Turtles All the Way Down

Words by Rev. Rachel Hollander

ONE OF MY FAVOURITE STORIES (which goes back quite a ways) has been attributed to Bertrand Russell and Stephen Hawking. And a different version of it is, in fact, included in the book “The Theory of Everything.” Here is, what I believe to be, the original story, as it is printed in “A Deep Breath of Life” by Alan Cohen:

A king woke up his advisor late one evening, anxiously reporting, “I couldn’t sleep because I began to fear that the world would fall into the abyss.”

“Not to worry,” comforted the advisor. “The earth is held up by a giant bear.”

“Thank you,” answered the King, breathing a sigh of relief. Half an hour later, the king knocked again. “What is holding up the bear?” he inquired.

“A great turtle,” the sage answered. “He will not let the bear fall.”

“That’s good,” responded the king.

The seer was not surprised when, half an hour later, the king knocked again. The advisor opened the door and, just as the king was about to speak, he raised his hand and told the monarch, “It’s turtles, all the way down.”


Alan Cohen continues with these words:

“If we begin to question our support, we can enter into an abysmal tailspin of worry. Eventually we come to the point where we either trust implicitly or doubt compulsively. If we do not trust, we will find more and more reasons to fear, and if we trust, we shall confirm our vision of safety. We can short-circuit the experiment by practicing trust in the universe at every level, knowing that for every turtle we question, there is one below it.”

Wouldn’t it be lovely to feel like THIS everyday?

Poet Brian Andreas wrote: “There are times when I have no idea what comes next and it’s the thing I’ve come to love most about being alive: leaning in to hear the invitation of each day and feeling my whole body melt when I say yes, yes, yes.”

One of my older songs, from several years ago, is called PPVP (or, Pain Pushes til Vision Pulls). The song came through me while I was taking a class teaching metaphysical Spiritual Principles. For those of you who might now know about it, there is a philosophy called The Science of Mind, started by a gentleman named Ernest Holmes, in and around the early 1920’s. Ernest studied with the masters of New Thought, two of whom were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Emma Curtis Hopkins. Emma studied with Phineas Quimby, the man known as the Father of New Thought Wisdom. The Foundations class teaches the basics of the philosophy which is centered around the fact that our thoughts create our reality. If you saw “The Secret” or “What the Bleep Do We Know,” you have an idea of what the teachings are. Deep wisdom, much deeper than our culture has made it into.

Back to my song! I was taking this class which was teaching me that my thoughts are powerful and that I can create my experience in life through how I think about it, how I see it. It is about seeing BEFORE we believe. And a huge piece of all of it was based on TRUSTING.

Naturally, I rebelled. This whole idea kind of irritated me. OK, that’s polite. It totally pissed me off! What was interesting is that, the more I learned about it, the less angry I got at the teachings and the more frustrated I became with my self. I wanted to SEE it, FEEL it, LIVE it, EXPERIENCE it RIGHT AT THAT MOMENT!! And I wasn’t. And I was really hard on my self about it. Here is an example of where a little of something good can get us in serious trouble!

My biggest challenge was not the changing of my thoughts. It was in TRUSTING that the RESULTS of changing of my thoughts would then show up in my life. And how soon was it going to happen. And why wasn’t it happening already? Yeah. Who has two thumbs and trust issues? This chick, right here!

I loved the IDEA of trusting God (or whatever word works for you). I loved the IDEA of relaxing, knowing that there were turtles all the way down, that I don’t drive the bus, that I don’t make the sun rise and set. AND. For whatever reasons – maybe some disappointments experienced after trusting in the past – I could NOT trust that all was taken care of. I still felt the need to control – or try to control – everything, have attachments to everything. I was sure I could make stuff happen. And, when Life continued to prove me wrong, it caused me, in some ways, to feel broken. Which is not a great feeling.

There is something worth looking at here: Our sense of brokenness can lead us to a deeper connection with the Divine. It can also send us running FROM the Divine! Let me be clear: I am not saying that we must suffer to be close to God. I don’t follow that teaching at all. What I am saying is that in our brokenness, in our moments of vulnerability, in our moments of anger at or disappointment with God, in our darkness, in our walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we have the OPPORTUNITY to lean in. We have the opportunity to yield. To stop trying to know everything and control everything and to just let Spirit/God/Universe/Flying Spaghetti Monster/whatever, let IT drive the bus for a time.

Here’s some insight into Rev Rachel: In my moments of brokenness, no matter where I turn to for wisdom or guidance about trust, I always end up at the same place: At the edge of the abyss with Indiana Jones (from the third Raiders of the Lost Ark movie), getting ready to take that terrifying step of faith. He’s reading the instructions from his Father’s journal and it’s telling him: “Only with a leap from the lion’s head, will he prove his worth.” And Indy says, “It’s impossible.” Meanwhile, the only thing that will save his father’s life is if he does this very thing. He realizes, and says out loud, “It’s a leap of faith.” His father, whispers (from too far away for Indy to hear), “You must believe, boy. You must believe.” Indiana takes a breath, puts his hand on his chest, closes his eyes, and steps out. 1And Turtles, all the way down.

