Use this time of quarantine wisely. It’s not a time to push away the silence and pine for the “good old days”; rather, it’s a unique opportunity for self- and world-reflection.
This is not a time to wish us quickly back to the comforts and familiarities of “normal”, to the life of the caterpillar; rather, it’s an essential right of passage, a metamorphic period where “normal” must dissolve into the butterfly.
The metamorphosis of caterpillar to butterfly is a widely-held representation of the stages of transformation that no human being can avoid, try as they might; a transformative period we are now in the thrust of. The stages are, in essence: 1) Leaving the known and comfortable; 2) Incubation and dissolution of self; 3) Emergence of the enlightened butterfly.
Consider the caterpillar for a moment and how it’s analogous to the current human predicament. Caterpillars make a life of consumption. Dubbed as “eating machines”, in their lifetime they eat 27,000 times their body weight. Unlike the blind consumption of humans, however, there is a clear purpose to their heavy eating—it’s necessary for them to build up and store the energy to endure the dramatic metamorphic process inside the chrysalis.
It’s not just about the consumption, though. Like most humans, caterpillars behave myopically bound to the earth. Despite having 12 eyes, their sight is quite limiting. They march along seeing only what is in front of them without a larger metaview of the landscape. Day to day, life is a narrow progression toward the next leaf to munch on.
Butterflies, on the other hand, perceive the interconnected web of life and behave dictated by a generative purpose to give back. Flying from one flower to another, they “help flowering plants reproduce through pollination. When a butterfly lands on a flower to drink nectar, the flower’s pollen becomes attached and as the butterfly moves from flower to flower drinking more nectar, the pollen is transferred. Once the pollen from one flower is brushed off onto another flower, it is caught on the female part of the flower, called the pistil. The pollen then grows down the pistil to fertilize the ovule, located at the end of the pistil. A fertilized ovule becomes a seed, and the ovary swells up to produce a fruit.”
Like the water cycle that feeds the soil and the carbon cycle that feeds the air, there is a clear act of reciprocity here. Butterflies drink nectar from the flower, but they also distribute pollen. The caterpillar’s job, by contrast, is less symbiotic—its primarily about consumption. It takes and takes from the earth until it’s full enough for metamorphosis.
That’s where we are now as a species—full, and in metamorphic quarantine.
A right of passage
“How does one become a butterfly?” she asked. “You must want to fly so much that you are willing to give up being a caterpillar.” ~ Trina Paulus
In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell popularized myth by mapping its patterns and symbols through what he called the The Hero’s Journey. Since the book was published, there have been many variations of this journey as outlined through changes in the names and order of stages originally inscribed by Campbell. But there is a common thread that unites them all that bespeaks to the hidden narratives underlying and giving rise to the everyday ostensible happenings, or journeys, of our lives.
The journey begins with the call to adventure away from the “Ordinary World” one is familiar with and comfortable in. Initially one may deny this call because of its daunting pull towards the potentially dangerous unknown. If answered and acted upon, one enters a “Special World” where one undergoes a series of tests and challenges—“the road of trials”—, encounters enemies, and also mentors and allies that guide and assist through the difficulties. Through the fires of tribulation and chaos a part of the initiate dies and is reborn, resurrected with an “elixir” that is taken back to be shared with the Ordinary World.
Implied within the call is the recognition that something is needed of us. We are ready, otherwise why would we be called? Through the crucible of adversity we transform and return to the Ordinary World with greater wisdom or self-knowledge, humility, gifts, empathy, love and other qualities; we discover there is more to give and have the capacity now to bestow these inner qualities unto others. This edification of self deepens us into a more mythic way of being in the world—a higher plane of existing than where we started from—from which we can give more of ourselves.
A fabled example of Campbell’s Hero’s, or should I say, Heroine’s Journey, is The Wizard of Oz. The story begins when Dorothy, unhappy with her life, is swept up by a tornado that takes her from Kansas, the Ordinary World, to Oz, the Special World. Soon after arriving she meets Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, who provides mentorship, and thereafter Dorothy stumbles upon her durable allies in Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion. Along the yellow brick road she is confronted with ordeals in the form of the Haunted Forest and winged monkeys, and finally, the main antagonist, the Wicked Witch of the West. Dorothy defeats her, and with that, her fears are transmuted into the elixir of newfound self-confidence, wisdom, desire to be with her family, and love of home. “There’s no place like home.”
