Butterflies

an essay on living with guided intention
Ryan Bodhi Abhijan

We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.

– C S Lewis

My friend Little Big Tom returned from his first major Australian roadtrip around the time I returned from my first Southeast Asia trip, and he kept saying about his itinerary, “Didn’t work out – change of plans.” No question, no qualms, just the way it was.

Over a cup of tea we shared our understanding of how itinerary-free, independent, major travel forces you to accept things as they fall if you don’t want to be constantly disappointed, especially if you’re in a culture as foreign as Thailand’s was to me.

Thailand is where I had my first real experience of the flow that comes from this acceptance, and I have since been incorporating the attitude I found there into my daily life, here and in the Mediterranean for nine months, another accidental adventure. It’s more than just the travelling attitude – there is something about the way of life in Thailand that is so much more conducive to ease, so antithetical to the sort of striving I’m accustomed to in the West. There is something about the place that allowed me to let go of plans and go with the flow more – from big life plans like how to spend my 30s to daily plans like how to put my feet up: to fidget or not to fidget.

 

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One of the first things I did when I got to Chiang Mai was hire a scooter and head for a beautiful big lake north of the city. Jeffy and Fai at Junior Guesthouse had told me about the lake, and Doi Inthanon as well – Thailand’s highest peak, which could also be reached by scooter. Of course I tried to find both in one day, never mind that Inthanon is south of the city.

So I had these destinations in mind, but because I cannot read Thai and sometimes things aren’t so well signposted anyway, I got lost and didn’t find the lake. I had nothing but time and no real plan or goal apart from a vague hope about a destination, so I was free to enjoy whatever experience I had along the way. Also I felt I didn’t have to struggle to find the lake, because riding around a new country was continually interesting.

I eventually saw the lake three months later when another friend Lew took me, but if I had been commuting to this lake I would have been months late for work, and instead that scooter-rich day I found a series of waterfalls in a national park I stumbled across. I left for Doi Inthanon as well, but not before I walked around these waterfalls and encountered enormous, disparate flocks of tiny yellow butterflies.

They were everywhere I looked, it seemed. I tried to follow them once, but they went over a railing into a formidable gully and I’ve been trained to not cut my own paths in national parks. The Doi Inthanon run was an escapade for another essay – suffice to say it was an fucking big day and I was left exhausted, traumatised by numerous near-collisions, but the butterflies remained with me, a subtle reminder that beauty is to be found by accident, often when you’re looking for something else and often when you’re feeling deeply fucked.

 

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A year or so later I asked my friend Lucy what she thought butterflies and intuition have in common, and she said, ‘They both have undefined flight paths, but if you follow them they will take you to beautiful places.’

I couldn’t have expressed it this way at the time, but that is how I felt – I didn’t mind that I had been waylaid, because I had found something beautiful along the way.

I’ve been commuting since I was old enough to ride my bike to school, and sure I’ve been waylaid on the way to somewhere my mind has deemed important, and it’s pissed me off, but now I see these occasions as just other events, just more instances in a series of ongoing instances no more real than each thought is more real than the thought replacing it now. Being late to work is not a big deal in the scheme of things, and even if we know this in our mind, objectively, that traffic jam gets in the way of our objectivity and we get annoyed.

When our intuition is strong, not only can we grow through life no longer worrying about what might get in the way, we can begin to see that the most-rewarding achievements and travel experiences can be found right among those failures or obstacles – f(l)ailures, I call them now. All it takes is a bit of space where intuition can grow – meditation, we’ll get to that soon.

 

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My friend Matt said to me, “The path to hell is paved with good intentions.” Whatever he meant, I take its meaning to come from the idea volition is will, or intent, and usually originates in our intellect or mind – we use it to decide on and commit to a particular course of action, even sometimes against our better judgement, our intuition.

Volition informs our behaviour, and is a necessary faculty in processing the myriad options available to us at any given moment or place in the timespace continuum. Volition is related to rational thinking.

