grasping at solid forms or quick solutions to feel safe. It’s not that I give up personal responsibility, believing that some external entity is going to rescue me. Rather, I realize that if I truly listen to the innate wisdom of my Buddha-nature, it will guide me. “Trust your inner knowledge-wisdom,” my teacher Lama Thubten Yeshe used to say.
As we learn to surrender, we may discover that we’re very afraid to make such a deep psychological transition. In what do we trust if we give up control? To support our journey, we can project our surrender onto an outer person in the form of a guru. Many Tibetan Buddhist texts put great emphasis on the guru, “to whose lotus feet we prostrate ourselves,” as the root of the path and the source of realization. As Westerners we often have a certain ambivalence about this; we worry about whether or not the guru is trustworthy. There are times when it is fundamentally inappropriate or even hazardous to give so much power away. But if we understand the guru to be a projection of our own innate Buddha-nature, this relationship makes more sense.
As we surrender, we offer the whole of our life to the process of awakening. “In order to benefit sentient beings,” writes Pabongka Rinpoche in the Heruka Sadhana, “I offer myself immediately to all the Buddhas.” We offer ourselves as a vehicle for our Buddha-nature to manifest in the world for the welfare of others. We allow ourselves to be transformed. With this heartfelt attitude, one prostration performed at the right moment can touch us as deeply as one hundred thousand done without such commitment.
I have found that this process of surrender can profoundly affect the level of anxiety in our daily lives. For someone who is self-employed (like me), times when work is scarce can be very challenging. Fearing disaster, I can go into an insecure, anxious state. Insecurity makes many of us work so hard that we become stressed and even ill. It is then very hard to let go and trust that we will be okay. The transition is uncomfortable, and instead of allowing change to unfold we often stay in a safety zone that becomes increasingly unhealthy. But I have found that if I can surrender to the process and trust that something needs to change, my anxiety declines. I can create an inner space for something new to unfold rather than lock into a pattern. At these times I find myself offering my life up with the thought “May my life be taken where it is most beneficial to go.”
A paradox inherent in this process is expressed by the curious Middle Eastern proverb “Trust in God but tether your camel.” While we need to let go and give up on one level, we must be practical and retain a sense of active participation in and responsibility for the process. We do not simply drift into a kind of formless abandonment of the practicalities of life. This does not mean falling back into the habit of trying to compulsively organize everything so that we feel in control. We must walk a fine line between surrender and engagement. As we individuate, we learn to remain open to the nature of uncertainty in the journey, allowing ourselves to fearlessly unfold. At the same time, our active participation in the process functions as a kind of dialogue between the ego and our Buddha-nature. We still pay the bills, do the washing up, and take the kids to school. We may not know where this journey will take us, but we can trust that as we fully engage in the deeper undercurrent of unfolding, life will become ever more fulfilling.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.