This article is written with They, Their, Them pronouns out of respect for those who don't identify with a particular gender.
With a supportive enough environment, children become adults who can create lives of their own. They find a career, a home, and manage their responsibilities. No matter how successful someone becomes at creating such a life, they will reach a point when something in them says that there must be more to life than this. Even those who work at making a positive difference in the world will feel the call to something deeper and more personal. Answering this call can be likened to a caterpillar moving towards its cocoon. The caterpillar is a good symbol for an egocentric approach to life, marching on and on towards the next reward, munching and chewing and trying to satisfy an endless hunger. The cocoon is the symbol for slowing down and doing the inner work that transforms the limited egocentric self (the caterpillar) into a deeper and wider self, a self that feels connected to the web of life and has a purposeful contribution to make to that web (the butterfly). The butterfly is a powerful and captivating metaphor because it can fly, because it is coloured so beautifully, and because it is so different from the caterpillar.
Resisting the Cocoon
Just as some caterpillars get eaten and thus never reach the cocoon stage, so too do some people never answer the call to slow down and do their inner work, even when life circumstances push them forcefully in that direction. It can be (it almost always is) a very difficult choice to answer the call of the cocoon, so I recommend seeing those who don’t answer the call with compassion. If you've gone through ego transformation, you'll know that it's like dying for the ego, which can feel like a literal threat to your survival. Be a beacon. Be a humble inspiration. Keep your healthy boundaries (don’t try to do the work for them). But steer clear of blame, judgement and coercion. Those expressions will likely be met with an increase of resistance or shame.
Stuck in the Cocoon
As difficult as it is to enter the cocoon, it is often more difficult to leave it. Leaving the cocoon means leaving behind the person you learned to be to cope with your childhood and fit into your environment (hence the sense of a threat to your survival). A transformed you is what emerges from the cocoon. Leaving a career or a spouse or moving to a new city does not amount to self-transformation. Changing outer circumstances can be an important part of answering the call (or it can be an attempt to escape the call), but transformation is ultimately an inside-out process. The caterpillar does not get fitted with wings and painted with colours. It gets broken down and transformed. It’s worth reading about the full process of transformation for a caterpillar as it is richly symbolic. Here is a taste: “First, the caterpillar digests itself, releasing enzymes to dissolve all of its tissues. If you were to cut open a cocoon or chrysalis at just the right time, caterpillar soup would ooze out. But the contents of the pupa are not entirely an amorphous mess. Certain highly organized groups of cells known as imaginal discs survive the digestive process.” Read the full article here. Similarly, our inner work breaks down our false ego and limiting beliefs, but the soul and the parts of the ego that are needed to express the transformed self remain.
Rather than risk their new wings and colours, some people stay in the cocoon, finding ever more parts of themselves to digest, convincing themselves that they are not yet ready to fly. As dark and soupy as the cocoon is, it’s familiar and seems safer than spreading wings and taking flight in the full light of day. When someone is afraid to leave the cocoon, it might be that a fear of judgement needs more digesting, or a lack of self-worth or of feeling safe still need healing. I have loads of compassion for the trauma we each carry and no desire to pressure anyone to push themselves, but it is important to know that there is healing that can only happen in the leaving of the cocoon, the testing of the wings, the radiating of the beauty. It’s important to know that without the necessary resources and support, leaving the cocoon can be re-traumatizing. We need caring people around us when we set out to share our gifts with the world. Therefore, a necessary part of the inner work includes addressing fears of trusting others and beliefs about having to do it all yourself. In other words, the caterpillar to butterfly metaphor can be a crippling one if it’s viewed as a solo journey.
The caterpillar-to-butterfly metaphor can also be a crippling one if it’s seen as a one-time process of full transformation. Believing that we need to be fully transformed or attain some high level of transformation before sharing our beauty is part of what keeps people stuck in the cocoon. Finding acceptance for ourselves as we are and letting go of perfection are important pieces to digest in the cocoon stage.
The approach to transformation that I trust is one in which the slowing down, cocooning, and taking flight process cycles around and around with good support throughout our lives. Some cycles are intense and take longer, others are more of a reset and renew. If we view life as an ongoing series of caterpillar-to-butterfly transformations, then we can leave the cocoon as beautiful, wounded, and courageous butterflies that are willing to take some risks, share some beauty, learn, and continue healing. This ongoing process works if there are people we trust helping us slow down, be in the cocoon, and take flight, people who offer a shoulder to lean on, catch us when we fall, and believe in us when we struggle to believe in ourselves. Perhaps there are people who have done it alone, but I believe that most of us will fly further and radiate more magnificently if we allow ourselves to stretch into greater interdependence with all life, again, and again, and again.