Who she is upon her arrival back in Kansas is not the same person she was upon her departure. She, as well as her family and community, reap the rewards of her upliftment. For, a bit of the color from the Special World has forever tinged her heart and she brings it back with her, enlivening the monochrome greyness that is her Ordinary World.
Sometimes it takes a tornado—a virus—to take us there!
In Richard Bach’s bestselling novel, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Jonathan is driven to fly higher than any other seagull. He struggles to be like the others who are content with their lack-oriented lifestyle of low-altitudes and scrapping for bits of food. “Most gulls don’t bother to learn more than the simple facts of life—how to get from shore to food and back again. For most gulls, it is not flying that it matters, but eating. For this gull, though, it was not eating that mattered, but flight. More than anything else, Jonathan Livingston Seagull loved to fly.”
By following the nudge of longing, Jonathan faces challenges and attracts mentors who guide him into mystical practices and realms—into worlds beyond the Ordinary World. When finished his initiation, he returns to the Ordinary World edified and able to give from what he has gained. Jonathan flies back home to teach those ready for extraordinary flight.
In many traditional cultures, this age-old archetypal journey and transformative pattern is engrained in their culture as a right of passage for children and youth. When young people run the course of being an immature boy or girl they endure some form of initiation. Taken into the wilderness, away from the comforts and familiarity of the village, they face various trials that force them to confront themselves and open to the mythical world. In the isolation of desert, hills or forest, sometimes guided by elders and using ceremony and ritual, they move into a deeper relationship with the unseen, mythic nature of their soul and life. Like Jesus and his forty days and forty nights in the desert, fears are faced and a transformation occurs.
One can think of the Walkabout in the Australian outback or vision quests of Native American culture in which kids are initiated through separation, isolation, and often fasting. For the Bwiti people of Gabon, the plant medicine iboga is used as a coming of age or rite of passage for children so they may take their rightful place as a “true adult”.
In his book, Of Water and the Spirit, Malidoma Some describes how in his village of Dano, in Burkina Faso, each child is seen as a soul carrying unique gifts and a purpose that must eventually be blessed and confirmed by members of the community so that they can serve the livelihood of its people. At the age of 13, the youth are taken into the mountains and forest for six weeks where elders guide them through a series of rigorous tests to initiate them. They plant and hold the stake of remembrance for the youth and community at large.
Initiation for the Dagara people of Dano is a process of remembering—remembering who you are, where you come from, and your inheritance—the gifts you carry and are born to give. It is a right of passage from the Ordinary World to the Special World, a doorway into mystery, an acknowledgement of belonging to something much bigger than the temporal world, and a gateway into adulthood. It is where you touch the face of your eternal nature and bring a unique piece of it back with you to your village.
Initiation combined with further mentorship from elders ensures that young people remember that they are not in the village by accident. They are part of a fabric of existence intelligently woven into their heart’s knowing. And they exist to feel a propitious tug of mythic thread and to unravel and weave its unique offering into the hearts of others, further blessing and confirming the cosmic web that connects and feeds all sentient beings. That is how vital kids are to the village. Something sacred is needed of them to nourish and edify their people, to help all members of the community thrive in greater harmony with one another, nature and the whole.
Without initiation, mentorship and conscious relationship with soul longing, teenagers are set on a dark lonely path disconnected from their environment, inner compass and heart song. They struggle to grow into wise, life-giving adults, and likely remain as immature adult-children bereft of their gifts and purpose, more willing to consume, or take, than be of service. Both they, and their village, suffer. The mythic, the longing, is forgotten, and they travel unfed by it and lost. They stop be-longing.
This is where we are now in Euro-western culture—a society bereft of spiritual maturity.