Intuition is related to volition – it informs our volition, but it originates somewhere other than our mind or intellect, somewhere more like our heart, spirit, soul or universe, whatever you want to call it – Shakti, the primordial vagina, is my current favourite. Intuition is related to instinct.

Sometimes we become so attached to our volition that we become resigned to struggle, a word that has come to be associated with ‘striving to be free’, as one struggles from bondage or fights terror with terror. We struggle on, wanting to feel certain we are in control of our future – from this we derive a false sense of freedom: the freedom to control. This is more like instinct, where detachment from volition as well as intuition can occur – the kangaroo that killed itself by struggling against the fence I found it in among the Flinders Ranges.

Instinct is about survival, but the new black is thrival – volition informed by guided intention.

Meanwhile we strive to be free, and when we put too much value on our plans we find ourselves struggling our way into greater bondage, as a noose grows tighter when pulled. We become slaves to those prior instances of volition with which we made decisions about what we would do next.

We talk about ‘striving’ as though it is a natural, healthy way of going about our lives, and although I’m not one to advocate a life spent just sitting around on the couch eating nuts, sometimes I wonder if we’ve taken this whole striving thing too far. Living through pure volition could be likened to pulling a cart with a noose tied around our throat, whereas a life thriving with rich intuition is more like being surrounded by a flock of benevolent yellow butterflies.

 

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In a life rich with intuition, instead of continuing along our old path simply because that was the path we were last on, we are able to see each instance of volition as the beginning of a new path. If we continue choosing where we’re going based on where we’ve been, we will find ourselves a long way down a path that no longer suits our needs or interests, an existential inertia caused by a lack of awareness, mindfulness. Enhancing and regularly consulting our volition ensures we can more easily check-in from moment to moment with whether what we are doing is really what we want to be doing, or the right thing at all – what we need.

Without having to refer back to what we wanted to achieve and just going with what we want or need to achieve now, we can know that our movement is aligned with our grand plan, our destiny, our reason for being here, whatever you want to call it. The long dawdle Home, like Rumi’s reed pining for the reed bed.

To bring this back to what Little Big Tom and I learnt on our adventures, it could be thought that when we employ our volition only and some obstacle occurs, we feel that our progress has been stalled and we cannot continue until this blockage of our path has been cleared. But when our volition is informed by intuition, our awareness begins to see obstacles not as absolute blockages, but merely as temporarily obscuring our path, a challenging opportunity for divergence and acceptance of the new path for now.

Perhaps this is what Churchill meant when he said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” But how to live in this action?

 

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I was having one of those days recently where I had encountered some metaphysical obstacle and felt broken – my intuition was not in working order. All I could do was lie around eating nuts on the couch.

It was one of those days that seem to go on for days where I couldn’t choose from the possibilities around me, from how to set my life up overseas in Thailand, to whether I should go to bed or write some more until the thoughts were all purged or whether I should put this foot or that foot on the other foot or next to the pillow or under my thigh or just on the ground. I couldn’t even put my feet up properly, all hows and whethers and shoulds.

Unable to direct my will at anything for longer than a second, that night on the couch was not the nice kind of idleness of a well-earned lazy Sunday. It was an aimless idleness, in which nothing I could choose to do would be more worthwhile than anything else. I felt trapped by an absence of intuition.

I spent the whole next day just pottering about and meditating, and the next evening my intuition was back in full force. I sat on the couch in a state of calm and relaxation where every time I raised my tea to my lips it was the perfect thing to be doing, certain in uncertainty that everything is okay, that everything is the way it is because that’s the only way it could be, and therefore free of struggle.

Understanding the experience of this juxtaposition has taught me a lot about intuition as an antidote for aimless volition, and these days I have evenings that seem to go on like a string of moments hung out in a cool sunny breeze, where I just drift through burgeoning ideas, busy like a butterfly, free and loose and flexible. The sense that anything is possible flows freely through all my action and I know the right possibilities will manifest if they are the right ones to manifest – even the shit probabilities, they’re butterflies too.