Not all of us have the guts and sort of crazy approach to life that the character of Indiana Jones has. We don’t need it. All we need is a willingness to try. To ask. A friend on shared this wisdom with me: “Scripture says, ‘Ask and you shall receive,’ it doesn’t say, ‘bitch and whine and you shall receive.’” Ask. Not beg or beseech or bargain, simply ask.


Many of us may have experienced times in our lives when we needed someone, we needed support, to lean in and feel held. And maybe we asked for what we needed. And maybe we weren’t heard. Or, maybe, as painful as it is to admit it, maybe we were told, “no.” What do we lean on when it looks or feels like nothing’s there? What do we believe in when we don’t already carry within us any kind of belief we can trust?

This is where things can get really interesting. And tricky!

I have many friends who walk paths of deeply committed faiths, traditional and non-traditional. They have firm and un-shakeable beliefs that keep them from doubting. No moments of slippage for these folks, at least none that are truly problematic.

And I have many friends who are total atheists. We can talk about the “G-word” (God) because I am really super clear with them what I mean when I use it (not the man in the sky, etc.). We talk about ethical and moral issues, about living life well, without needing the parameters or dogma of any set religion or path.

And then, one of my atheist friends posted this: “Don’t call me a Non-Believer! Just because I don’t believe what YOU do does NOT mean I don’t believe in something as important, glorious, and as peaceful to me as your belief is to you. You don’t have a monopoly on serenity and connection with something Divine – so NO, I am the farthest thing from a Non-Believer.”

In support of this idea, Gandhi is quoted as saying, “In heaven, there is no religion. Thank God.”

We all believe SOMEthing. We may not all believe IN something, and that is totally ok. This is about trust, which is a deeply personal experience. Trusting, having faith, believing, walking a spiritual path, commitment, and so many more words – WORDS – get in our way.

There is a beautiful scene in “Brother Sun Sister Moon,” (ok, yes, the whole movie is beautiful, however….!) when Bernardo DeQuintevalle returns from the Crusades and has sought out Francesco to find out what’s been going on. Their group of friends has seemed to have abandoned Francesco in his quest to re-build San Damiano, they can’t See him in this new way of being and have continued in their old life. Bernardo returns home broken and lost. He meets up with Francesco and they are having a conversation about Bernardo’s seeking, his longing to find purpose and meaning to his life. And Francesco looks at him and says, “Words, Bernardo. I used to believe in words.” And in that one moment, Bernardo becomes clear that he must move on his words. That just saying what he believed was not enough for him. He had to trust that what was in his heart was the Truth. And that it was time to step out in faith.

These moments of awakening, though, don’t usually happen during our “busyness” or while we are involved with the noise of the world. The trust and knowing we are wanting to experience – most oftentimes – comes when we are in a moment of stopping. When life has given us an opportunity – pleasant or un-pleasant – to pause. That is when the work truly begins.

There are – of course – techniques, approaches, books and teachers that all profess that they know the way for us to trust more deeply, how we can KNOW with certainty that there are turtles all the way down. And many are good tools, good resources, good “lights on the path.” And. You all know where this is leading.

Like all of the Big Work of living and walking the spiritual life, it’s STILL an inside job. I can read all of the best books out there and still not trust. I can sit through the most enlightening seminar and still walk away doubting and wanting to control.

What changes us is what feeds us, what touches and fills our soul. Like this quote from Walt Whitman: “Re-examine all that you’ve been told….dismiss that which insults your soul.”

I would amend that with: Embrace what nourishes your soul.

There is this awesome practice I got turned onto last year. The Good Things Jar. Starting January 1st, every time something good happens or I feel Grateful for someone or something, even a moment, I write it on a little slip of paper and put it in the jar. And, the practice completes on New Year’s Eve when I empty the jar and read over each of those moments.

What does this have to do with trusting? I’ll tell you: in order to know that more Good is coming our way, we must first sit in the Gratitude of what we have, who we are right now, what is around us, supporting us. When we have that sense of Gratitude in the turtles that we can see, that is when the true sense of the turtles we can’t see, the ones “all the way down,” become a reality for us. At least, that’s one approach. This trust thing is a journey that each of us takes on our own.

It is the step out into the abyss. It is the letting go of the white-knuckle-vice-grip we keep on things, people, situations, circumstances. It is the knocking on the advisor’s door with “but what about the” questions. It is pushing ourselves through our resistance, our stubbornness, our fear.

There are turtles all the way down. What do we have to lose by believing this? What do we have to gain when we yield and allow ourselves to trust it?

Our experience will always be ours to choose.


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