Bestselling author and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA Dr. Judith Orloff is a model for balancing fierce left-brain intellect and right-brain compassion. She calls herself an “empathic psychiatrist,” and it’s her ability to connect with her patients on an emotional level while supporting them and offering wise life strategies that puts her in a rarefied league.
As a follow-up to her 2009 book, the wildly popular Emotional Freedom, Orloff has penned The Ecstasy of Surrender: 12 Surprising Ways Letting Go Can Empower Your Life. She gave readers a taste of it in a TED talk, which garnered more than half a million views on YouTube.
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In the new book, Orloff shows why surrender is a more effective approach to life than trying to control or force things. She offers examples and exercises to help us make that simple, yet super-challenging, leap when it comes to power, money, communication, relationships and mortality.
I had the pleasure of chatting with her about these subjects and others and was especially eager to hear whether she felt surrender was more important to boomers than other age groups. Highlights from our conversation:
Next Avenue: You’ve said you write about what you want to learn about. How did you pick the subject of surrender?
Orloff: Well, because I’m a control freak and I tend to fight with life sometimes, and worry, and get attached to patterns and relationships that aren’t good for me and I can’t rid of them … my deepest desire was to learn surrender on a deep, deep level so I could shed what wasn’t working for me and learn how to trust and flow instead of fight, and really go forward in my life.
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So since undertaking the writing of this book, have you been able to shed much?
In the Forward, I talk about all the things I’ve had to give up. For starters, because of unrelenting noise and construction, I had to move out of the condo where I lived for many years while I was writing this book. I ended up moving 10 times in one year and giving away all my possessions. I shed things, I shed a relationship, I shed a therapist, and I shed old ideas about relationships, sexuality and caring about what other people think of me. It’s become a lifelong meditation for me; it’s how I want to live.
You call surrender “a sublime state, that can help us improve the overall quality of our lives and reduce stress, help us conquer our fears and get unstuck.” That’s quite a claim! Can you explain what you mean when you say “surrender” and how one learns to do it?
In Sanskrit, “surrender” means giving one’s self wholly to something without holding back. What surrender doesn’t mean is weakness, failure or defeat. What it entails is taking a conscious look at what’s working in your life and what’s not, and then deciding which parts you want to let go of because they’re holding you back, and what you want to surrender into. It’s about making choices.
The way I use the term implies there’s a grace surrounding all of us that goes beyond our to-do list. It’s something we have the power to tap in to and “co-partner” with.
In the book you write, “Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens in the universe by mistake. Aligning yourself with the flow of nature ensures you’ll be headed in the right direction.” That’s a tough thing for some proud, self-reliant people to swallow. What do you say when you get pushback on that belief?
I don’t say anything. If people want to live a life where they’re trying to control everything and tighten up and force and push and that’s working for them, that’s fine by me! I just want people to be happy.
But how people typically get to surrender is that they realize that something isn’t working in their lives and that they need to find a new approach. Sometimes it takes big things, like illness, drug addiction or alcoholism to get the light to go on.
When I frame surrender not as giving up power but gaining it, people can usually relate to that. It’s a balance between doing everything you can to make something happen and then letting it go.
I loved the chapter about relationships. Do you think learning to surrender to the flow of love and sensuality becomes even more important at midlife?
It’s important for everyone to be aware of their body and emotions at any age, whether they’re in a relationship or not. While I don’t believe you “search” for love because it’s always there, you can surrender the barriers to love.
So surrender isn’t magical thinking. Sometimes it involves cognitive-behavioral therapeutic techniques.
Yes. And just staying conscious. Sometimes surrender is letting go of things that aren’t working, but sometimes it means opening to something new that might work.
If your old patterns prevented you from finding an appropriate romantic partner, the work is looking at your fears of control and becoming open and less guarded and surrendering to love.
Is surrendering something you’re ever “done” with? What kinds of things trip people up?
I don’t think one is ever “done” with this work. It’s a lifelong process. On my book tour and with my patients, I’ve found one of the most common things that people struggle with is letting go of the need to be right. That can really sabotage relationships and work and people just hold on to it and hold on to it. Most of the time they are right, but that’s not the point. Being right isn’t the goal; the goal is the relationship.
The ego never wants to surrender; it wants to be right. But the heart wants to love, and if you want to love, surrender is necessary. You need to find some kernel of truth in what the other person is saying and acknowledge it. That will soften them and allow a dialogue to begin. That’s the beauty of surrender work. Once people get the explanation and actually try a different way, even if they have doubts, they’ll see that the results are stupendous.
Talk a liitle about the “anti-aging” aspect of surrendering.
Having to be right or fighting everything pumps stress hormones like cortisol throughout the body, which decreases immunity and speeds up aging. But people who are relaxed and open don’t have the slow burn of the stress hormones. They have the endorphins that come from letting go, meditation and the exercises of surrender. Endorphins, our natural painkillers, soften them and make them radiant, decrease stress and aging and produce bliss.
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I’m convinced as people age, if they have tons of resentments — which weigh something like a quarter of a pound each — those resentments weigh you down so your shoulders get stooped, your brow gets furrowed, and you look older. Yet people who are more surrendered don’t have as much baggage on their soul or their body.
I think that at midlife and beyond, people can go through a constant rebirth, and that’s what the surrender is. It’s not buying into the negative, ridiculous, fear-based ideas that society has about aging. I’ve decided to reinvent it on my own and bring in intuition, subtle energy and the mind-body connection.
I encourage people to look at what is emotional aging, what is spiritual aging, what is physical aging, what is energetic aging and optimize all those components. If you have a spiritual practice, for example, the older you get, the better it gets.
The irony is that pain is a lot easier to surrender to for most people than pleasure. But it’s important in midlife to let pleasure in to savor it.
Don’t just say, 'Oh, isn’t that a nice sunset?' Let it in, really feel it in your body and enjoy it with every cell. Get used to receiving as a form of surrender. The more we can get out of our heads and thoughts and into our bodies, the more pleasure and joy we’ll experience, and the more radiant we’ll become — at any age.