Symphony Of White Butterflies
[Below is Milan Rai's lucid share during our recent 'Gandhi 3.0' retreat -- about his journey in learning, losing, and loving. His White Butterflies have inspired hope and joy in the little things, across 42 (and counting) countries. :)]
Namaste everyone. I'd you like to stand because from here it looks like this is the setting of an orchestra. So I feel like I'm a conductor. :) Each one of you I imagine as different notes melodies -- some resounding with hope, some resounding with dreams, some resounding with so many different, deep beautiful emotions.
So let's start a symphony.
I would like to share my journey from my teenage days till now. In the eighth grade, I failed in all the subjects, and my teacher told me, "You are a very hopeless kid; very poor in math."
I told him, "If you upgrade me to class 9, I'll fail in nine subjects. That's how accurate I am. Maybe you don't know math."
So I felt the same to repeat the class and then I changed my school and they kicked me out in seven days. And I changed another school and they kicked me out in three months and then I changed my town.
I came to a bigger city and I soon figured out that they were going to kick me out again, so I kicked the school out of my life. And then I never returned back to school. Then my teachers labeled me. Society labeled me as a hopeless kid. You cannot do anything without a certificate or degree in anything. I didn't have anything. That led me to a lot of frustration.
To find solace, I indulged myself in drugs and negative, harmful activities. I ended up in a big fight and in a hospital bed for 45 days. In that hospital bed, I started looking for the purpose of my life. Where is my purpose? Maybe under the bed. Maybe under the pillow behind the door? I only found glucose. :) So I felt, okay, maybe this is my purpose. 'To regain your strength. Drink it.’
After regaining my strength I started looking for what makes me happy. In my school I used to scribble, I used to draw, paint in my class work. Teachers used to tell me I didn't pay attention in class. I used to pay very deep attention to beautiful girls and sketch them. It takes a lot of attention. :)
I came back to art, and art became my only companion. I started painting secretly behind closed doors. Nobody knew that I was painting. One day, I went to buy colors in a color shop and I saw a notice: there was an open call for artists in the India Art Competition. I wanted to try that.
But there were two categories: student and professionals. I chose the student category form. And I soon realized that I am not eligible because I'm not going to any art college. So I tore that form. (I thought) Why are they joking with the artists? So I filled out a professional form with the fake details, increased my age and entered the competition and in three months they declared the result and I won the first prize in India.
So that came as a breakthrough. And that led me to exhibitions. I started making paintings and selling my paintings and people started buying my paintings like hotcakes.
I got really confused, and wondered, "Why are they buying my paintings?"
And I got my answer! People are buying your paintings because you're painting what they like. Stop painting what they like and start painting what you like!
As soon as I did that, they stopped buying my paintings. :)
Then, I thought, art is being very limited to a certain group of privileged people. Art should go beyond the reach of ordinary people. So I wanted to make art accessible to all.
Now, I try different ways to do that. And in that process, I stepped out of the gallery system and I started trying various ways to bring art to the public.
When I look back now, I have spent six to seven years of my life researching, experimenting, failing, trying and I realized that I could not achieve what I had hoped for, and that led me to a deeper frustration.
I locked my studio, carried a backpack and went to India on a spiritual quest, my journey.
I was crying throughout my journey. I remember hugging a lamp post. I remember talking with dogs. I remember talking with the grass. Once, I saw a grasshopper. I spoke with the grasshoppers saying, "dear grasshopper, what are you trying to tell me? Can I borrow your antenna and detect the energy around me?”
So I started talking to everything. And I came back from my trip and when I came back to my studio I noticed a white butterfly. It is that white butterfly that led me to ask, "Why is this white butterfly here?"
So I had just arrived from a journey. I had to backpack again and go to another journey to understand why that butterfly was there. This time I went into the forest, the wilderness.
I sat under the tree for three months and started collecting fallen leaves. People asked me "What are you doing? Where have you gone? You're not doing anything productive.” But I realised very deep work was happening there.
I came back to the city and started bringing butterflies. I noticed some people tore up the butterflies. They started to fall on the ground, and I asked to my mind, "Why is this happening?"
My mind told me, "Maybe this is not practical. People will tear it down. You will get tired!"
I then suspended the intellect, and I asked my heart.
My heart told me, "Butterflies do not stay in one place, they keep fluttering." So I made more butterflies and took it to another place and started imagining the same butterflies are flying from one place to another.
One day, I received a message from a woman in Scotland, "I'm touched by your butterflies. Can you send me some butterflies?"
I sent her some butterflies and she told me, "Can I write the name of my daughter and your butterfly wings?"
I said "why do you want to do that?"
She said, "Tomorrow, if my daughter was alive she would have been 6 years old. I want to remember her, write the name of my daughter in the butterfly wings and send my message to heaven."
I was really deeply moved and touched, and I said "Please do that!"
And while she was putting butterflies with her name on it, there came an old man with a walking stick. He said "What are you doing my dear?"
She told that elderly man, "This is my way of remembering my daughter."
And that old man said, "Can I include the name of my wife?"
And he did that. Then, he went to his community and the villagers came. They gathered and they created a memorial tree. This has now become a ritual in Scotland. Every year, they come together to remember their lost ones using white butterflies.
So from Scotland the message started traveling across borders, continents and started flying. It has reached over 42 countries around the world.
At one point, I ran out of money. I could not sustain the project. I went to big companies. Everybody said you will not reach anywhere. It was very difficult, but I did not give up. And strangers from another part of the world (whom I have never met!) started donating money. I have never met these people. But it all came through.
Before my encounter with the butterfly, I was a very, very, very sad person. But everything started looking so fresh, bright and wonderful through the eyes of a curious child. I changed everything!
Earlier I was very sad, and then one day I said, ‘I love you’ to myself.
I wondered what if suddenly another person sees me doing this?! :)
Ah! I love you [hugging himself].
And then suddenly that five year old boy inside me told me, "You are always saying I love you to the other person and you're expecting that person to love you back in return. You never said this to me. Are you sure that you're talking to me?"
I said, "Yes, I'm talking to you."
Then, next morning I had to do this: "Hi! Five year old boy, I'm talking to you. I'm not saying this to anybody. I'm saying this to you."
Confirmation! And that's how I learned to connect with the five year old boy inside myself, and I started pampering him. :) I learned to love myself. I was a very sad man, depressed, frustrated, lost, lonely, left out. I got all my answers from the trees and by being aware of my surroundings. I did not go to any meditation. This is my journey.
I've never shared my story without a PowerPoint, because my art is all about visuals, visual art. This is my first time without my pictures.
You can imagine the white butterflies. :)