Some years after my grandmother died, my mother went to see a psychic to “talk” to her mother. The only thing that I know of their conversation was that the psychic told my mother to look out for a blue butterfly with yellow spots on it. This would be my grandmother’s way of contacting my mother. It sounded nice, but improbable. The only blue butterflies I had ever seen were giant electric blue specimens from South America mounted in boxes at an exposition, a far cry from our suburban Canadian landscape.
I forgot about this story for a long time. Shortly after my own mother died I moved to France, where one day I noticed a butterfly that I had never seen before. It was small and a glittering periwinkle, the hue right between purple and blue, my mother’s favorite color. At that moment I remembered the story about the psychic and my grandmother and the butterfly. A wide smile crept across my face as I said, “Hi mom!” I was filled with a deep sense of joy and I clearly felt my mother’s presence in me. As the butterfly danced about in the spring sunshine, I heard her reply, “I’m free!” From that point on, I decided to say hello to my mom every time I saw what I’ve now learned is called a “Silver-studded Blue” (Plebejus argus). This butterfly has helped me turn grief into joy by remembering that my mother, in whatever form she may be today, is as happy and free as a butterfly.
It also reminds me that she wants me to be happy and free too. In fact, long before she grew sick, my mother told me, “I spent 25 years grieving over my mother. I do not want you to do that when I die.” I remember her wise words with gratitude.
On the day of my novice ordination, my sister and I were walking through a field when we saw two Silver-studded Blues ahead of us. I told my sister about the psychic and our grandmother and how I connect these butterflies with mom. One landed close by and closed its wings. To our amazement, we saw that the outside of the wings were pale yellow and covered in dots! The pair of butterflies flew ahead of us for much of our journey. As both of our parents had already died, we decided that this was our parents come to greet us, bringing the whole family together for my ordination. It was a very joyful walk home.
Though the butterfly is a common symbol of transformation, I had never thought of my father when I saw butterflies. I was only a child when he died, but ever since my mother’s death I’ve been thinking about him and feeling his presence, too. I’ve been thinking about my father even more this year because he died when he was 36 and now I am 36. In the past week, I realized that I haven’t seen any Silver-studded Blues this year although there are brown-and-orange Meadow Browns everywhere—butterflies that I’ve never noticed before. Brown and orange always make me think of my father because those were the colors of the basement in my childhood home, where my father loved to sit and watch sports on television. So I’ve decided that the Meadow Browns are my father’s way of saying “Hi!” With some vacation time this week, I’ve been able to sit in the meadow watching the sunlight play on the leaves, the clouds drift along, and the butterflies flutter by. Many Meadow Browns have come by to visit, and together we’ve had a fine time.
So what does this have to do with mindfulness? Maybe not very much. And at the same time, everything. The Buddha taught us that freedom is found in letting go of ideas and notions. When I practice this, I can enjoy feeling the presence of my parents in the butterflies around me without needing to prove that they really are my parents. I am also free from needing to disprove all synchronicity as cold coincidence. I can enjoy these beautiful moments without clinging, and I can question the meaning of these “messages” without pushing away everything that can’t be explained by science. I don’t need anyone to believe the story of the butterflies, not even me! All experiences arise and then fade away. All phenomena are without a separate identity, or for that matter, a clear definition. My relationship with the butterflies brings me joy. When they flutter away, I let them go because there is really nothing to hold on to!
This has to do with mindfulness because there are still times when the thought of my parents squeezes my heart terribly. I practice to just see a thought as a thought, to just feel an emotion as an emotion, and quietly come back to my breath. Focusing on the lightness of a butterfly helps me not to get stuck. It reminds me to practice.
Another way in which this has to do with mindfulness is very simple. Because of mindfulness practice, I go for slow walks and I notice what’s around me. I am present to see the butterflies (whatever they do or do not represent) and the many moments of wonder and delight that fill this very life. For me, this is already miracle enough.
May your days be filled with wonder and delight.PS—Since writing this a few days ago, dozens of Silver-studded Blues have come out to play. No lie.