Butterflies Are Not Free

Betty Bland - USA

[This Viewpoint article was published in the Quest magazine for September-October 2008, pp. 164-5]

The drifting dazzling beauty of a butterfly wafting on the summer breezes, floating from flower to flower, conjures in us an aesthetic appreciation and a certain longing to be carefree like this diaphanous illusion. As the Buddhist teachings affirm, “All beings wish to be happy.” And we human beings add the strength of our highly developed mental and emotional faculties to this search for happiness as a driving factor in our lives.


What can make us happy? After our basic needs are met, we begin to seek in all sorts of places. Thrills, power, and wealth might be pursued as the key to a sense of satisfaction. When the sense of meaning, purpose, and love are missing from our lives, our psyche can drive us into strange and self-destructive places. The things we long for the most are those things that are our half-remembered birthright. Our inner nature calls to us and tells us that we are so much more than this crazy merry-go-round in the physical world.

We are like the grub or caterpillar, pushing around in the dark, earthbound and prickly. We eat, we sleep, and we gather experiences, but an inner sense keeps nagging at us. Something important is missing. We begin weaving the web of self-examination—around and around, back and forth, until we might feel that there is nothing but darkness in our cocoon. In the process of this transformative pain, our insides can turn to mush. Nothing fits the old mold. What we might have thought was real and important is no longer so.

Whether this psychological alteration is long or short depends on many factors, but it must come in some way to each of our lives, turning ourselves inside out so that we no longer focus on self-pity and indulgences, but begin to recognize the fundamental unity with all of existence. Even the faintest glimmer of this realization begins to alter our nature that our wings of flight are just a breath away. It will not be long until we break free of our cocoon, fly into the sunlight of compassion, and sip the nectar of meaning in unity.

The butterfly is born, but not without a price. The process of change brings it to a state of amorphous chaos in which nothing seems certain. Yet in the unfoldment of time and under the condition that nothing goes awry, the lovely creature emerges in all its glory.

This imagery applies to the path of each human spirit in that we have undergone long development as self-protective, self-interested beings focused solely on our survival, who finally, through difficulties of one sort or another, have been catapulted into ourselves in order to grow beyond our accustomed boundaries. This happens cyclically within each life and on a grander scale through many lifetimes. Each new birthing is an initiatory experience along our return pathway to the divine nature hidden within, the only source of true happiness.

Because the pattern of development is so different for each of us in the way that it manifests, I might add an additional allusion to the butterfly. That is, “If a butterfly flutters its wings in China, there will be a powerful hurricane in the Atlantic.” The truth of this phenomenon, which is called “sensitive dependence upon initial conditions” by chaos theorists, becomes more apparent daily as the internet and ever-increasing mobility exponentially expand our realms of influence. Each person’s pathway has different circumstances, so that there are as many pathways to Spirit as there are people. Together we are forming this lovely pattern of emerging butterflies. And we each impact untold others.

It is well to remember that the Theosophical Society in its many national sections, as well as the international Society as a whole, is a conglomerate entity which follows this same sort of pattern. We are blessed more than many organizations by the solid foundation of our long history. Yet it is clear that the further back into time our beginnings reach, the more transformational processes we will have to undergo to fulfill our mission as we develop and the world changes.

The Society has recently undergone an international election, unleashing controversy that disturbs us all—and that to some may seem like a step backward. However, it is by virtue of our functioning as a group, buffeting against one another elbow to elbow, that our prickles are shorn and our predispositions dissolved. As a microcosm of the entire human family we must learn to develop our own strengths while at the same time honoring our fellows undergoing the same process. Our interactions with one another create the environment and feedback that replicate the idea of a cocoon on a larger basis. Our self-focus and personal agendas must undergo radical change. With the necessity of looking into one another’s eyes we are made to see ourselves more clearly, so that through a more lucid consciousness we are transformed and thus able to participate in building a more effective nucleus of the universal brotherhood of all.

It is neither simple nor easy, but our work as a Society draws each of us into the chaos of transformation and thereby recreates us to be contributing parts of the larger whole. By working together we bring about change in ourselves, from being selfishly ground-based caterpillars into the winged creatures of selfless service. Just as the individual has to experience trials and setbacks as a part of growth, so also the Society has to undergo the trauma of changes. To become a butterfly is difficult and is not free, but it is worth it.

After a contentious election in 1954, Sidney Cook, National Vice President, wrote:

What is tremendously important is that after any electoral event in the Theosophical Society there be a renewal of our sense of oneness. So deep is the knowledge of our brotherhood—it is the very foundation cement of our Society’s being—that when the partisanship ceases the true nature of our brotherly relationship and purpose again comes rapidly to the surface and directs our deliberations, our decisions and our actions. . . . Here lies the real test. It is in our groups, lodges, committees, boards, that our deepest principle must most evidently prevail. It is there we become or fail to become the nucleus upon which the whole welfare of the Society rests and upon which its whole vital work must be based.

There can be no understanding of the Wisdom, no comprehension of the work without it.
Now that the exaggerations of difference, fanned during an election, have disappeared, let the enthusiasm of our brotherhood possess us. (American Theosophist, August, 1954, p. 150)

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