Waiting for Butterflies

“With our thoughts we make our world.” The Buddha

Want to practice patience? Try photographing butterflies!

To start, they’re small and flutter around from flower to leaf to branch, without staying in one place for very long. (In Thailand, a man who hops from woman to woman without settling down is known as a “butterfly man”.)

And, for a good photograph, you need to have the camera focus on the tiny subject and blur what’s in front and back of it. Finally, you need to be close enough to capture the butterfly’s intricate beauty without scaring it away. The photographs of butterflies in this post really challenged my limited skills with a camera.

The day I visited the Butterfly Conservatory of Goa got off to a bad start. I woke up feeling nauseous from something I ate the night before and was thinking about resting at my guesthouse. After five minutes kneeling before the porcelain alter though, I felt a bit better and decided to visit the butterfly park, which was about two hours by motorbike from the beach I was staying at in the south of Goa.

The long ride in the hot sun made me nauseous again and I made a long pit stop at a roadside pharmacy for some medicine and isotonic water to rehydrate. More than halfway to the destination I considered turning back. In India and other developing countries the roads and driving style are challenging and deserve your full concentration.

When I finally arrived, the state of the butterfly park did little to improve my mood. The Conservatory was smaller than I expected and a bit rundown.  I felt the solid reviews on TripAdvisor were inflated, or perhaps based on former glory. The Goan man in the dilapidated ticket booth seemed a bit surprised to see me. I was the only visitor that morning. I wondered if I’d made a mistake in spending several queasy hours on a motorbike in the hot sun to come. I thought about leaving after a few minutes at the park. Sour stomach, sour mood.

More than 2,500 years ago in a different part of India, a young prince named Siddhartha Gautama sat under a Bodhi tree for forty days and meditated on the ubiquity of human suffering and how it might be alleviated. One of his central insights was that how we think about our circumstances is much more important to our happiness than what those circumstances are. People can be happy in poverty and sickness and miserable with health and wealth. It all depends on how we think.

The Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert arrives at essentially the same conclusion by way of modern neuroscience in his fascinating talk “The surprising science of happiness”, one of the most popular TED talks of all time (video below). Gilbert explains that over the past two million years, human brain size has exploded, in part to accommodate a prefrontal cortex which gives us the unique ability to try out possible futures without actually experiencing them. No other animals can do this.

This ability to imagine an attractive future outcome is what makes humans struggle and strive. Without the prefrontal cortex, there would be no capitalism, shopping malls or casinos. No war or migration either. All this human striving depends on imagining something that might happen in the future, something we hope for, but is far from certain.

The really interesting part of this, as Gilbert points out, is that we are really bad at understanding how these hoped for future outcomes will make us feel. We think they will make us more happy than they actually do. Gilbert cites a large body of research that shows that after a very short lived boost in happiness on achieving a desired outcome, our level of contentment returns to the previous level. We think that promotion, new house or the latest iPhone will make us happy, but it doesn’t.

To take perhaps the most dramatic example from Gilbert’s talk, one year after one group of experimental subjects won the lottery and another group became paraplegic, both groups had returned to the same level of happiness as before. The prefrontal cortex helps us get ahead, but it doesn’t help us feel good when we do.

A common idea running through Western culture is that happiness is something we can attain after achieving some desired result (a good job, marriage, nice home etc.). In the American Declaration of Independence, “happiness” is used as a softer, more subtle synonym for “wealth and prosperity”. They wrote that we have an unalienable right to pursue happiness. What they meant was that we should be allowed to get rich. In their post-Enlightenment minds it was essentially the same thing.

Gilbert demonstrates though that happiness is actually something that the human brain creates on its own, not something that we achieve because of favorable circumstances. We are happy because we decide to be content with what we have. Not because we get what we want.

While it’s not at all part of Gilbert’s talk, I love this congruence between Buddhist philosophy and modern neuroscience.

Back at the Butterfly Conservatory, I had some ideas to turn around the day. While the park was small, the butterflies I had seen were quite beautiful. And, India is always hot, but the trees and foliage in the park provided some nice shade and there was even a pretty little fish pond with benches for visitors to rest. Once I adjusted my thinking a bit, I realized it was actually a pleasant place to spend a couple hours. I decided to spend some more time waiting for butterflies. Perhaps I’d see some nice ones and get some good photos. The most pleasant time in the park was during this period of patient waiting and observing, and it was in this state of mind that I was able to take most of the photos below.

Also, when I arrived at the facility, I initially found the lone attendant a bit unfriendly. But after walking around and taking photos, I chatted with him for a while in the park’s small, shuttered cafe. Upon seeing my large camera when I arrived, he had told me I wouldn’t be able to take good photos (the difficulties mentioned above). I take that sort of comment as a challenge, so I showed him a couple of my favorite shots (included below). After making a little more effort with him, he turned out to be quite friendly and we had an interesting conversation about his family and life in Goa. He invited me to his boss’s private garden on the top of her house (see 4th photo from the bottom).

I ended up spending nearly three hours at the small park. My stomach now felt much better and I was quite hungry. I’d skipped breakfast that morning and it was now about 1 pm. After leaving the park and puttering around the nearby town on my motorbike looking for a place to eat, a local man stopped and asked what I was looking for. When I told him he guided me to a favorite local restaurant and chatted with me throughout my lunch, even though he wasn’t hungry and barely spoke English.

While traveling, there are times when locals approach me with some angle (something to sell, a tour to offer etc.). For the most part though this only happens in the most touristy spots (where many of the locals in fact depend on tourism for their livelihood). Outside of these areas, I’ve found most locals to be extremely friendly and generous. They often offer directions even before I’ve asked. Or they’ll give me a sample of the street food they’re selling when they see I’m salivating over it like a hungry puppy. Make helpful recommendations about what to see or do in the area. Or the smiles you see from many of the locals in my photos in this blog. A great lunch with a local after the butterfly park was just another example of this.

More and more though I’ve come to realize how much of this depends on me. I am in fact deeply interested in meeting local people when I travel, but it does take a certain amount of positive mojo to engage with strangers in a new country, in a language they often don’t speak. If I’d remained in the bad mood I was in after waking up sick and motorbiking two hours on bad roads in the hot sun, the local man wouldn’t have approached me. He might even have fled in the other direction.

In the end, that day, which started out so badly, turned out to be one of the best of many good memories of India. All because I changed the way I thought about my situation that morning. And decided to spend some quiet time waiting for butterflies.

With our thoughts we make our world. 


The Conservatory attendant, in a garden his boss kept on top of her nearby house

(Above two photos) Lunch at the nearby restaurant


5 stars
Unmissable – simply stunning
5 of 5 bubblesReviewed yesterday

This has to be the most wonderful cathedral anywhere in the western world. We went late afternoon & sun shining through stained glass windows was divine. 1 tip – they operate timed slots so book online in advance.

1 star
Forget it” 
1 of 5 bubblesReviewed 2 weeks ago

An over rated tourist trap. Look at the outside and go home. The crush of tours, tour directors, guards, unpleasant staff, crowds, many uninterested in being there make this a horror.

Two very different experiences of Barcelona’s exquisite Sagrada Familia on TripAdvisor. I lived within a short bike ride of this world treasure for five years and I find it fascinating that both visitors comment on a potentially challenging part of visiting the cathedral (large crowds) but their outlook about these same circumstances is so different.

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