I grew up in a fairly traditional religious family. We took life pretty seriously—not in the sense of being morose or pessimistic; I had a very happy and positive childhood—but more in the sense of always wanting to do your best, to try to get and give the best out of life and not just float along.
[If you enjoy this blog, please SHARE it with your friends and others who might be interested. You can click in the column to the right and choose how you want to share this.] As we talked about in last week's post, the butterfly's metamorphosis process is quite a profound metaphor for spiritual transformation and life development. At the end of the post, I listed several lessons we can learn from those stages. Let me comment on one of them that is particularly challenging for many of us. I hear from people I work with all the time about this issue. And having gone through a major transition in my own life, I can relate to this stage quite well.
One of the staggering things that takes place in stage three of the caterpillar's metamorphosis to becoming a butterfly is that once a caterpillar goes into its cocoon, it literally liquifies—completely changing itself all the way to the molecular level before it can recreate itself into a butterfly. It basically loses everything, not just shedding its outer layer but a profound internal transformation - a complete disintegration of the old in order to take on the new original design for its ultimate purpose, a butterfly.
Dr. Martha Beck, a monthly columnist for O Magazine and the author of several international bestsellers, recently at a large women's conference, talked about this life transformation process and put it this way, "In a very real sense, when we begin a cycle of transformation, we have to experience the disintegration of our old self before real change can take place. The meltdown can take many forms, but often it has to be cataclysmic—break up of a marriage, loss of a job, or a deep physical crisis like a diagnosis of cancer or a very sick child. For many of us personal shock sends us into the cocoon."
We end up forming a cocoon in order to feel safe during these crisis or difficult times. The cocoon experience often is like circling the wagons - trying to construct a safe place against the threatening forces around us and sometimes even in us. We need to come to some clarity about what all this chaos means to our lives. We need to figure out what our next steps are.
But there's a simultaneous danger from a huge temptation within. Dr. Astrid Sheil, who blogged about Martha Beck's presentation at the women's conference, commented, “Here in square one, we have a tendency to want to become bigger caterpillars. In other words, we try to hold onto the status quo as long as possible. Maybe if we just work 80 hours a week instead of 75, we won’t get fired. Maybe if we subsume our needs, we can keep a failing marriage from coming apart at the seams. But of course, we are just fooling ourselves. When it is time to begin the transformation process, there is no capitulation or compromise that can divert the process. However, transformation can be delayed if we are unwilling to accept ourselves the way we are. The key to beginning the process is to 'totally' accept ourselves and the reality of our situation. We must surrender to the truth—the old way doesn’t work anymore, we can’t go back, and the future is unclear and unknown."
I can relate to that temptation to simply want to become a bigger caterpillar. The radical metamorphosis into the butterfly, which involves the complete disintegration of our selves, is too painful, too risky, to uncertain of the ultimate outcome. Status quo is so much safer, or so we try to deceive ourselves into believing. But the reality is, if the caterpillar remained inside the cocoon without its meltdown (its internal transformation), it would never end up fulfilling its ultimate destiny - flying and soaring as an adult butterfly.
My personal struggle of trying to figure out who I was as a professional outside the religious organization I had spent 25 years serving within was painful and challenging. I had dreams regularly of being back leading spiritual communities where I had been before. I would wake up and be tempted to think, "That must be a message to me that I need to go back somehow. I need to simply be a bigger caterpillar. Stay inside the cocoon where I was so safe all my life." I would wake up from those dreams with feelings of fear, forboding, insecurity, uncertainty, a sense of doom. In that paradigm, growth and transformation were simply within the cocoon rather than from cocoon to the outside world. The emerging was too scary a thought. But ironically and counter-intuitively, that paradigm was not in harmony with my ultimate purpose.
Dr. Sheil described it this way: "We have all experienced these dreaded feelings. Limbo is scary. Not knowing is exhausting. Loss of identity can lead to depression. Why would anyone choose to go through the process of transformation? According to Beck, we have no choice. This is a cyclical process and we all go through it at different times and for different reasons. But like the caterpillar, when we get through the four stages of (1) crash and burn, (2) expansive imagining, (3) this is harder than I thought, and (4) the promise land—we are forever changed and expanded."
On a spiritual note, I'm reminded of how Jesus referred to the radical nature of this transformation experience. Talking to a religious leader who came in the darkness of night to interview him, Jesus said to this man who of all people would have been considered to be living the "butterfly" life (surely he had already "emerged" to occupy the top of the religious-social totem pole, the pinnacle of the significance pyramid): "Unless you are born again, you cannot enter the kingdom of God." (John 3:3)
Now that's a shocking message to a person who thought he'd already arrived. But in essence, Jesus was informing him that he was simply still a caterpillar who was trying to be a bigger, more fancy caterpillar - he thought being a caterpillar was enough - and that of all the caterpillars, he certainly was the biggest and best.
