So. You find yourself inching… slowly… inching… toward some sort of transformation. You’re not just looking to lose a few pounds or dust off those long-neglected board games for the weekly game night you institute each New Year’s and forget by February. You’re undergoing one of those major life-altering paradigm-shifting pattern-releasing self-remodeling transformations. Some part of you – sometimes, some teensy-weensy microscopic part– knows your efforts will create a type of freedom you can only imagine, will teach you to soar. Some part of you even knows you can delight in the process itself. Then there is that other part. The part that says I’m tired This is too hard This is taking forever What if I can’t do this What if they won’t like me anymore What if I’m not good enough Are we there yet Are we there yet Are we there yet. You can love and respect both parts. You don’t need to judge one as good and one as bad; you don’t need add any more difficulty to what is already arduous. It may help to look to the natural world for inspiration. Perhaps you have even already considered butterflies and their common association with transformation, their role as metaphor for freedom and reaching new heights. But wait, part of you thinks, of course butterflies can do it – they have it easy. I’m just trapped, though. What if I never make it out?
Not so fast! It makes sense to feel stuck when, really, we are cocooned, to think things are easier for others. However, even butterflies struggle before the first skyward lift, and, truth be told, after that, too. But what a view! To get there, though, that tiny egg has to make it to hatching before an ant, fly, or even ladybug decides it is a nice meal 0r a parasitic wasp lays its own eggs inside the butterfly egg. Then, the caterpillar has to survive the elements, evade and outwit predators, continue to manage to keep out those parasitic wasp eggs, and avoid bacterial and viral infections. After such feats and the amazing accomplishment of pupating and emerging from the chrysalis as an imago, or adult, with wings and entirely new bodily systems, the butterfly still has to watch out for hungry snakes, birds, and other predators. The butterfly must also avoid a slew of additional dangers, including storms, pesticides, careless humans who damage their wings, collisions with automobiles, and many more.
Though we are lucky enough to have no need to worry over parasitic wasp eggs, or, in most cases, famished birds, we have all had to endure trials and tribulations, sometimes from our earliest moments. At the same time, no matter how frequently we have experienced hardship, we can also think back to periods of joy. It is true that the butterfly must overcome obstacles at all stages of its life cycle, but it is also true that it gets to bask in the sun, munch on tasty leaves as a caterpillar, and drink sweet nectar as a butterfly. And, of course, it develops the ability to fly! Life is a balance. Remembering this timeless fact helps when we may feel overwhelmed, unsettled, and even devastated by our past and present circumstances, by that which we cannot control as well as our ensuing reactions, which we can learn to control.
Learning to control our reactions is a gentle and loving process. Judgment, anger, and belittling that we direct at ourselves only exacerbate what is already painful. We can even spiral into attempting to avoid these self-defeating states, only to find ourselves judging our judging, feeling angry about our anger, and belittling ourselves for belittling ourselves. We can notice when this is happening and simply tune into our breathing. We can let go. We can trust. Self-compassion helps immensely, but, for many of us, this is a skill we must actively cultivate. This is ok, too. We can let go of unrealistic expectations for ourselves; we can simply notice thoughts about how we’re afraid we can’t do this and aren’t going fast enough and have already been here before. We can notice these thoughts, and then let them go. The butterfly does not rush and worry over each stage. When the caterpillar molts for the third or fourth or fifth time, it does not angrily judge itself for needing to shed its skin when it thought it had already taken care of that. Often, feeling déjà vu, as if we’re right back in the same place we’ve already been, can actually be a sign of growth, of working through a lesson at a higher level, just as the caterpillar sheds and grows, sheds and grows. It works hard to consume the energy needed for so much growth, but the caterpillar also allows itself to rest as it prepares its new skin and releases the old. Self-compassion can aid us as we strive to create a similar balance.
Unfettered by conditioned tendencies to ruminate over the past and anxiously look toward the future, the butterfly entirely occupies each moment of each of its stages. We, too, can learn to live fully in the present moment. Of course we will need to spend time working through residues of the past and planning for the future, but our main focus can be on the now. The caterpillar can’t worry about how it will ever be able to navigate the skies – it has not yet acquired its GPS-like antennae. For the present, the caterpillar needs to eat and grow and prepare to pupate. It will develop what it needs as those needs arise. Likewise, we can rest in the knowledge that we have within ourselves all that will be needed, even if some capacities are not yet developed. We can trust in our own process.
Butterflies can also help us remember we are not alone and do not have to tough it out by ourselves. Just like the milkweed makes the monarch caterpillar and the adult butterfly it will become unpalatable to predators, we can seek support from friends, religious communities, therapy, family members—whatever makes sense to meet our unique needs. By relying on a combination of our support system, which may need some cultivating, and our own inner resources, we, like the butterfly in its pupa stage, can completely dissolve the self, or ego. We can patiently take the time we need, trusting that we will, when we are ready, emerge transformed.
Readers who are interested in learning more about the science behind applying mindfulness and self-awareness for habit change are invited to check out Dr. Klich’s website MyMindfulwayoflife.com