In praise of fireflies:A note on empathy

“In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.” 1

I want to start with expressing my deep indebtedness to and acknowledgement of two sources that inspired this paper. Without them this paper would not exist. The first are fireflies, whose importance will emerge during the course of this paper. The second is a rather sad little story about them, that drew my attention to  them in the first place. So first the story. It is set somewhere in the United States and was used to illustrate  some thoughts about meditation, but as its implications are much wider, I will keep coming back to it. Here is the story -

“In early summer evenings, beneath the mulberry tree at the foot of our garden, fireflies flickered neon green in the humid lavender dark. I was 5, and one special night my brother, sisters, and I were allowed to go out and catch fireflies. Our mother gave us jars with holes poked in the top, and we ran barefoot beneath the trees catching the small fluorescent creatures, as berries fallen in the grass squelched beneath our feet.  By morning light, we could see that many fireflies in the jar had died and that those that were still living were shabby greyish bugs. But now we saw that our feet were dyed a wonderful shade of purple-blue.”2
As Bion would say, this story binds together several elements in the form of a narrative that allows them to relate to each other in certain ways. So let us have a look at these elements and then see how they articulate to form the meaning of this story, which will gradually unfold.


“Light” is the first element, for it is light in the fireflies that draws the attention of the children, which they attempt to capture.
Light is very important in psychoanalysis both in the sense of understanding or illumination and in the sense of emotional states, going to very dark or light places. I will take both in turn.

a) Light as Illumination
We are told that light can be understood either in terms of waves or particles. So right from the start, we discover that though the nature of light does not change, we can understand it either in this way or that and that depending on the context, both ways of understanding are equally valid. Something warring schools of ideas might benefit from. The second most important thing about light is that we would not call it light, if it was not light for us. What I mean is that were it not for the particular way our eyes and brains have evolved  and are constructed, we would not experience the energy of light as  light. There are many forms of energy that exist, microwaves, X-rays etc that produce powerful effects, yet they pass us by unseen. So for light to be light, it needs our active participation in the process. Without that participation, it would no doubt be something, but it would not be light. So there is no such thing as light without eyes that can perceive it and no such thing as eyes, without the possibility of light. Just as there is no such thing as an analyst without an analysand and no such thing as an analysand without an analyst. They are both different dimensions of one reality. Something we might all benefit from.

b) Light as an Emotional Experience
Emotionally sometimes there seems a complete absence of light. When light is absent, darkness is intense. So intense that it is impossible to imagine that there could ever be anything else. The mere idea of light seems utterly alien, for in such darkness how is light imaginable? It is only memory that makes it at all possible to stay in such dark places, for it is only memory that tells us such darkness too will in time pass. Sometimes it seems impossible to wait, sometimes the waiting seems interminable. But if the waiting can be endured, very gradually the darkness seems a little less dense. Slowly, ever so slowly the presence of light makes its presence felt. At first hesitantly and uncertainly and then as just a faint glow in the dark. Ever so slowly an awareness dawns that how can darkness be darkness, if it wasn’t for the absence of light? Slowly we come to understand that darkness can only be understood and defined as an absence of light and for that to happen, we have to accept that there is such a thing as light and that light cannot exist without our active participation in its perception. Light exists because of us and we exist because of light. When our minds start gradually to think in this way, we discover that dawn has already started to break. Something momentous is happening. Once it is dawn, it will soon be light and all things can be seen in full colour and detail. Sometimes this detail and this colour are so intense that it dazzles and hurts. For those accustomed to living in the dark, it is
painful and scary to come into the light. We should not take it for granted that although, like all living things, we long for and keep moving towards the light, light is something that we can deal with. Sometimes we are so removed from something so essential for life, that life and light can only be endured in very small doses initially. We have to deeply understand and accept this, for it is only through our understanding, that we can acquire the necessary patience that permits a very gradual transition to light. When it is full daylight and we have lived in the sun, it seems as if summer days will never cease. Daylight seems to stretch over the horizon. Darkness seems unimaginable. How can there ever be such a thing as an absence of light? Yet where there is light, there must also be darkness. Our experience tells us so, even if we at times choose to turn our backs on it. The moment we turn our backs, we are already half in darkness. Sometimes the evening is quiet and tranquil. Much seems to depend on what kind of day it has been. Stormy days often end in stormy evenings, but not always. It all depends on the nature of the light. If there is enough light, a stormy day can produce the most magnificent of sunsets. This might be so because the whole complex glory of day is mingled with the whole complex glory of night and they are mingled with an acute perception that this glorious sunset, magnificent though it is, will soon end, because it is the end of day. Day is not interminable and never can be. Night is not interminable and never can be. So if you light a candle, remember to have a little breeze nearby, for this is the place, the moment, where night meets day and day meets night and they dance ever so briefly, like fireflies. But before we talk about fireflies again, we need to say a few words about children.

