A woman in one of our therapy groups got involved with an organization fostering freedom of sexual expression. She brought to the group descriptions of the things people did at the gatherings of this organization. These gatherings are held in a place where different rooms are devoted to different sorts of activities and members are free to wander among them, either in the nude or dressed in a manner expressive of their sexual interests. Any kind of consensual interaction is allowed except that which is directed toward achieving orgasm or causing injury. Her descriptions of a variety of unique activities, many of them genitally focused, stimulated a great deal of interest from other group members. Over time it was as if she were an explorer or anthropologist visiting unknown worlds and bringing back her fascinating field reports to the group. We all learned a great deal, I am sure.
Predictably, domination/submission was one of the themes of her reports. I was fascinated in particular by the report of couples’ entering into contractual agreements to play out this dynamic with each other much like, and sometimes in conjunction with, a marital contract. The person who agrees to be the submissive one promises to follow the other’s wishes in all matters, not just sexual ones. I found myself inwardly scoffing at the existential cowardice of voluntarily giving up one’s autonomous decision-making. Worse than joining the military or a religious cult so that one no longer has to think or make decisions for oneself, I thought. Other members of the group were obviously thinking similar things, and challenged our explorer’s endorsement of such arrangements. Her answer to these challenges was what really got my attention. She waxed a bit ethereal, something very uncharacteristic of her, and said that most people cannot imagine the peace and bliss that living a life of complete submission can bring. Something about her ease and gentle certainty in stating this slowed my judgments and stimulated a number of associations and reflections.
My first association to the word “submission” was the word “surrender.” While having similar meanings, surrender has a more positive connotation for me. I think of surrender as a voluntary decision or act while submission seems a bit more compelled, even if only by a contractual agreement previously entered into voluntarily. Once I began thinking in terms of surrender a host of positive associations came to me, some personal and some more generic.
I thought of an experience some years ago when I came across a ceremony in which some Catholic nuns were renewing their vows after twenty to forty, and in one case sixty, years. Normally I would have thought of these vows as a contract of submission, with the negative connotation I noted in the previous paragraph. However there was one line each of them said in the course of the ceremony that stood out for me: “He calls me by my name.” As I heard the first nun utter these words I was moved to tears and had the same response with each subsequent repetition. How could one possibly not surrender to a beloved who “calls me by my name”?
In addition to a divine beloved, there is the question of surrender to an earthly one as well. Much of the power and sweetness of orgasm is in the surrender to it once it has begun. The cultivation of a relationship with a lover can initially be seen as extending this attitude of surrender to all of the lovemaking that precedes orgasm, and ultimately to all of the relationship that precedes and follows periods of explicitly sexual connecting with one’s beloved.
There is a more generic pleasure to be found in surrendering to nature. “Make hay while the sun shines” can be taken as advice to submit to nature and often is given with the connotation that one is being coerced. However it can also be a reminder of the opportunity to surrender to something larger than oneself. I live in an urban area and do not cultivate any crops that directly or indirectly feed me and my family. However, when weather and season combine to invite me to tend my lawn or to harvest and split firewood on a particular day, I make an attempt to welcome the opportunity to surrender to such invitations. I tend to get up around the time the sun comes up and go to bed around the time the sun goes down. Similarly, when the weather is cold or hot, wet or dry, I attempt to find a way to enjoy each of these conditions, as if my lover were saying “Would you like to try it THIS way?” In general I seek to dance gracefully with nature while letting her lead. The same applies to my way of relating to clients in psychotherapy and to the source of ideas for articles like this one.
A few years ago I was in a discussion with a group of psychotherapists. There was some complaining about managed care and other forces in our culture that seem to be obstacles to a psychotherapy practice that is fulfilling, either financially or emotionally. I thought it might clarify things if we were to think about what it is about the practice of psychotherapy that is essential to our fulfillment, so I asked what people would do if psychotherapy were outlawed. The first answer came instantly from a woman who said: “I would go underground; psychotherapy is what I do.” I was moved by this statement in a manner that is similar to the way I was moved by the nuns who hear someone calling them by name. I like to think of psychotherapy as my calling, but this woman seemed to have moved beyond merely thinking of it that way to actually knowing it that way.
So we come to the concept of calling, perhaps the mother of all opportunities for surrender.
I grew up thinking that clergy were called and the rest of us had to thoughtfully and logically choose careers or professions. I felt a certain envy of those whose life’s course was determined once and for all by a single burning bush as I struggled to decide on a major in college or whether to refuse the draft for Vietnam. My envy was made worse by the fantasy that those who got a burning bush probably also had God whispering in their ear the right choice in all kinds of situations that came up later.
