Turtle Zen

I’m a tortoise.

That was my insight for the day. I was sitting out back, mindfully reflecting on life, and it just kinda hit me in the face. Everything about me is turtle-like. I even love water, and even look a bit like a turtle, what with this bald head and all.

I move slowly—much to the irritation of some of my fast-walking friends. I take my time getting ready (I’m always late); I take my time understanding things, and I can spend years waiting for the right time to do something. Most problems bounce off of me, but when they don’t, I turn within and hideaway. Or, well, I can occasionally be a snapping turtle.

Zen is good for turtle-people, especially Soto/Caodong. Rinzai/Linji is more for hares.

I don’t think that one is better than the other, tortoises and hares both have their strengths and weaknesses. Also, there’s a lot of wiggle room in between them. In this metaphor, some hares have shells, and some turtles have bunny ears.

But I think it’s good to know which one we primarily are. This gives us a starting point for practice, and it also keeps us from getting lost. It’s easy to get lost in life. It’s easy to become someone we’re not, to pick up other people’s traits and dreams.

It’s also easy to get lost in ourselves, to get carried off by stray intentions that don’t lead anywhere. That’s why identity is useful, as long as it isn’t clung to as something absolute. I mean, I’m not actually a turtle.

For turtle-people, our shells can be obstacles, can’t they? When things get to be too much, we tend to seek solace in silence and solitude. We close ourselves off, and keep the world at a distance. We hide things, like our feelings. Or, when we let someone in, we do the opposite and avalanche them with emotion and praise.

Those are both extremes. They drive people away, and they can stop us in our tracks. But we have to keep moving because we need water or we’ll dry up. Turtles move, ya know, just slowly.

For tortoises, the practice involves taking the silence and solitude with us, the same way a turtle takes its shell, its refuge, everywhere it goes.

The most important thing is to not try to be something we’re not. If we’re not practicing as ourselves, with ourselves, then we’re not gonna make any progress. That’d be like if you went to medical school with a fake identity. Sure, you might graduate, but if someone digs deep enough, the fiction will unravel.

A lot of the pain in life comes from us approaching the moment in inauthentic ways, in the hare trying to be a tortoise, or vice versa. If we can’t live just as we are, then we’re gonna be constantly tossed about from thought to thought.

After some work, we don’t have to be turtles or hares anymore. We can transform into anything we like, into whatever the moment calls for. But, before practice, it can be dangerous to not have a firm handle on who we are. Because when we don’t know who we are, people are going to try to make us into who they are.

Hares will try to make you into hares, and turtles into turtles. The hares say, “Move faster! Be ambitious!” and the turtles say, “Slow down! Let things come to you,” and if you’re a turtle you’re gonna feel like crap because you can’t speed up; if you’re a hare you’re gonna feel like crap because you can’t slow down. What really sucks is when you’re in-between, because then you feel like you never do anything right.

Most of us are in-between. Like everything else, turtles and hares fall on a spectrum.

So, before we even begin to practice, I think it’s wise to figure out where we fall on that spectrum, and then look for methods that suit us. That said, it’s great to try out as many methods as you can. Because sometimes you might need a hare-method to give you a boost, sometimes you might need a turtle-method to even you out.

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