Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Butterfly Effect

Partial view from our deck.

Those familiar with chaos theory may be thinking that’s what this post is about: how something so small as the flutter of a butterfly in one part of the world may cause dire weather elsewhere. This was a metaphor used in a paper by Edward N. Lorenz for the notion that one slight event can affect a complex system. Chaos theory was the theme of one issue when I edited Open Hands. (Click on the highlighted phrase and scroll down to my opening essay. Note designer Jan Graves’ creative arrangement of the columns.)

But if the flutter of a butterfly may have disastrous results, a butterfly that is still can have peaceful effects.

I learned that the morning I write this during my reading and prayers on our deck, which blessedly looks out at a ravine verdant with shrubs, kudzu, and very tall, leafy trees on either side of a narrow creek.

A small butterfly or large moth landed on the other side of an arm of a wooden chair beside me. I saw it land, but had to peer over an edge of the arm to see the tips of its wings and large round eyes. Otherwise it was hidden. I liked that it made no difference if it was a moth or a butterfly for its effect on me.

The motionless creature prompted me to remain still, lest I scare it away. (Wade has noted how still I can remain in bed at night, even when I lie awake, my brain going at full speed. Sometimes I silently do the verbal part of my morning prayers, which may return me to a peaceful sleep.)

My lack of movement gave me opportunities to observe:

+the gently creeping fingertips of light on the leaves of trees as the sun rose;
+the flicker of moisture in the mulch beneath the bird bath, then the rare drops that created it dripping from a crack in its basin;
+Luna the cat hanging on to the top of a neighbor’s fence while batting away at something on a shrub;
+a majestic hawk flying overhead in the blue sky, wings spread wide;
+the humid and warm stillness of air suddenly becoming a gentle, cooling breeze;
+the wisps of clouds moving swiftly above me;
+the unusual hush of the cicadas.

My very long pause seemed a proper preparation for resuming my reading of Thomas Merton’s Mystics and Zen Masters, which I referenced three weeks ago. I began by re-reading phrases and sentences I had underlined the previous day, and decided to share them in this post, as I did when I wrote of reading the mystical Cloud of Unknowing, leaving the reader to relate it to your own experience.

Merton describes the Tao Te Ching written by the mystic Lao Tzu. What follows are Merton’s words; but words in quotes are from the Tao.  I’ve made the language inclusive, but their relevance stands on its own:

+ The sage and the wise ruler are those who do not rush forward to aggrandize themselves, but cherish, with loving concern, the sacred reality of persons and things which have been entrusted to them by the Tao.

+ In the Tao, “which is queer like nothing on earth,” are found three treasures: mercy, frugality, and not wanting to be first in the world.

+One of its most astute sayings is that in a war the winner is likely to be the side that enters the war with the most sorrow. “To rejoice over a victory is to rejoice over the slaughter of others… Every victory is a funeral.”

+ “Heaven arms with love / Those it would not see destroyed.”

+ One “reaches” the Tao by “becoming like” the Tao, by acting, in some sense, according to the “way” (Tao). For the Tao is at once perfect activity and perfect rest.

+ The way of the Tao is…the way of supreme spontaneity, which is virtuous in a transcendent sense because it “does not strive.”

+ As soon as a human being becomes aware of doing good and avoiding evil, he or she is no longer perfectly good.

+ For Lao Tzu, if one were to be righteous, that one should first of all fly all thought of righteousness, and put out of one’s mind any ideal image of oneself as a “righteous person.”

+ The way of the sage is the way of not-attacking, not charging at one’s objective, not busying oneself too intently about one’s goals.

+ Taoism is not complete non-action but rather non-activism. It is supreme activity, because it acts at rest, acts without effort. Its effortlessness is not a matter of inertia, but of harmony with the hidden power that drives the planets and the cosmos.

As Merton understands the Tao, it is neither quietistic nor a doctrine but a “wisdom” and a “way of life.” He concludes of the West, “It is absolutely essential to introduce into our study of the humanities a dimension of wisdom oriented to contemplation as well as to wise action.”

Reflecting on these words underlined yesterday, I felt no need to go on to the next chapter of the book. The butterfly was still there; I was there, still. 

I pulled out my phone to take a picture of the butterfly for you, the reader of this intended post, but the moment I stood, it flew away.

Its flutter may wreak havoc elsewhere, but its rest had kept me in the tranquil eye of the storm.

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Copyright © 2017 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.  


  1. Thanks. it's nice to be aware of so many practicing and practicing and practicing "this". To me it's a little bit like "letting go" without caveat "let ting God" because that can be stumbling block in some cases. But, letting go knowing ----that knowing that it is almost opposite of "giving up" is almost like when i first trusted everything all together. Thanks, Chris.

  2. While the flutter of a butterfly in one part of the world may cause dire weather elsewhere it can also stop that dire weather elsewhere.

    The butterfly effect simply causes chaos and UNKNOWN effects elsewhere,either desirable or undesirable.

    1. Yes, of course. It's only a metaphor, not meant literally.