A number of things have mitigated my clergy envy over the years, including occasions when I and others I have known have felt well guided on our own non-clerical journeys. Recently I met a man about my age who also struggled mightily with how to respond to the draft during Vietnam. All of the anguish over whether to go to war, jail, Canada, or underground swirled around him and made it difficult to concentrate on anything else. Then one night he had a dream. In the dream he was walking into a clearing in a jungle just as a young Asian man walked into the clearing from the other side. They made and held eye contact for a few moments and then they each turned around and walked away from the other and back into the forest. He felt no need to analyze the dream in any way, and he never had another moment of angst about how to respond to the draft. He simply refused to cooperate in any way.
While a dream showing one how to respond to the draft could be described as an occasion of specific guidance, perhaps from the unconscious, I prefer to think of it more as a manifestation of one’s calling. I also prefer the assumption that each of us has a calling, as Bill Plotkin so eloquently argues in his recent book Nature and the Human Soul. Plotkin’s description of the soul as the source of calling, whether it be the soul of an individual human or of almost anything else, is downright poetic as well as conceptually compelling. He argues that the central developmental task of life is the discovery of one’s soul and the subsequent surrendering to the calling contained therein. He does not believe that most psychotherapy is helpful beyond the earliest stages of this process. I would argue that existential experiential psychotherapy is at its core an attempt to help people with this developmental task of surrender and can work hand in hand at advanced stages of development with the work Plotkin does in guiding vision quests in the wilderness. I also believe that the hunger for such surrender is universal and is probably underneath every reason people find for walking through the doors of our consulting rooms in the first place.
The hunger for surrender to one’s soul or calling can also find expression in unhealthy ways. War is often one of these. Combat, like orgasm, provides an occasion for surrender to deep instinct. In combat the instinct is survival. Even outside of combat soldiers have the opportunity to feel as if they are surrendering to something greater than themselves, such as defense of homeland or even God’s will. These opportunities for surrender are, in my mind, cheap and dangerous substitutes for the real thing: surrender to one’s calling. In general surrender to a calling that is not unique to a particular individual is always suspect in my mind. The hallmark of calling is that it is unique to the person being called, and does not reveal itself in synchronized goose-stepping en masse. “God’s will” is a reasonable synonym for soul or calling if it is individualized, but not if it is applied to a group as in “Onward Christian Soldiers” or “Jihad.”
The thought of surrendering to God’s will sometimes raises the question of whether this is a surrender to something internal or external to oneself. Those of the internal persuasion might name the object of surrender as one’s Self. In any case, a similar question arises when an artist surrenders to his or her muse. My poetry muse is a rare visitor to my consciousness. Last fall she came to me in the sight of the leaves falling to the ground, which inspired the first line of the following poem. The rest of the poem took a few more months to coalesce and ended up being about the surrender to death, among other things.
WHEN WILL I DIE?
I would like to die in the fall
In the company of graceful trees
Joining their gently falling leaves
As they surrender to earth’s loving call
I would like to die in the winter
Looking upward at snowflakes descending
My back on the earth and eyes to the sky
My body’s lifeheat surrendering
I would like to die in the spring
Filled with faith in eternal renewal
Joining the sun and the wind and the rain
In their dance to the heart of the Jewel
I would like to die in the summer
Let my body compost back to earth
And easily release my soul
To its journey of Ultimate Worth
Shortly after the above poem made its appearance a man I have been seeing for some time in group spoke of his plans to phase into retirement over the next few years, which would be his mid-sixties. He spoke of how he had put his head down and nose to the grindstone, working hard and steadily, ever since he had entered the first grade. Another member of the group quickly counseled him to plan some activities with which to keep himself occupied in retirement, offering dire predictions of senility and depression if he did not make such plans. He responded by saying that his intention was to refrain carefully from making any plans, not wanting to distract himself from what would emerge in his consciousness if he stayed open to his unfolding life. There was some discussion of the way in which his work ethic had perhaps been a defense mechanism, and the book The Denial of Death was mentioned as evidence that the desire to distract oneself from conscious awareness of one’s mortality is nearly universal. I commented that unrelenting hard work might be a denial of life as much as a denial of death, and the next day the following poem appeared in my awareness:
WHEN WILL I LIVE?
I would like to live in the fall
With all my senses alert
Swirling with the leaves in the wind
A dervish with no fear of hurt
I would like to live in the winter
Feeling the peace of the new-fallen snow
Absorbed in the Eternal Silence
Which all must eventually know
I would like to live in the spring
Be a float in the parade of Newlife
Dance and love and sing
Taking Joy as my eternal wife
I would like to live in the summer
Frolicking in forest and lake
My body cleansed by sweating
My soul its rapture to take
Accepted for publication in Voices: The Art and Science of Psychotherapy 2008.