The transformation from caterpillar to butterfly is a painful metamorphosis. The lesson of the butterfly story is one of change. Are you growing or just pretending?
The Hurdles to Becoming a Butterfly
Capitalism and Commercialism
One of the first hurdles in our modern culture is capitalism. It is an all-consuming drive to consume. It’s most fond of consuming your time and life in exchange for money. All the money you don’t need and don’t spend is simply a waste of effort. But, they won’t tell you this lesson. Commercialism and capitalism are a treadmill. Once you get on, it never ends.
The process of transformation takes a conscious effort. The resistance builds the strength we will need for our wings to take flight, but not everyone you meet will be cheering you on to give up the rat race. Some will look at you and how you spend your time and tell you it’s just a waste to sit around and meditate. They will offer advice, like “you should spend the time making money.”
“The Caterpillar cannot understand the butterfly” — Timothy Leary
It’s important to distinguish between change and pretending you’ve changed. You can believe something to your heart’s content and still not change one iota. Believing and pretending are symptoms of a cultural narrative that wants to keep you a paying customer.
“Most Christian ‘believers’ tend to echo the cultural prejudices and worldviews of the dominant group in their country, with only a minority revealing any real transformation of attitudes or consciousness. It has been true of slavery and racism, classism and consumerism, and issues of immigration and health care for the poor.” — Richard Rohr
The lesson of the butterfly story is not about joining in with the “pretending” that perpetuates commercialism and false religious narratives. It’s about going into a chrysalis to become something better. It means rejecting the propaganda selling everything from deodorant to ideologies. It means learning to walk a spiritual life and spiritual path of development.
We are talking about genuine and authentic change and development, not just putting on the clothes or religious beliefs and expecting them to serve as substitutes for the real thing. You won’t be able to fly. Becoming a butterfly is not the goal. The real goal is the process of transformation.
“Adding wings to caterpillars does not create butterflies. It creates awkward and dysfunctional caterpillars. Butterflies are created through transformation.” — Stephanie Pace Marshall
Like the caterpillar, transforming destroys what we are to become something more significant. Our modern culture fights against us taking this journey. It tells us who we are, so advertisers know how to sell things to find the needs they create. If you transform into someone who doesn’t need their products, they can’t sell you stuff you don’t need.
“A butterfly has to be a caterpillar first; allow yourself time to grow.” — Kaiylah Muhammad
The goal of the caterpillar is to become a butterfly. The process of transformation is an important lesson. The caterpillar must go through several instars before it can make a chrysalis. Many caterpillars don’t make it. They die as caterpillars, never knowing the joy of being a butterfly. If the caterpillar makes a chrysalis, it liquefies inside the chrysalis. Nothing of the caterpillar exists. While in the chrysalis, the butterfly forms.
The Butterflies as a Typology
Its symbolism for change is the lesson of the butterfly story. The butterfly’s connection with transformation did not go unnoticed by ancient cultures. For example, Erika Buenaflor is a contemporary researcher of Mesoamerican culture. She is a practicing Shaman, a descendent of the Curanderas. In her book Animal Medicine, she explains how this tradition uses this typology as a journey of self.
“Butterflies show us how we can go within ourselves to dissolve old forms and morph, rebuilding and evolving ourselves,” she explains, noting that they show us the importance of surrender and trust “as part of the essential process of growth and renewal.” —
The butterfly, moth, and dragonfly are some of the most prominent insects in Hopi Indian art. There is even a Hopi Indian Butterfly Clan. (1)
Modern civilization not only overlooked but misunderstood them. Until the 1600s, the Europeans believed that caterpillars and butterflies were two entirely different entities. Maria Sibylla Merian (1647- 1717) documented the life cycle from egg and caterpillar to the final product, the butterfly. (2) It is evident that previous primitive cultures knew about the transformational process, but it took modern man, or rather a woman, to make this revelation.
