The Spirit of The Tortoise

Alex Chen
6 min readFeb 11, 2024

Do you know what the oldest land-living animal is? Well, you can probably guess from the title. Indeed, it’s a 190-year-old tortoise, named Jonathan, identified by the Guinness World Records in January of 2022.

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This isn’t just a cool trivia though, we can actually learn some wisdom from the spirit of the tortoise (and turtle).

1: Slow and steady achieves the goal

We’ve probably all heard of the story of the tortoise and the hare. From the story, we see the importance of persistence, and often, persistence means slow and steady. Have you started something, and you initially had a burst of motivation, but after a while, that enthusiasm died out, and you stopped? That’s analogous to the hare who ran really fast at first, but stopped before reaching the finish line.

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It is great to have a burst of motivation if we are doing a sprint. However, most things in life are not sprints; they are marathons. If we over-exert ourselves in the beginning, we will quickly run out of fuel and give up. That’s why runners talk about the “85% rule”, which means instead of running at 100% speed, run at 85%. This is the optimal energy expenditure that balances speed and endurance.

We can apply the 85% rules to other areas of life too, such as towards work, learning something new, or changing a habit. When working, we might get anxious for big results in a short amount of time. This desire stresses us out. If we can recognize that work is a marathon, that it takes consistent accumulation over time, then our stress would decrease and our work quality would increase.

Moreover, when we are rushed, we easily make mistakes. Fixing these mistakes then takes even more time, making us even more stressed. That’s why there’s a common saying that goes,

“Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.”

When trying to learn something new or change a habit, if we are too rushed for results, then we easily get frustrated and give up. Or worse, we swing back to our old habits with greater force than before. We should learn from the spirit of the tortoise: slow and steady achieves the goal.

2: Calm and steady is longevity

I think the tortoise’s calm and steady temperament is definitely related to its longevity. When we are calm and steady, our heart beats calmly and slower. When we are agitated or hasty, our heart beats faster. Everything wears and tears, so a person with a hasty and impatient personality will wear down their heart faster than the person with a calm and steady personality.

Also, most injuries happen due to uncarefulness, and uncarefulness often results from haste. Just think about the last time you accidentally hurt yourself. Were you rushed? Or distracted? Distraction and multitasking are also related to haste (greedy for more results in a shorter amount of time). Injuries become increasingly dangerous as someone gets older, so cultivating a calm and steady personality will help us prevent injuries and suffering.

3: Protect yourself

When a tortoise encounters danger, it retracts its head, tail, and four limbs into its sturdy shell. Buddhism uses the six limbs of the tortoise as an analogy for our six senses: sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste, and mind. We need to be able to discern good influences from bad influences, and when we encounter bad influences, we should block them out.

The Buddha said,

“Do not associate with the ignorant. Instead, befriend the wise. Respect the virtuous. This is the greatest blessing.”

Jim Rohn echoed the same idea when he said,

“You’re the average of the five people you spend most time with.”

It’s not just people that influence us. It’s all the media and information that enter our minds. If we are constantly around wise people, we naturally get influenced and become wiser. If we are constantly surrounded by negative energy, we get influenced and start thinking negatively. What many people fail to do is consciously filter the media and information that they encounter through their eyes and ears.

To filter, we can ask some simple questions:

  1. Is this giving me positive energy or negative energy?
  2. Is this making me better or making me worse?
  3. Is this helping me or hurting me?

Aside from the information we consume, we also need to protect ourselves from triggers of bad habits or vices. For example, if I know that sweets are my weakness, and I need to cut down on sugar and fat, then I should avoid things that trigger my desire for sweets. That means I should get rid of sweets in my home so that I am not tempted by the sight, smell, or touch of them. I should avoid talking about sweets with friends to prevent these thoughts from coming up. I shouldn’t have improper thoughts like “It’s not a big deal if I break my plan. Just a little will satisfy my craving.” We need to be absolutely honest with ourselves about what is important and what we are willing to sacrifice for those important things.

Just to be clear, this example is not suggesting to cut off a bad habit completely right away. Earlier, we already mentioned that if people have a ferocious start, they often swing back to their old habits after that initial burst of motivation dies out. It’s better to start off slow with a manageable change, then we gradually add momentum.

The point of the sweets example is to avoid the triggers that can be avoided. If we already know we want to cut down on sweets, then we should eliminate, or at least limit, the triggers in our immediate environment. We can establish a plan for ourselves on how many sweets we can eat per day or per week and follow that plan to build our discipline. Although this example is about sweets, the principle applies to any bad habit.

My Experience

My personality really values efficiency and likes speed, so I need to learn from the spirit of the tortoise. I often push myself to achieve more, and this can result in neglecting health or relationships, which is not worth it. Usually, there isn’t a real need for me to achieve so much so fast; it’s just my personality, so I need to work on that. I’ve found daily meditation to be quite helpful in calming the mind.

Calm and steady in everyday actions is also something I’ve been working on. This quote from Thich Nhat Han left a deep impression on me:

“If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not ‘washing the dishes to wash the dishes.’ What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future — and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.”

I noticed that when I’m eating, I’m usually thinking about things I need to do later, so I eat really fast. Sometimes, if I’m stressed, I end up biting my lip by accident, which then creates an ulcer that I have to endure for a week. So I’ve been working on eating slower and more consciously. This way, not only do I prevent ulcers, I also enjoy my food more and improve my digestion. This also applies to other things too, like doing chores or going for a walk.

As for protecting the six senses, I’ve filtered my social media content to be wise, positive, and inspirational content. I also reflect daily using a to-be list, which helps me to be the kind of person that I want to attract into my life.

Conclusion

The spirit of the tortoise is calm, steady, persevering, and self-protective. These are all wonderful traits that we can learn from, and they will help us to achieve our goals, live longer, and be wiser. Are there any animals that inspire you? Why?

Originally published at https://www.weeklywisdomblog.com on February 11, 2024.

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Alex Chen

Passionate about self-cultivation, happiness, and sharing wisdom.