Children are the second element in the story. Children are of course children, but they also stand for our sense of curiosity and wonder, which sadly we tend to lose as we get older. This sense of wonder is entwined richly with fantasy, so that almost everything has the potential of becoming anything else. A stick picked up from the ground can be a magic wand, a sword, a paintbrush, a spoon. This complex field is generally a free field, largely left to its own devices to wax and wane and be coloured with the mood of the moment. However, sometimes and somewhat tragically, there is an attempt to fix  eaning, so that a stick can only ever be a sacred sword, or worse, just a dirty little stick that should be thrown back into the yard where it was found. Meaning is captured and pinned down in such a way that it loses its flexible and fantastic character. So that by the time we become adults, most, but certainly not all things lose their magic. Typically the ones that don’t are things like sex, money and violence. Our little story is thus also a depiction of that transition from the wonder and freedom of fantasy that glows and flickers like fireflies in the dark, to capturing and nailing that fantasy, so that its meaning is forever fixed and knowable. Instead of lights flickering “neon green in the humid lavender dark”, we discover they are just boring little greyish bugs. Some people might feel that the transition to adulthood is somewhat similar. Instead of being the amazing and wondrous thing it seemed in childhood, it turns out to be just a rather boring existence, with many people feeling like insignificant half-dead greyish bugs, trapped in invisible bottles, from which they cannot escape. Whatever happened to the flickering neon green lights of childhood? Can they ever be rediscovered in the gathering lavender evening of our lives?

What catches the attention of the children in the story is the presence of pinpricks of light in the dark, much like stars in the night. Like stars they flicker, but unlike stars they move. Their movement suggests life, long before an understanding of what life is. Once it is understood that these are indeed creatures that glow and flicker in the dark, the sense of wonder only magnifies. Cool! Imagine glowing in the dark like that! How amazing! If you had never seen a firefly, you could not imagine that such a creature could possible exist. Yet exist they do and that is why we are so amazed by them. We do not understand why these amazing insects have evolved this way, but we do understand a few things about them. We think that the glow has something to do with communication, in particular to do with mating. This is something we can probably relate to. Have you ever glowed when in love? Another amazing thing that has been observed about these beetles is that sometimes their flicker is synchronised, so that they flicker on and off at exactly the same time. This is something that human lovers frequently claim, glowing at the same things at the same time! Imagine large numbers of fireflies doing this, as they sometimes do, whole banks or caves of them. How amazing is that? So many people in such perfect synchronisation. This is something I assure you, no one understands! In fact because we are so amazed by these creatures, we want to understand them, really understand them and find out what makes them work. This brings us to the next element of our story, the attempt to capture and understand living light.

Inquisitive apes that we are, we try to understand absolutely everything. If we can investigate the stars, what can possible prevent us from understanding lowly beetles that glow in the dark? So like the children in our story, we devise jars to capture them. But our jars are not simple bottles. We are much more creative than that. We devise many many kinds of jars. However, I will discuss only two types, one microscopic and one macroscopic.

