For centuries the Sufis have been known for their teaching on complete surrender to the Divine Will, the complete annihilation of the lower self into the Higher and the ability to move only and exclusively by the order from Allah as opposed to the desires of the self. This teaching is both profound and confusing, since often the idea of surrender is misunderstood and used in the wrong way. Some students confuse surrender to God with relinquishing personal autonomy or responsibility in the world. Or even more problematic, with submission to the personality of the spiritual teacher. They believe that such surrender requires asking their teacher about every small move they need to make in the world and that the ability to listen to the heart within must be forgone. This deep misunderstanding creates not only much pain, but frequently results in a student leaving the very path which could bring them the ultimate freedom they are looking for. There is a necessary skill to be acquired if one is to remain with a spiritual teacher and still find the freedom of joy in God. This involved two aspects.
The first is the necessity of having a self to begin with. In psychological terms, we say that one must have a developed self in order to surrender that self. A great philosopher once said, "You have to be a somebody before you are a nobody." It is important to have a developed ego strength, a differentiated self, before it can be dissolved into something higher. When such personal individuation has not happened, there is no self to be given up. If the timing is too soon, we call this premature surrender. Such premature surrender places one at great risk for abuse and victimization, since there is no central place of decision within an individual. All personal power is given to the leader and ultimately, leaving great room for abuse of power on the part of the teacher.
Surrender is not the same as submission. Submission asks that you give up your personal will, your heart's truth, and your soul's true light in payment for a perceived payback, whether it be financial support or spiritual sustenance. It is an unconscious bribe. There is always a motivating force behind it for both parties. And it always involves a relationship of unequal power; the one with more perceived power, be it financial spiritual or otherwise subconsciously agrees to provide some form of care for the one of lesser power.
This is called spiritual transference and is a state of relating to God and to spiritual teachers in the same way we related to our parents as children. When we are young, our very first and most potent experience with a "higher power" is with Mom and Dad. And depending on who they were, this could be quite a dilemma. It is not until we are older that we are able to grasp the notion of a Divine plan, and by this time our wounds and reactions are pretty deeply ingrained in our being. This is why we as Sufis spend so much time working on our nafs, our lower self.
So how do we discern the difference between surrender and submission, since the nafs can equally use any excuse to avoid taking action that is right for the soul? On the deepest level, only the heart truly knows. But perhaps there are some barometers we can use. On of them is that surrender to the Divine Order results in a deeper sense of union with God and a sense of being more of who we really are, while submission takes us further away from ourselves and as a result separates us from a sense of connection to the Divine. When we are in surrender to the Greater Divine Truth, we are returning ourselves back to the substance of which we are made of and therefore we feel more whole. We truly reclaim more of who we really are. On the other hand, when we submit to another, we give a piece of ourselves away and we become more fractured. We put the responsibility for our lives in another person's hands and in effect, we cease to be an adult. We return to childhood dependency on another for our survival and ultimately we become more afraid, since our highest self knows we are walking in the opposite direction of freedom and Divine Union. As Sufis, we must remain aware of when our lower self is masquerading as surrender, the 'veil' of surrender as opposed to true surrender, which can imprison us in the confusion of submission versus the freedom of surrender. This is why the tears of the real pain of submission are of such a torturous quality, while the tears of surrender come from the recognition that something we have yearned for all of our lives is finally happening. In true surrender, there can be nothing but deeper wholeness and return to communion with our Beloved God.
In the end, only our soul knows that difference. We must each decide for ourselves and listen to and trust our deepest heart, acting form the guidance and wisdom we have received from others, but not trusting them more than we trust ourselves. We all have an inner knower, the one who recognizes the Truth. Our guides and teachers can help us differentiate the nafs from the Knower. But in the end, they cannot make the decisions about our lives for us. Only as spiritual adults who are willing to trust the Divine Voice of Truth within can we ever return to truly know ourselves. And as the great books say, to know our self is to know God.
May you find the Divine Truth within your own heart in your return home to God.