I sat down to write this to help myself make sense of what is going on in me, in humanity, collectively, on this earth. The world contains multitudes, and there are just as many unique experiences on this planet at this moment as there are living beings.
But there are themes I am tracking, rites of passage than every person I come in contact with these days seem to have in common. This is what I am here to explore today, themes of metamorphosis, transformation, initiation.
I’ve been in contemplation around the topic of initiation for many years, and never more so than the last many weeks. From a mythic and anthropological level, we can understand that initiations always include a few keynote elements. They involve entering into an enclosed, liminal space, an environment that is in between worlds, in which identity dissolves, in which time moves differently, and in which the possible unfolding paths are many. They also involve death, a dissolution of what has been familiar and reliable. And they require a choice to emerge on the other side. We have to choose to enter into the new world in our new form, we have to say, “I Do.”
The nonhuman living world gives us many models of initiation, perhaps none more poetic than that of the metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a butterfly. We all know about this process, perhaps it feels overused or tired to some.
For decades many of us have been referencing this metamorphosis, particularly returning to the microscopic element- the awakening of the imaginal cells, those cells in the body of the caterpillar which stir, independently, and far away from one another, to begin to initiate a change. They only stir when the caterpillar has become so possessed by its impulse to feed, that it has all but consumed the very substrate on which it lives. When this consumption has become enough, and there is hardly any more that the caterpillar can eat, miraculously, this is the time when enough imaginal cells have awakened, and the initiation can begin.
When we think about human civilization, and in some cases our own lives, we can clearly see that the path we have been following is similar to that of the caterpillar. Senseless, constant hunger to the point of nearly destroying that which gives us sustenance- our home, this Earth. And now we find ourselves in the midst of a chaotic transformation, the other side of which has yet to be known. There is a chance that this crisis that we face can, like the caterpillar, be one that brings us from the childlike dependency of our voracious consumer culture, into a new, mature phase of human existence, in which we are true reciprocal partners with the rest of life.
A key stage of metamorphosis is the construction of boundaries. The chrysalis emerges, hardens, creates a firm barrier between the inside world and the outside world so that the metamorphosis can happen in safety. Have you found refuge in boundaries, walls, enclosures recently? Whether it’s the cloistering of a family inside of a home, the closing of a bedroom door to process in solitude, or the closing down of national and state borders to slow the spread of this virus, we are all more aware of the boundaries that keep us either together or separate, confined or exposed.
From an astrological lens, this is a strong theme of this entire year which is powerfully shaped by the history making conjunctions of nearly every planet with Saturn throughout the year. Saturn teaches us lessons of separation, of boundaries, of patience, and of hard won transformations.
We know by now that everyone is learning these lessons, navigating the loneliness, the harshness, and the necessary boundaries of this time the best we can. While the walls we erect may need to be strong and clear, what happens within these walls must necessarily be a tender time of softening. Like the caterpillar, we require a relatively safe and stable environment in which we can collapse completely, to die to our former selves.
Not everyone has this privilege. But those of us with safe homes, who aren’t working on the front lines, and with enough financial stability that we have the ability to breathe easy once in a while during this crisis- we have a responsibility to take notes from the chrysalis and have the courage to fully dissolve, to experience the undoing, the dissolution of the identity and the world which we have known.
This is death at every scale. People are dying. Identities are dying. Institutions are dying. Life as we know it is dying. To look at this mass death from many different scales is not to diminish the real human suffering that is rampant right now, but to open ourselves to one of the most important tasks right now- to grieve.
We must dissolve ourselves into our grief, feel the passing of the world we knew fully, if we are to emerge from this initiation truly transformed.
When I first began looking seriously into the symptoms to watch out for with this illness, the emphasis on the lungs was of course foremost in all the reports. I was quickly reminded of the emotional correlation of the lungs within Traditional Chinese Medicine- grief.
I took a deep breath, and began to feel it.
A sting welling up behind my eyes, a hot lump in my throat, my shoulders dropping as if weighed down by a thick wool blanket.
I know grief; grief is familiar to me.
I’ve grieved the deaths of my father, my teachers, my dog.
I’ve grieved victims of state violence who I have never met before, and grieved the untold billions of nonhuman lives already ended by the unfolding ecosystem collapse all around our planet.
Do you know grief?
Have you grieved a loved one?
The world as you knew it?
If you’ve grieved once, you may know that you will be grieving for eternity, or you may have shut the lid on those feelings, deciding that grief was in your past and that you’ve moved on.
Times like this show us that grief never ends because love never ends, and grief comes from having loved.
To grieve is an honor and a responsibility we have been given, for in grieving we remember, we honor, we make sacred what we have lost.
What have you lost?
It may be intangible, inanimate, or banal, but it is real, this grief is real, and when we feel safe enough or desperate enough we feel it.
How do we grieve well? We allow ourselves to feel everything, to feel deeply. We must cry, we must let off the steam of anger, we must rest deeply, we must laugh loudly, love passionately, acknowledge our unknowing. To grieve is to be present with the fullness of our humanity, to feel all of the blessings and consequences of life and love at once.
