Life Lessons from the Monarch Butterfly

Prepare for change with a ritual and reflection inspired by the transformation of the Monarch Butterfly from Maia Toll’s The Illustrated Bestiary.

Before Butterfly can earn her wings, she turns inward, examining all she has been, digesting the pieces of her own past. This is quiet work, womb work, so she shuts herself away from the world to begin the deconstruction. As she performs the rites of unmaking, she sacrifices every bit of self on the altar of transformation. Finally, her body reduced to a soup of cells, Butterfly checks her blueprint, pulling proteins into wings, preparing, finally, for flight. If Monarch Butterfly appears in your life, it’s time to begin the shedding, digesting your past, and doing the work that prepares you for flight.

Illustration of monarch butterflies.
Illustration by Kate O’Hara.

Ritual: Write Your Personal Manifesto

Butterfly goes into her chrysalis with only the barest idea of who she will become when she emerges. This “idea” is called an imaginal disc, a group of cells holding the pattern of the parts she will need to create in order to take flight.

You, too, have metaphoric imaginal discs, patterns embedded deep in your psyche that help you know who you are. You can follow these patterns to rebuild yourself during transitions.

Let’s pull these patterns to the surface so you can see them and begin to understand the essence of your own being.

  • Set a timer for 10 minutes and use the time to write a personal manifesto.
  • Start with the phrase “I am” or “I honor” or “This is what is most important to me.”
  • When you’re done writing, underline 3 to 5 of the most important sentences, crafting them into a personal manifesto that you can refer to when you feel like cellular soup with no clue how to re-emerge.

Reflection: Preparing for Change

It isn’t news that Butterfly begins life as a caterpillar. But how does this most land-bound of creatures grow wings and take flight? She digests herself, literally.

When Caterpillar is ready to transform, she begins munching leaves at an alarming rate, stoking her energy and creative fires in a pre-transition feeding frenzy. When she is sated, Butterfly creates a hard exoskeleton to protect herself as she begins the messy work of transformation.

Once inside her chrysalis, Butterfly begins eating herself, digesting and assimilating every bit of her being, until she becomes cellular soup. This soup contains the building blocks of her future form. After Butterfly has dissolved her past, she begins the process of becoming, creating wings to gift herself with flight. This process is a metaphoric map for stepping consciously into changes in your own life:

  • Nourish your body and spirit
  • Release what no longer serves
  • Take time and space alone
  • Grow new wings

Think back to your largest life transition (perhaps having a child, moving to a new house, going through a divorce) and see how you worked through all the stages of transformation. How can you traverse your next change with grace?

Excerpted and adapted from The Illustrated Bestiary © by Maia Toll.

Maia Toll

About the Author

Maia Toll is the author of Letting Magic InThe Night School, and the Wild Wisdom series, which includes The Illustrated Herbiary, The Illustrated Bestiary, The Illustrated Crystallary, and Maia Toll’s Wild Wisdom Companion. After earning degrees at the University of Michigan and New York University, Toll apprenticed with a traditional healer in Ireland, where she spent extensive time studying the growing cycles of plants, the alchemy of medicine making, and the psycho-spiritual aspects of healing. She is the co-owner of the retail store Herbiary, with locations in Asheville, NC, and Philadelphia, PA. You can find her online at 

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