The idea of life after death is a familiar notion. Nothing illustrates the inner and outer principles of this as well as the birth of a butterfly…
We’ve all seen it and marvelled. In the rays of the sun, the most exquisite creature emerges from the shrivelled husk of its cocoon, flexes and dries its wings in the warming rays, then changes the place where it lives… flying away, free, into the air.
It’s a familiar miracle, mainly discussed by children in the process of learning about the world of nature. Seldom by adults… which is strange, since it contains one of the best living examples of the transformation of the inner life.
The life cycle of a butterfly comprises four stages: egg; larva (caterpillar); pupa (chrsalis), and the adult butterfly, itself. The egg stage typically lasts between three and seven days. The tiny caterpillar emerges from the egg, formed as a voracious eating-machine which increases its body mass thousands of times before the next stage begins.
This vast accumulation of material and energy is simply fuel for the miraculous transformation that follows, but even at this stage, the caterpillar may shed its exoskeleton in response to growth. This may happen several times. Each time, the physical form changes, dramatically. But nothing is as dramatic as the change when pupation begins… Out of hundreds of eggs, only a few may survive to this stage. Nature finds safety and continuity in numbers.
Pupation is the formation of a chrysalis; a process of total enclosure in which a ‘tomb’ of silk is made. For typically the next two weeks, the organic form of the butterfly will literally dissolve itself, leaving a chemical soup which, guided by an unseen intelligence, begins to re-combine to create a butterfly, perfectly fitted to the silk cocoon in which it develops.
In the light of a summer sun, the butterfly emerges from its chrysalis with folded and crumpled wings. For the next two hours it will be massively vulnerable as its hangs upside down, pushing fluids into its wings so that they will expand and straighten.
Typically, for the next two to three weeks, the butterfly enjoys a beautiful life in the sun, during which time it will find a mate and the correct plants on which to begin the cycle of species life, again.
Some species, such as Monarchs, may live up to three months. Either way, the full glory of the flying creature is brief…
Beautiful in itself, this lifecycle has much to teach those interested in spirituality. The key elements of the butterfly’s life-cycle are analogous to a new way of looking at our own mystical progress from instinctive human to ‘winged creature’.
We, too, begin as an egg. After birth into the world where we must interact with that environment in the sense of food and impressions, we enter an early stage (the baby) where our lives are entirely eating, digestion and waste – and sleeping so that the food may be maximally transformed into bodily growth.
The caterpillar roams around its world, seeking the best food for its growth. As children, we range across a landscape in play, deepening our existence with friends and adventure, all of this building on the continuing hunger of our bodies and minds for further growth.
With sexual maturity, we reach physical adulthood, though our minds may be very immature in a fuller understanding of our world.
To what, then, does the state of the chrysalis correspond?
We can live the rest of our lives as a grown ‘child’, mating and feeding from the world. If so, then our lives will be driven from the instinctive levels of the self, leaving little room for us to question whether there exists a higher relationship with the essence of the Life that gave us physical life.
Some choose a different path. They search for what is ‘higher’ in their ‘selves’, and seek the company of those whose own investigations have produced some fruit. This is not ‘success’ in worldly things, though the latter is indicative of a focussed and disciplined life, and need not stand against the spiritual life. This is the grasping of a spiritual path. For those embarked on this way, the chrysalis becomes an important symbol.
A growing confidence in our real identity with the inner processes of life, light and love, brings us to a stage where our present self needs to be symbolically wrapped in its shroud and offered to the higher energies of life in the form of transformation. We literally invite and invoke this change, accepting that its purpose and method is beyond the powers of the brain. By crossing this abyss, we offer all we have to the symbolic butterfly within us, committing what we are and have made of ourselves to a process of regeneration.
To emerge under a different sun, winged and transformed. This is the highest act of a mystic. It may be read literally and metaphorically.
©Stephen Tanham 2021
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a journey through the forest of personality to the dawn of Being.