Inspired by a conversation I had recently I was reminded what it feels like to live a life on other peoples terms. Many say that ”I am doing what I want” but when you listen more closely you get a sense that they are not speaking truthfully. This sparked the question ”how can I be sure of that I actually am doing what I want”?
There are always at least two voices within us. First the loud and noisy brass band which tells us what we are supposed to do and what we should do in order to become more happy but then there is this quiet flute which plays a completely different melody. It isn’t interested in showing off, proving itself or even trying to be unique and special. You recognize it by its subtleness and its friendly and caring tone. Can you hear it? What does it tell you?
I don’t know about you but for me it took a long time before I started to hear my melody and when I heard those beautiful tones I didn’t want to stop dancing. I can sometimes feel people around me pointing at me, whispering and they might even laugh at me but I don’t care. I choose to dance because to me, a life without dancing doesn’t seem like fun to live. Nietzsche captures this beautifully in ”And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music”.
May I have this dance?
Many philosophers and students of the Tao feel that of all the stories ever told by Chuang Tzu, this is the one that best captures his essence. There is so much agreement on this that the butterfly has come to represent Chuang Tzu in Chinese culture. But what is so special about this story? It seems rather short and simple, so why do people consider it to be so imporant?
One thing that sages have observed about the world is that many people talk too much but convey little that is meaningful. The Tao seems to be the opposite in that it says nothing and yet expresses everything. The sages occupy a position between the two in that they speak concisely but convey a world of wisdom. This characteristic applies to Chuang Tzu and this story as well – it may not seem to say much, and yet embedded within it are four important lessons for us to ponder.
First Lesson: Oneness
By connecting himself with the butterfly, Chuang Tzu is pointing out that all living things are united by the life force within them. The drive to survive and thrive in us is the very same drive that also exists in everything from the largest creatures to the smallest insects. When we recognize this, we can begin to see ourselves as part of nature rather than apart from nature.
Chuang Tzu has chosen the butterfly deliberately to emphasize this point. In terms of appearance, the butterfly seems as different from a human being as anything can be. Nevertheless, at a fundamental level it is exactly like us – a manifestation of life, and therefore of the Tao, in the material world.
If we can say that about a butterfly, then we can say that about anything. Therefore, one of the most basic truths in the world is that all are one.
Second Lesson: Life is Like a Dream
Chuang Tzu also points out in this story that a dream can seem every bit as real as our waking existence. All the sights and sounds, feelings and emotions in the dream can be just as vivid and intense as our experience in reality.
This lesson is an exercise in detachment in two areas of life: emotional obsessions and material obsessions. The key to this lesson is the realization that if we can see how dreams can seem completely real, then we can also see how reality can be just like a dream.
We can become emotionally obsessive when we interact with others. Sometimes people say positive things about us and we grasp onto their compliments and approval; sometimes they say negative things instead and we cling to the destructive feelings of taking offense or being attacked.
Let us use the negative side as an example. Suppose someone has said something that you find extremely hurtful and insulting, and you become angry. You wish to regain your tranquility, but your anger makes it impossible. What to do?
Step one: recall to mind Chuang Tzu’s equivalence between dream-state and reality. If you experience the insult in a dream, you would feel just as hurt, offended and angry.
Step two: realize that you already have a natural ability to deal with it. If the event occurred in a dream, you would simply shrug it off upon awakening. It’s only a dream; everything’s okay. We have all done this before. We are all experts in dealing with bad dreams.
Step three: apply this natural ability to deal with your negative emotions. Although the event has actually occurred and isn’t a dream, your emotional reactions to it are, again, exactly identical. This basic equivalence gives you the leverage to manage your rage. Handle the negativity as if it is the result from a nightmare, and reflect on how in some ways this is literally true. Soon you’ll discover letting the anger go is not so impossible after all.
Third Lesson: Awakening Awareness
Becoming fully awake is a powerful metaphor in spiritual cultivation. The word ”buddha” literally means someone who has become fully awakened. Compared to this true state of wakefulness, our everyday consciousness resembles sleep, and everything we consider real in life turns out to have no more reality than a dream that fades into nothingness.
This may be difficult to understand. After all, at this very moment you probably feel very much awake. Why would anyone say you are asleep when you know you aren’t?
