Butterflies and the Art of Embracing a Difficult Transition

embracing transition Oct 20, 2022

Have you ever given birth? Recovered from a broken bone? Learned a foreign language? Started a new exercise program or trained to become a long-distance runner? We go through transformation in many ways, but often that transformation involves messiness and discomfort or even pain.

During your transforming time, how did you address the discomfort? How did you deal with the 22 hours of labor to give birth to your daughter? How did you push through mile 22 and make it to the marathon finish line? How did you find comfort while immobilized in a cast for eight weeks?


Butterflies, Goo, and You

Ask any first grader and you will find that the iconic transformation is that of a caterpillar into a butterfly.  While I am aware of the basics of this transformation (egg – caterpillar – chrysalis – butterfly) I was shocked at what I found as I looked deeper into the process of transformation within the chrysalis.

Within the chrysalis, the caterpillar releases enzymes that break down, or digest, nearly it’s entire body. What’s left inside is a “soup” of goo with floating embryonic-type building blocks called imaginal disks. These imaginal disks are with the caterpillar it’s whole life, but stopped growing sometime during the caterpillar’s development. During metamorphosis, these disks resume development and turn into specific body parts: organs, antenna, legs, etc., and the “goo” from the digested caterpillar body provides nourishment.

Although the visible transitions that must take place to become a butterfly are massive in themselves, the change that happens within the chrysalis is equally astonishing. It’s body dissolves into primordial “goo” and refashions itself into a beautiful winged creature.

This brings to mind another transformation, but on the human level.  The process of grief, the pain of separation, and the divorce process all include time periods where there is

  1. a release of what was (former life together / caterpillar body),
  2. growing and slogging through a difficult “in-between” period (grieving, the divorce process, etc./ caterpillar goo), and
  3. recreating life (personal growth, redefining goals, finding new dreams / butterfly).

At times the in-between “goo” period seems uncomfortably long and without end. Consider the caterpillar again.

If humans were caterpillars:

  • “Ewwwww… I’m secreting enzymes
  • Wait.  This is NOT GOOD. My body is dissolving!
  • Make it stop! Make it stop!
  • Oh no – there goes my toe…
  • Oh fiddle – I don’t have a middle…
  • Oh heck… where is my neck?
  • What a mess.  I don’t even recognize myself.  I’ve gone completely to goo.
  • I can’t believe this happened to me. This has got to be the worst scenario coming true.  Right?
  • I mean, I don’t know any caterpillars who became goo and lived to crawl out of it.
  • Well, I suppose I’ll just, uh float here for a while.
  • I suppose things could change.
  • Hmmmm
  • I wonder how long I’ll be goo.
  • How about now? Nope….
  • Still goo.
  • Status update: Goo is not gone.
  • Goo. Goo. Goo. Goopidy Goo.
  • Any day now.
  • Oh, wait I feel something!
  • That’s an antenna shooting up!
  • Hey, a wing!
  • And so forth…

This same discomfort – the “goo” we muddle through in difficult transitions – is a necessary part of transformation to the “new”.


Presence & Transience

When I jog, I don’t think about much else besides my breath. My mind focuses on my breath – sometimes it flows evenly and easily, and other times I am short of air and my lungs burn.  Regardless, I know any discomfort won’t last forever. I know that my breath will come easier, that my heart rate will slow down and ease into flow. I also know that as I practice jogging, I will eventually be able to run further and with greater ease.

These principles of practicing presence (focusing on now) and acknowledging transience (knowing that the situation is temporary, that “this too shall pass”), are two powerful concepts to calm us during a difficult experience.

Presence is vital because it honors the experience we have rather than dismissing it. Practicing presence enables us to deal with what is immediate and now – whether it’s pleasing or painful –  without pushing it away or trying to make it different. In this way, presence is a radical form of acceptance and surrender to “what is”.

And when I am present to “what is”, I can make conscious choices about how to handle it. Breathing too difficult? Stitch in my side? I could slow down to a walking pace or take a few minutes to catch my breath.  I might find that I need to re-hydrate. Knowing my present experience, assessing my options, and making strategic changes, gives me considerable power and control over how I move through the situation.

Besides, I know that whatever the situation or experience is, it will not last forever. When my breath comes in gasps as I jog, I know that I can push through a few more yards because I will have rest afterwards.

Often the experience is a trial of sorts, a bridge between the old and the new.  Birthing a child is often a bloody, pukey, sweaty endeavor of strength and stamina. It is also a surrender (to the birthing process) that literally results in the delivery of new life. A mother knows that the process will come to an end, that her contractions will not go on indefinitely. Although she is not magically free from pain by acknowledging that the situation is temporary, she can take some comfort in this fact.

Likewise, the “in-between” part of any big change or transformation is usually messy and difficult. While learning a new skill, such as a ballet, you can bet that you will be ungraceful and awkward, especially in the beginning. When acquiring proficiency in a new language there will be times when you speak some form of indistinguishable gibberish.  The process of baking a cake involves cooking a goopy substance at high temperatures before it becomes edible, fluffy masterpiece.

The next time you encounter a difficult transition, remember that even the beauty of a butterfly passes through a necessary “goo” stage.  Be present to the discomfort of the current stage of your life, remember that it is temporary, and stay the course.

You, too, will emerge changed.