by Catherine Killebrew
My mother collected butterfly designs. She bought butterfly-shaped pendants and earrings, and china with butterflies painted on it. She embroidered butterflies on throw pillows, and tacked notes to the refrigerator with butterfly magnets. There were butterfly things throughout the house. The butterfly was her chosen symbol, and she explained that it represented new life or rebirth (she was "born again.") Mother did not mistake the butterfly symbol for what it represented.
Last week, one of my coworkers proudly exhibited his masterpiece - his butterfly and moth collection - in the staff lounge. He has talked about it for years, and it is obviously a precious part of him. He has sacrificed much of his time, attention, and energy to the processes of hunting the winged creatures, and of turning them into a collection of life-like-dead-things. He has also spent considerable time and energy on defending his collection, and the practice of collecting. I assume he has gotten some enjoyment from the project, as well.
It was a remarkable display. Each exquisite, unbelievably unsmudged specimen was pinned, and beneath it I could barely see a thumb-nail-sized, finely printed identification card which, though apparently detailed, did not detract from the splendor of the butterfly or moth above it. The insects were categorized, and each grouping occupied its own territory on the mounting board. Beside the display case lay an attractively presented narrative of the butterflies and moths of California.
In a disquieting way I was impressed by the personal effort and the precision and craftsmanship this collection represented, and I commended my coworker for that, but what really struck me was the metaphor that collection represented. I and nearly every adult I know has a collection that is even more astounding and curiously impressive. It comprises one's personal ego, or android, as we at Tayu call it. We call it an android, rather than a machine or robot, because it is all so life-like, so humanoid. The specimens in it are life experiences.
Each experience has been trapped and killed, and has been beautifully or hideously preserved by internal dialogue ("thinking"), or by repressing feelings about it. Each specimen has been mounted with personal identifications, and is often displayed in a number of ways, such as by speaking about what one knows or does, or by compulsively acting in a stereotypical way in order to prove one's authenticity.
The collective android confuses symbols with what they are supposed to represent, and must defend its hoard of replicas, sometimes at all costs. An example of this confusion is found in the tendency of many spiritual seekers to mistake spiritual scholarship for spiritual understanding. Acquaintanceship with many words and formulations (symbols and categorizations) about transformation is mistaken for real knowledge.
To demonstrate the passionate defense the collection often requires, I can recall times when my ideas and beliefs, my habits of relating, or the usefulness of my occupation were questioned by others. I felt as though I were being stoned with big rocks or shot at. My body chemistry registered a "red alert" when someone tampered with my collection of symbols.
Unlike collecting butterflies, however, the creation of the android is not just a hobby. Its development is necessary for our early survival. It comes about through a commendable effort to learn how human life works, so we can safely participate in it. And although there is nothing wrong with living by its codes (if this is personally acceptable), one of my more selfish reasons for engaging in spiritual practice is that I get to trade my collection piece by piece for the joy and unattached security of being able to simply watch a butterfly.