Turtles All the Way Down.
There’s a story in which one person asks another, “On what is the Earth resting?”
The second person answers, “Why, the Earth is resting on a turtle’s back!”
The first person asks, “Then on what is that turtle resting?”
The second person answers, “Why, another turtle, of course!”
The first person looks puzzled.
“My friend,” says the second person, “It’s turtles all the way down.”
“Turtles all the way down” has become a common illustration of the problem of infinite regress, such as a belief that requires another belief and another to seemingly no end. When we analyze such a system closely we start to see the fragility of our whole construction.
I was given an example of this recently by a teacher named Fred Davis.
(What follows is a summary of my memory rather than direct quotes. You can find a similar much longer dialogue in his book Awaken Now.)
Fred: If I asked you to prove you are Leah Pearlman in court, how would you do it?”
Me: Driver’s license? Witnesses?
Fred: Great! And how would you prove your driver’s license?
Me: Birth certificate?
Fred: Great! And how would you prove that?
Fred: Great! So more witnesses. And where did your witnesses get their information?
Me: Well, either from me or my parents or other witnesses, I guess.
Fred: Great! And where did your parents get their information?
Me: They made it up? And also, “Pearlman” was my dad’s last name. They based it on their own identities.
Fred: Yes! So who were you before they made up the identity of ‘Leah Pearlman’?
Me: I don’t know. Me? I was me?
Fred: Exactly! So this ‘Leah Pearlman’, an identity to which you have added all these years. How would you prove any of that was you?
Me: I couldn’t. Each story is based on another story based on another story…
Turtles all the way down.
Many spiritual traditions offer the practice of repeatedly asking the question “Who am I?” to discover the nature of reality. I’ve always found this question vague, intimidating, myopic, repetitive, and also, what’s the point?
I’ve recently discovered that the point may not be as much to discover who I am, but rather, who I am not.
For example. Early on, I believed “I am smart.” Maybe because I got A’s in school. Or maybe I got As because I believed “I am smart.” Or maybe I believed 1) I was a good daughter and that 2) good daughters get As. So I got As and if I believed 3) smart people get As, then therefore 4) I was smart. However it happened, you can see how belief after belief, a snowball of narrative begins to form.
You may wonder, “What’s wrong with believing you’re smart?”
Looking back, I can see how that belief and the turtles on which it stood, narrowed my choices. Believing I was smart, I also believed I had to go to a certain type of university. Hell, I believed I had to go to university because I believed that’s what smart kids did. Options for my life got reduced.
The second problem comes in the presence of counter evidence. For example, A smart person should be able to cure her own bulimia for fifteen years? For fifteen years I read all books tried all the tricks. I believed “I can figure this out, because I am smart.” I only began to get the help I needed when I discovered that at least in this area, “I am smart” just isn’t true. Smart would have been asking for help. Smart would have been admitting defeat. Smart would have been giving up strategies when they didn’t work rather than repeatedly hoping for different results.
That’s just one example, but I imagine I could write a book about all the ways beliefs have limited my reality, rather than expand it. As Rupert Spira says, “Experience is consciousness + limits.” (← poof. mind blown.)
Every time I discover that some aspect I’d thought was me, is actually part of a 38-year narrative I have no obligation to uphold, I become more free.
Not believing “I am smart” means I can admit “I don’t know” a lot more often. It means I can ask more questions, even the “dumb” ones. It means I can seek help and appreciate others’ genius rather than covet it. It means I can wonder about things rather than trying to figure them out.
Exploring the question “Who am I?” is one way to see through our illusory selves. But there are others. Recently I’ve begun working with Tim Kelley who has been helping me illuminate and tease apart the “Leah Pearlman” story into the parts, feelings, beliefs, and stories that make it up.
In my last post, I introduced you to Anxious Annie. She is one aspect of the Leah Pearlman story who shows up sometimes under certain circumstances. Since Meeting Annie, I’ve begun getting to know many of the personas that make up the Leah Pearlman universe.
Mountain Goat is the part of me who is 100% focused on projects. She is always working on something productive. She’s strives toward goals. She believes in momentum above all else for accomplishing goals. Once she’s started, she can’t stop, even to pee or breathe well. She’s not happy until she’s finished, at which point she immediately needs a new mountain to climb because that is her nature. She often uses phrases like “I have to…” or “I can’t stop because… “ or “I can rest when I’m finished.”
Mountain Goat was born early on, and was reinforced by the story of being a “Capricorn” which often describes this behavior.
I often think these characteristics are me which at times made me feel proud, but at other times hopeless. What if I don’t want to climb a mountain? What if I want to float on the lazy river all day or month or year? Sometimes I even try it, but when I believe I AM this mountain goat I feel incredibly agitated in the presence of rest, because it doesn’t match my story of myself.
