Yielding is not well regarded these days. To give in to the will of another, to allow oneself to be led in an unknown direction, to withdraw from conflict—these are all seen as signs of weakness in a culture obsessed with leadership and action. This is at odds with the messages I keep getting to slow down and be still. To, as this turtle recently showed me, pull into my shell and wait until it’s time to continue.
I am a student of the I Ching, the ancient Chinese “Book of Changes.” As an outside source of wisdom, it teaches me to trust my own intuition and be more present to the many lessons I can learn just by showing up more authentically in my life. I use it not so much as an oracle, but as a reminder to stay open to situations as they arise.
I encountered this turtle on a path in the forest in West Virginia where we have our Restorying retreats. It’s a special place stretching from ridgeline of the Appalachian Trail to the Shenandoah, wide and slow moving at that point. With a limited amount of time, I was hurrying to the river. I even knew—because we tell participants this at every retreat—rushing around with a goal in mind is not an optimal state of mind for a magical encounter. I all but tripped over the turtle as it moseyed across the path and had to laugh at my folly. Who better than a turtle to suggest I slow down, or even stop a while?
That’s exactly what I did. Mesmerized by the extravagant patterns and colors on his shell and the little I could see of his body, I decided to sit and make this painting. It took about an hour, during which time the turtle and I studied each other. He never came out more than this partway peeking. It was peaceful sitting in the light-dappled early autumn forest, feeling the sun on my skin and hearing the birds flitting and twittering nearby. That turtle never did move, but he touched me with his stillness and the unlikely intricacy of his beauty.
I like the way the I Ching uses images from the natural world. It often conjures up a Chinese landscape painting, all clouds and mountains and valleys. These are more than mnemonic devices. These images reveal the many ties we have to the world: the concrete, bodily ways we are of this earth, including the undercurrent of Mystery, the dance of light and shadow, above and below, near and far.
The I Ching recently reminded me that my thoughts have been entangled with emotions, making it impossible to acquire clarity. That it’s time to keep still, to cultivate a quiet heart and disconnect from worry over problems. My ego has its way of constantly trying to run the show, and I appreciate these occasional reminders to step away from the stories it feeds me. Often, the I Ching’s advice is to be humble, modest, yielding and receptive. This is not at all the same as being a passive doormat.
Let’s say a situation is playing out differently from my expectations. I don’t know about you, but this happens to me with some regularity. I may begin unthinkingly to spin off into resistance. My ego wants things to go the way we’ve pictured and planned, and urges me to double down and try harder. This is almost always a recipe for misery and humiliation. In a recent experience, instead of suffering, I called up advice from the I Ching that I had received just that morning, the practice of “biting through” obstacles to restore harmony in human relationships.
Biting through may sound pretty forceful and aggressive, but it’s intended as encouragement to hold quietly to the power of the truth, rather than feeding injustice by engaging with it. It takes energy to withdraw from conflict. Not to mention a concerted effort to disperse my anger and desire for retribution.
On another day, the advice to resist inner voices of doubt and hold an open mind puts me in mind of Improv’s “yes-and” practice. When you enter a scene knowing that whatever unfolds is exactly the right thing, that you will never say “but” or “no,” nor ask a lot of questions, it changes how you respond to everything. You accept everything at face value. You make offers instead of demands.
This turtle made no demands on me. How could it? It made only a simple offer: stop and stay a while. Look at the exquisite maze of yellow and green-brown on my shell, the outrageous black dots on the vibrant orange of my feet and head. The way the shell fares to a knife’s edge at the rim. The more I looked and painted, the more I appreciated just what a miracle of individuality and function that turtle is. He knows his place in the order of things and yields without question when something unexpected happens. He waits for the threat to pass before going on his slow, methodical way through the forest.