Bug with wings

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

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 and my mind was distracted, trying to remember the lyrics to “Muskrat Love.” Suddenly, as my left foot was in midair, a  blur of movement startled me. A bug scuttled past as I stepped awkwardly to avoid it.

It 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 the things you do on retreat. On the first night, we’d all recited the five lay precepts. The first is to not kill living beings.

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 rescue bugs.

To be honest, my performance was a diversion and 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 didn’t seem to work. The bug didn’t try to fly away. Looking at the it, I was more present than I’d been all day.

Scene from an earlier retreat: Talking after dinner with two likable young men. The night hot and a fly buzzed around our apple cores and empty soup bowls. 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 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 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 visited Nigeria for the first time. There, where mosquito-borne viruses are often deadly, colleagues would have found my bug rescue absurd. While traveline, I’d taken pills to protect against malaria, which kills half a million people annually, mostly African children. When I woke up one night in a grungy hotel to find welts on my face and a mosquito sucking blood from my arm, I’d flattened it with a vengeance.

The threat from insects wasn’t just in exotic countries. At the retreat center, located in a picturesque 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 on the back of your head and body Friends who had suffered from Lyme disease made me take the 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 the it. A bit later, when I’d had time to reflect about killing 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 onto the step. I watched as it moved into the grass where I lost sight of it. “Good luck,” I said, for in the minutes since I’d first noticed it, we’d somehow become connected.

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