The caterpillar, feeling some invisible call from nature, starts eating everything in sight. Then, when it's nice and fat, it finds a quiet, shady spot where it hangs itself upside down and forms a chrysalis. Once inside its protective shell, it completely digests itself, literally becoming a liquid a.k.a. Essence of Caterpillar. From there, groups of cells called “imaginal discs,” which had been previously been dormant, wake up. They begin acting as a creative force, organizing the the essential elements of the once-caterpillar into something else, something made from the same ingredients and yet altogether different. From this alchemical process, an entirely new creature emerges: the butterfly.
A friend of mine—a former biology teacher and wonderfully creative human—described all this to me recently, and the image struck me as the most perfect metaphor for our own human version of this mysterious process: the creative metamorphosis.
These are the periods in our lives—often after long bouts of production or big changes in our circumstances—where the elements of our life and practice start asking to transform into something entirely new. This can show up as a feeling that our outer lives don’t reflect our inner landscapes, or that what had been working just isn’t working anymore. However it shows up, it is a message from the deepest part of ourselves, calling for change.
As I am emerging from one of my own periods of metamorphosis, I wanted to write a guide for anyone who is navigating this part of the creative life cycle, especially if you’re experiencing moments of fear (WHAT IS HAPPENING) and doubt (AM I DOING THIS RIGHT). If you are feeling a pull toward transformation, or are already in the throes of it, then I hope this will be a helpful outline, as well as a reminder that this process, like the transformation of the caterpillar to the butterfly, is both natural and miraculous.
So here it is! My guide for being Inside The Chrysalis.
The Four R's of Creative Metamorphosis
Phase 1: Rest
Rest is the act of letting go so that you can exist in the simplicity of being. It is a process of dissolution, where you allow everything external to fall away, and you come back to your essential self. Although it sounds simple, this can often be the hardest step, because it requires surrender rather than action. Our culture tends to be amazingly rest-averse, so oftentimes the simple act of allowing yourself to rest is, in itself, revolutionary. If you struggle with rest, be gentle with yourself, and know that you're not alone.
Rest comes in many forms, and we probably all need every kind at some point in our lives. It can be physical rest: lots of sleeping, practicing slow movement, doing things that allow your central nervous system to reconnect with its baseline. It can be mental rest: clearing time in your schedule, taking things off your plate, letting go of some of the pressure to do or make or serve others. It can be emotional rest: giving yourself permission to let go of any heavy feelings you may be carrying around.
The image I think of is a person walking along a path, collecting things as they go: things they need, things they want, things people give them. And at some point, they reach a tipping point where they are carrying so much that they're straining under the weight and cannot carry one more thing. Rest is the act of putting down everything that you're carrying. It's an act of surrender that allows you to move on to the next phases: looking at what it is you've been carrying, and deciding whether you want to take any of it with you on the next leg of your journey.
Phase 2: Reflection
Reflection is the non-judgmental process of taking inventory of your life: what is it that you've been carrying? Essentially, what you're doing during this phase is just noticing. Rather than being a time of deciding what's “good” or “bad” in your life, it's a time for seeing what is already there. The deeper your excavation, the deeper your transformation is likely to be.
Take stock of your relationships, life experiences, emotional patterns, resources, habits, and the stories you tell about yourself and the world. If you are a maker of things (a painter, a writer, a dancer, a cook, etc.), then this is also the time to go back and look at your past work. Reflect on where you have been so far on your creative journey; this may give you some valuable insights for where you want to go next.
For example, I went through my flat files recently and pulled out drawings I'd made years ago, most of which I'd completely forgotten about. I was able to look at them with fresh eyes and imagine ways that they could become seeds for new work. In going through your own reservoirs, you may find past work that you want to revisit, rework, or revise during the next phases.
Phase 3: Reevaluation
Reevaluation is a time for inquiry into what it is that you actually want in the next phase of your journey. Here are some questions that may be helpful.
- What do you desire?
- What are you passionate about?
- What are you curious about?
- What do you enjoy doing?
- What do you despise doing?
- What sparks your imagination?
- What are you attracted to?
- What drains you?
If you find yourself getting too intellectual about this process and feeling like you don't know what it is that you really want (which is way more common than you'd imagine!) then you can try an exercise I use a lot, which I call “Expansion or Contraction.”
This exercise uses the wisdom of your body to bypass any mental trickery and bring you into clarity about what feels right (expansive) and what feels wrong (contractive.) For example, when I ask myself “What kind of workspace do I desire?” two different images may come into my mind. So I'll tune into my body and literally feel them out. When I imagine Option A, working in a studio space with lots of big windows and a view of the forest, I feel my physical body start to expand and lighten. When I imagine Option B, working in a co-working space in a building in the city, I feel my body start to contract and feel tight. So my answer here is clear: what I really want is Option A, even if my mind wants to choose the potentially more practical Option B. It's an effective tool for getting to the heart of the matter: what is right for you?
It's also a good way to notice anywhere that you're enacting a “should”: I'm doing this because I should, which generally translates to, I think that other people expect this of me, and I'm doing this because I don't want to upset or disappoint them. “Shoulds” are a sure-fire sign that you're allowing external factors to guide you, rather than your own internal guide (hello intuition!)
This phase of reevaluation is a time to be clear and incisive. If you love lists, this is your chance to go nuts! For example, I made a list that is literally called “Things I Don't Want To Do,” which outlines in microscopic and sometimes petty detail all the things that I had been doing—or had done in the past—that I didn't enjoy. I also made a list of all the things I do enjoy, am good at, and want to do more of. When I did this, I noticed that a huge part of my decision-making over the past few years had been rooted in my desire for financial stability. After I reevaluated, I realized that while that is still important to me, there are other forces within me that want equal attention: the desire for creative freedom and strong community, my curiosity for exploring new materials and new platforms for my work, my attraction to writing and teaching.
The reevaluation phase is a time of judgement, in the sense of judging or discerning what is truly right for you. Which habits do you want to keep, which do you want to let go of? Which relationships have run their course and which do you want to nurture? What ideas are calling to you, and which are you ready to let go of?
Phase 4: Rebuilding
Rebuilding is the time for action! In this final phase of the metamorphosis, you get to create new systems within your life that support the next era in your evolution. Maybe it's a new way of structuring your time so you have more freedom, or a financial system that helps you reach a new goal. Maybe it's a physical reorganization of your space, or a recommitment to a certain practice. Maybe it's the decision to leave your job and go wandering for a bit, OR the decision to stop wandering and commit to a job you really want.
Whatever it is, I hope that after going through this process, you're able to build some structures that support what's right for you and help bring your voice into the world with strength, integrity, and joy.
Remember that there is no set time frame for this process—it will take as long as it takes, and you may feel that the movement between these phases is more cyclical than linear. That's fine, just keep going.
Do you know how a butterfly finally emerges from its chrysalis? After it has gone through its transformation and reformed into its new self, it takes one huge, deep breath, and expands until it bursts free from its confinements. So when you've done the work, and it's time for you to break free from your chrysalis, you can do just the same: take one big breath, and get ready to spread your wings.
Here's to taking flight,