The Day I Found Faith

On a Bhakti retreat in Ojai, I finally understood the true meaning of surrender

The word surrender in our country tends to come with the image of waving a white flag. It’s the point when you admit that you are powerless and ask for mercy. I can remember as a child getting held down and forced to surrender to my older brothers, because no matter how solid my will, they were still bigger and stronger, and I would never defeat them.

Maybe to make up for my size and age, I sharpened my mind and tongue. I could verbally argue my way out of any situation and would never surrender in a verbal sparring match. As I grew older, my ability to reason logically and think critically became a well-honed skill. And the world of science began to appeal to me because there was a clear, objective truth to discover.

The idea of faith, though, made me uncomfortable. Faith is a belief in something that you can’t objectively prove; it’s the antithesis to science. And ever since I was very young, I asked, “Why would someone else’s truth be mine?” One strong argument for the scientific method is that people are inherently fallible. How could I possibly put that much trust in another person’s mind or experience?

Even still, I had a yearning for connection, which led me to forms of spiritual seeking. I explored yogic and Buddhist paths, but I was still doing it from a place of learning, testing, and proving. The Buddha famously said not to place belief in anything he or anyone else says, but to test this philosophy yourself and see if it works.

I had even had some “mystical” experiences, strange coincidences, and inexplicable synchronicities, but I still believed they could be explained away using science. Maybe using quantum physics or a form of science that is still very new, but science — definitely not faith. During this spiritual seeking, I was very careful that all situations were those that I had created, sought out, and proven to myself. I never allowed any of it to require putting faith in another person, or god forbid, a “guru.”

I had been on the path towards Bhakti yoga for a long time. Interestingly, the only thing that helped me when I was giving up smoking was singing as loud as I could while driving. Any time I had a craving for a cigarette that wouldn’t abate, I would get in my car and drive around with the music cranked up and sing at the top of my lungs. I now know that the voice can be a powerful tool for healing. The voice can open channels to move stuck energy, unlike anything else. And I had a childhood that often consisted of having my voice stifled, denied, and downplayed. It’s not surprising then that this was a way for me to work through addiction.

Bhakti is a devotional form of yoga. It consists of a lot of singing and chanting, also known as Kirtan — a type of call and response group singing. I first found Kirtan at a spiritual center in Northern California, and instantly fell in love. I couldn’t say why, but I noticed that when singing Kirtan, I was able to enter a state of deep meditation and relaxation, and I was filled with joy. I felt a wonderful sense of community with others, and I was able to let go of my mind.

So, I found myself spending the New Year in the hot, dry Mediterranean climate of Ojai, California. I had signed up for a Bhakti yoga retreat, hosted by Adriana Rizzolo, an instructor and Kirtan leader in Los Angeles. On this retreat, we did a little asana practice and some meditation, and ate delicious vegetarian foods, but spent the bulk of the time chanting and singing.

Adriana has a unique gift for getting people to open up, and within the first five minutes of her teaching, I was in tears. She had simply invited us to trust her and said that she loved us. This was apparently what I needed to hear. Before heading to that retreat, it had been months of white-knuckling through some of the worst experiences I’ve ever had, and all I needed was to let go and allow someone to hold me. As soon as she said those words and offered that deep compassion, my body said, “yes.”

My mind, however, was determined to stay stuck in its controlling state. My ego was still questioning, ever discerning, ever cynical. Even though I had done an immense amount of work up to this point trying to let go of the ego and open my heart, I wasn’t quite there yet.

The point of surrender came for me during a simple chant of Hare Krishna. I don’t worship Krishna, I don’t even really know much about the Hindu gods, but Adriana kept stressing that this was not the point. The point was not to focus on the finger pointing at the moon (the words), not to get caught up in the tools we were using, but to surrender to the feeling, to let the body go.

She kept the chant going and going, and it was getting louder, faster, and more frenzied. At one point, I opened my eyes and witnessed her flinging her head around, hair flying, sweating, and looking like she was in complete ecstasy. We had been chanting for at least 20 or 30 minutes, and I thought she must be fatigued, but she was lost in the music, in the devotion and was absolutely radiant. I looked around and saw too the other students, clapping, crying, dancing, so free and beautiful.

Even still, I could feel my mind, my ego resisting, fearing… what? And at that moment, I realized that I had nothing to fear. I no longer had to give in to this fear, and my heart just burst open. I fell into complete surrender. Surrender to my teacher, and surrendering to a deep level of trust. I didn’t know where she was taking us, but I wasn’t afraid, I trusted her. And at that moment, I saw that devotion, real devotion, and faith are a matter of trust.

I trusted not only her but the universe itself. I felt held by a giant loving force. I realized that I was holding myself and that that loving force and I were one and the same. There was no fear in putting faith in something outside of myself, because I was the light, and the light was me. There was no difference.

I was in ecstasy, complete, and total surrender. I got it, it wasn’t about feeling helpless, or disempowered, it was understanding oneness, and finally not feeling alone.

I am eternally grateful to Adriana for teaching me this. It is not easy to hold space for others like that and offer so much love and compassion that someone can feel safe enough actually to let go. Most of us are afraid of others’ emotions. That moment broke something open for me and lifted the veil on the universe.

The most powerful part, though, is that it deeply changed me. It’s not some moment now that I feel like I have to chase, it’s stamped into my very soul, and this new code has infused everything that I do.

Psychologist and Human mood ring.

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