Stefanie posted a picture of a American Painted Lady caterpillar in her garden recently. The caterpillar looked a little scary to me ― though the red on them fascinated me as much as they repelled me. I really ought to examine these complicated feelings about the caterpillars.
According to Stefanie, they are "about two inches long and sort of spiky, but not really fat". I think that's already two inches too long. (I admit it: I am terrified of caterpillars with their wringly, hairy bodies. Yes, I have insect issues. I can pick up earthworms with my bare fingers to play but I can't deal with caterpillars. They are hairy and fat. I like my worms bare and skinny. Like supermodels.)
Meanwhile, I think the caterpillars are eating up her plants. :)
But what caught me was Stefanie's observations about the caterpillars, and butterflies:
"Whenever I think of butterfly gardens and choose plants to attract them I always think of the actual butterflies and the pretty flowers, not the voracious caterpillars."
Reading that line, it felt like a moment of satori. Human that we are, we are like the three blind men who each touch a part of an elephant and mistaken it for the whole. Butterfly or caterpillar, neither represent the whole: both are merely stages of a greater cycle. We forget how beauty is often the result of an evolution from baser beginnings; beauty arrives only after a process of destruction ― in this instance, to have the butterflies, you have to endure the caterpillars devouring your garden.
Still, the image of the caterpillar lingered in my mind over the weekend. I was in yoga class, resting in Savasana and suddenly the thought of that caterpillar just popped into my head ― this is one persistent caterpillar. It's doing more than eating out a garden. It's eating a hole in my mind.
So here I am: at my laptop pondering the significance of a caterpillar. And I reach for Rebecca Solnit's A Field Guide to Getting Lost, where I recall she wrote something that I've tagged for future reference:
The people thrown into other cultures go through something of the anguish of the butterfly, whose body must disintegrate and reform more than once in its life cycle. In her novel Regeneration, Pat Barker writes of a doctor who "knew only too well how often the early stages of change or cure may mimic deterioration. Cut a chrysalis open, and you will find a rotting caterpillar. What you will never find is that mythical creature, half caterpillar, half butterfly, a fit emblem of the human soul, for those whose cast of mind leads them to seek such emblems. No, the process of transformation consists almost entirely of decay." But the butterfly is so fit an emblem of the human soul that its name in Greek is psyche, the word for soul. We have not much language to appreciate this phase of decay, this withdrawal, this era of ending that must precede beginning. Nor of the violence of the metamorphosis, which is often spoken of as though it were as graceful as a flower blooming.
During my Anusara yoga class last week, the teacher expounded on the idea of using our practice to "shed off our old skins" ― yoga as a process of transformation, of shedding off old skins, old habits, old mindsets. I wonder about "the anguish of the butterfly, whose body must disintegrate and reform more than once in its life cycle." And I wonder about how my body aches everyday from practice, even as emotionally, coming to terms with my own human imperfections can seem so traumatic at times. And where am I going with it all?
The process of transformation is not comfortable. It can be violent and traumatising, as it involves the breakdown of who you think you are right now. But you are not the caterpillar nor are you the butterfly ― for both are one and the same. You are merely going through the different phases of a greater cycle. See the different stages of life. Then see the great unity of it all.