As a typology in Egyptian mythology, the moth and butterfly represent the soul. (3) Tombs in the Kings Valley display over 80 pictures of these creatures. In Japanese culture, a white butterfly represents the Soul departing. (4) In Ancient Greece, butterflies were the emblem of the soul and psyche and represented the power of immortality. Aristotle gave the butterfly the name psyche, the Greek word for soul. (5)
A common thread among cultures separated by time and space is how they interpret these creates as a symbol for the transition or transformation of the spirit or soul. It’s a commonality similar to the thread that links symbols like the spiral.
The Lesson of the Butterfly Story
There are three major lessons we can learn from the life of these creatures.
1) Life is the Opportunity of Struggle
If the butterfly does not struggle to get free, it dies in the chrysalis. So, the path of transformation includes struggle. We must keep our eye on the goal of change. Like the caterpillar, we do not know our ultimate stage of development.
Think of each test and trial in your life as the opportunity to learn and to become “freer.” Studies at The Comprehensive Integrated Services for Learning Differences found that struggling and mistakes are critical for neurocognitive development. If you aren’t challenging your mind, you aren’t growing.
It shows how Western schools do a disservice to students by preventing them from struggling to find the answers. (6) So, too, are the best spiritual teachers. Some of the best tests and challenges don’t give easy answers.
2) Becoming a Butterfly is not the Goal
What happens after you become a beautiful butterfly? The lesson of the butterfly story isn’t about a creature that flies.
“The caterpillar does all the work, but the butterfly gets all the publicity.” — George Carlin
The circle of transformation continues. We don’t know what happens when we move on from this plane of existence, but we must find the courage to move forward.
The real goal is learning to transform, which often means moving forward and leaving the unnecessary behind. It’s about not just accepting loss but finding the value in the loss.
We must endure the growth from child to adult. But this is not the end. Are we able then to move to a higher level like a chrysalis? Are we able to get past the default settings of Ego and personality? Ask yourself, are you awake? Do you want to be? The journey from caterpillar to butterfly is not an easy one.
The path of transformation is one of continual metamorphosis. What do you choose? Do you live out your life as a caterpillar, taking no risks with relationships and life? Or do you struggle to make the changes? Do you take calculated risks?
Can you follow your heart and intuition? Can you do it even when it defies logic or the advice of friends, family, and culture? If you can, good for you. Metamorphosis is the typology of rebirth and transformation. Will we reject or embrace the lesson of the butterfly story and realize our goal?
3) Sowing Seeds
If you only lift yourself, your work is only half done. The butterflies life is not about being able to fly high or bask in the sun. It’s about sowing seeds for the future, knowing that less than 1% of all the eggs will make to become a beautiful butterfly.
This principle applies directly to our lives and especially in our spiritual walk. Helping others is not just something you need to do occasionally. You should seek out those in need of assistance. If you evolve at all, you see a lot of people and things that need help. Pick a cause and help out. More importantly, seek out those in need and ready to accept your help with their spiritual struggles.
The Path from Caterpillar to Butterfly
It is an analogy of how we should embrace the path of transformation. You can become a beautiful butterfly, but it is only another transitional phase. Keep your focus on conversion. The lesson of the butterfly story is a typology to inspire our transformation.
“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” — Maya Angelou
(1) The Butterfly in Hopi Myth and Ritual, JW Fewkes, 1910. and Cherry, R. (1997) digest, Fourth: https://archive.org/details/jstor-659798
(2) The Language of Butterflies, Wendy Williams, 2020: https://wendywilliamsauthor.com/product/the-language-of-butterflies
(3) The Symbolism and Significance of the Butterfly in Ancient Egypt, by Dawn Haynes, March 2013, Stellenbosch University http://scholar.sun.ac.za
(4) Cultural lepidopterology in modern Japan: butterflies as spiritual insects in the Akihabara Culture December 2020 Hideto HoshinaFukui University https://www.researchgate.net/institution/Fukui-University
(5) Greek and Roman Butterfly Lore https://www.baylor.edu/lakewaco_wetlands/index.php?id=34628
(6) the opportunity of struggle https://www.chconline.org/resourcelibrary/why-struggle-is-essential-for-the-brain-and-our-lives/