We are a people who are anxious, depressed, in denial, lonely, fighting, competing, and living and working with little to no sense of inner calling, heart-integrity, or social and emotional intelligence.
Integrity is related to the word integration, which means nothing left out. When the depth of the vast mythic ocean is denied—left out—and we live in the world of intellectualism and materialism, we live out of integrity with the mythic unseen. Our reality becomes divided, us versus them, a place of competition, lack, forgetfulness. And so we skim the temporal surface with another drink, game of pool at the pub, political spar, bout of gossip, corrupt business deal, and reality TV show. This becomes much more alluring than diving into and feeling the vast unknown below the surface of what we assume to be our life, and everyday living. Doing so would mean rocking, and potentially sinking our comfortable, well-traveled ship, challenging our psyche and the life built from separation.
The security of perceived security within the Ordinary World that rationality constructs is ostensible, at best. Life eventually initiates us. No matter how firm our grip on the wheel is, or how well thought out our course may seem, the intelligence of the invisible eventually brings us a stormy relationship, a tidal wave of audits, an undercurrent of disease that brings us to our knees and drags us into the depth we have long forgotten. Here we feel the depth of our much-circumvented feelings, including the grief that comes with years of suppression and separation from our more mythic Self.
Ignorance only works so long. The baptism of unexpected initiation soon stirs the pot of convenience so the essential is tasted.
And so here we are: in stage two—quarantine—of the virus-led initiation.
Accepting stage two
“Growth demands a temporary surrender of security.” ~ Gail Sheehy
Stage one of metamorphosis is leaving the village or Ordinary World. There must be a departure from the known, including the only self one has known. Stage two is the initiation itself. “Quarantined”, kids in the bush and Dorothy in Oz are held by the unpredictabilities of wilderness and initiated into the unpredictabilities of inner wildness that wish to find them. Stage three is the return to a new “normal” given that you are no longer the same; and because of that, neither is the village.
Back to now de-monochromed Kansas.
Stage two is where humanity is now, hibernating like a bear in a winter cave. Pulled into the dark, quiet chrysalis, we must wait patiently as time runs its due course. The ambitious “me” that is used to running the show is forced to surrender control. A little or a lot of “I/me/my” must die into the dark soup of uncertainty.
It’s no surprise that paradoxically there is simultaneously so much anxiety and relief in our homes. We are anxious because we don’t know what to do with ourselves, and because of the stresses imposed from losing the stable ground beneath our 6 busy caterpillar legs. But there is relief as well because for many, in our reflective quarantine, we are realizing how much the Ordinary World has been wearing us and others down; how “normal” has been affecting our health, disconnecting us from our children, perpetuating a conveyer belt job to nowhere.
Ironically, for a great number of people, they feel set free in lockdown.
The temptation for many is to hope and pray that we return to normal soon. Tired of the imposed chrysalis, we spend hours a day watching the news, gathering bits of information that may provide signs of relief from quarantine. This, despite the fact that most people live lives of quiet desperation, without enjoyment of work, disconnected from their family, struggling with anxiety, depression and other health challenges. We long for the old while the air and water are cleaner than they have been in decades, if not centuries. We pray for an ending while humanity, with its shared suffering, cooperative efforts and random acts of kindness, is more united than it’s been in a very long time.
We cling to suffering without knowing how normal suffering has become. Stage two therefore can be deeply disturbing to the one who’s numbed to “normal” and depends heavily on it for survival. As global spiritual leader, poet and peace activist Thích Nhất Hạnh reminds us, “People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.”
We must realize the truth of this time: that quarantine is not a brief break to quickly get through so we can get back to the caterpillar land of hectic, polluted, unconscious, consumerist living. Rather, stage two is fertile ground for necessary metamorphosis; for a rebirth to higher, butterfly-like living. It’s a time to broaden our vision to see how much life, as we’ve known it, is not working, both for ourselves and the planet. It’s a time of honest self-reflection, a space to look deeper and see that we are butterflies in the making.
In the words of the illustrious Persian poet Hafez, “Allow dark times to season you.”
