Birthing our butterflies


One of my clients – I’ll call her Kathryn – came to me because she was feeling overwhelmed. Her relationship of five years is fraying. Her career has stagnated. She has money concerns. She feels trapped in the small town she lives in. And she has a little two-year-old daughter to care for through all this. What to do? Where to start?

We live in such a quick-fix, instant gratification culture. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking we need to DO something about this. Right away.

But is that really the most constructive thing to do?

When the ground underneath us falls away like this, we’ve got an open invitation to break out into something new. But creating a new life is an organic process. It has its own natural stages and pace. We can’t rush it.

And Kathryn has been working with that process beautifully. More than anything else, she’s understood that she needs to take time for herself. And get to know herself better. She’s recommitted to her daily meditation practice. And her daily writing practice. And gardening. All these things make her feel grounded and whole. For the first time, she’s allowing herself to quietly savor what comes naturally to her, without guilt.

It’s true this isn’t doing much about solving her big dilemmas. Not yet at least. But that’s OK. More than OK. It’s a great place to start.

If you’re thinking she’s just avoiding her problems – that’s not the case at all. While gardening or meditating, all sorts of fears come up. Could she make it on her own? Will she be poor forever? Will she be stuck in this small town? The big questions swirl around in her head. And she sits, mindfully, being present with it all. She’s deliberately NOT taking any steps to change things yet. She’s just sitting with herself, and taking in all her hopes, fears, disappointments, and sadness. It’s hard, she says. But it’s stretching her in a healthy way. And it feels so honest to be facing her reality in this way.

We can’t hurry through something like this. Every birth of a new life form needs a gestation period. We can’t skip it because it’s uncomfortable. Because skipping means skipping out of the process altogether. Without clinging to the past, or grasping toward the future, we sit and let the shaky, formless, icky stuff take shape on its own. We have to trust that the answers will come out from this mess. Because they always do, if we’re willing to wait and watch.

I’m reminded of the story of the boy who watched a butterfly struggling to be born. Out of a wish to help, he took his scissors and cut away the outer shell of the chrysalis, hoping to help the butterfly break free. But to his horror, it came out as a shriveled thing. It never opened its wings, and died. What he didn’t know is that the struggle serves a purpose. By squeezing through the tiny opening, the fluid from the emerging butterfly’s body gets pushed out into the wings, giving them the moisture they need to open. In his impatience, he had killed the butterfly.

So often we kill our own butterflies with our impatience. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If we really want to transform, there are times when the best thing to do is just sit still.

13 Comments. Leave new

  • So beautifully expressed! This is exactly how I have felt through so many major transitions in my life. It is an organic, natural process, and it isn’t instant.
    I love, love, love the butterfly analogy!!

    • Thank you Michelle. Having witnessed a small bit of your transitions, I know this has been true for you too!

  • Shell Fischer
    March 28, 2011 4:04 pm

    I loved this post. Even though I’ve been meditating for the past two decades, I sometimes forget that I don’t have to immediately “act” when something isn’t going right in my life; I can just sit and be with it for a while, for as long as it takes.

    It also helps when I can remember to sit and acknowledge the pain and grief with compassion, which to me has always been the key ingredient, since looking at my “stuff” and finding myself somehow at fault or deficient has never helped me.

    What does help is when I can look compassionately at the causes and conditions that led up to wherever I might find myself, and truly know that I did my best at the time. After I’ve done this, I can then decide to learn from my experience, and more naturally move on.

    • Thank you Shell. What you say is so true. I’ve come to believe that there’s always something positive to be gleaned out of every experience, no matter how difficult. Or even if I “screwed something up”. Being compassionate toward myself is always the best way to find it.

  • Ann Becker-Schutte
    March 30, 2011 11:43 pm

    “The struggle serves a purpose.” Wow–That gave me chills. Thank you for the powerful frame!

  • Sunada,

    I am sitting in a similar situation, with the world whirling around me while I do my best to remember the paramitas (patience, Tara, patience). There are many good things that could happen right now, and one very bad one if the good ones fall through. Still I sit tight, not preparing, not ignoring my mate’s needs, not ignoring my needs. I meditate, study, volunteer – live. Anything else seems impossible until I’m sure I have a hold on Tara. I sit in the center of a whirlwind. Being part of it won’t help me or anyone. Nor will it generate Bodhicitta.

    Thank you for this artful reminder that we must only spread our wings when ready. And not lose ourselves in the confusion.

    Many respectful blessings, Sunata.

    • Hi Tara,
      Thank you for sharing your experience. Many good possibilities and one very bad one. Well, I wish for you the courage to face whatever comes your way, even if it turns out to be “bad.” As long as you have a hold on Tara, stay grounded in the middle of that whirlwind, then that’s all that really matters.

      Best wishes to you,

  • Sunada,

    I understand – neither the butterfly nor the caterpillar is good or bad. What happens will just be – period.

    Thanks for the response. I enjoy your writing.


  • This really spoke to me
    I moved home in December and have moments of feeling rather “cast adrift”as I get bogged-down by “home improvements”
    Being present with this seems to connect with where I am now?

    Perhaps a real need for self compassion as well

    • Hi Wendy, It makes sense that after a move you’d feel chaotic and “cast adrift” as you put it. Being grounded/present and holding yourself with compassion is perhaps the one thread of continuity and sanity you can hold during such a time. Until new patterns emerge for this new place and new life. Makes sense to me.

  • this really helps as I am in a struggling phase and I believe that one day I’ll strech my wings and fly.

    grateful for the inspiration


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