First, let’s talk about caterpillars. (Don’t worry…we’re going into and through and past the cliché about caterpillars becoming butterflies, via micro-CT scans, entomology, social justice, personal growth, and the Alexander Technique.)
I like to adopt caterpillars and watch them grow. This fall, I adopted two black swallowtail butterfly caterpillars from my little garden, where they were munching carrot greens, and brought them into my kitchen. I made them a habitat in a big glass jar with a couple of sticks.
My son named them “Chewy” (the most recent in a line of caterpillars named Chewy) and “Bob.” (See Chewy in chrysalis and Bob getting ready to pupate in their habitat in this picture!)
Unless you’re a butterfly nerd like me, it may have been a few years since you thought about the details of the stages of butterfly development. A caterpillar sheds its skin several times (my entomologist dad might tell me that these stages are called “instars”) and then goes into the pupa stage, the amazing chrysalis, during which time it transforms into a butterfly. Based on early observations, the caterpillar was once thought to dissolve into goo during its metamorphosis, and then re-form into a gorgeous, winged insect. The reality is much more subtle, and pretty incredible.
A 2013 study, reported here in National Geographic, used micro-CT scans to look inside pupae as they metamorphosed. You can look at these 3-D scans and see the blue airways, the red gut, the wings and muscles and exoskeleton taking shape. The structure of the body changes significantly, but the airways to the outside world are basically stable from caterpillar form through adult butterfly form. Caterpillar cells don’t totally become goo, though there is some breakdown into clumps of cells that can recombine. Certain parts of them create “imaginal discs,” structures that become adult body parts.
Those words caught me: imaginal discs. Cells that can become something new, which they have never been before.
What can you imagine becoming? What can you imagine for your community? For our world?
A butterfly’s process of becoming, simplified, might be described as: Shed what no longer fits you. Rest, and breathe. Imagine what you may become. Expect transformation. Then fly.
In this global time of stopping, and grieving, and hoping, we have the opportunity to re-imagine. We can take the nuclei of what we care about, and build around them.
We can shed the skin that no longer fits us, allowing ourselves to grow. The place you are now is not the place you have to stop.
We can breathe through the whole process.
The self-awareness skills that I have learned in practicing and teaching the Alexander Technique allow me to be open to this process of transformation. There are three fundamental steps. First: observe without judgement. Second: stop. Allow. Take time. Don’t “try.” Third: when you understand that it’s time to go, imagine where and how you want to go. This is exactly the same process that we use when learning coordination for getting in and out of a chair, or for singing, or for running with ease. Our work is (in F.M. Alexander’s term) “psychophysical,” that is, about the unity of mind and body that is our Whole Self.
In our nation and our world, we — especially those of us with white bodies — are asked to observe ourselves with more attention, more clarity, to unlearn the ways of being that uphold white supremacy culture and put the lives of those with Black and brown bodies in danger, and to take action in ways that dismantle white supremacy in our organizations, our systems, and our wider world.
We are asked to see how these systems have failed the most vulnerable among us. This pandemic has shown us the deep fault-lines in access to healthcare, fair wages, housing, food, education…the list goes on.
It would be easy to react with anger, resistance, numbness, overwhelm, fear, helplessness, despondency… let’s pause to take a moment longer.
In order to see these things and respond to them healthily and effectively, we must be settled enough in our bodies and nervous systems to observe. In order to see clearly, we must be able to stop, to take time — long enough to listen, to learn, and to inhibit (Alexander-speak for “say no to”) our habitual responses. I am grateful every day for the skills of non-judgmental self-observation and taking time that I have learned as a student and teacher of the Alexander Technique.
And then it is time to move. One critically important movement I believe we all can make is to be sure we are registered to vote, to make a plan to vote, and then — VOTE. Register to vote, check your registration, and find information about voting in your area here: vote411.org or here: betterknowaballot.com.
You can also use the process I’ve outlined in responding to the challenges or opportunities for transformation in your life. Pause to observe. Stop to take time. Stay connected to your breath. And then choose — how do I want to be? How do I want to show up in my next action, my next movement?
Don’t worry about getting it right.
Just pay attention to the process.
Imagine where you, and we, can go next.