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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!