• Sometimes the tighter we hold onto control, the stronger the need to surrender

  • Counsellor Sandra Hilton explores why this matters when it comes to times of change and self-development

In his poem 'Sweet Darkness' David Whyte invites us to learn one thing: “The world was meant to be free in,” and we must “give up all the other worlds except the one to which you belong.” 

When I read this sentence, I feel how tantalising the invitation is and at the same time, wonder how we can know to which world we truly belong. We all feel pulled in so many different directions, and face so many demands, both inner and outer – how to decipher the place that “smells like home” to borrow the words of one of my client’s children this week. 

In the myth of Psyche and Eros, Psyche (which means soul in Ancient Greek) is tasked by the goddess, Aphrodite, with the sorting of seeds so that she may be reunited with Eros (the god of love). Aphrodite lays down this task, believing it impossible, and she is hoping Psyche will fail. However, help arrives in the form of ants, who are able to separate the poppy seeds from the millet and the wheat, allowing her to complete the task. 

A similar story emerges in the Russian fairytale of Vasilisa the Wise. In this tale, a young girl, Vasilisa is sent by her wicked stepmother to get a light for the fire from Baba Yaga, an evil witch living in the house on chicken legs in the middle of the forest. The witch’s reputation is such that the stepmother doesn’t imagine that Vasilisa will return alive. When she meets Baba Yaga, the witch sets her almost impossible tasks, one of which is to sort the black bits out of the seed pile. Once again, help arrives and Vasilisa is able to sort the seeds and complete the task. 

How are these stories relevant? One interpretation is that the seeds represent potential. And that the task of sorting them is the heroine’s initiation of sorting what is her and what is not her, in the face of elders who don’t believe in her. For we have to find what we essentially are, in order to know where we belong. And we have to believe in ourselves, even if others don’t. 

In the audiobook of Jungian analyst Marion Woodman, Crown of Age, she says that we have to find our own pattern in life, and in order to do that, we have to surrender to an energy that is much stronger than our ego. In the stories, the helpers appear when needed. A mystery support system right on hand. Life becomes a dance between the ego self and the soul self, asking us to surrender to the other less contained, less sure, less known calls from within. If we can live in and with this paradox, then we discover what she describes as the “I am” – the place where we know our value and our true feelings and we take it seriously. We discover the world where we belong rather than trying to belong to the world that we may find ourselves in. 

My experience is that living with the paradox is easier said than done. I often find myself hovering precariously, wanting both to know and to control, and also to let myself be carried by my soul self who may have a very different path in mind. As a child fully versed in self-sufficiency, individualism and with a strong thread of personal responsibility, the very thought of surrender to anything or anyone triggers a contraction in my soft tissue. To surrender in a culture that promulgates control, is to risk annihilation. And yet risk it we must, if we are to discover what lies beyond the control threshold. 

Control is an illusion that our ego holds onto tightly, so that we don’t have to face our powerlessness in the face of ageing, death, illness, injustice and suffering. Notice how we long for more control as the world spirals in its multiple crises. It denies the truth of our human existence. It is a worthy way of trying to protect ourselves. However, it ignores the reality of more dominant forces at work, way beyond any control we can muster. So as the need for surrender increases, the tightening within us increases too, until often there is a crisis – a moment where nothing but surrender is left as we step over the threshold. 

But what if we learned to yield before the crisis? If we stopped struggling? David Whyte reminds us: “When your vision has gone no part of the world can find you. It’s time to go into the night where the dark has eyes to recognise its own.” I find these words so comforting. I recognise that feeling of not being found sometimes, and can feel the warm embrace of the dark that he describes. The dark place as retreat; a place to rest; a place of birth perhaps, womb-like in its cavernous depths. In this place, there is mystery, there is softness, there is the feminine, something earthy and promising, able to receive and give nourishment. Not such a monstrous place as my ego might have me believe in those tense moments of holding on dearly to plans and objectives and goals and expectations. I can feel the potential in this place for sorting seeds. 

Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés writes: Three things differentiate living from the soul versus living from the ego only. They are: the ability to sense and learn new ways, the tenacity to ride a rough road, and the patience to learn deep love over time. The ego however, has a penchant and a proclivity to avoid learning. Patience is not ego’s strong suit.” It takes patience to sort our seeds. These wise words sit on my desk so I can remind myself of the paradox at work in me, and us, each day. The quote brings me back to sensing, to love, to and to myself. For a moment at least.

Sandra Hilton is a verified Welldoing online counsellor

Further reading

What counselling (and lobsters) can teach us about change and vulnerability

The wisdom of uncertainty and not knowing

The benefits of being curious about yourself and who you are