When I start to see Mountain Goat as a persona who simply shows up sometimes, I can get some distance. The distance allows me to feel curious, ask questions, and make more conscious choices. “Are you sure you have to finish right now?” “What if rest now would actually support you achieving your goal sooner and better?” It also allows me to redirect her using her characteristics rather than fighting them. For example, I’ve been recently re-educating my parts that ‘rest’ is a crucial part of a healthy system. Now Mountain Goat helps ensure that I rest when I’m tired because having a well-rested and energized body is her new big mountain. I know I’m in luck because her nature is to keep going until she reaches her goal.
Another persona I’ve met this month is Defeated One. She knows exactly why and how every goal will fail before I’ve even started. She comes in about two minutes or two days behind any exciting inspiration to tell me not to bother. She’s reliable and believable, so much so, that she has the effect of draining all the energy in my body upon her arrival. She then uses that as evidence to build her case: “See? You can’t even withstand a little doubt. You don’t stand a chance.” Being aware that this is a persona who is simply trying to protect me from disappointment, allows me to offer myself compassion and curiosity, rather than simply accept defeat.
A third persona is The Scheduler. She is the time keeper and task mistress. She is aware of all the commitments, internal or external, all dreams and goals, stated or unstated, and all the impacts of spending time on what things or with which people. Imagine having a personal assistant who knows everything you know consciously and unconsciously and felt it was their job to make sure you didn’t drop any balls, even if some of them were conflicting:
“You want to be rested so it’s important to sleep in, but you also want to be productive so it’s important to wake up early.”
Now Imagine this assistant is a mosquito who incessantly buzzes two inches from your left ear.
If you are like me, you would spend much of your creative energy trying to shut that mosquito up, either by following its orders so it would stop bugging you, or by drowning it out with distractions to prove it cannot own you, hoping it would eventually go away.
Since seeing this aspect of me as a persona rather than a pest, we now have journal conversations most days. We ask each other questions like what are the real priorities? What is actually time sensitive? Since time is her specialty, she is a genius at knowing what really will fit and won’t, so if I consciously clarify my priorities, she becomes an ally rather than an annoyance.
But sometimes, when the Scheduler and I are making plans, Disruptor appears. Disruptor HATES being boxed in by systems, organizations, and people she doesn’t trust or understand. Therefore, she is wary of the Scheduler. Disruptor is the reason I spent many elementary and middle school afternoons in detention, before I learned to hide her. She rebels against any rules she doesn’t trust or understand, which is most of them. She resents the school system which she believes taught the other parts of Leah Pearlman and most of those around her to follow rather than lead. She resents the medical system, the political system, religious systems, almost any rigid spiritual or self-help teaching, and most socially polite dictates.
“Why should I bring a bottle of wine to dinner when you invited me? I’ll only bring wine if I want to bring wine.”
“I’m not putting vaccines in my body unless I can know and approve of what’s in them. Without that, no amount of guilt tripping will convince me otherwise.”
You can imagine how this persona interacts with the part of me who likes to be socially accepted, good, and agreeable. These two are usually deadlocked in an arm wrestling match around any topic. With this battle going on inside, it’s no surprise I need so many naps.
When I really took time to get know Disruptor, I discovered she doesn’t want to disrupt for disruption’s sake. She believes in “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible” – Charles Eisenstein, and will do whatever it takes to help create it. When I don’t work with her by exploring values and priorities and leveraging her as an ally rather than a mess-maker, she lashes out at anything that feels like a blind limitation, often creating messes. I’ve been learning it’s not Disruptor who creates messes, it’s my repression of her that causes the problems.
Finally, let me introduce the persona who inspired this post. She is The Last Turtle. The Last Turtle feels she’s at the bottom of all the other turtles, that the world ultimately rests on her back. She says things like “If I don’t do it, who will?” or “If I don’t make it happen, it won’t happen.” What she most wants is to rest on the flow of an engaged life, but she doesn’t trust life, so the moment the Leah Pearlman story has a need or a dream or a should, she starts feeling the weight of the responsibility to make it happen.
Taking responsibility for change can be positive when it comes from inspiration, love, and courage. But this is not how The Last Turtle is organized. She is afraid. She feels no safety net and no support and so she internalizes life as her responsibility. When the Last turtle has shown up in the form of this over-burdened feeling, I usually just believed her. “Yup. If I don’t make it happen, it won’t. Oh, and it has to happen.”
Now that I can see her as a separate part of the Leah Pearlman story, I can sit back as curious, loving awareness. “Ah, fear is here. How can I help?” The Last Turtle is a persona created by the psyche to protect against the feeling of unsupported free-falling. I can always trust her to step in and work hard rather than have to feel a lack of control, even at the cost of peace, rest, and trust.
Like most personas, her intention is kind, but her strategy is out-dated and often counterproductive. Without taking the time to understand her needs, wants, and motives, it is nearly impossible to co-create new more effective strategies.
I’ll stop there. There is a thought floating by saying, “This post is way too long already.” and I’m tempted to believe it. Then again…who is this “I” who believes this thought? Which persona has judgements about post length and and insecurities about readership? Isn’t she too, yet another turtle in a never ending line of make believe?