This happened in 2013, when I had quit self-medicating and taken up meditation in earnest for the first time – meditation, familiarisation with what’s real. I began working on uprooting desire and allowing contentedness to flow in, experimenting with relinquishing volition and allowing intuition to fill the space with good decisions before my mental-conditioning had a chance to send me skittering along the same old path of indecision, reaction, automation. This is how I started to live this in action, the way of the heart, of guided intention.

 

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Prior to this, in 2011–2012, it took me nearly eighteen months in Thailand and the reverse-entry culture shock, drunk and broken, to realise there is a way to balance between volition and intuition, mind and heart, will and trust. There had to be – the way of suffering was killing me, slowly, via the liver by my own shaking hand.

If I had been in Australia looking for a lake, I don’t think I could have accepted getting lost the way I did in Chiang Mai. But I had the chance to experience these navigational ‘failures’ in Thailand, the Land of Smiles, a place where the phrase mai pen rye, translated roughly as ‘no worries’, is used by one writer to describe the national psyche. And I had the space in my days to practice letting things go, living in the moment – I was reading The Power of Now at the time as well, I just remembered that.

Maybe it’s rooted in Thailand’s Buddhist history, where mindfulness starts with the single breath of an individual’s practice, permeates their daily life and on to influence a whole culture from within, but few of my Thai friends would worry the way Australians do if things didn’t go to plan.

I hope it runs deeper than economics, but maybe it is a consequence of being raised in a developing country, where gratitude grows more strongly out of austerity. In the West we have grown accustomed to getting our way, all that we want and need, and this could be why we become so easily attached to a way prescribed by our goals. Even the most grateful and aware people I know in the West can be the most demanding of certain adherence to plans, protocol, control. It’s the East/West schism in us, our dualist perspective.

Another friend Jessie returned from Nepal indelibly moved by the way Nepalis live from the heart, not the head. In the West we believe we can orchestrate things with our omnipotent volition, whereas in Eastern cultures it is understood we can wield volition with our mind, but first we must heed intuition through the heart if we are to go through life with ease, sans dis-ease. It’s a sort of active idleness we are not familiar with in the West, driven as we are by self-interest and prod-activity. In Eastern cultures like Thailand, where there is no concept of self, no active ‘I’ or ‘you’ pronouns, sitting quietly at the seat of intuition is understood to be inherently valueable, a good skill to have – unlike hoarding, say, money, a skill too often applauded in The Lucky Country.

 

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Living from the heart, there is a sense that everything is okay, fine even, that everything is the way it is because that’s the only way it could be, by which I don’t mean there is only one way things could be. I mean, everything could be every other way and that’s fine – we don’t need to struggle when we know this, that this series of events we are at the end of, in the middle of, at the beginning of is no more or less okay than the infinite other variations possible.

 

When our intuition is firing on all cylinders it becomes real that any possibility, any action, is inherently worthwhile and achieveable – everything becomes  meditation, every object, every action. It’s a sense, a feeling – a spiritual or intuitive way of observing and trusting. That’s about as vague as it gets, which I guess it has to be to accommodate infinite possibility. This understanding comes through experience only, no matter how I strive to articulate it. This feeling originates in intuition, which itself originates in the space created by mindfulness meditation; it means being able to shift the goal posts according to how you feel about what this shift will mean for the score.

 

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Meditation gives us the experience of a constant – a constant in the sense of scientific experiments, against which you can compare your mind over time and come to see how its activity, its state, changes from session to session, moment to moment. This constant is what I talk about when I talk about space: when we spend enough time just sitting among our being, being actively or intentionally idle, we see our natural, constant state is one of pure calm, of vast open space.

We might have weeks where our meditation is consistently invaded by incessant thoughts and then one day we hit a patch of calm, like a warm spot in an unbearably cold ocean – urine, it’s a good compost activator also. We might start a session totally calm, and by the end of it we’re a frightening, angry mess inside. And from these variations we can deduce (though ‘deduce’ is too active) that as disturbing thoughts and states come and go, so we can let go of events that might cause us consternation, or days-long strings of events (good or bad) that render us ‘paralysed’ by indecision, procrastination, hangovers.