a) Microscopic Jars
Microscopic jars are devised to understand things with the common assumption that if we can understand something minutely, we can really understand how it works. In this category are included such things as trying to understand how the mind works by studying neural structure and function. This is analogous to trying to master the intricacies of a computer programme by studying the electronic circuitry of a computer. There is a belief that the more minutely we understand things, the deeper and more comprehensive our knowledge. Yet sadly, no molecular or biochemical understanding of silicon can ever help us understand the complexities of a computer programme. Likewise, the bugs captured in jars can never help us understand the complexities of their light, their movement, their lives or why they communicate in this way. Jars do capture something, but what they capture are dead bugs, not fireflies.

b) Macroscopic Jars
These are very large jars that catch all possible manifestations of fireflies by having a systems of categorisation that allows all possible species to be carefully classified and sorted, with a capacity to record all possible variations. There is no firefly that ever graced the night, that cannot be fitted in somewhere in these jars. Included in these jars are theories, including psychoanalytic theories that have been fashioned to help us understand better the phenomena of mind. These jars are very flexible and have wide open mouths and they, like other jars, do indeed help us understand something. But they are still jars and the bugs caught in them, if not dead, are just shabby greyish creatures. The very things that fill us with wonder, are somehow missing. As Bion says “The belief that reality is or could be known is mistaken because reality is not something that lends itself to being known. It is impossible to know reality for the same reason that makes it impossible to sing potatoes; they may be grown, or pulled, or eaten, but not sung.” 3 Since we cannot sing fireflies either, to understand their light, we have to become it. We have to move, as Bion says, from “knowing about” to “becoming.”

We probably can’t become fireflies, except perhaps in our dreams, but we can perhaps attempt some approximations. I will give a few examples that might help explain what I mean.

a) The Milk Let-Down Reflex
This reflex describes the appearance of milk in the mother’s nipple, often with a tingling sensation, at regular feeding times and when the baby suckles. What is interesting is that there is experimental evidence to suggest that this reflex takes place also when the baby is distressed, even if the baby is not in the same room, or even the same house. This can only happen when the mother is in very close emotional connection with her baby. This is what I mean by becoming a firefly to understand a firefly. The mother understands her infant’s distress, not through her mind or through her routine. The glow in the infant is understood instantly by a reciprocal glow in the mother, or you could say they are different dimensions of the same glow.
As a further illustration, I will give an unusual instance, which describes the same phenomenon but in a different and very interesting way. There is a case reported in the literature, about “a boy patient who was severely disabled, mentally retarded and almost totally blind. Yet in routine eye tests, he seemed able to read the letters very well, apparently by ‘remarkable guesswork’.” It turned out the boy could read the letters only when his mother was looking at them. A series of experiments were carried out initially with a screen separating the mother and son, to prevent any visual clues. Then with the mother taken to a laboratory 6 miles away, while the boy remained at home in Cambridge, England. The boy read correctly in a substantial proportion of tests. Prof Peters, who reported this case, concluded that this happened because “In every respect the mother was emotionally involved in trying to help her backward son.”4 For our purposes, the mother glowed in unison with her disabled son to such an extent that her close emotional ties allowed her
eyes to become his eyes. He was her light because she loved him deeply and she was his light because he could see through her eyes. Again, they reciprocally expressed different dimensions of their joint reality.

b) Cross Species Communication
This kind of non-sensual communication also takes place between humans and their domesticated pets. Pets often seem to know what their owners are feeling and respond in sympathetic or frightened ways. The most striking example is when pets seem to know when their owners are coming home. There is both anecdotal and experimental evidence that pets somehow sense when their owners are coming home, even when they come home at unscheduled times. There are also many instances of pets knowing when their owners have died far away from home. We do not understand how this happens, but it usually takes place when there is a close emotional communication between pet and owner.

