The Surrender Experiment

17 Dec

I recently read “The Surrender Experiment” by Michael Singer. The book was at times an interesting read, but mostly it just felt tedious, and even at times frustrating.

surrenderGoing into the book, I was hopeful. I had no knowledge of Singer or his beliefs, and a respected friend recommended the book to me. As I read through the first few pages, a few questions popped into my head about his statements, but nothing I considered major concerns. I enjoyed his story of personal discovery, and how he struggled with the inner voice. I even recognized some similarities in my own journey. However, the more I continued, the more I questioned not only Singer’s “surrender” philosophy, but also his (or anyone’s) ability to live this philosophy out.

In the following, I will review the three biggest issues I found with the book, in reverse order of their significance: first the writing, then his adherence to his philosophy, and finally the adequacy of the philosophy itself.

Writing Style

Michael Singer is not a bad writer, but I wouldn’t call him a great one either. While his flow is generally good and the story telling at times captivating, he often reflects on his accounts using nearly identical vocabulary. He regularly repeats himself, even using the same adjectives. Additionally, over and over his stories go like this: (1) he thinks things will turn out bad; (2) he “surrenders” and someone/something unexpected arrives/happens; (3) all is bliss. It gets very repetitive. And another tiresome reoccurring thing he writes about is how something profoundly changes him. It seems like this happens just about every few pages. It’s odd that someone can be profoundly changed on such a semi-regular basis.

The other problem I had with the writing is how much he writes about himself. He says things like “my intellect did not give her the room to breath.” Ouch. And many times he recounts stories of how awesome people told him he was. He tries to tell these tales in a way as if he were so deeply humble, but even to the casual reader it will seem like he included those details with the intention of lofting himself up. Ironically, occasionally he even notes how humble he is.

Singer Surrendering

While a major purpose of the book is to teach us to surrender to the flow of the universe, Singer himself doesn’t always surrender. Sure, there are lots of anecdotes about him surrendering. The pages are filled with personal accounts of him “giving in to the flow of life.” No doubt he takes care to be sure to avoid telling stories counter to this thesis, but on occasion, they’ve found their way in to the narrative. One example is a recollection of a neighboring property where the owner was clearing native forest and planting a new tree crop for profit (p158-9). Rather than “surrender” to this thing going on around him, Singer called the landowner and negotiated a land agreement with him. Singer then describes how this was actually a surrender. What? I guess you can spin almost anything. Other examples can be found as well, including when the city proposed building a dump near his land, he fought it. (Certainly, I would have done the same, but the point is, it is not consistent with his teaching to “surrender to whatever life brings before me.”)

And what about his first wife? One causal mention. nothing more. He makes it sound as if he were so noble “if I truly loved her, I had to let her go.” Is that surrender? Why not try to work it out? Surrender to your wife? Sure marriage is hard, but if he loved her, surely it’s worth it. And what of his daughter? Was that another surrender? It just seems disingenuous. Finally, when the book reaches the business section, it is obvious that many of the business decisions were not surrender, but rather well calculated business decisions (and Singer does seem to be good at that).

So ultimately, his “surrender experiment” sounds all nice and lovey-dovey with the universe, but he doesn’t live it out completely. Clearly if life threw a murderer in front of Singer who was intent on killing him, Singer wouldn’t say, “oh, I’ll just surrender to the universe and let this man stab me into nirvana.” No. Of course not, he’d fight back! And that’s precisely the main problem.

Surrendering to the flow of life is a bankrupt philosophy

Singer doesn’t live out his philosophy completely, because he can’t. He must often struggle against the world around him. We all do. It’s the way the world really is. Evil exists. Bad things happen. We don’t just sit back and let someone steal our car because it’s part of the universe flow, and think “oh, they must need it more than I do and this is the universe’s way of showing me.” No. We call the police and have them arrested. Going with the flow as a general rule can make you an easy going person, but going with it always makes you a fool.

While Singer wants to give the impression that he follows this rule just about all the time, in reality, it’s more like his basic guiding principle. And in that case, he seems to be genuinely committed. Living by this general rule, along with his intellect (which again, he makes sure we know about), Singer has had a very successful life. But he seems to think his success is validation for his spiritual intelligence, rather than recognize it for what it actually is – his business intelligence and some really beneficial timing. Of course, he suggests that the special timing is the universe rewarding him for going with the flow. Oh, please. Someone kindly remind Singer that this is the same universe that has been rewarding good “surrendering” people in Africa with starving to death.

The root of Singer’s problem is that his philosophy is based on a pantheist view of the universe. Discussing pantheism’s problems is far beyond the scope of this review, and there are many good books written on the topic, but it is worth noting here how Singer (and other pantheists) deal with the problem of evil. To Singer, evil is just an illusion. It doesn’t really exist. Of course, he doesn’t put it that way specifically, but if that surprises you, do a little study on pantheism, or check out some of the teachings of the gurus Singer mentions. They universally say evil isn’t real, but that it’s just an illusion – and essentially they have to say this since they believe everything is actually part of God. But if evil is just an illusion, then why spend so much effort trying to avoid it? The fact is that evil does exist. It is a departure from God. A great question to ask a pantheist like Singer is, “Is the illusion of evil, evil?” Most likely they’ll say it’s not evil. But this begs the question: why try to spend so much effort getting people to recognize that it’s an illusion if the illusion is not bad? Of course, if they actually say the illusion of evil is a bad thing, then they’ve won your case for you because they’d be admitting that at least some evil is real and exists. Either way, pantheists like Singer have a serious logical inconsistency in their worldview. And this is just one of pantheism’s philosophical problems.

With reference to Christianity, Singer mentions Christ and notes how Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God, but Singer completely misapplies Jesus’ words. Singer says “Christ said the Kingdom is within you” and Singer sees this as being about an inner peace, akin to nirvana of Zen religions. (Much of this is based on what he learned from Yogananda – this post has some information on that yogi’s teachings.) At another point in his journey, Singer recounts reading the New Testament story of Jesus telling Nicodemus that man must be reborn of spirit. Rather than reading out of the Bible and accepting what Jesus meant by this, Singer reads his own context in to the words of the Bible. Singer says that Jesus is talking about the same spiritual journey he is on – a personal journey that leads to a state of recognizing not that one needs God (trusting in Him, the one God, as Savior and King), but rather that one is a part of God (pantheism). He writes “God was no longer a word to me. It represented where I wanted to go.” But the teachings in the Bible are clear. God is not place to go. He is a person, that desires Singer turn to Him and accept the pardon He has freely offered, and embrace the loving arms of Jesus.

Conclusion

In sum, I felt the book suffered in three key areas. First, the writing was fairly weak and repetitive. Second, it seemed that Singer was not really 100% genuine when he talked about “surrendering.” And third, the biggest problem, is that the overall philosophy itself is just incompatible with reality in general, and Christianity specifically.

One final point that I should note, is that to me, it felt like this book was mostly a treatise to exonerate his name from the legal questions that arose later in his life. It seemed as if Singer is trying to shape his legacy rather than “surrendering” to how the narrative about him would go. Perhaps he was completely innocent, but it does make one wonder.

Ultimately, there is only one thing we really need to surrender to, and that is the Almighty God, our Creator and Redeemer. He is our salvation. In Him, and only Him, will we find the comfort and peace Singer so often talks about longing for.

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