The Phoenix and the Butterfly

As Spring emerges from Winter and we begin to see the buds on trees and feel the warm edge to the breezes, we are again nudged to consider the profound inclination of Nature—both human and earthly– to renew and transform.

There is a useful distinction between those two possibilities—renewal and transformation. The Phoenix is the symbol of renewal, as he rises from his ashes, restored and wholly himself. It seems that almost all cultures have some version of the Phoenix in their mythologies: the Egyptian Bennu Bird, the Bird of Paradise of the Persians, the Chinese bird called Feng-huang. In Jewish midrash, the Phoenix is the one animal that does not obey Eve’s admonition to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The reward is eternal life, (although it comes with no knowledge).

In the most common western versions of the phoenix story, the immortal bird burns itself up, becoming ashes out of which it is reborn. It can continually renew itself. It is immutable; even as ashes, it rises again just as it was before.

We all wish for renewal. We speak of restitution and restoration, of being made whole again. And yet, is this possible for us? Can we be like the phoenix? Is that psychologically possible?

Which brings me to the image of the Caterpillar/ Butterfly. Here is another common symbol of death and rebirth. And yet, it is the opposite of the Phoenix. For while the Phoenix is reborn to be exactly as it was before, the caterpillar is completely transformed.  It goes through a profound disintegration and reformation. It is ‘itself’ but utterly new. This is what actually happens to us through experience, we are changed.

So much of our suffering is activated by the idea that experience should not change us, that we just want to get back to what we were, or that we need ‘to get over’ things. The Jewish midrash leads us to see that we mortals will always be changing. In little and big ways, transformation is in our nature. We are  like the others creatures who ate from the apple and now have the knowledge of good and evil, and are therefore thrust into the knowledge of free will, cause and effect, and the flow of life. As Heraclitus says, “Everything gives way and nothing stays fixed” and “You could not step twice into the same river.”

And yet—the Self is immutable. As the archetype of wholeness it remains immortal. It renews and restores itself.

To bring this full circle: we have the capacity to be held by both symbols: The phoenix, as a symbol of Christ, of immortality and perpetual, consistent truth, holds us to a sense of Self—the part of us that does not change, no matter what. And the Caterpillar/Butterfly is a symbol that brings us the hope of, and the challenge of, being continually changing, affected by life, relationships, history, suffering, joy, love.

This spring let us allow ourselves to embrace our every-transforming caterpillar-selves while holding fast to the steadfastness of the Self.

Margaret Klenck MDiv, LP, is a Jungian Analyst in private practice in New York City. She is a past President of the Jungian Psychoanalytic Association in New York, where she also teaches and supervises. She is also a member of PAJA.  She serves as the JPA representative to the Executive Council of the IAAP. Margaret has lectured and taught nationally and internationally. Her most recent publication is Jung and the Academy and Beyond: the Fordham Lectures 100 Years Later, for which she served as co-editor.

Stirring the Pudding

The Cornstarch Pudding Theory of Change

When I began graduate studies to become a therapist, one of my professors said that eventually—she meant after years of experience—each of us would develop our own theory of change. The mystery of the process of change and how—or if—I would ever understand it lodged in my mind. If graduate school professors in a clinical program didn’t know how people changed it must be even more complicated than I thought. Then again, facilitating change seemed so basic to any therapeutic process that ignorance was appalling.

I wended my way through developmental stages of change from Freud to Erickson. I studied psychodynamic models, interpersonal models, and behavioral models. (In social work school we didn’t study Jung—that would come later, after those and subsequent studies failed to provide the truths I sought.) Still, I didn’t know how change was actually achieved or how to explain this murky process to clients who asked, reasonably enough, how talking to me was going to make a difference to them. They wanted to know what made things change, and I wasn’t altogether sure.

As I endeavored, in those early years as a therapist, to answer doubtful, anxious, or do-I-dare-to-hope queries, a cook who had come in to “get the missus off my back” asked, “You mean we just sit here and talk and it makes me feel better?” This was a practical man whose livelihood depended on results–and he inspired me in the moment to construct a rather elaborate analogy to cornstarch pudding.

When I was a child, I liked to help my mother in the kitchen, though she was often hard put to find tasks she could readily delegate. One day, when I asked to participate, she stood me on a chair by the stove and said, “Here. Stir this until it gets thick and clear.” I looked into the pot and experimentally stirred milky liquid with a wooden spoon.

I could not imagine “thick and clear” in relation to what was in the pot. My mother, a culinary Samurai, was not to be questioned, so I stood and stirred. My patience ran as thin as the substance in the pot, so I occasionally called her over to inspect. Yes, yes–she barely even looked over her shoulder–it’s fine. I would then rededicate myself to the unpromising process of stirring. Eventually, steam rose from the top and I excitedly called her again—was this it? No, not yet, but soon after the substance in the pot suddenly thickened, became glossy and—clear!

I have a vague memory of my client looking at me quizzically, but perhaps my enthusiasm for my own story somehow convinced him to give the therapeutic process a chance. Just as Jung says, the combination of our psychic realities produced change in both of us: he took some college courses and I joined a Jungian seminar. Together, we grew our individual selves.

Cornstarch pudding is proof of transformation, and I love this story for its promise: if you stir the pot–set over proper heat–you’ll get the sweet reward. Of course I’m talking about the life-giving vessel of analysis: the pot that holds, the fire that heats, and the spoon that stirs the contents so the magic of transformation can occur.

“The movement does not lead right out of the sacred spot but remains within it.”

Jung, CG, Psychology and Alchemy, Volume 12 of Jung’s Collected Works, Para. 178

In the analytic consulting room the seeker brings the ingredients—history and hope, shadow and soul. The ingredients are contained in place, process, person and purpose. Weekly, they are stirred, a circular process that serves the basic human need for a new and transformative sense of wholeness—and it yields amazingly consistent results. I wish I’d been able to say this to my long-ago client.

If you want to check this out yourself, the recipe for transformation—I mean cornstarch pudding—can be found in The Joy of Cooking, an aptly named, time-tested and trustworthy guide. You can make it any day or every day, and it is always good.


Deborah Stewart is a Jungian Analyst and Licensed Clinical Social Worker residing in Cape Cod, MA. You can find her at She is Co-Creator of This Jungian Life Podcast.  She is a member of the Philadelphia Association of Jungian Analysts, where she co-chairs and teaches in the training seminar and contributes to the Association’s blog. She is an active member of the Inter-Regional Society of Jungian Analysts and participates in other professional organizations. She has a special interest in trauma and is the author of Encounters with Monsters: The Significance of Non-Human Images of Trauma in the Psyche.