Lam Rim reflection

Lam Rim on the Road: Severed

Feb 17, 2022

Part One in a Mini-Series on Death & Rebirth

As I reflect on a term I heard in a documentary yesterday, “reemergence,” a small, delicate object lands on the table. It looks like a leaf or flower. Wind from the fan blows it onto the ground. Something pulls me to look at it again. I pick it up. In my hands, a beloved butterfly! With care, I caress its folded wings to see if it will respond. Yellow powder rubs off on my fingertips. No movement otherwise. A dead butterfly? That can’t be a good omen. I place it on the table in front of my rolled towel, to protect it from the breeze. Drinking my coffee, I Google, “what does it mean to find a dead butterfly?”

The first of the search results:

“Absence of joy and lightness.”

To emphasize the message, this butterfly is yellow, the color associated with these qualities. I continue to explore other interpretations.

I have felt an affinity with butterflies since college. While I was stuck in an emotionally abusive relationship, they gave me hope for freedom. Feeling trapped by the controlling behavior of my then-boyfriend, butterflies represented a healthier self-image that I kept alive in my mind. Like my beautiful counterparts, I needed to be free to flutter from flower to flower, take in and then spread the nectar of life experience. My wings were severed by the confinement and beat down. He always said love required sacrifice – a notion I resented. It turns out, fragmentation was mine. The willingness to allow harm was largely the result of tenacious shame combined with an intense desire to connect. With diligent effort and the passage of time, I mended my wings and have since taken flight. A couple of years ago, I reclaimed my lost joy, which felt like a real homecoming.

Back to the present day. I decide to carry the dead butterfly on a waterfall hike. In a ceremonious way, I will find a peaceful resting place for its body as I reflect on death, regeneration, solitude, togetherness, and joy. Maybe I’ll set it in the pages of my treasured copy of The Life of Milarepa so it can steep in the Dharma on the way to the waterfall. I pick up the butterfly and stroke its wings… something tells me it’s still alive. Fluttering! Hard to tell, but one of its wings looks ripped. It cannot fly. My heart rips open with compassion.

What can I do? Is it possible to save my little friend? Another Google search. It seems highly unlikely to provide the gift of flight, but I can still offer a pleasant place for respite. How will I safely transport it to the waterfall?

My sunglass case! I don’t usually bring it on excursions, but an intuitive insight told me to this morning. It turns out to be a perfect carrier for the butterfly. I hop on my scooter and drive a short distance to Paradise Waterfall. Climb some rocks in the jungle and find a satisfying spot to sit. Take out my flightless friend and place it in my hands. With tenderness, I stroke its wings and wish it well.

May you be comfortable for the remainder of your life.

May you have a peaceful transition through the bardo.

May you be granted a fortunate rebirth.

I lay the butterfly on a nearby rock and let it rest.

After some time in reflection, a yellow butterfly, nearly identical to my friend, flies by in good health. It’s not a reincarnation, but represents the inevitability of rebirth.

During the past 6 weeks on the socially-bustling island of Koh Pha Ngan, I have been isolative – mostly by choice. Not exactly a conscious choosing, but there has been a deeper awareness guiding me to go inward. Another cycle of death and rebirth. Once again, I find myself enveloped in the chrysalis, hanging by a thread. The process is delicate. Doubt creeps in at times. Am I repeating old patterns of depression and isolation? Or, am I benefiting from this time alone? Is it possible to stay in the cocoon for too long?

Butterflies don’t “think” about when to emerge from the chrysalis. It happens naturally. I remind myself of the wisdom inherent in their process. It does feel like I’m growing and gaining important insights during this period of solitude.

Navigating the balance between aloneness and togetherness is a theme in this lifetime. How have I sacrificed autonomy and authenticity for the sake of the group? For the sake of harmony and belonging. A need for freedom, which in this case means the freedom to be myself, and a need for connection. I need both. Not one or the other. Straddling the two for many years, I have been trying, unsuccessfully, to strike a balance.

During my travels, I have learned that joy arises naturally when I spend time with people I like. Conversely, when I’m alone for too long, I experience challenging emotions – irritability, languishing, weariness, depression. Is my delight dependent on other people? The possibility makes me cringe. Why an aversion to the idea of needing others? (An inquiry for another time.) Ultimately, joy comes from within, AND I need other people. We all do. The truth (and beauty) of interdependence.

It must be obvious by now – there has been an absence of joy and lightness during this period of aloneness. Google does it again! The butterfly that landed on my path is not dead though, it is dying. Just as I am dying. Or rather, parts of me. Limiting beliefs, subtle in nature, that covertly impact my behavior and lead to unhealthy thought patterns. As I peel back more layers of self, I reach deeper into my mind and see things that were previously hidden. It’s not my joy that is dying. Because the thing about the chrysalis, much like the iconic cave, is that it’s dark! When you confront your shadow and integrate it, there is a temporary lack of light. Darkness is required for transformation. Joy is waiting for me, just as it always does.

But, what if joyfulness is not awaiting my emergence? Maybe it’s accessible now. Am I meant to find joy in solitude? If so, how? Is it possible to be autonomous without sacrificing intimacy? Authenticity should lead to meaningful connections, right? Will periods of togetherness and aloneness remain a wave-like pattern for me – alternating rather than occurring simultaneously? Or, will I finally cultivate a balance?

Stay tuned for Part Two of this mini-series: Into the Cave

 Erica Saccente After 15 years in NYC, Erica decided to pursue a lifelong dream to live abroad. Letting go of the fear of disappointing others, she is following the call of her own heart. As she continues to work remotely as a contemplative psychiatric nurse practitioner, she will practice the art of surrender - having trust, listening to her intuition, and embracing a path of uncertainty. She will express her reflections of the Lam Rim through her love of writing and photography. Join her on the journey! 

On Instagram: @butterflyez


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