The Potential of Awareness in The Butterfly and the Diving Bell and John de Ruiter’s Meetings

‘I can build castles in Spain, steal the Golden Fleece, visit the women I love, let the sea wash over me on the Isle of Martinique.’ I can explore my subconsciousness, break into chambers of understanding, relax in the golden flow from an open heart. I can distinguish between experiences and the deposits of truth they leave behind. The difference is illustrated in the film, The Butterflyand the Diving Bell, in which Jean-Dominique Bauby (Jean-Do) is ‘locked in’ a paralyzed body and finds a wellspring in his mind. ‘I have made a rule,’ he says, ‘I will never pity myself again.’ As he surrenders to it, his confinement overflows with beauty. And when in a meeting with John de Ruiter, I sit back in less and less of my usual self, into my cleanest, quietest recesses. There I see us all ‘locked in,’ either consuming outwardly or surrendering inwardly to the heart’s knowing. Residing in core-splitting honesty, I find vibrant perspective on this Earthly dwelling before it sweeps away.

More than the turmoil of Jean-Do’s condition, the film conveys the intimacy. We see nurses and doctors, hands massaging his feet and legs. After ‘playing editor in the frothy world of fashion magazines,’ Jean-Do is reduced to a life of subtlety and sweetness. Through his eyes, we see the smiles of his therapists, or the friends who feel alone enough with him to be honest with themselves. When his children kiss his face, all he can feel is the meaning. ‘My son wiping the saliva that escapes my closed lips. Locked-in syndrome. Yet, I’m filled with joy seeing [my children] living, moving, laughing.’ Unable to react to anybody or use his personality, Jean-Do can only be honest. All that’s worth seeing is loveliness in others and truth in himself.

The tension between Jean-Do’s Epicurean past and the stark present is highest in his sexuality. When his speech therapist demonstrates an exercise with a seductive movement of her tongue, Jean-Do moans, ‘this just isn’t fair.’ His erotic fantasies deepen the rift between his impulses and his paralysis. As his desire is futile, his confinement makes him sensitive to real intimacy, the difference between appetite and connection. He recalls earlier relationships,  a vacation in Lourdes with his lover, Josephine, determined  to find a figure of the Madonna. Jean-Do speaks to Josephine who is lying naked beside him:

JEAN-DO. We’re going to have to split up.

JOSEPHINE. Because of my Madonna?

JEAN-DO. No. Because of everything.

JOSEPHINE. You’re right. It’s for the best.

Turn off the lights. But not my Madonna.

When the metaphorical lights go out on Jean-Do’s sexual experience, his heart retains the sacredness of it, like the image of the Madonna luminous in the dark. In his inertia, Jean-Do’s appreciation of women is no longer one of self-satisfaction, but love without reward. The close-up shots show radiant faces, as if his therapists, his transcriber, and his ex-wife – all beautiful  are enjoying their reflections on the deep water of his interior. Love fills him and flows in pure, and despite all his longing, the most physically consummate moment is Jean-Do in a pool like a baby, cradled in the husky arms of a male therapist.

As a reservoir of love, Jean-Do comes to mean more to others than to himself. Sweet Sandrine reprimands him for his self-pity: ‘there are people who love you and care for you. I’m a complete stranger and yet I care for you. And you’re alive. So, don’t say you want to die.’ More than just inspiration, his loved ones also find identification in him. His friend Roussin likens his own experience to Jean-Do’s: ‘being taken hostage is not so different from what you’re going through. They kept me in a cellar…I called it my tomb.’ Jean-Do’s father, likewise, identifies with his son: ‘we’re both locked-in cases. You in your body and me in my apartment.’ In the heart-break of hearing his father’s voice, could Jean-Do see that he was inspiring as much wonder in others as he was uncovering in himself?

The images in Jean-Do’s mind, of butterflies, crashing waves, and deep sea descents, are like the inspiration flowing in meetings with John de Ruiter. When a pair of phone technicians meet the silent Jean-Do, they’re confused: ‘Christ! What’s that?’ Jean-Do’s mind is invisible to them, while its depths are transforming those around him. Meetings with John de Ruiter, too, have a tranquil surface and a world of meaning beneath. Take for example the warm feeling of acknowledging a personal weakness. Does it have the glow of a sunrise? Can you almost taste its authenticity? The heart opens with gifts of realization. My experience of meetings is a creative space, like a cathedral in which every whisper of sincerity is brilliantly amplified, or a soil in which any honest thought takes root and grows. There are visual phenomena, energy in the body, golden light, and dream-like visions, but instead of appearing in sleep, they come from awakening. I see a black depth or colourful and poetic images, a realm of ideas as if all my mind is lit up.

But when the phone technicians walk into Jean-Do’s room, they find a silent figure. ‘Is it a man or a woman?’ one asks. They can’t see that ‘the least’ of Jean-Do’s frame contains more than they imagine  the wealth of the mind and the hard-earned treasures of a heart cracked open. Jean-Do’s inner journey begins with okayness, unlocking imagination, and leading him into what John calls ‘the tiny little bit,’ which I’ll define as the deepest, quietest recognition of life’s meaning. Jean-Do lets go of all other notions to dwell in the love inherent to his soul. His communication through blinking is painstaking, but yields profound connection with others, so that not only does he embody ‘the tiny little bit’ within himself, he represents it within his community, who pour love in response to him.

John de Ruiter’s connections in meetings are comparable to Jean-Do and those he loves. The simplicity of John’s communication takes the focus to deeper places within –  silent groves, eddying waters, levels where only the least and the finest of a person can go. I see these realities as I match them inwardly, and I see that John abides there, inspiring by example. At face value, connections in meetings may seem stark, like Jean-Do’s blinking code. Jean-Do can be an alienating stillness to those tuned into the busy world of his former life; John speaks from and to the deepest, knowing that ‘it is only the tiny little bit, it is only the exquisite within, that you have to offer anyone.’

In his early desolation, Jean-Do thinks ‘I am locked in. I am as good as dead.’ How differently he relates when he realizes how much life there is in core honesty. And yet, from one perspective highlighted by John, there is profound meaning to being ‘as good as dead:’ Awareness of our mortality shows us what is worth living for, something other than the material structures we know will crumble, including our own bodies. In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates celebrates the end of his life, saying:

True philosophers…are always occupied in the practice of dying, wherefore also to them least of all men is death terrible…if they have been in every way the enemies of the body, and are wanting to be alone with the soul…how inconsistent would they be if they trembled and repined, instead of rejoicing at their departure to that place where, when they arrive, they hope to gain that which in life they desired—and this was wisdom.

John de Ruiter echoes the inward ‘practice of dying,’ for the sake of wisdom, but John attributes high value to the body and this life, suggesting that ‘the new frontiers of your being are in your body’ and that ‘what matters after you have died is not how much meaning you have consumed, but how much meaning you have manifested in your life.’ Jean-Do is ‘locked’ in not just his body, but a perspective that accounts for his whole life. He realizes in the vastness of his mind and heart something that John celebrates in meetings: ‘There is nothing more freeing than being confined to what you know.’


Works Cited

John de Ruiter. ‘A Beingful Life Instead of a Meaningful Lifestyle.’

John de Ruiter. ‘Being a Reachable, Visible, Touchable Heart.’

Plato. Phaedo.

Ronald Harwood. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: Adapted Screenplay.

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