The metaphor of the butterfly is often used to illustrate the stages in the process of transformation: caterpillar→cocoon→butterfly. The caterpillar gets the signal somehow, someway, to begin to spin fiber around itself; creating a cocoon/chrysalis within which it succumbs to the process that will turn it into a butterfly. We might find caterpillars creepy. We ooh and ah at the butterfly alighting on the flower. What is the complex process of destruction/creation that made it possible?
What exactly is happening in the chrysalis? Here is a description from Butterfly Life Cycle: Chrysalis | Wisconsin Pollinators
The Biology of the Transformation
The transformation itself is amazing. The change inside the chrysalis is slow and gradual. The caterpillar’s body digests itself from the inside out. The caterpillar is attacked by the same sort of juices that it used in its earlier life to digest food. Many of the organs are hidden in the caterpillar and they take a new form within the chrysalis.
The body breaks itself down into imaginal cells, which are undifferentiated — like stem cells, they can become any type of cell. The imaginal cells put themselves back together into a new shape. But not all the tissues are destroyed. Some old tissues pass onto the insect’s new body. One imaginal disk will become a wing and there are imaginal disks that form the legs, antennae, and the other organs of the butterfly.
This process of complete transformation is known as holometabolism. The amount of time required to transform completely varies from one species to another, but in general it takes about 2 weeks. For species that survive the winter by staying in the chrysalis, it can take months.
Amazing to consider how much drama is taking place in that small container! Several points struck me in particular. For one, everything needed to accomplish the transformation is contained in the caterpillar’s body. For another, one form of the body has to break down completely in order to make the imaginal cells available to become differentiated parts of the butterfly-to-be.
I think about how this also illustrates aspects of individual development. Of course, we don’t change externally but internally— spiritually, mentally, emotionally? What happens when we get the signal to start spinning a chrysalis for ourselves? How do we get those signals? What might start the process? An internal restlessness? An external event, for example, a major loss? An idea for a project? What imaginal cells are present within us just waiting for a chance to take on new forms?
There are times that something drives us deep into ourselves; pushes us to isolate; to focus inward. To cocoon around what is becoming in order to protect the process from the elements. I can see too how this happens (or doesn’t happen) in relationships where something is dying and something new is trying to emerge—bitterly painful for the caterpillar yet essential for the butterfly.