c) In the Consulting Room
Fireflies, don’t have a special organ that lights up. It is the lower abdomen that glows. This is might be important because what happens in the consulting room is largely not because of some special organ that has been trained. Nor is it illumination in the head. It takes place viscerally, much as it does in fireflies. This is significant. We can see and understand our thoughts, but our profoundest feelings and who we are as people, at the deepest level, remain largely obscure to us. Sometimes we see these feelings articulated in artistic explorations. These works speak to us, because they expresses what we feel within, but which we generally can’t articulate. Artists on the other hand express them, without necessarily understanding them.
A major problem of reciprocal communication in the consulting room, is the problem of pain. Pain is a warning signal, essential for survival. Pain is a warning not to go there or if there, to get out quickly. That is what brings analysands. They are in pain and come to us, to get out of that pain. The analyst in offering to help, opens a door to that pain. Yet everything in the analyst works against the door to his or her own pain.
This is natural and understandable. Yet somehow that door in the analyst needs to be opened. If we go back to the instance of the mother and her blind boy, we need to appreciate what she must have gone through. She must have been so excited when she fell pregnant and then must have been devastated giving birth to a severely disabled and mentally retarded, almost completely blind, child. Her pain is unimaginable. She would have wanted to close every door to that pain, by distancing herself from her child in every possible way. She probably did, yet somehow something in her not only opened, but stayed open. Can you imagine what it must be like to watch a disabled child struggle through every moment of everyday? Yet somehow by
keeping that door open, her child could see through her eyes. When people consult us for their pain, this is what we somehow need to do. Unless we not only open the door, but keep it open, they cannot see through our eyes. A mother has a certain and deep connection with her infant that makes this possible. What connection do we have with our analysands? They are not our children. This is very hard to understand.For assistance, I turn to Thich Nath Hanh, a Vietnamese monk who intimately knew the savagery of war. I will quote a few verses from his poem “Call Me By My True Names” -

“Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow -
even today I am still arriving.
I am a mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that sweeps down to swallow the mayfly.
I am a frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.
I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and the door of my heart
could be left open ....”5

What Thich Nath Hanh is suggesting is that there are few things our analysands talk to us about that do not find a resonance somewhere in us, provided we keep the door open. The first door that needs to be opened is the door in ourselves. If we are to know our analysands, we have to first know  ourselves. To know ourselves is to know all the names we carry, not only the names we wish to be known by. More than that, we need to say “Please call me by my true names, because all the names you mention are my names, they are not the names of strangers.” In particular we distance ourselves from things like cruelty and savagery. Yet there is no one, absolutely no one, that is a murderer or a rapist. There are only people that have done terrible things like rape and murder and shockingly, they are just like you and me. We can only be known by all our true names if we open all the doors within us, including the ones that are most tightly sealed. We have to become what we seek, rather than seeking to know about it. Only then can there be a reciprocal glowing and our eyes can be used to see the unseeable.
“Becoming" means opening the door and keeping it open. It is very painful, but all kinds of mysterious things happen. We start to say something in a session, but instead of saying what we intended, something entirely different comes out, that surprises us, but which turns out to be the thing that most needed saying. Sometimes we are distracted by fantasies in our mind or sensations in our bodies, which have nothing to do with what is being talked about, but which turn out to be the very things that are being avoided by both people in the dialogue. Perhaps even more mysteriously, if a door is open, you can enter it from either side. I do not mean that analysands know their analysts experiences in a conscious and literal way. But if you are attentive you will see symbolic references to your experience in your analysand’s dreams, associations and narratives that have never been communicated consciously. There is no explanation for this, which might be just as well, for explanations risk becoming jars that trap and kill.

We now need to draw the elements of our story together, like translucent fragments in a kaleidoscope and watch transformations in light. Since the elements in this kaleidoscope include us, we will now see how we transform light as much as light transforms us. All living things are drawn to light, but we don’t understand our movement towards it. If you are a religious person, your religion provides that light and guides you. If you passionate about something, such as a  cause, a creative endeavour or ambition, then that light guides and drives you. If you don’t have any such light, you are in danger of falling into despair and darkness When I introduced our little story, you might remember that I found it in an article on meditation, yet the story
appears to have nothing to do with meditation. But neither does it appear to have anything to do with psychotherapy, yet we have seen its relevance. So it might be that meditation and psychotherapy have something in common. It is true that many meditators are religious people and practice meditation for
religious reasons. It is equally true that many psychotherapists are also religious people and practice psychotherapy for that reason, whether that reason be Jungian, Freudian, Kleinian or Kohutian. But there are many meditators and psychotherapists who are not religious people, yet they still practice meditation or psychotherapy. Maybe psychotherapy is a form of meditation for them. Maybe meditation is a form of psychotherapy for others. It is equally possible that both meditation and psychotherapy are just fireflies, flickering in the dark. But fireflies cannot illuminate darkness. Fireflies exist in their own right and do not exist to illuminate anything else. If they illuminate anything it is themselves, nothing more and nothing less. We need to understand this deeply. This brings us to the last part of our little story about the children chasing fireflies. I repeat -

“By morning light, we could see that many fireflies in the jar had died … But now we saw that our feet were dyed a wonderful shade of purple-blue.”

