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Yoga & The Butterfly

Posted by on Dec 1, 2009

The study of yoga is synonymous with growth. I can think of no other animal that grows as much as a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. A caterpillar grows to about 27,000 times the size it was when it first emerged from its egg. If a human baby weighed 9 pounds at birth and grew at the same rate as a caterpillar, it would weigh 243,000 pounds when fully grown. If we were to even try to compare our own spiritual growth with the growth of a caterpillar in its butterfly-becoming process, we would be completely overwhelmed. In truth, we expand much more than this. Just like the caterpillar, we are turned inside out also, to view our world in a whole new way. Although the caterpillar is able to transform itself into a butterfly in approximately two weeks, and our spiritual process can take many lifetimes, we are both undergoing a tremendous transformation.
Our own spiritual metamorphosis can be visualized as the same type of revolution that happens within a chrysalis. When we initially start to develop new patterns of thought, and new ways of seeing things, our egos feel very threatened. This is why sometimes, when we undertake a wholehearted approach to changing ourselves we feel like we’ve been rolled over by a ten thousand ton truck. Our ego is trying every tactic possible to destroy these new (and delicate) ways of seeing the world. Similarly, when a caterpillar first builds its cocoon, new cells called ‘imaginal cells’ begin to form.
These cells are so totally different from what the caterpillar knows that its immune system sees them as a disease and tries to destroy them. The new imaginal cells are persistent though (as we must be in our spiritual quest) and soon the immune system of the caterpillar cannot destroy them fast enough. More and more of them survive to create what the caterpillar will soon be instead of itself. Once the imaginal cells have developed a strong minority, they begin to merge together. This can be seen as a similar process to the forming of universal consciousness. The little imaginal cells group together and start to resonate at the same frequency, passing information from one cell to another in a more expeditious way. Eventually a long string of imaginal cells forms just like our very own DNA does! Eventually the string of imaginal cells realizes it is something very different from a caterpillar. It is meant for more grandiose things (as are we). The realization of this fact leads to the caterpillar becoming a butterfly. It eventually becomes more of a butterfly than it is a caterpillar, but it takes overcoming itself to do so.
I am not the first to notice the resemblance between our own spiritual metamorphosis and that of the caterpillar. St. Teresa of Avila talks of this change of a lowly worm into a soaring butterfly extensively I her book, The Interior Castle, the rogue nun tells us that “though we can take no active part in this work of God within us, yet we may do much to prepare ourselves to receive this grace.”
If we were to imagine this metaphor as a translation for what happens within us spiritually, we can begin to see how we eventually become Gods having a human experience instead of humans having a Godly experience. We start to realize, first one by one, then in small groups, then in large masses, that we are all one. We are Infinite Capacity. We are Infinite Love. If this is so, why do most of us see ourselves as nothing more than cockroaches?
Franz Kafka didn’t choose the lowliest insect on the planet as the subject of his book, Metamorphosis, by accident. The main character, Gregor, does not turn into a butterfly, and actually regresses from a human being into a bug. In this story there is great psychological tension explored in the human transformative process. As Gregor struggles with feeling love from his family while transforming into a cockroach, we also struggle to feel lovable as essentially a cellular soup, transforming and reorganizing at a higher level. In order to weather this massive change, we have to become rebels in a sense. We have to be an imaginal cell. We have to shun the norms of society and take on a completely new outlook even though everyone around us is shouting at the top of their lungs, “You are only a caterpillar!” Did Kafka’s protagonist really change in his fundamental form? Did he deserve kindness and compassion as a cockroach? Do we deserve the same while still lowly worms?
There have been social and spiritual deviants in the past, and they were killed just like the earliest imaginal cells in the caterpillar: Mahatma Gandhi, President Kennedy, and Benigno Servillano A. Aquino, Jr. were willing to sacrifice themselves in order to awaken the true nature of all of us. People like Nelson Mandela and Chadrel Rinpoche have been jailed instead of killed so that society could try to silence the greater message they had to tell the whole. But there are larger groups of us now. We have begun to form a string that is unbreakable. We cannot be killed because our message has affected enough of the group consciousness that it no longer wants to fight but become what is in its truest nature – a spiritual force so strong that it leads only to peace and love for all sentient beings. The old order of crime and anger, war and greed is over. All around us we can sense the external symptoms that the current apparent chaos is collapsing and waiting to be transformed into a level of complexity and order.
It may seem that we are in times of chaos, but can you just imagine what it feels like to the caterpillar inside its chrysalis? It has to be eaten alive by its own immune system to become something radically different. It is absolute mayhem, I am sure. Society is perhaps reaching its own fevered pitch of change. We can each be imaginal in our own right, though, and be part of the change that gives the human race wings to fly up out of poverty and hatred. We are metamorphosing into our grander selves, into Bodhisattvas and then into Buddhas. From this vantage point we are again like butterflies, influencing the grandest things just by the smallest flap of our wings. In 1969 Margaret Mead said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”.
How can we mimic the imaginal cell more completely? Practice yoga daily. It will keep us in alignment with the greater picture. We can meditate with a friend, or commit an act of kindness toward a stranger. We can give someone a smile or a compliment when they are complaining or sad. We can volunteer in our communities. There are innumerable ways that we can shorten our time within the spiritual chrysalis. Our bravery and foresight will be the overriding factor which makes the world steer away from its path of self-destruction and into the light of creation. We were meant for this all along. We only have to die to our old selves and make way for the new. This is the true transformation.

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