But being a caterpillar isn't enough. Because the caterpillar is suppose to become a butterfly. But if it wants to become a butterfly, it has to allow itself a radical, complete transformation inside its cocoon. It has to let go completely of itself, allow whatever needs to disintegrate to disintegrate, in order to finally re-form and emerge as the intended butterfly.
You must be reborn, Jesus said. You have to allow yourself to let go and become a new person - be re-formed inside the spiritual womb in order to be reborn into the person you've been designed all along to become. There's certainly nothing wrong with being a caterpillar. After all, that's one of the important stages of the metamorphosis process. But we can't stay caterpillars because it's not in alignment with our ultimate destiny. And the caterpillar that stays inside the cocoon ultimately dies, turning into a shriveled up, petrified skeleton.
We have to allow ourselves to go through the painful ordeal and struggle of letting go of whatever it is that might keep us from transitioning adequately to the next stage. Often times these are limiting beliefs that if held onto disempower us from forward movement. Some times they are relationships that are dragging us down or disempowering us spiritually or personally or emotionally and unless those relationships themselves are transformed or ultimately let go of, they continue holding us like heavy weights from running the race. Most of the time, they are self-identities that are false or limiting or not accurate - we have become accustomed to connecting our sense of self with our productivity, or our accomplishments, or our connection to an organization, or our reputation with others, or our status in society - so that when those external circumstances change, we lose our sense of self and get side-lined and side-tracked and disillusioned.
Jesus said to that religious leader, if you want to enjoy life in the kingdom of God, you have to go through a radical transformation process that involves developing a whole new identity - a rediscovery of your true identity as a child of God who has inherent value, not based on your associations or accomplishments or reputations, but based upon who you truly are as that divine child. Only then will you emerge from the cocoon, not as a bigger caterpillar, but as a beautiful, unique butterfly ready to lift off and soar into the skies of your ultimate God-given, God-designed purpose and destiny. So maybe one of the most significant steps of being a caterpillar inside the cocoon is to learn how to embrace ourselves with love and compassion and acceptance for who we really are!
Our choice in life is to liquify or petrify. Pretty starkly stated. But clear. It's okay to feel lost in the cocoon stage, to feel disoriented, to lose a sense of direction and purpose, to feel afraid and uncertain. I certainly have in my times of radical transition and change. But the good news is, that's all in preparation for the next stage. As long as we don't let ourselves stay in status quo inside the cocoon - as long as we end up using that time to rethink, replan, reassess, refocus, restore, and embrace ourselves in the process - we'll be ready to emerge, not as bigger or different caterpillars, but as magnificent flying butterflies. I'm all for that!
[If you enjoy this blog, please SHARE it with your friends and others who might be interested. You can click in the column to the right and choose how you want to share this.] This last Saturday, the topic at my spiritual community's service was how Springtime is considered by almost every major religious tradition as a sacred portal to experiencing God and opening one's self up to deep personal and spiritual growth. Spring is a time of year that many consider a "thin place" - an opportunity to have the curtains of our hearts and minds pulled back a bit to provide us meaningful glimpses of and encounters with the Sacred.
"Spring naturally makes us see the renewal of life," writes the Rev. Jerry Hirano whose Buddhist tradition celebrates the festival Ohigan during the spring and fall equinoxes. "It makes us appreciate the circle of life, so to speak. We see that even in the harshest of winter, there is rebirth, renewal. One naturally follows the other."
I'm especially thankful for this reality. It reminds me that life has seasons to it - that's a natural part of life for every living thing. So when my life feels like it's in a deep dark winter, where nothing significant seems to be happening, where it doesn't feel like my life is growing or that I'm making a difference in any tangible or visible ways, spring will come! The Creator God has structured life to be that way - the cycle includes both times of apparent desolation when things seem to go into hibernation, as well as times of new life, new birth, growth and transformation and productive activity.
One of the profound illustrations of this in nature is the butterfly's cycle of life. It's called metamorphosis. That's a Greek compound word, meta - change, plus morph - form, literally meaning change in form or transformation. When you take a look at the butterfly's metamorphosis, you can't help but notice not only how intentional but also how important every step of the journey is. Transformation involves every phase of the cycle. Here's a short trip back to your high school biology class (remember those good 'ole days? Look how much has "metemorphed" since then - thankfully!).
The butterfly's metamorphosis involves four stages:
Stage one: Egg
One thing worth mentioning here is that, female butterflies are very choosy about the plants they would want to lay their eggs on. The reason is that the caterpillar has to survive by munching away the leaves of this plant. For instance, the female Monarch butterfly would prefer to lay eggs only on milkweed plants. This is because the caterpillars of this variety of butterflies can feed only on this plant. Similarly, each variety of butterflies has its preference when it comes to laying it egg. Laying of eggs commences the first phase of butterfly metamorphosis. The underside of the leaves is where you find the butterfly eggs. These are white in color and are very small. It takes almost a week for the eggs to hatch. The larva develops inside the egg and nourishes on the yolk of the egg. Finally, they make a small hole in the egg and emerge on the leaf. Here the second stage begins.
