Bug with wings

What to Let Live: A Meditator’s Guide to Insects

But is life as it appears in a fly so very different from life as it appears in a human? —Sharon Salzberg

Was I a hypocrite for rescuing the bug? It was a Wednesday, not that that mattered. I was halfway through a six-week retreat and, aside from laundry days, each silent day seemed more or less like the others.

During the morning walking period, I shared the basement with two other yogis. One was a heavyset guy who reminded me of an old boyfriend and the other was a slim guy with a moustache who looked like young Adolf Hitler.

I usually like walking meditation, and though I was trying to practice earnestly, I wasn’t connecting with my steps. My distracted mind was trying to remember all the lyrics to “Muskrat Love,” the wonderfully sappy Captain & Tennille song from 1976. Suddenly, as my left foot was in midair, a  blur of movement startled me. A bug scuttled past as my foot fell awkwardly to avoid it.

The bug looked like an elongated ant with wings–the kind of bug that only an entomologist knows the proper name of. I watched as it moved quickly across the floor, then I moved too, crossing the room to where the Insect Relocator was stored.

The Relocator was really just a paper cup and a cardboard circle cut slightly larger than the cup’s mouth. Catching and releasing bugs is one of those fun things you do on retreat. On the first night, we’d all recited the five lay precepts. The first is to refrain from taking life.

The bug, if it stayed in the basement, was likely to get squashed at some point. With cup and cover in hand, I turned, re-established the bug’s location, and moved towards it. The two guys pretended not to watch me as they continued their walking meditation. They may have thought I was especially compassionate, or a complete idiot, or that my effort was all for show. At various times over the course of the retreat, I’d thought those same things as I watched other yogis escort bugs out of the building.

To be honest, my performance was motivated by boredom as much as anything else. I crouched down to meet the bug. Threatened by my presence, it froze. I had a moment to look closely at it. The bug was about the length of a matchstick. It wasn’t frightening like a roach, or cute like a ladybug, but somewhere in between. Its wings were large in proportion to its body, but the wings didn’t seem to work. It didn’t try to fly away. Looking at the bug, I was more present than I’d been all day.

*

On a much earlier retreat, I talked after dinner with two likable young men. We had finished our soup and a fly buzzed around our apple cores and empty bowls. We’d all arrived that day. Silence would begin after the opening talk.

It was one guy’s first retreat and he was nervous. The other guy and I assured him he’d do fine. In a flash, the new guy shot his hand up and grasped at the fly. He pounded his closed hand on the table with a bang. After a slight pause, he opened his fist. There was the dead fly.

It was an interesting moment. It’s not easy to catch a fly. The new guy seemed like he was expecting congratulations. The other guy and I glanced at each other. We knew it wasn’t our place to admonish or even try to explain. We continued the conversation as though nothing had happened.

*

I placed the cardboard circle next to the still-frozen bug and gently nudged the circle against the bug’s legs. It walked onto the circle. I popped the cup over the circle and, careful to keep the circle pressed against the cup, lifted the device off the floor and stood up.

When not on retreat, I work with infectious disease researchers. A few months before, I’d traveled to Nigeria for the first time. There, where mosquito-borne viruses are often deadly, colleagues would have found my bug rescue absurd. While traveling, I’d taken pills to protect against malaria, which kills half a million people annually—mostly children and mostly in Africa. When I woke up one night in a grungy hotel to find a mosquito sucking blood from my face, I’d flattened it instantly, sloppy myself in the process.

The threat from insects wasn’t just in exotic countries. At the retreat center, located in a rural New England town, warnings were posted on the bulletin board about deer ticks and the threat of Lyme disease. In every bathroom, there was a handheld mirror to check for ticks in hard to see places and there was a tick-removal kit in the medicine closet.

Friends who suffered from Lyme disease made me take the tick threat seriously. On an earlier retreat, I’d discovered a tick crawling on a shoelace I was untying. Without thinking, I flung the tick on the floor and stomped. It took several stomps to kill it. A bit later, when I’d had time to reflect about killing the tick so quickly, I decided I’d do it again. I’d get the tick before it got me.

Back in the basement, the weird winged ant was not a threat. For now, I’d consider insects on a case-by-case basis. With the cupped bug in hand, I walked to the heavy basement door and managed to open it without dropping the bug. I walked up the damp concrete steps. It was sunny outside and my errand allowed me to feel the day’s growing warmth.

I set the circle and upside-down cup on the top step, waited a moment, then lifted the cup. The bug hesitated before walking off the cardboard. I watched as it moved onto the step, then into the grass, where I lost sight of it.

“Good luck,” I said, for in the few minutes since I’d first noticed it, we’d somehow become connected.

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