“To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.” ~ Lao Tzu
The practice now in our quarantined state is the forgotten art of non-doing. Many spiritual traditions speak of this—the necessity for being to rise from its sleepy state.
Non-doing or non-action is a central theme of Chinese spiritual teacher Lao Tzu, as written in the Tao Te Ching: “The Tao does nothing, yet leaves nothing undone.” If we trust the flow of nature, everything gets done. If we force the timing of nature, then we endure hardship.
“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”
The unquantitative nature of being infuses doing when governed by the Tao, the flow of life. For, life is the eternal river of being underneath all doing. In this integrated state, doing is an undivided expression of nature, symbiotically feeding water, air, soil and sentient beings, much like our cycles of water and carbon.
Doing is awakened action, considerate of the whole. As such, it’s service.
Disconnected from and forgetful of the Tao, Euro-western society’s modus operandi is entrenched, myopic doing with little awareness of the vast intelligence of being. Daily tasks and choices, ambitions and goals have a caterpillar-like quality of myopia. Doing is mechanical, consumptive, competitive and divisive. It lacks the nuance that comes from feeling the source of all things.
Humans experience themselves as doings instead of beings. And they live with what spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle calls object consciousness versus space consciousness. Hence the need to consume and objectify Mother Earth. Without having crossed elder-led rights of passage into the wild empty spaces of our soul, this is inevitable.
The purpose of stage two is to slow down into what many spiritual traditions call the void or nothingness; where we are neither here nor there, like the dissolving cocoon-woven caterpillar. It’s an initiation into space consciousness. This metamorphic period is an opportunity to open to what’s possible when much of our personal will is disempowered—when we can no longer push personal, political and corporate agendas that are misaligned with our heart and the Tao; when our perpetual love affair with objects is disrupted; and when the instability of building our “house on the sand” has run its destructive course. With ambitious will restrained, the ground is there to build upon the rock of rock bottom.
Powerlessness, in this case, is actually a good thing and is a key moment on the path of transformation. Franciscan friar Richard Rohr explains this wonderfully: “The first step of the journey is the admission of powerlessness. It is where no one wants to go and no one will go voluntarily. We have to be led there through our own failure and experience of death. In men’s work, we call it the Great Defeat. Franciscans call it poverty. The Carmelites call it nothingness. The Buddhists call it emptiness. The Jews call it the desert. Jesus calls it the sign of Jonah. The New Testament calls it the Way of the Cross. We’re all talking about the same necessary step.”
It’s the real agenda imposed on the reluctant hero or heroine, onto each of us thrust into quarantine: surrendering personal will to align with a higher will that knows what we know not.
This is humility—bowing our heads so that our busy minds are closer to our hearts. So that we pause long enough to hear the whispers of a forgotten voice that looks not from two eyes, but one; that seeks to move us into awakened action, service of the whole. This, as opposed to the divisive arrogance and ignorance that comes with stealing from the parts while thinking without heart; anthropocentric agendas to doggedly push a pernicious will onto sentient beings and Mother Earth.
“We have misunderstood real power. It has been something assertive, non-surrendering, pushing on through. This is not real power. This is simply willfulness.” ~ Jeff Brown
Counter to the popular notions of the patriarchal ethos, power is, in truth, vulnerability—the vulnerability that comes with sweet surrender; the vulnerability that comes with accepting that we don’t know as much as we think and aren’t in as much control as we’d like to believe.
“If you want real control, drop the illusion of control. Let life live you. It does anyway.” ~ Byron Katie
And so here we are in these vulnerable times, this auspicious space imposed upon us now, the void of neither here nor there. Author Margaret Drabble reminds us how purposeful these times are: “When nothing is sure, everything is possible”.
To surrender to our vulnerability, to the possibilities held in uncertainty, is far from easy, though. It might just be the most difficult of “tasks”. Again, I remind you how humans fight even the most innocuous slivers of dark, unambitious, unproductive space in their daily lives. We push slow and flow away with endless distraction and schedules, all the while hungering for relief from it all—to be still like nature itself. Both impulses are real, as within us lies opposing forces that direct us toward action and inaction, movement and pause.