Stage two: Larva
The larva of the butterfly is called caterpillar. This is the second phase of the metamorphosis. Initially the caterpillars are very small and hardly weigh 0.55milligrams. The length of the caterpillar is merely 0.1 inch. However, the caterpillar grows fast feeding on the leaves. In two weeks they become an adult caterpillar. Now the size of the caterpillar is around 2 inches. This is a very interesting stage. The adult caterpillar has eight pairs of legs. As the caterpillar grows longer it outgrows its skin. It sheds the skin. This process is called as molting. In this stage of butterfly metamorphosis, caterpillar molts its skin around five to six times. The fully-grown adult caterpillar, starts crawling away from the plant it was feeding on and keeps crawling till it finds a safe haven to pupate. Once the caterpillar finds a place to pupate, it makes a silk-like mat on the surface and hangs upside down. The last pair of legs is attached to the silk-like mat. It hangs for one whole day like this and takes the shape of the alphabet "J". Caterpillar sheds its skin for the last time before it moves into the next stage of butterfly metamorphosis.
Stage three: Pupa
When the larva enters the third phase, it has already shed its eight pairs of legs and the head capsule, which had housed six eye lenses. The skin of the caterpillar is shed for the final time and the casing takes the color of jade. This casing is called chrysalis. Though initially chrysalis is soft gradually within an hour it hardens to form a protective shell. Within the chrysalis the caterpillar slowly turns into a butterfly. There is a transformation taking place within the pupa. The body parts of the caterpillar disintegrate to form the body parts of the butterfly. The transformation period of chrysalis to butterfly takes around 10 to 15 days.
Stage four: Adult
The hardened chrysalis cracks and the butterfly emerges from it. The wings of the butterfly are small and wet. It clings onto the shell of the chrysalis. At this juncture, a life-saving fluid known as hemolymph is pumped into the body of the butterfly. Hemolymph spreads slowly throughout the body and the wings. This crucial spreading is assisted by the struggle of the butterfly to emerge from its small cocoon opening. This helps in enlarging the wings and the body of the butterfly. Remember that the wings are wet and the butterfly is unable to fly. However, within an hour the wings become dry and the butterfly is ready to fly and ultimately to mate and start the cycle all over again.
Did you notice not only how intentional but also how important every step of the butterfly's journey is? Metamorphosis / transformation involves every phase of the cycle not just the final stage of adulthood. Here are a few lessons:
- Everything has its place, its reasons and purpose, its timing.
- Everything is provided for the butterfly in each stage to experience optimum health and growth for that stage - whether from its own DNA code written into its make-up or from external support systems.
- Nothing is wasted (notice the effective recycling that takes place).
- In order for growth and transformation to take place, multiple "sheddings" (or molting) have to happen. It's amazing how difficult this step is to humans - we have a tough time letting go of something we've clung to at certain stages. But if the caterpillar never molted, it would never continue transforming. In fact, did you notice that it even drops its 8 pairs of legs and its head capsule with its six eye lens? Does that mean it will never walk or see again? No. Its final body will be for a different purpose - it won't be crawling anymore, it will be flying. So it will need 6 legs and 2 wings and 2 antennae. And eyes? The adult butterfly has 2 eyes with 6000 eyelets or ommatidia in each eye. An ommatidia is like an eye within an eye. It actually divides the eyes in the shape of a disco ball which helps the butterfly to locate things easier. They work like the pixels of a camera.
- So with each new stage, new systems and structures are needed for the newly developed form because each form has a new purpose with new needs. And before the new structures and systems are in place, the old ones have to be shed and let go of.
- Crisis, difficulty is an inherent part of the transformational cycle. The emerging butterfly with its new wings has to go through the small opening in order for the hemolymph to get spread to all parts of its body and wings. Cut the opening wider so the butterfly doesn't have to work as hard to emerge and it is damaged irreparably, never able to fly, its death hastened.
In my next post, I'll talk about how this metamorphosis process applies to our spirituality and personal development. Stay tuned!
A man once asked God for one thing – something to add beauty to his small potted garden. So God presented him with an ugly, prickly cactus plant and a wrinkled up, alien-looking caterpillar. The man was surprised, because he had asked for one thing and God gave him something else. After many days, the cactus bloomed with spectacular flowers and in the place of the caterpillar, there was a beautiful and stunning butterfly.
God seems to know what metamorphosis and genuine transformation are all about. I'm discovering that the process of life for me is more and more about learning how to trust God's wisdom for life, and how to trust the process and the journey. This Spring is a good time to embrace this kind of Life.