Frequently, one of the criticism leveled against contemplative practice is that it will lead to passivity and inaction. There is an anxiety that the surrender practice at the heart of most spiritual teaching will turn practitioners into victims unable to stand up for themselves or unwilling to take necessary action.

In Chapter 21 of The Anatomy of Peace the authors give a brilliant response to the fear of passivity. The narrative/conversational style of the book makes it difficult to convey the authors’ message without quoting a lengthy section of the text.

Picking up in the middle of a conversation between the teacher and his group of seminar students:

“My father’s favorite word was action.”

“‘Action’?” Lou repeated.



“I’m not entirely sure,” she said. “But I bet Yusuf is.”

“I think I know why, yes,” Yusuf responded. “I think it was your father’s way of reminding himself that although he could get out of the box by finding an out-of-the-box place and pondering the situation anew, in order to say out and away from the box, he had to execute a strategy. That is, he had to do something.”

“Do what?” Lou asked.

“Something only he would know,” Yusuf answered.

Lou didn’t like that answer at all. “But that can’t help me then, can it? I’m sorry, Yusuf, but that’s not good enough. I need more than that.”

“You certainly do, Lou, but Ben was wise enough to know that what you need most is not something he or anyone else can give you. What you might think is not help enough is actually the only advice that can help at all. Anything else would be a lie.”

“Then you need to tell me what you mean. I’m not following.”

“Sure. Let me tie it back to some of the stories we have talked about. Remember how Avi felt the desire to write a letter to Hamish?”


“He then acted on that desire, didn’t he?”

Lou nodded.

“And do you remember how I felt the desire to find Mordechai?”

Lou nodded again.

“I then acted on that desire, just as Avi had acted on his, didn’t I?”

“Yes,” Lou said, still unsure where this was going.

“And Mei Li and Mike not only thought about taking off their shoes, they actually took them off.

“And remember Carol yesterday,” he continued. “She voiced an apology to Miguel in front of the whole group, didn’t she?”

“Yes,” Lou said, in what turned out to be a whisper.

“She didn’t only think about it, she actually did it.”

Lou nodded.

Yusuf looked squarely at Lou. “I’m going to venture a guess about you, Lou. Do you mind?”

“Go ahead,” Lou said, without any of the machismo that would have accompanied those words just twenty-four hours earlier.

“I’m going to guess that while we have been together, you too have had a number of desires awaken within – things you have felt the desire to do or begin doing for Cory or for Carol or perhaps for someone at work. Am I right?”

The desire to write Cory a letter came immediately to Lou’s mind, and to apologize to Kate and do what he had to do to get her to come back to Zagrum. And of course his desire to be different toward Carol and the realization that he needed to figure out what to do to keep his boxes from poisoning their relationship.

“Yes, I have been feeling that,” Lou answered.

“Then I want you to look again at the board,” Yusuf said. “Once I recover a desire and sense toward people, where am I on this diagram?”

“At the top,” Lou answered.

“So, out of the box, right?” Yusuf followed up.

“Yes, I guess that’s right.”

“The moment you’ve recovered a desire to help, you are out of the box toward the person. The question at that point is not how to get out of the box, it is rather how to stay out.

“Looking at the diagram from the top,” he continued, “what do you need to do now to stay out of the box?”

“Honor the sense,” Lou said, his mind turning.

“And who is the only person who will know the sense he must honor?” Yusuf asked.

Lou thought about that. “I guess only the person who is feeling it.”

“Exactly,” Yusuf replied. “And that is why I cannot tell you the precise thing you need to do. Only you, whose life it is – who knows the offenses, the missed opportunities, the petty unkindnesses, and so on – will know.” pp. 192-196

Jesus said to his disciples,

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. (John 14:16)

He also said,

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth. (John 16:13)

People can invite us to open to the truth of the Spirit in our lives. They can support us in hearing the truth the Spirit may desire to speak to us. But, in the end, we must all take responsibility to listen for ourselves and to act upon what we hear.

To the the degree that we listen to the Spirit and act upon what we hear, we will continue to open to the Spirit’s direction in our lives. The more we listen and respond, the more we will hear God’s call and direction in our lives.

When we practice surrender, we are not becoming passive doormats. We are signifying our intention to surrender to a deeper place within ourselves where we can live in response to the prompting of God’s Spirit in our lives.

Contemplative practice is not a barrier to action. It is the necessary ground out of which healthy life-giving action can emerge.