To remember how to do this, i turn to the poem from Rumi, the Guest House:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
This being human is a guest house. Can you feel this? Can you feel the new arrivals, joy, depression, meanness? Can you welcome them, feel them, give them enough loving attention for them to feel safe and witnessed, and then allow them to leave in peace? Feeling deeply, without holding on to identification with those feelings, this is the process of grief.
We have a responsibility now to grieve, to feel deeply the loss of life, loss of meaning, loss of sense in our collective world. We grieve those who are dying alone in hospital beds and at home. We grieve our vulnerable loved ones, and the time we may lose with them far sooner than we’d hoped. We grieve the income we’ve lost, the security we thought we had, the plans we’d made.
Some few of us have nothing acute to direct our grief toward, but I guarantee it is there, in the collective field, waiting to be felt.
Grief is an undoing, an unbecoming, the dissolution into goo of the identity, the friends, the self that we took for granted. This dissolving is the only way we come to what is next, what is metamorphosing.
It is only when we have allowed ourselves to unravel, through the liquid force of our emotions, that we can begin to make clear choices about what comes next.
Initiation does not come merely from struggle and loss. Whether at individual or collective levels, initiation requires choice. In these liminal times, our attention to choice can become far more acute, as we see clearly that every choice matters.
Will I enter this public space, or will I stay home?
Will I ask another to risk themself for my safety?
Will I offer shelter to someone who has been traveling and who needs a space to wait out this crisis?
Will I wash my hands now or in 20 minutes?
These are questions which we have to ask ourselves, and to which we may find different answers than if we were asked a year ago.
The most important question of all, is this-
Who do I choose to be?
The imaginal cells do not have preassigned roles- they are like stem cells, capable of becoming anything. It is when they are in the state of dissolved goo that they begin to arrange themselves into their new structure, the glorious body and wings of a butterfly.
Who do you choose to be?
Do you choose to create a new world, or cling to the old models?
And what will you choose if the worst comes to pass in this time in which so much power can be misused, so many rights restricted, so many freedoms curtailed, how we choose to respond, to live, to use our voice makes a difference. Will you numb yourself? Will you create more fear? Will you take the time to really examine what is truly going on on this planet at this time?
We all have these choices. No one can make them for us.
A poem by Wilreke Sophia offers us wider reflection on the choices we have, today and every day:
Today I choose to bow my head from respect instead of ignorance,
as I acknowledge all that is happening as an opportunity for growth, even if it’s unpleasant.
Today I choose pain over suffering,
as it is my choice to hold on to whatever hurts me — or to feel and let go.
Today I choose to dance and sing,
as it frees me more than it scares me.
Today I choose to be gentle and soft with myself,
as I realize it’s my responsibility to take care of me.
Today I choose courage over fear,
as walking the unknown path is more exciting than sitting still in a safe haven.
Today I choose love over hate,
as opening my heart allows more light to shine through.
Today I choose to live.
Life affirming maturity takes conscious, courageous choice, and no one can make that choice for another. The world will continuously present us with challenges and choices which shape our world at every step. It is those challenges which form us
The final stage of metamorphosis, is perhaps the most glorious. It is the emergence of the butterfly from the chrysalis. If you have seen it, then you know that it is not an easy process. This is like a second birth, and there is struggle. The boundaries which have kept this creature safe must now be torn open from the inside, and the butterfly begins this process weak, uncertain, fueled only by a new hunger, and a primal impulse to reach out for the light.
If you were to come across a butterfly in this process, you may take pity, you might want to help her out. Use your fingernail and gently help her pry open the chrysalis, make her struggle easier. This good intention would be the death of her.
See, the strength of the wings of every butterfly is forged in the struggle of emergence from the chrysalis. Just as no one can make our choices for us, no one can take on our unique struggle in the journey to become our next, most magnificent selves.
Mary Oliver, bless her forever, wrote a poem that I feel so beautifully describes this stage of initiation, this struggle, this emergence, and offers us a glimpse of what lies beyond. This is Crossing the Swamp-
Here is the endless
cosmos, the center
of everything — the nugget
of dense sap, branching
vines, the dark burred
is swamp, here
peerless mud. My bones
knock together at the pale
for foothold, fingerhold,
such slick crossings, deep
that sink silently
into the black, slack
earthsoup. I feel
not wet so much as
painted and glittered
with the fat grassy
mires, the rich
and succulent marrows
of earth — a poor
dry stick given
one more chance by the whims
of swamp water — a bough
that still, after all these years,
could take root,
sprout, branch out, bud —
make of its life a breathing
palace of leaves.
On the other side of the swampy struggle, can you imagine what a new world the butterfly enters?
A breathing palace of leaves.
She has new eyes, new probosci, she can sense entirely new dimensions of color and texture, the scents and flavors of life, she can feel the subtle pockets of shifting temperature and speed in the air. The world opens to her as a flower, waiting to be tasted. It is a whole new world for her, and she is right at home in it.
Has the world changed or has she? Does is matter? She now has the ability to flutter from flower to flower, pollinating the world, creating more abundance in the garden rather than eating it bare. She can travel great distances, fly to great heights, and see everything from a new vantage point.
The birth of a new life for humanity begins now. Begins here. Begins with you.
What life will you choose?