This is the sad yet beautiful conclusion to the story. Throughout our lives we chase fireflies. We chase them because they are so beautiful and amazing, and we seek to capture their beauty and their light. But their beauty and light is elusive. When we capture them successfully, we kill them successfully. What we fail to understand is that they can never be captured. They can only be appreciated just as they are. Yet our pursuit is not to be dismissed either, for when we pursue light, the pursuit itself becomes light. We start to glow. We discover that light is not outside us, and it does not illuminate anything outside us. Fireflies in their complex journeys illuminate just themselves. They are the illumination. How rare it is for us to understand that. Perhaps only when we have travelled far, and fallen often by the wayside, squelched many berries underfoot, we discover how deeply stained we have been by our pursuit. One day we might come to understand that staining is the very light we seek. It is what gives meaning and purpose to our lives. If we
took off our shoes and socks, we would discover how deeply stained we are in our pursuit. Once you have embarked on this journey, you are forever stained by it. There is no escaping it. That staining unites all of us, for we are all brothers and sisters in stain. But it also unites us with the objects of our chase, our fireflies, for our pursuit illuminates us as much as do the objects of our pursuit. We are brothers and sisters in light. It might be that we are all different dimensions of the same light. In the words of Zen Master Dogen Kigen, who being a mystic is able, as Bion says, to approximate and become the truth as closely as is perhaps possible -

“To study the Way is to study oneself. To study oneself is to forget oneself. To forget oneself is to be enlightened by the myriad (things). To be enlightened by the myriad (things) is to bring about the dropping away of the body and mind of both oneself and others. The traces of enlightenment come to an end, and this traceless enlightenment continues endlessly.”6

In other words there is essentially no difference between understanding ourselves and understanding the Way, whatever name we give to that Way, for a deep understanding of one inevitably opens an understanding of the other. They are different yet inherently interconnected. If we can understand that, we
can understand the essential continuity between you and me in all our painful and criminal ways, just as there is an essential continuity between us and fireflies and the amazing beauty of the world around us. If you are fully open to one, you are fully open to the other. A door that is open, allows entry from either side. This is what Dogen Kigen means by a dropping away of body and mind, not just of ourselves, but of others, such that there is nothing that exists, but light. There is only one light, yet it needs eyes to be seen for without eyes, there is no such thing as light. There is only one reality and we are all different and reciprocal dimensions of that reality. You can’t have one without the other. When we deeply understand this, we move from knowing about, to becoming that reality. Maybe this is what is known as enlightenment. Fireflies are enlightened creatures. Having a deep awareness of darkness, they become light and they know it. They flicker, one moment light, one moment eternal darkness. Our pursuit of them stains us and fills us with a magnified wonder and appreciation of light. May we forever pursue the mysteries of fireflies. May we forever be guided by their light, for our pursuit transforms light and our pursuit transforms us, endlessly.


1 & Faber Limited. London. Boston.

2 Penick, D. (2013) “What are you meditating for?” Tricylce. Fall 2013

3 Bion W. R. (1965) "Transformations" in "Seven Servants" Jason Aaronson Inc. New York, N.Y. p. 148.

4 Sheldrake, R. (2012) “The Science Delusion” Hodder & Stoughton Ltd. London.

5 Hanh, T. N. (1993) “Call Me By My True Names” Parallax Press. Berkeley, California.

6 Yasutani H. (1996) “Flowers Fall: A Commentary on Zen Master Dogen’s Genjokoan.” Shambala. Boston and London.