Crunched between work, picking up kids, making meals, cleaning and bookkeeping, we hope for a measly 15 minutes to have a bath, read a book, maybe even meditate. We long to have space for our tired will to disengage and relax into non-doing; to reflect, imagine and perhaps even cry a little. And when we finally stop long enough to consider what we need and practice some semblance of self-care, we feel guilty about it.
“The mark of a successful man is one that has spent an entire day on the bank of a river without feeling guilty about it.” ~ Unknown
Euro-western life, with its orientation towards nuclear families, dual income households, and over-kill of structured activities, leaves little room for non-doing or simply being. We are rushed to the point of mental / physical breakdown and relational dysfunction. We don’t know how to turn our will off.
Underneath much of this ubiquitous culture of busyness is the element of trauma—the rigid counterforce that pulls us away from softening into “neither here nor there”. When childhood wounds remain undercover and unresolved, as is the case with most, we are prone to being on. Chronic vigilance in the nervous system is a hallmark of a traumatized psychophysiology. Scared, alone, uncertain as children, our safety and security depends on being acutely aware of our surroundings. Being off or relaxed is not an option for so many when young. It’s in fact a threat. Survival—knowing who’s coming around that corner, determining our next meal, preparing for another blow—depends on on.
Also known as the eternally present past, trauma unhealed influences our present-time adult psychophysiology from the shadows. We live today as if we are still at home with our depressed mother, alcoholic father, abusive step-mother, sexually inappropriate uncle, or bullying older sibling. On stays on.
I’ve written extensively about this—how pervasive this habituated survival response is in our society due to dysregulated physiologies. And so it goes without saying that non-doing time in the chrysalis can be deeply uncomfortable (or relieving). It’s hard to turn off what’s been mostly on during our waking life.
For a society unconsciously driven by and addicted to “high tone sympathetic arousal” (the branch of our autonomic nervous system responsible for active engagement), a much needed mandate of imposed lockdown is necessary. The chronically disengaged parasympathetic nervous system (rest/digest) has its chance to give us a long overdue break so we can just be. In my book of poems I refer to this levied lockdown as compassionate restraint. Though it may seem unfair or unnecessary to some, this quarantine is an unprecedented worldwide act of compassion to our body, mind, soul (and to Mother Earth’s lungs). It’s a time of rest to reflect on who we are and what matters most.
I recognize how hard this can be. Financial constraints, uncertainty, and old unprocessed pain surfacing when there’s nowhere to run and hide, can keep us resistant. But difficult as it may be, it’s a necessary initiation. With personal will restrained, we are afforded the possibility to remember—to know experientially—that we are not human doings, but human beings. We are given a precious opportunity for a much-needed something to arise from the only thing it can come from—a much-needed nothing.
“It takes a lot of courage to release the familiar and seemingly secure, to embrace the new. But there is no real security in what is no longer meaningful. There is more security in the adventurous and exciting for in movement there is life, and in change there is power.” ~ Alan Cohen
Freely it flies, untethered by the restraints of its former self. With the help of its delicate wings it now perceives the whole instead of just the parts. It’s no longer of the consumerist archetypal pattern, of one who makes a living and lifestyle from taking. Rather it exists as a representation of the mythic in its acts of pollination, in its longing to give back to the earth. To be of service. The transfiguration has birthed it into a wider, nobler purpose.
Perhaps this butterfly opens a long-waited organic ice cream business, invents a renewable energy resource, or simply brings a fun, inclusive and creative approach to how it leads its team or educates its students. Forever changed by its descent into darkness, it cannot continue doing what it has always done. The mythic imperative of sharing the wealth of its elixir cannot be denied. It must act on its newfound riches for the sake of the greater whole.
The qualitative nature of the elixir depends on a level of sacrifice. The part of ourselves that keeps us living in the shadows of our power and potential must be placed at the alter of death such that we make ourselves available to a more mythic way of being. Fear, shame, guilt, limiting and negative beliefs, old outdated attitudes and behaviours, must be allowed to expire in the chrysalis. The alter, the chrysalis, calls for our tightly held survival instincts that keep our senses on hyper alert, muscles locked and walls fortified; it calls for our compulsive need to consume and act as separate from Mother Earth; it calls for anything that imposes a deterrence on our capacity to care for the one inside and ones around wanting to take flight.
