03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Transformation: Giving Thanks For Our Meltdowns

If caterpillars were people, would there be any butterflies?

I mean, would we really seal ourselves up in our own skin just on the promise of a metamorphosis into some completely different and wondrous winged being? I don't know.

Because while moth larvae spin cocoons, butterfly larvae do not. Their chrysalis is just their own skin, which hardens to protect them in a hermetically-sealed chamber while they melt down. Literally.

Once hanging upside-down in the chrysalis, the caterpillar's digestive juices turn against it, dissolving the caterpillar and turning it into nothing but a gooey liquid. Complete breakdown. No caterpillar, no butterfly. You cut open the chrysalis at this point and just a bunch of green soup runs out.

Assuming you do no such thing, however, something interesting happens about then. Certain cells, called imago cells, which served absolutely no purpose in the caterpillar's life up to now, suddenly kick in and take over. They organize the soup, telling the other cells inside the chrysalis how to re-form themselves into a butterfly.

You see that, right? They serve no purpose until the meltdown is complete and then they kick in, organizing the mess into something new and whole and, yes, wondrous.

Difficult transitions in life cause us to hit the brakes and stop moving forward, losing our sense of direction and momentum. Stranger than that, however, since they seem to disconnect us from where we thought we were going, they also disrupt our sense of identity and make us wonder who we really are. We go through such times feeling alone and isolated, unmoored from our past sense of self and completely unsure of what we are becoming. It's as though we've lost our form and can't quite get it back. And have no idea what we're supposed to look like next.

Assuming that we trust the process and don't interrupt it by trying to take control of it at this point, our natural psychological healing tendencies take over. Our own unconscious imago cells, which served no purpose in our lives until now, suddenly kick in and organize us into--okay, you guessed it: something new and whole and decidedly wondrous.

In many shamanic societies it is taken for granted that shamans are not born--they are created by some intense health or emotional crisis. What emerges from such crises is a metamorphosed person. Not who they were or even who they were going to be but someone more attuned to the world, more adaptable to change, and more powerful in their ability to benefit others. Healers are created out of crisis.

You, of course, may already know this, but I wasn't paying attention in class that day, so I can't believe I got this far along in life without knowing that the Greek word psyche meant butterfly. Amazing, isn't it? The word we translate as mind or soul was for the ancients also the word for butterfly.

Oh, and I know you were wondering--just how does that poor soft little caterpillar get out of that hard hermetically-sealed chrysalis that's been protecting it all this time? With its eye. No kidding. One of the things that the imago cells tell the new butterfly to do is grow a temporary scale on its eye so it can rub it against the inside of the chrysalis, wearing a weak spot in it until it can push its way out.

It's just like the ancient Taoist sage said: Everything we know about spirit we learned by analog from nature.

Not only do our meltdowns cause us to metamorphose into something we could not have imagined beforehand--they also teach us to use our eyes in a completely new and unexpected way. It's not just ourselves that have changed--our vision of the world around us has changed just as profoundly.

We suddenly develop a lifelong case of pronoia. You know--the irrational belief that unseen forces are conspiring to do us well.

So Happy Thanksgiving. And pass the blessing of meltdowns past. Because as hard as they are to go through, they spurred us to create the loving and wise nature we share with others today.

Would we really seal ourselves up inside our own skin just on the promise of a metamorphosis into some completely different and wondrous winged being?

Yep. Happens all the time.