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The Teaching of Butterfly

Tan Hwee-Meng

“One day, a small opening appeared in a cocoon. A man sat and watched the butterfly for several hours as it struggled to force its body through that little hole.
Then, it seemed to stop making any progress.

It appeared as if it had gotten as far as it could and it could not go any further. So the man decided to help the butterfly: he took a pair of scissors and opened the cocoon.

The butterfly then emerged easily.

But it had a withered body. It was tiny and had shrivelled wings. The man continued to watch because he expected that, at any moment, the wings would open, enlarge and expand, to be able to support the butterfly’s body, and become firm.

Neither happened!

In fact, the butterfly spent the rest of its life crawling around with a withered body and shrivelled wings. It never was able to fly. What the man, in his kindness and his goodwill, did not understand was that the restricting cocoon and the struggle required for the butterfly to get through the tiny opening, were nature’s way of forcing fluid from the body of the butterfly into its wings, so that it would be ready for flight once it achieved its freedom from the cocoon.”

I have read many variations of this famous story and this particular version is currently circulating around the Internet. The butterfly offers a wise and important teaching on the value of our human struggles.

No one is exempted from life’s difficulties. No matter how we may try to control life, we inevitably run into some sort of pain, setbacks and failures. The fact that we have problems does not mean that we are special or bad. Problems are a fact of human existence. Since struggles and difficulties are unavoidable, we must come into right relationship and right understanding to this essential aspect of life.

When difficulties land in your life, how do you view them? Do you have this idea that you are being punished? Do you think that it is some karmic retribution? Do you runaway? Do you pretend that everything is okay?

Do you moan and complain, “Why is my life so difficult? Why is my life so painful? Why did this terrible thing happen to me? Why? Why?”

Many of us pray for an easier path in life. We beg the Gods for a life free from obstacles. We wish that someone up there would take this pain away from us. We want someone else to save us. We hope for magical solutions that would wipe all our conflicts away.

There is nothing wrong with wishing for a pain-free life. However, sometimes taking an easy path in life is not necessary what is best for our inner growth. We fail to appreciate how important problems are to our development as spiritual human beings. As the butterfly so beautifully teaches us, our struggles are not our enemies. In fact, they are necessary ingredients to transform us into mature human beings.

So, honour your struggles.

I remember a young man who wanted to live overseas. He had a very comfortable lifestyle with his family. If he were to go overseas, he may have to endure hardship. So, the easier path would have been to stay at home. Against his parents’ wishes, he followed his dreams to relocate overseas. Many of his friends and family thought him foolish for choosing such a hard and risky path. And his friends and family were right.

It was a very painful experience to create a new life for himself in a foreign country. He struggled to make enough money to pay his rent. He constantly fell sick. He was also tremendously lonely. Yet, he emerged out of this dark and difficult experience, a beautiful human being. He became more responsible, self-reliant, and compassionate. His self-confidence and self-esteem grew as he learned to overcome his obstacles.

This young man gave me a priceless teaching. I realized that taking the easy path does not always serve our highest purpose. Just like a diamond which needs tremendous heat and pressure to turn it from carbon to diamond, this young man needed to wrestle in his cocoon of difficulties long enough to release his inner brilliance and light.

We do ourselves a great disservice if we run away from our struggles. Our problems serve as keys to unlock the tremendous potential that lies within each and every one of us. Our struggles bring us in touch with our Higher Self qualities such as love, patience, faith, power and forgiveness. Our process of resolving conflicts grows us as human beings.

Struggles also act as clear mirrors. They strip us of our illusions about ourselves. They are a way of seeing ourselves clearly. We may think we are forgiving until someone does something wrong to us. We may believe ourselves to be patient until something comes to severely test that patience.

As we wrestle with one set of challenges successfully and grow through them, we will be given a new set of obstacles for the next level of our development. So, we are never going to get rid of our difficulties.

This is a time-honoured path of growth. So, respect your problems.

Our struggles and problems are not accidental freaks of the Universe. Nor are they haphazard occurrences. Nor are they sent by someone out there to punish us. Consider them as gifts of love. They are designed by a deeper part of us – a wiser and more loving part of us that wants us to fly like a butterfly.

Consider that everything that has ever happened to us is happening as it should happen. So, every problem, every difficulty and every issue we have in our life now is there because they are somehow necessary to our growth.

I would like to share this wonderful exercise adapted from Jack Kornfield to help you find the treasures that lie in your obstacles.

(Jack Kornfield)

Sit quietly, feeling the rhythm of your breathing, allowing yourself to become calm and receptive. Then think of a difficulty that you face in your life. As you sense this difficulty, notice how it affects your body, heart, and mind. Feeling it carefully, begin to ask yourself a few questions, listening inwardly for their answers.

How have I treated this difficulty so far?

How have my own responses and reactions to the difficulty caused me suffering?

What does this problem ask me to let go of?

What suffering is unavoidable and is my fate to accept? (As human beings, there are certain sufferings that are inevitable, for example, the death of people you love.)

What great lesson might it be able to teach me?

What is the gold, the treasure, the value, hidden in this situation?

In using this reflection to consider your difficulties, the understanding and openings may come slowly. Take your time. As with all meditations, it can be helpful to repeat this reflection a number of times, listening each time for deeper answers from your body, heart, and spirit.

Struggles are an essential part of life. How you choose to relate to them is up to you. You can see yourself as a victim of the universe and spend your whole life blaming. Or you can embrace struggle as a necessary process of life that transforms you into a spiritually mature human being.

No one can make this choice for you. Your parents cannot do this for you. Your friends cannot do this for you. Only out of your commitment to your own inner growth will you make this choice to bow down to your difficulties as great teachers.

I asked for Strength and 
Life sent me difficulties to bear.

I asked for Wisdom and 
Life sent me problems to solve.

I asked for Love and 
Life sent me troublesome people to forgive.