The "Butterfly Effect" and Societal Transformation


The central metaphor in MISSION’s Workshop Courage is the metamorphosis of the worm into a butterfly.  If we truly understand the awe inspiring details of this process, we can then see very clearly how a similar process can take place in the transformation of societies on the basis of inner change and personal mastery.

On March 5, 2005 I wrote this article for TruthForce ( Looking back at it now, this article provides a good introduction on the nature of MISSION and its framework of personal and societal transformation. And this assessment is reinforced by the fact that this is the most quoted, cited, duplicated, replicated article that I have ever written. Tens of thousands have passed this article around the world, thus, conveying the fact that its message is still as timely as it was then as it is today.

Nicanor Perlas

Scientific revolutions increasingly characterize the landscape of the post-Newtonian world of the 21st century. Concepts of space, time, causality, evolution and other foundational categories of the modern materialistic world are collapsing, undermined by the findings of a new and more spiritual science that is emerging in dozens of fields. These new scientific discoveries necessitate a re-orientation on how we envision changing our societies, on how we reshape a new world.

Consider the world of butterflies. Norie Huddle, in her book, describes in a layperson's poetic language how the worm transforms itself into a butterfly.

"The caterpillar's new cells [after it has built its cocoon] are called 'imaginal cells.

They resonate at a different frequency. They are so totally different from the caterpillar cells that his immune system [that is the immune system of the worm] thinks they [the new imaginal cells] are enemies... and gobbles them up . . . But these new imaginal cells continue to appear, more and more of them! Pretty soon, the caterpillar's immune system cannot destroy them fast enough. More and more of the imaginal cells survive.

And then an amazing thing happens! The little tiny lonely imaginal cells start to clump together, into friendly little groups. They all resonate together at the same frequency, passing information from one to another. Then, after a while, another amazing thing happens! The clumps of imaginal cells start to cluster together!... a long string of clumping and clustering imaginal cells, all resonating at the same frequency, all passing information from one to another there inside the chrysalis.

. . . . Then at some point, the entire long string of imaginal cells suddenly realizes all together that it is Something. Different from the caterpillar. Something New! Something Wonderful!… and in that realization is the shout of the birth of the butterfly!

. . . . Each new butterfly cell can take on a different job. There is something for everyone to do, and everyone is important. And each cell begins to do just that very thing it is most drawn to do. And every other cell encourages it to do just that. A great way to organize a butterfly! And a great way to organize a butterfly movement!"

This metamorphosis of the caterpillar or worm to a butterfly is a powerful metaphor for societal transformation.

The people who awake to the new possibilities are like the imaginal cells of their own society. The process of societal transformation starts with the emergence of these individuals who carry with them the seeds of the future. They are "imaginal" in that they carry in their innovation an aspect of the image of the future of their society.

These innovative individuals, these bearers of the future become the "deviants" of their own society. They are not recognized as the bringers of good. Rather they are attacked as disturbers of the present, destroyers of self-defeating habits of the old society (the caterpillar) which has been superficially framed as the "good life". In extreme cases, they can be killed. Kennedy, King, Gandhi, Rizal, Bonifacio, Javier, Aquino, and others were killed because they were too dangerous to the system. The auto-immune response of the old society tries to get rid of these visionaries.

However, these violent reactions do not stop the emergence of more "imaginal" individuals in society. Soon they form together to form the various movements striving for a better society – the environmental movement, the sustainable agriculture movement, the youth movement, the women's movement, the indigenous people's movement, the urban poor movement, the global democracy movement, the new education movement, the new spirituality movement, and so on.

However, this stage is not enough. The different movements, which now embody the different possibilities of the future, have to learn to come together and reinforce each other's identities and contributions. Societal transformation will only come when the different identities learn to create synergy among and between each other, for these synergies are often the shape of the future society wanting to come into manifestation.

There is also another aspect to this. You will note that, externally, in the early stages, you will not see the caterpillar transforming into a butterfly. Rather you will see that the worm has digested itself into a kind of liquid. The stage of biological "chaos" has set in. This chaos, however, is not our modern concept of chaos, which we equate with disorder. This "chaos" is the Greek chaos, where the potentials for a new order lie hidden, waiting to be expressed. Out of this chaos, the butterfly emerges.

So too in society at large. We see chaos all around. We can respond in two ways. We can complain and dis-empower ourselves with a sense of hopelessness. Or we can see this as an external symptom that the old order is collapsing and waiting to be transformed into a level of complexity and order.

One of the most powerful ways to harness the opportunity of chaos is to identify the imaginal individuals in society who carry with them different aspects of the future. Often these are the individuals who are achieving excellent and inspiring work under the most challenging of circumstances. We need to have the eye of the spirit to see the hidden connections, the invisible pattern which links all these different initiatives together and find a way for each imaginal individual to also see the whole.

Here we note something important. Modern materialistic science is at a loss to explain the orderly, coherent, and artistically inspiring metamorphosis of caterpillars into butterflies. It cannot fathom how a new level of organization and emergence can come out from a bundle of genetic programs, some of which become redundant in the organizational form of the butterfly. A higher form of intelligence, a formative field, is clearly at work in this process.

In nature, the marvelous process of metamorphosis works in a seamless manner, automatically. In the human world, this does not happen. Human intelligence has to actively envision, participate, and will the process of societal transformation from the "worm" stage of society to the "butterfly" stage of society.

There are a number of ways of doing this. One of the easiest and most energizing is to identify the patterns of inspiring ideas and innovations that characterize societies in transitions. This "positive mapping" gives a glimpse, a roadmap, for those who would transform society, of how the genius and positive life energy of that society is moving and flowing. This perception of the invisible pattern and reality of the future society would allow the imaginal individuals and movements to strategically align their resources and talents for the greater good of that society. They align to what is living and metamorphosing in that society, not what is already in the process of dying away.

There is another aspect of the butterfly that moves us from the realm of metaphor to the realm of science. There is the so-called "butterfly effect" of the new science of complexity. We often hear how the flap of a butterfly's wings can influence weather patterns around the world. Small changes, if properly situated, can cascade and have large scale effects.

In 1969 Margaret Mead said: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has". She never imagined that barely a decade later her historical analysis would receive empirical support from natural studies in the form of the new science of complexity.

Societal transformation in the 21st century will have to be based on the challenges and possibilities of the 21st century. Social movements who seek to achieve societal change based on the outmoded ideas of 19th century materialistic science are doomed to contribute more harm to society than good. Social movements that are innovative, contemporary, and intelligent in the ways of 21st century knowledge, will stand a better change of addressing the large-scale and long-term spiritual and social challenges that are facing humanity today and in the decades to come.


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