The Soul and the Butterfly: A Metamorphosis of the Human Psyche
by Terra Anderson
I remember always being fascinated by the life of butterflies – how they start off as tiny plant bound creatures inching and eating their way through a relatively monotonous existence, only ever concerned with survival. Then one day, something deep inside them receives a message that it is time to change. They become very still for a long time, enclosing themselves in a silk blanket while something mysterious happens that gives them wings. All of a sudden their lives are forever changed. They emerge as fragile, vulnerable creatures, yet they possess an unimaginable freedom – the freedom to fly, the ability to literally suck the nectar out of life.
I used to dream of what it must be like to grow wings, to feel the depth of that potential. However I never really knew what that transformation actually entails for butterflies until recently.
The biology of the caterpillar’s transformation into a butterfly must be among nature’s greatest works of poetry. This process is unlike anything I have ever heard of, however draws the most eloquent metaphor for both therapy and societal transformation.
You see, once a caterpillar has committed to change, it creates a safe place to undergo this metamorphosis – the silk cocoon. Once inside, its cells abandon their form and the caterpillar enters a full transition phase – now neither a caterpillar nor a butterfly.
Cells that existed in the caterpillar all along, called imaginal cells (note the similarity to the word “imagine”), which have been dormant until now, become alert to the potential for transformation. They begin to operate as single celled organisms within the cocoon. The caterpillar’s old immune system senses that these little dreamers pose a threat to the old way of life and it attacks. There is a tiny but epic battle of resistance to the caterpillar’s transformation. The battle is won only when the imaginal cells band together in a united front for change. They connect, communicate, multiply and begin to work together until their collective strength and resilience is such that they are able to create the butterfly. With a newfound fervor, fortitude and lust for life the butterfly is born.
This is the power of dreams, of hope, and of commitment to change.
You and I are not alone in awe of both this process and metaphor. In fact, the butterfly has long been a symbol of the soul. I always thought that the word psychology (“psyche” and “-ology”) meant the study of the soul, but as it turns out, the ancient Greeks used the term psyche as the word for both butterfly and soul. Naturally, as a therapist, I find this similarity fascinating.
I learned about the incredible biology of the butterfly’s transformation not long after I decided to start Embody Emerge. The timing and synchronicity of this insight was absolutely uncanny and was a truly inspiring force in starting this project. My hope is that the inspiration in this story finds its way into whatever part of you needs it most, and the positive potential in you, and in our society may also take form and emerge.
Imaginal Labs (2013, Oct 30) The Story of Imaginal Cells. Retrieved from: http://imaginal-labs.com/imaginal-cells/
Baylor University. Butterfly Lore. Retrieved from: