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The Wisdom of Caterpillars...and Rivers

yellow chrysalis hanging from a branch

Recently, on a warm summer day in Whatcom County, I experienced an enchanted, outdoor massage at the shore of the Nooksack River. It was the day before my birthday, and the completion of a year I’d dedicated to releasing old patterns. During that session, in the shade of a bended tree at the foothills of Mount Baker, an auspicious visitor graced us: a fuzzy, spotted caterpillar.

Nature is a master teacher, simply because we are that. We humans are intricately entwined in the fabric of Earth’s great mystery; something that our culture conditions us to forget. Yet nature is always imparting to us deep wisdom for living, if we listen with our hearts.

Earlier this year, I followed the wisdom of wild things and migrated from bustling Seattle to the smaller and slower town of Bellingham, in predominantly rural Whatcom County, about 100 miles to the north. As a self-identified “city girl,” this move signified a big departure. But a quiet, inner presence has been steadily urging me to relinquish my grip on what falsely defines me…this relocation was a natural step in that process.

Over the years, my progressive “shedding” has been quickened by many experiences and connections in Bellingham. For me, it’s been a place of soulful exploration, and I’d imagined that someday I might live here. But that possibility seemed so far fetched that I simply placed it in my heart for safekeeping. Then, last summer, my heart told me it was time. While the logistics for moving hadn’t become any clearer, my inner knowing told me I would now discover the way.

So, a full year before my birthday massage at the edge of the Nooksack River, I drove up to Whatcom County and explored where I might live. During that visit, on a warm and breezy morning, I walked a trail I hardly knew and sang out loud a song my friend, Christina, had recently written and shared with me: ”Unfold me like a river, in the morning sun//Unfold me like a river when the day is done….” With my attention focused on the song, I walked a path bordered by dense foliage and tall Alder trees. When the trail led me through an opening in the tree wall, to my great surprise, there was a river. The Nooksack River—sacred ally to the Nooksack tribe of this region. I’d been unwittingly following the river while singing a river song!

Ambling across stones worn smooth by the gentle power of water, I spontaneously added my own verse to my friend’s song: “Unfold me like a river, to where I cannot say//Unfold me like a river, show me the way.” While I did not find a new home during that trip, nor on my subsequent visits to Bellingham in weeks to come, that river song became a kind of prayer or mantra…

Unfold me like a river, in the morning sun

Unfold me like a river when the day is done

Unfold me like a river, to where I cannot say

Unfold me like a river, show me the way

Four months after that first encounter with the Nooksack, still not knowing exactly how or when I’d find a place to live, I put the contents of my household into a 12-foot storage pod and once again cast myself further into the depths of Life’s river. I surrendered my Seattle abode and trusted the flow of life to show me the way…and it has.

The way has not always been comfortable—at times my internal waters get quite choppy! I’ve oscillated between the joy of floating freely and despair in feeling adrift in the unknown. However, having witnessed over and over again that both my heart and life itself are trustworthy, trust keeps winning the day.

Many months into the journey, with boundless help from friends and strangers, and countless “synchronicities,” I finally landed in a temporary home of my own in Bellingham—a lovely place to pause while I continue listening. These days, in my sometimes-uncomfortable experience of “waiting,” caterpillars are my teachers.

With an almost insatiable craving for greater solitude, silence, and stillness, I experience a persistent internal tugging, as more of my former characteristics fall away. This metamorphosis is always mysterious, often exciting, and sometimes disturbingly uncomfortable. Changing one's form is not altogether pleasant.

It’s staggering to consider that a crawling caterpillar physically dissolves before departing its chrysalis, a skyward butterfly. In its metamorphic state of apparent stillness, a literal meltdown is underway. The flying DNA, completely dormant while it was a fuzzy worm, finally comes to life. Biologist Bernd Heinrich described this powerful transformation as a kind of death and reincarnation, because “the adult forms of these insects are actually new organisms.” After splitting and shedding its skin, the caterpillar is cloaked in its cocoon for the duration of a “death like intermission,” in which its body shrinks and organs liquefy. From formless goo, “imaginal” cells create an entirely new, winged creature.

This astounding organic process reflects the maxim of countless mystics: “Die before you die.”

My strong (scientifically unproved) sense is that we humans are wired for a similar metamorphosis. What scientists once referred to as “junk DNA" could even hold keys to our own imaginal cells, which mysteriously activate to catalyze the kind of human transfiguration described in many spiritual traditions. But, unlike caterpillars, I suspect that each one of us is “programed” to cocoon, shed, and initiate imaginal cells in wholly unique ways. Our collective mystery must be lived individually to be discovered.

What I can say for certain is that my own lived experience feels like a dramatic shedding, and sometimes it’s as if I’m dissolving on the inside—a progression that is at once drastic and the most natural thing in the world. My old programming is incrementally turning off, while new coding of a 'higher order' seems to be coming online. Although sometimes there’s a kind of falling back into my old programing, it’s followed by a quick forward jump into the new. This process is neither smooth nor orderly. It’s untidy, unpredictable, and often painful! However, resisting what's painful only increases and prolongs my discomfort. In other words, pain and discomfort may be unavoidable aspects of being human, but suffering is the result of fighting against rather than softening into them, in self-compassionate ways.

For us humans, disappearing full-time into a “cocoon” for the duration of our metamorphosis is not likely to be compatible with modern living. Each of us must find our own ways to cultivate environments for evolution. Inside my own self-spun cocoon, I continue to function in the world, but my priorities have had to change. My nervous system is now the counsel I am learning to faithfully consult when making all choices. That wise oracle tells me when it’s appropriate to move forward or retreat, when to engage or be still, when to get nourishment and when to rest. When I listen and respond from my heart, all that is essential gets handled with ease; and whenever things get complicated, there’s something juicy for me to learn.

Nature is a faithful mentor. When I temporarily revert to my old patterns of trying to push life in the direction of presumed safety or “good outcomes,” the river reminds me to move in the direction of my natural guidance; to surrender my attempts to push the water; to be present in the moment, without concern for beginnings or endings; and to respond with ease to both openings and obstacles. When growth stretches me beyond comfort, the caterpillar reminds me that my destiny is metamorphosis, which is messy and sometimes painful…and the most natural thing in the world.



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