But we’ll come good in the end, as we learn to live with guided intention.

Consider the metaphor often advanced for meditation: our mind is a sky and thoughts are just clouds just passing through, dependant on internal and external conditions we can observe and drop. That feels like a mixed metaphor –thankfully, ineloquence is a butterfly too.

Language is sufficiently limited that there is no way of describing how arriving at this understanding is not even as active as words like ‘deduce’ suggest – rather, as we become familiar with the inherent calm of our mind in meditation, we naturally grow more aware of the potential for calm in our daily life. Now there is space in our being where clouds come and go, and in that space our intuition sprouts and we are able to more easily decide how to respond, how to deploy our volition before the rain clouds form.

All this happens within a moment, and again and again in each moment.

And as we become more familiar with the possibility each moment is exactly as it should be because it is rich with intuition, each moment becomes easier to accept whether it delivers us further along the path we expected or diverts us to some new direction. We embrace that new direction and move wherever we need to with each moment.

 

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Attachment to instances of past volition (regret) is no more helpful than attachment to fears or hopes (worry) for future instances of volition. “The Sunscreen Song” says it best: “Don’t worry about the future / Or know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum.”

When we cannot depend entirely on our mental faculty, our intellectual volition, we must turn to our intuition, our spiritual faculty, our capacity to sense a truth or the relative importance of some event or phenomena using an existential organ (the pineal gland) as inexplicable as that which holds phenomena together, and the only way I know how to engage this faculty is by creating space for it to emerge itself and permeate our mind-heavy existence, making way for a
mindful one.

The word ‘engage’ is also too active, because we don’t engage it as much as allow it to engage us. Then, our intuition engages our volition, guiding us to perform the relevant actions, and these actions might even lead to so-called failures, but if we trust that it was the right failure, that the failure was just another event that could have inherent value if perceived through the heart ‘organ’, the heart sense, then we are more likely to see that value, that silver lining in every dark cloud, than if we perceive the event entirely with reference to how it blocks us from our goal.

By suggesting our intuition guides us to perform the relevant actions I don’t mean we should relinquish our volition to fate or destiny, or anything outside ourselves. Rather, I am suggesting there are infinite possibilities and we are choosing from one or the other every moment. But for those infinite possibilities to manifest in the world around us we must first let go of the sense of control we wield by clinging desperately to our volition, our plans – yield not wield, put that on a t-shirt!

The antidote to our attachment to volition is the cultivation of intuition, and we can do this by creating space in our being through meditation, through active idleness.

Meditation is about familiarising ourselves with certain states of mind, about training our mind on our perfect sense of being, from where we can understand only that nothing really matters, everything is fine, because everything changes, everything is what it is and that’s perfect. In acceptance of everything changing, we allow ourselves to love what is, while it is, no matter what it is.

As we train in meditation we gradually enhance our capacity for letting go of thoughts, and our increasing familiarity with this capacity inevitably permeates our daily existence – next stop, our whole culture from within each of us individuals. Then we are able to let go of events (which is really just letting go of thoughts about events), and where we were previously dependent on some plan working out, we now treat plans as guidelines, allowing events to flow through our intuition and around our plans. We employ volition where necessary to act in the direction of new goals, but what more is life than a supremely complicated game, an ever-shifting series of events happening in time, with ambiguous rules, few of the pieces, and no lid – a joke of a puzzle, where each goal achieved or piece decoded is just another action toward an ever-allusive and utterly inarticulable so-called end.

When we open ourselves to seeing that everything is the way it is because every end is another beginning, we can begin to see an end to struggle and survival and begin rising toward thrival and freedom, a life rich with guided intuition. We can choose to choke ourselves against the yoke of a cart or walk among the butterflies.

 

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