This is the true meaning of sacrifice—to be made sacred. For something to be sacred, a sacrifice must be made. Something in us must end for a fuller version of us to begin. Something must die for the more mythic part of us, of humanity, to be born.
“The important thing is this: to be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become” ~ Charles Dickens
To make this sacrifice, we must face our fears—fear of slowing, of being alone, of uncertainty, of letting go of control, and yes, of death itself. We must face the fear of releasing life as we’ve known it, the life we were determined to keep as “normal”.
Sacrifice—Scared—Sacred. See the connection?
The greater the sacrifice, the more we can feel our sacred place amongst the ocean, the stars, the cosmos, the eternality of our true nature. The veil of separation dissolves and we know ourselves as one with all.
The sacrifices being asked of us now while incubated in our homes, away from work, a steady income, friends and loved ones, is easier to accept if we lift ourselves high enough to view the larger evolutionary progression at hand—the Tao or flow of life. As author and holocaust survivor Victor Frankl states, “In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds meaning, such as the meaning of sacrifice.”
Meaning is lost if we concede to the idea of a random, chaotic world. It is denied if we see our quarantine as being strictly an unfortunate situation that is only making things worse for everyone.
Yet, meaning can be found if we touch into the river that directs us toward an unforeseen glimmer of light; if we open to the possibility that we are not in charge as much as we think we are, and that this might be a good thing. Meaning can be found if we sense the sacredness wanting to be born, service beyond our personal will… if only we commit long enough to the quiet, dark period upon us now.
If only we allow it to consume us.
“Faith is the bird that feels the light when the dawn is still dark.” ~ Rabindranath Tagore
In summary: Birthing Butterfly Consciousness
“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” ~ Anais Nin
This is not a time to wait impatiently to return to “normal”, but one to use wisely, for what it is intended. It’s a time to accept the necessary transformative purpose of the chrysalis humans must now endure; to open to the secret and sacred agenda of compassionate restraint rather than seeing COVID-19 as simply an unfortunate accident.
Watching less of the news will help.
This is not a time to fill, but empty. To learn, truly embrace, perhaps for the first time, a clear sense of aloneness. It’s a time to differentiate between the loneliness most run from and the all-one-ness every human being longs for but few are initiated into. It’s a time to breathe into the stillness that connects me to you to the cedar and swan, the paradoxical endless bridge that comes from surrendered aloneness.
This is not a time to dream of once again building from familiar ground. Instead, it’s a time to sink into the space between to such an extent that creativity emerges from the wealth of our waiting spirit rather than the impoverishment of the disembodied mind. A different quality of “progress” is awakened when its roots are planted in the dark space of potential quarantine affords.
This is not a time to cling to ways of consuming Mother Earth can no longer bear, but to consider how to give more and take less. It’s a time to take inventory on all the ways we have become blind in our consumptive routines while disconnected from a soul calling immanent in each newborn, one that longs to give back. If patiently uncovered, gifts and talents—our elixir—can flower into a purpose inextricably linked to our wellbeing, and to that of our fellow humans, our descendants and all creatures inhabiting Mother Earth.
This is a time to re-member with the One inside that knows we’re not here by accident. To remember what traditional societies have known for millennia—that something is needed of us that our collective village depends on and now cries out for. And that our service to others and life extends itself only to the degree that we’ve extended ourselves to the One; to the degree we’ve made room for Mystery.
Indeed, this is a time of monumental and purposeful metamorphosis, a perfectly timed right of passage, if we accept it for what it is; if we see the sacredness in the storm and give ourselves to it wisely. This is a time to birth new perspectives, new visions of what’s possible. To birth a higher, wider, interconnected experience of humanity, of life.
A time to birth a New World of Butterfly Consciousness.
Check out Vince’s book: Wild Empty Spaces ~ Poems for the Opening Heart
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