A Metaphor As Old As Time
No transformation story is more famous. Across pop culture, anytime someone has desired to recognize an incredible transformation, they reference the caterpillar turning into the butterfly. It’s easy to understand, it’s classic, it’s common, and for these reasons and more, it has become sorrowfully simple to dismiss this example as, well—old. When an example becomes rote and overused, we often fail to give it the individuated attention it deserves to fully comprehend the richness of the idea. We assume that we already “got it” because we’ve heard it so many dang times. The Caterpillar to Butterfly transformation, as you will soon discover, is one such story—nevertheless, it is abundant in its wisdom, nuanced in its intricacy, and absolutely timeless. Let us allow it to remind us of the complexity of change and growth, as well as its great reward.
A Peek Inside The Journey
Do you remember the Painted-Lady Butterfly Migration of 2019? If you lived in Southern California or thereabouts, you might have experienced the once-in-a-lifetime sight of hundreds of thousands of butterflies, migrating north-west to Oregon, Washington, and even as far as Alaska. Enormous kaleidoscopes of butterflies were spotted flying down the street, fluttering above cars on the freeway, and floating through neighborhoods. People stepped out of their homes to marvel at the vision of color, admiring as butterflies bobbed across the breeze on the way to their summer home. What many people didn’t realize is that most of those butterflies wouldn’t make it to their ultimate destination—Spring-migrating butterflies often live just a few short weeks, which is not nearly enough time to fly the up-to 3000 mile journey to their Summer and Fall resting place. This resting place—a butterfly’s paradise—is only reached by their offspring, or in some cases, their offspring’s offspring. Nevertheless, the butterfly cheerfully bobs along in the breeze, reproduces, and leaves behind the promise of their future: the caterpillar.
To look at a caterpillar is to see—well—not a butterfly.
Anatomically, the two couldn’t be more different. The caterpillar is chunky, slow-moving, ground-bound, and interested primarily in one thing: lazy pleasure.
The butterfly is (wingspan aside) small, lithe, lightweight, and fast-moving. The butterfly contains a fully-formed compass within it, as well as two biological clocks: one that monitors the time of day, and one that monitors the time of year. What is the butterfly’s mission? Joyful pleasure! Like it’s former incarnation, the caterpillar, butterflies love to eat, but in their butterfly form they’ve graduated to the nectar of flowers, rather than petals and leaves.
Spiritually speaking, there is much to be gleaned from the caterpillar. It does what it can, no more, no less, and doubtfully feels any guilt for this. It inches across leaves and plants and eats itself into a sleep-like coma several times a day. It dwells in comfort, nestled in nature, often safe beneath the protective print that warns off predators from trying to sample its body for lunch. The caterpillar is, without effort, relentlessly itself. It likely does not have any conscious awareness of the transformation ahead, nor of the abilities to come—it simply exists to meet its most fundamental needs, and does so perfectly. Could you ever look at a caterpillar and criticize it for being what it is? Never! It is yet another perfect piece of nature, carrying out its existence to the best of its ability, unaware of what lies ahead.
to be the caterpillar is an honor, to be the butterfly is a gift
Until now, we have been the caterpillar.
Consider your life prior to the pattern interrupt that has recently shifted the entire globe in the first few months of 2020. You were, perhaps, at the highest point of your life to date. Your basic needs were probably met, you were comfortable, you had a routine. Like the caterpillar, you were treading familiar ground, perhaps with some goals and aspirations, but none that were too far out of the scope of your daily experience. For example, a caterpillar might strive to consume an entire plant by the end of the week—these are caterpillar goals. Similarly, upon reflection of our own lives, our goals were “realistic” in that they were grounded in the known: nab the job we’d been angling for, complete the project we’ve been working on, meet the partner we’ve been yearning for. A caterpillar doesn’t look up at the sky and say, “and now, I’m gonna fly to Mexico!” This is with good reason—the caterpillar doesn’t have the tools to do this—in fact, failure is guaranteed. It simply isn’t in the caterpillar’s consciousness to dream up such a goal based on the experiences it has had so far.
Enter the Chrysalis
When the caterpillar enters that chrysalis, now infinite possibilities begin to arise. Aside from a few essential organs and the respiratory system (note the eternal importance of the breath), the caterpillar completely liquifies itself in that cocoon, trading a life of grounded familiarity for the possibility of unlimited heights (quite literally).
This is death for the caterpillar: the only thing that survives are cells that once comprised another creature entirely, and even they no longer remotely resemble what they once formed.
We haven’t been able to ask the caterpillar if the transformation into butterfly is a painful one, but as human beings reflecting on the pain of our own mini deaths (changes), it may be safe to assume that it is.
For those of us who have been rocked by change since the rising coronavirus pandemic and the resulting global quarantine, we have been ushered into the chrysalis rather abruptly. Our transformation has been physical, emotional, and mental, brought on by external changes so severe that they triggered internal changes. Our consciousness has been rocked, our physiology has been altered, and our lifestyles have been flipped upside down.
What comes next?
On the outside, you may or may not look vastly different than you did just a few weeks or months ago.
Inside, however, you have undergone an undeniable spiritual transformation—unescapable, if you live on Planet Earth.
You’ve exited the chrysalis, and you’re still with us on this physical plane.
You’ve been reborn.
It’s natural to feel disoriented right now. You may not realize at this point the full extent of what you’ve lost—or what you’ve gained. It can take a butterfly hours (which in the span of its lifetime is quite significant) for its wings to dry and for it to instinctively take flight. This is not the time to judge yourself for not flying yet—this is the time to let your wings dry.
Eventually, in your own time, you will begin to realize who you have become, and what you have survived. The grieving for your caterpillar life will draw to a natural close, and you will begin to forge butterfly dreams.
The beauty of a great change is the new ways of thinking that open to you. While a caterpillar doesn’t dream of jumping off a leaf and flying to Mexico, a butterfly does, and it is by engaging in those dreams that the butterfly pollinates and helps to feed 1/3 of the human race.
When the time is right—and you’ll know, you won’t have to force it—you will begin to dream bigger—think higher—love harder. You will honor other caterpillars, for you have been where they are, and flock with other butterflies, because you realize you are one of them now. You will be able to travel longer distances, soar to higher heights, and savor the sweet nectar of life.
This is the gift of becoming the butterfly.
You will receive the gift of transformation many times in your life—of becoming a bigger and brighter butterfly (or moth, if you prefer!) each time. Embrace these little deaths. Each one blesses you with a rebirth; a moment to reinvent and renew all that you once defined yourself to be, expanding your experience and broadening your wisdom and knowledge beyond what you previously imagined. This metamorphosis is the essence of spiritual growth—the ultimate purpose for your life.
May you live it with joy and passion,
knowing that death is not an ending
but the beginning of something greater!
“The beauty of a great change is the new ways of thinking that open to you. While a caterpillar doesn’t dream of jumping off a leaf and flying to Mexico, a butterfly does—and by engaging in those dreams, the butterfly pollinates and helps to feed 1/3 of the human race.”
“If you’re afraid of something, that means that it will change your life. If you don’t feel anything about it, then it’s just more of the same. Take the leap, burst through your fear—its time to soar to new heights.”