One of my favourite stories from nature is the metamorphosis of the caterpillar into the butterfly – this mysterious, fascinating biological process in which a being has to literally die in order to give birth to a higher version of itself. Once the caterpillar reaches a certain stage of maturation, the imaginal cells in its body start multiplying and trigger the process of building a cocoon in which it then disintegrates, only to give birth to a whole new being. As fascinating as it may be, this process must be anything but fun for the caterpillar.
For years I’ve enjoyed sharing the caterpillar story in my courses as a metaphor for the messy ways humans transform. I’ve used it as an invitation to the coaches I was training to remind them to be patient – clients need time to break free from their cocoon. I’ve used it as a guiding principle for the way I parent – kids are always transforming and so are parents. I’ve used it as a reminder that transformation is not a linear process, that it’s scary, that it takes time and effort, that something does need to be allowed to die for something else to be born and that inner death hurts. I’ve used it in myriad ways, but there was always hope at the end. Once you go through all the mess, through all the turmoil and breaking apart, you get the reward of flying free through life, feeding on the nectar of flowers and reaching your highest potential as a butterfly. But is this the whole story? This past year showed me it might not be.
In 2018 I had, for quite a few years already, been flying free as a butterfly in my own life. I had gone through the mess. The pain was behind me and it had been for quite some time. I had gone through the pain of losing loved ones, healing childhood wounds, giving up the security of a job to follow my mission and had built a thriving, meaningful path as a freelance facilitator. I had created a coaching school where tens of people from tens of organisations met, learnt, shared their deepest stories and ended up not only becoming coaches, but building communities of change makers. I was appreciated by my clients and had more work come my way than I could possibly ask for. I was constantly travelling and learning. I was in a safe place, loving and loved, mother of a beautiful child, partner of a wonderful man who had accompanied me as I survived my cocoon just like I had accompanied him through his own and we both felt we had come out as butterflies on the other side.
Yet somehow I felt that it was all too cozy. I felt I had deep professional questions I wanted to pursue and couldn’t in my home country. I felt my kid needed access to schools that wouldn’t crush her spirit and that the opportunities for that were scarce where we lived. I felt I needed to grow and there was nothing more to grow into. We were two butterflies who wondered what else was out there.
So come 2019 we moved to the other end of the world. To a beautiful place where almost nobody knew us and where we knew almost nobody. And it was exhilarating. And freeing. And scary as hell.
I stepped into research after spending a third of my life in boardrooms, training rooms, coaching sessions, in self-study and in the practice of leadership development. Countless hours of practice. I finally pursued some of the burning questions that had stemmed from that practice. What is wisdom? How do we grow into wisdom? How do human caterpillars actually turn into butterflies and how can this process be helped by thoughtfully designed learning environments? Can humans consciously disintegrate inside their “cocoon” or does this just happen to them? And whar exactly happens during the transformation?
I spent months reading tons of research already done by others, much smarter than myself. At first, as I dove into academic articles, I realised to my horror I couldn’t really understand what I was reading. I went from feeling very smart to feeling very stupid. Then I clawed my way back up into feeling reasonably intelligent again. I managed to produce my first 100 page academic work and get a bunch of academics to agree that it deserved being turned into a PhD. We settled into a cozy little house by the ocean, with palm trees rustling nearby and birds chirping merrily every morning and night. Kid found an amazing school where her mind and heart can roam free and transformed into a confident bilingual little girl under our very eyes. Man found his bearings and explored the new territory and the many ways he could fulfil his own mission in this space.
But in this whole process, unbeknownst to me, I turned from a butterfly back into a caterpillar. I was faced with the pain and fear of having all the scaffolding of my old identity crumble at once. I was no longer the recognised facilitator. I became a student again, starting from scratch, discovering it all as I went along. I no longer had a whole network of trust and support around me. I no longer received validation for my work. I didn’t have my handful of really close friends to have a coffee with and cry when I needed to. Without all these sources of joy, confidence and support, I found myself regressing into all sorts of immature behaviours. I fought more with my partner and became less aware of my own destructive patterns. I took things more personally. I got impatient. I tried to control things that weren’t in my control. I became blind to my mistakes and then again painfully aware of them and blamed myself a lot. As I got some extraordinary opportunities to pursue my research, I faced people who were annoyed by my very presence in their space and I found myself naively and uncharacteristically trying to prove my worth to them, instead of wisely stepping back and seeing their behaviour as what it was – an expression of their own insecurities, fears and journey of growth. I found myself being flooded with fears I had proudly declared as gone forever: fears about basic security, fears about the future, fears about being good enough. I found myself immersed in a whole new cocoon.
In that cocoon, I found the wisdom and balance I had gained over many years vanished. I felt, for the first time in ages, unsure about my path, purpose, values and capacity to live congruently. Things that had been so easy in the past suddenly became so hard. I felt a maddening combination of sadness for all I had given up, gratitude for the outstanding opportunities opening up for me and for this new place that felt like home from the first days; I felt the fear of not knowing if I’d be able to make it, the joy for the new friendships that came my way and the heartmelting kindness I received from total strangers, the frustration for all my newly activated insecurities and the incapacitiy to convey the whole of what I was feeling, even to those closest to me.
Friends who have uprooted and moved their lives across the world multiple times have assured me that all of these feelings are perfectly normal. And I believe them. Yet I feel that this year has brought me a deeper understanding that the journey of the human caterpillar might be much more intricate than that of its animal counterpart. I discovered how deeply attached I was to the idea that my caterpillar days were behind me and that I’d get to be a butterfly forever. Yet it looks like we humans have to die multiple times throughout our lives. Our time as a butterfly might just be the preamble of becoming a caterpillar all over again. Maybe we are bound to live through several cocoons over the course of our lives, each time breaking apart again, only to emerge on the other side with different coloured wings and more consciousness.
For me this most recent cocoon brought about a life lesson I had not really come across before, except in theory: surrender. I have been taught to work my way through the mess. I later taught myself to psycho-analyse the mess first and then work my way through it. Now I am learning to just be with the mess, in the mess and feel I still need to learn to become the mess itself. To abandon myself to it. To stop trying to put order to my feelings. To go beyond the polarities of good days and bad days. To let exuberant joy and crushing sadness coexist in the same heart, at the same time. To allow myself to feel love and anger, fear and trust, gratitude and regret – all at the same time. It’s a big lesson. A hard lesson. Yet, in the spirit of paradox that seems to govern my life right now, it might be the easiest lesson I have ever learnt. Because surrender is the only act that doesn’t require an active effort, but an active cessassion of effort. I am learning to surrender to the process of transformation and to just let it take me somewhere. And as I’m doing this, I’m wondering what kind of a butterfly I’ll get to be this time.