Notes from the Cocoon

Living by principles is not living your own life. It is easier to try to be better than you are than to be who you are. If you are trying to live by ideals, you are constantly plagued by a sense of unreality. Somewhere you think there must be some joy; it can’t be all “must,” “ought to,” “have to.” And when the crunch comes, you have to recognize the truth: you weren’t there. Then the house of cards collapses.

Marion Woodman

For many years I’ve flailed about as I attempt to “become myself.”  There’s really no other way to put it, and when I’m honest, that’s really what it’s been all about.  I’ve chased peak experiences with vague ideas of heart opening, fixated on getting “there.”  Heavy on neurotic idealism and light on reality, I jumped on the enlightenment train without a ticket or any idea where it led.  I scoffed at the mundane concerns of my peers and built myself into a Utopian thought-fortress on the premise that I was going somewhere great.  I dreamed of a time, someday, when I would be “okay” and “happy” and “awake.”  Out of fear and hurt, I neglected my experience, choosing instead to chase the imagined phantoms of a life-without-pain.

From what I can tell, it’s pretty common for spiritual seekers to fall into this trap, exchanging a painful now for a perfect future.  I mean isn’t that what we’re doing as a society on a daily basis?  Somewhere, deep inside, we know that pretty soon, we’ll face environmental catastrophe. And yet, we continue to choose the momentary comfort of Spectacle Society.  To face the tangled web of confusion and hubris that infest our collective mind is too painful.  It’s too horrifying.  So we pretend.

And we continue to pretend until we can’t.  For whatever reason, the carefully-crafted dream that exists only in our own head stops working.  People stop playing our game, we stop playing theirs, or somehow, the rules change.  Whatever the cause, the veil has been fatally pierced and nothing can ever be the same.  Reality has arrived and change must ensue.  Right?

Wrong.  In a culture devoid of initiation, the impetus to cling to illusion is powerful.  We don’t make room for the messy process of real change and in fact, we ruthlessly judge those who have been unable to avoid (or have chosen) to follow an un-provable, un-quantifiable something.   Dredging up the past, we frantically impose known belief systems upon the very problems that the outdated ways of thinking created.  We flinch and cower in the face of the truth that only the unknown can save us, and we degrade Faith by deceitful invocation, murmuring about it with fear in our hearts.

…”Nothing is more creative than death, since it is the whole secret of life. It means that the past must be abandoned, that the unknown cannot be avoided, that ‘I’ cannot continue, and that nothing can be ultimately fixed. When a man knows this, he lives for the first time in his life. By holding his breath, he loses it. By letting go he finds IT.”

Alan Watts

Growth requires release.  Letting go, surrendering into something new and unpredictable.  Something bigger than ourselves.  And when we refuse to release and change, neurosis ensues.  A shell forms–more of a callus really–a thick membrane of clinging thoughts that blanket the heart and superimpose wishful thinking onto Reality.  We live in a private fairy tale and craft a life that protects us from the pesky insistence of truth.  We become characters in a grand play, surrounding ourselves with people whose game is similar to our own.

When the shell is unconscious, we call it “normal.”  But when we start to wake up, we realize that our life is a dream, that our character is a thought, and that somehow, we must escape.

The renown Jungian analyst Marion Woodman calls this beginning, this entering into the process of change, The Chrysalis.  As the realization dawns that our whole sense of identity is an interlocking web of thoughts, the realization that the false identity must die follows shortly after.

I’m in that chrysalis right now, and I have been for a while.  If I’m honest, about five years.  I’ve floundered around inside my own head, trying–trying oh so hard–to escape the vague but persistent feeling of being caught in a web of false beliefs.  I have dug to the depths of my being with reckless abandon, taken horrific risks, bought hundreds of books, and regularly embarrassed myself in the pursuit of a stunningly beautiful vision that fuels my every thought and action.

It’s uncomfortable in here, in this liminal space between two very different states of being.  The urge to fight is constantly in my mind.  “DO SOMETHING” reverberates at a cellular level.  One more book.  One more meditation course.  One more hit of whatever that drug is.  Chasing the dragon of what once was, I seek a short cut to myself.

But this is against the Way of things.  This is against the process of true transformation.  Finally I’m realizing the truth that I can’t do this.  “I,” as I’ve taken myself to be, cannot effect a transformation that is beyond conscious control.  I can sense that I am indeed experiencing such a transformation, and I can try to make decisions that don’t harm myself or others, but I cannot–and never could–be the agent of change in my own death and rebirth.

Inside the cocoon, the caterpillar dies.  It’s a messy process, and dangerous.  The caterpillar is literally liquefied.

First, the caterpillar digests itself, releasing enzymes to dissolve all of its tissues. If you were to cut open a cocoon or chrysalis at just the right time, caterpillar soup would ooze out.

Scientific American Online

Everything disappears.  And that means everything.  All I’ve ever hated and all that I love.  Belief after belief sacrificed into the caterpillar stew, surrendered into murky squishy nothingness.

Sometimes as I sit in this cocoon, watching my world fall apart, I feel true horror.  The gnawing void.  Emptiness, anathema to the core of mind.  I see all the ways that I’ve deluded myself and others, the drunken mistakes, the neglected friends and family, the ugly selfishness of my own habits.  It all has to be seen before it can be surrendered.  Inside the chysalis, the soup starts to boil and all the bullshit rises straight to the top.

And other times, in here, there’s peace.  True joy.  Stillness and the knowing that all is as it should be.  That I’m right where I need to be, that the mistakes I made couldn’t be avoided and that I will make many, many more.  Sometimes it just clicks and the vision of where it all leads appears, a life of true humility, trust, faith, and presence.  Those moments are what keep me going and what make the struggle worth it.

Ultimately, we have the choice in every moment to trust life.  We are surrounded by the proof of an order beyond our understanding.  Even the forgotten potted plant sitting beneath a dark window is a testament to the unimaginable insistence of life’s evolution.  The powedered mountains I’m lucky enough to see every morning as I wake up in the coziness of flannel sheets and a heated room, the frozen breath that lingers before disappearing into emptiness, the many souls collected in this coffee shop–all with dreams of their own, these too are undeniable testaments to the creative infinity we call God.

So I’ll sit here in this cocoon and just let myself be right where I am, without hope.  In a shell, watching illusions disappear to the rhythm of an unseen drum.  And I’ll trust, finally, that everything is just fucking fine.







We sometimes think of the damned as men who think of only themselves as good, since all sin flows from pride that refuses to love. But the pride of those who live as if they believed they were better than anyone else is rooted in a secret failure to believe in their own goodness. If I can see clear enough to realize that I am good because God has willed me to be good, I will at the same time be able to see more clearly the goodness of other men and of God. And I will be more aware of my own failings. I cannot be humble unless I first know that I am good, and know that what is good in me is not my own, and know how easy it is for me to substitute an evil of my own choice for the good that is God’s gift to me.

Thomas Merton