A very hungry (and transcendental) caterpillar by Joy Cowley
An extract from Joy Cowley’s book of spiritual writings, recently shortlisted in the Ashton Wylie Mind Body Spirit Book Awards.
The other day I watched a caterpillar being a caterpillar. It was a fat green creature busy stuffing itself with cabbage and I, bending over it, was far beyond its comprehension. I could see its jaws moving. Its body rippled with the workings of digestion. So intent was it on eating, that it looked as though it was trying to force the entire green globe of its world into its mouth.
Now, I know nothing about the intelligence of caterpillars. But I thought, suppose I could transfer to this creature something of the way I am made. If I could give it self-knowledge so that it could reflect on its existence, it would no longer be able to live by instinct alone. It would have to assume some responsibility for what it was, and it would be forced to make considered choices.
Then I wondered about the options available. With its new awareness, the caterpillar would look around its caterpillar world and select one of three paths.
In the first choice, the caterpillar says, “This way of eating is wrong! It leads to death and the tomb. I will separate myself from this folly and renounce all cabbage leaves. I’ll seek a greater purpose in life and find it in self-denial. This is the only right way."
The caterpillar moves out of the cabbage patch and lives on a diet so meagre that it always feels miserable. This misery gives it some satisfaction in the opportunity to feel superior to others. The caterpillar preaches abstinence to all who will listen, and when it dies, it dies as a very small and interesting caterpillar.
In the second choice, the caterpillar tries to ignore the gift of self-knowledge. It pushes aside awareness and does its best to revert to instinct alone. It doesn’t want any questions. It claims that eating exists for eating’s sake and there is nothing else to life. All sense of otherness gets buried in cabbage.
The caterpillar grows plump on the outside but the knowledge within it withers and dies.
The third way has something of the other two, and yet it is like neither. The caterpillar lives as a caterpillar, fulfilling the life given it. But it knows that its natural existence as a caterpillar carries with it a greater purpose. Everything it does reaches beyond immediate meaning to some kind of “otherness”. This means the caterpillar can stuff itself with cabbage. It can respond without guilt to what it is, knowing that the more it celebrates being a caterpillar, the closer it comes to true freedom. When it is time for the tomb, the caterpillar goes eagerly into the darkness. In its greater knowledge, it has already achieved transcendence, and it dies to itself in the truth of the butterfly.
The other day I watched a caterpillar being a caterpillar, and I wondered about choices.
Veil Over Light by Joy Cowley (Fitzbeck Publishing, $29.99) .