The truth is that almost everyone operates at a low level of awareness most of the time. Consider the last time you locked a door, walked away, and then had to go back to double-check because you couldn’t be sure you actually locked it. Or, think of the last time you walked into a room and couldn’t remember why you went in there. Were you looking for something? If so, what was it? Chances are you had to retrace your steps just to reconnect with your original intent.
If you’ve ever had experiences similar to the above, then you already understand Chuang Tzu’s point. As we go through the motions in day-to-day existence, we seem to be sleepwalking most of the time. Once in a while we have a moment of clarity, like a sleeper awakening just enough to check the alarm clock, and then we go right back into slumber.
How can we become more fully awake? This is something that requires persistent effort. Tao cultivators who focus on this aspect of life would consistently practice being present. Through diligent repetition, they develop the habit to always ask themselves ”What exactly am I doing right now?” and ”What exactly is going on around me right now?” People who do this invariably make surprising discoveries. They catch themselves doing things that make little sense, or they suddenly become aware of something significant and obvious that somehow eluded their notice before. The more they practice this, the better they get at it, and being in the moment becomes a more natural and much more frequent occurrence.
Fourth Lesson: Transformation
The last lesson from Chuang Tzu is also the most important. The butterfly in the story is crucial, because it represents joyous freedom – a liberating state of spirituality where one transcends fears, just like the butterfly flying free of the limitations imposed by gravity. A Tao cultivator who achieves this freedom becomes an unbounded individual, not held back by emotional or material attachments that tie most people down.
The transformation that Chuang Tzu speaks of in this story, in conjunction with the butterfly, form a powerful imagery that represents the complete process of Tao cultivation. We start out making slow progress, learning one lesson after another, just like the caterpillar crawling slowly, eating its way through leaves.
After sufficient accumulation of knowledge over a period of time, the mind begins processing the information to extract wisdom for the soul. This is a time of meditation, reflection and quietude, much like the fully grown caterpillar going into the chrysalis stage.
Then, the magical metamorphosis begins. Miniature wings, almost imperceptible, expand rapidly to become much larger. A spectacular transformation takes place, and the stunning creature that emerges from the chrysalis bears no resemblance to its former self. The child has become the adult.
In the same way, someone who goes through the metamorphosis of the Tao has become a new person. The Tao cultivator has transformed into a sage. The wings of spirituality have expanded to become much larger, much more colorful and beautiful.
Now we can see even more clearly that Chuang Tzu chose the butterfly with careful deliberation. It is also quite obvious now why the butterfly has come to represent Chuang Tzu in Chinese culture. Every piece of the puzzle fits together so well that it simply cannot be any other way.
Is Chuang Tzu telling us with this story that we all have the potential to turn into the butterfly?
Yes, but not without going through the larval and pupal stages. To jump directly into the butterfly stage can only be a dream that soon comes to an end. If you encounter people who claim to be enlightened, be especially cautious, because in all likelihood they are merely caterpillars no different from you and me. They may be convinced they are the butterfly, but that’s because they are dreaming.
What Chuang Tzu has given us is a glimpse of what we can achieve through Tao cultivation. If we have patience, diligence and faith as we seek and consume nutritious leaves, then the day will come when we go into the chrysalis and eventually emerge from it. That is when we will know… that the joyous freedom of the butterfly is no longer a dream!
…or how we make ourselves miserable.
It is my understanding that we human beings, whether we acknowledge this or not, have access to an enormous creative power. And from where I stand today it seems that our attention plays out a bigger part in the creation than I think we are aware of. So to me it seems like any thoughts, whether they are ”good” or ”bad”, informs us about where we are aiming our attention.
Inspired by some of the conversations I am having this question has been present with me for a while now and reflecting on this has showed me something I found interesting. It is like the energy/intelligence behind life picks up where we are ”looking” and serves us that very thing we are looking for. I have no clue if this is ”right”, ”a fact” or even something close to a ”principle” but on a deep level I cannot help seeing this as true.
I see evidence of this on many levels. From our ability to follow a chain of thoughts and when we associate while we talk. Also the strange and true phenomenon that the world changes in correspondence with our moods (moods being thoughts we intentionally or unintentionally are entertaining).
Let us take a simple example of seeing a flower. To us a flower can be the most beautiful thing or just a simple plant depending on our mood or which state of mind we in the moment are coming from. And something that perhaps is very true in our everyday life, we probably don’t even see the flower most of the time. Is the flower there or not? Would a flower exist without nobody seeing it? Do we create the flower or is the flower there as something else until we give it our attention.