with insight, meaning, and possibilities. Some in what it says, and some in what it doesn’t say. Let’s begin with what it says.
The image of a butterfly, and the reference to a caterpillar, as metaphors for two different stages of human development is a useful one. Indeed, the metaphors have been used by many seers, spiritual teachers, psychologists, and others for centuries.
So, who or what, is a Butterfly Person? The graphic seems to suggest that such a person is spiritually advanced, is now able to fly, and has surpassed the crawling stage of life. I suspect this is how many will interpret this metaphor.
As our human journey develops we do learn new language. We surely come to understand the larger stories of life and the cosmos that surround us. Those stories can contain language that may have been difficult for us to understand at an earlier stage of our journey.
Hence, to that extent, there is some validity in the message of the graphic.
However, let us delve deeper.
Let us read between the lines. Let us discover what is not said.
As humans, we do indeed, at birth, embark upon a developmental journey. Along that journey we may pass through a number of stages in our development. Or – we may not (I’ll come back to this.)
One of those who has extensively applied the metaphor of the butterfly’s life cycle to that of the human development journey is eco-psychologist, and soul guide, Bill Plotkin.1 As a biologist will tell us, the butterfly is the fourth stage in its journey. The first stage is the pupa (egg.) Following this is the lava (caterpillar) stage, as this graphic alludes to, but crucially, there is the third stage, a highly transformative stage – the chrysalis.
This is the stage, and metaphor, that Bill Plotkin most often refers to. It is a stage in the human development journey often not reached, and even less, not completed.
This is why, in today’s world, there are so few true Adults, and woefully less true Elders. A number of writers alert us to the lack of true Elders in society, notably Bill Plotkin, Stephen Jenkinson, and Robert Bly.2 They, and many others, would agree with Jenkinson’s assertion that:
‘If becoming an elder was a consequence of aging, we’d be awash in elders right about now. But it isn’t so.’
In terms of the metaphor, our society seems to have a desire to either remain a crawling caterpillar, or to jump straight to the flying butterfly stage. This is where Plotkin’s insight, and life’s work, holds the key to enabling, nurturing, and extending the numbers of true Adults and true Elders in our society.
His insight is simply this: the need for the chrysalis (Plotkin prefers the term cocoon) stage. In his magnificent book, The Journey of Soul Initiation,3 Plotkin outlines his conception and understanding of this crucial stage of the human development journey. Although not the first to outline this stage (see Carl Jung’s Red Book for instance) he has perhaps done more than any other psychologist to describe and witness it. As an overall title for this stage Plotkin refers to it as The Descent to Soul and describes it as:
‘an ecstatic and hazardous odyssey that most of the world has forgotten – or not yet discovered – an essential spiritual adventure for which you won’t find clear or complete maps anywhere else in the contemporary Western world. This journey, which begins with a dying, enables you to grow whole and wild in a way that has become rare – and yet is vital for the future of our species and our planet.’
Dying? Yes. That is what happens to the caterpillar inside the chrysalis. It dies, undergoes metamorphosis, and emerges as a butterfly.
There is a further lesson we can take from the butterfly/caterpillar metaphor. The biological term for the butterfly is the imago and inside the caterpillar there are imaginal cells – cells that understand that the caterpillar is to become a butterfly.
We could say then that the butterfly is imagined into existence.
The same is so for humans. We go through our first stages of life as children and early adolescents as caterpillars. Then at some point in our lives, whether it be in late teenage years or many years later, we enter the cocoon.4 Therein (spiritually, mythopoetically, psychologically, ecologically, socially, and soulfully) we imagine ourselves into the butterfly we are to become. This metamorphosis is possible if we are enabled, supported, and encouraged to do so by true Adults and true Elders.
Herein is what the graphic does not say. A butterfly that simply flies off, speaking its own language (maybe with other butterflies doing the same) is akin to the proliferation of olders (as distinct from elders) within our society.
One of the important tasks of true Adults and true Elders is to remember the language of the caterpillar, and to guide and support caterpillars into, and through, the ‘ecstatic and hazardous odyssey’ of the cocoon/chrysalis, so that they too might emerge as butterflies.
1. Two of Plotkin’s books are relevant here: Nature and the Human Soul (2008) and The Journey of Soul Initiation (2021), both published by New World Library, Novato, California.
2. As well as Plotkin’s books (n. 1) see especially: Jenkinson, Stephen, Come of Age:The Case for Elderhood in a Time of Trouble, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California, 2018; Bly, Robert, The Sibling Society, William Heinemann, Port Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, 1996.
3. See my review of this book here.4. Although as Plotkin acerbically notes, most people in our modern industrial-consumerist society get stuck in an early stage, and instead of emerging into an eco-centric view of oneself, remain stuck in a pathological ego-centric stage. Hence, never reach the butterfly stage, because the metamorphosis of the chrysalis is not undertaken.