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Zhuang Zhou Butterfly Dream

A butterfly flying against background
“Once, Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering about, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn't know that he was Zhuang Zhou.
Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuang Zhou. But he didn't know if he was Zhuang Zhou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that he was Zhuang Zhou. Between Zhuang Zhou and the butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things.”

Chuang Tzu or Zhuang Zhou are both names for an ancient Chinese philosopher who’s ideas contributed to the foundation of both Taoism and Buddhism.

His writings in the book Zhuangzi, are quite profound and I drew upon his philosophy when translating the I Ching. While the Tao te Ching may be more well-known by many readers, the Zhuangzi is filled with many parables that provide insight into embracing the Way of Tao.

As a dream analyst and Taoist, I believe his Butterfly Dream story is one of the best ways of understanding Taoism’s philosophy of removing boundaries.

The 24 Hour Mind

During interviews, I often discuss the 24 Hour Mind. This is the idea that the same mind is learning equally through dreams and actual experience.

Through dreaming, we explore ideas we have repressed by day. The fodder can come from actual experience, but the dreaming mind is less inhibited and appears to have insight beyond what the dreamer knows to be true about themselves.

The reason most people don’t remember their dreams is because the part of the mind that is active by day is different from the dreaming mind. Aspects of ego and logic abate – even the body is held with a paralytic feature so we don’t act out on our dreams.

Dreaming encourages authenticity by exploring ideas we may have traded or repressed for conformity. In Taoism, one can only express their true nature if they are fearless about doing so. The path can either be about unmasking our nature through challenges, or enjoying the ride in our 'coming-to-be-real.'

Upon waking, we switch back into the same mind that repressed the information presented in dreams. While the dreaming mind explores new potential, the waking mind can 'shut down' the information. Ego can feel threatened about what it can't control - it repressed the idea for a reason.

This doesn’t mean that dreaming hasn’t achieved its work. Whether or not we remember our dreams, they are changing us at a fundamental level.

I often observe that ideas being explored in dreams will play out through experience in a type of synchronicity – as an initiation. What is achieved via dreaming begins to make its way into experiential reality a week or so later.

I call it the 24 Hour Mind because when we are open to input from both experiences and our dreams, we blossom into authenticity more rapidly.

Taoism: Removing Boundaries

Taoism can best be described as a philosophy of learning to remove any sense of boundaries. This includes the boundaries that separate dream experience from daily experience, boundaries that make us believe we are not part of nature, and even boundaries we feel exist between ourselves and others.

Just as dreams are a reflection of what is happening in our inner world, much of our experiences are the result of projection. This is to say that we judge what unfolds based upon past experience, and what we believe is happening.

Other people in dreams appear as a representation of qualities we are exploring – whether adopting or discarding. When we can consider the adjective we would use to describe this person, we can understand how this quality is being examined.

On the path too, we meet others propitiously, sharing the energy of growth, discovery and authenticity. Like molecules that collide and move to a higher level – we too, are transformed through our encounters.

The Transformation of Things

A story in the Zhuangzi describes what happened after the great philosopher’s wife died. He was banging on a pot and singing and his followers were appalled, believing this to be improper.

I see a lot of Zhuang Zhou’s ideas in the I Ching, and this banging on a pot is a line in Hexagram 30, Clarity or Clinging.

Taoism teaches one how to remain still during any challenge, called Tranquility in Disturbance. It is also a lesson about overcoming our need to move between extremes of judgement: Now, this is good! Oh, that is bad!

Life unfolds in endless change, and measuring ideas in any moment of the transformation will never capture the entire picture. Nature has been perfecting itself for billions of years, and we too, are swept up into the Way of Nature.

The entire I Ching is a study of how nature's principles of change can be applied to the human journey.

When confronted about singing after his wife's death, Zhuang Zou replied:

"When she first died, do you think I didn't grieve like anyone else? But I looked back to her beginning and the time before she was born. Not only the time before she was born, but the time before she had a body. Not only the time before she had a body, but the time before she had a spirit.
In the midst of the jumble of wonder and mystery a change took place and she had a spirit. Another change and she had a body. Another change and she was born. Now there's been another change and she's dead. It's just like the progression of the four seasons, spring, summer, fall, winter.
If I were to follow after her bawling and sobbing, it would show that I don't understand anything about fate."

In the life experience, the same person has experiences, and then dreams of experiences that feel every bit as real. We can think of it as a spectrum of consciousness that brings us to wholeness and authenticity.

And who’s to say which aspect of consciousness is more real? Or, which one endures? In either condition, information is processed within the mind.

The Butterfly Dream Explained

Zhuang Zou uses the butterfly as a metaphor of the more joyful existence that can unfold when we remove our judgments. He flits and flies freely, unhampered by the idea that this type of freedom isn't possible.

We can hover at the threshold of perception – undisturbed by the illusion, yet willing to be led – just as we do in our dreams.

Without judgments and projections, we can be every bit the wandering witness. We can allow our dreams to have life, and believe anything is possible. This is Taoism's goal: living joyfully.

If we can carry this same freedom into everyday life, we discover the Great Mystery. ”Those who don’t know what cannot be done accomplish great things.”

My work with dreams has allowed me to see how dreams reveal how the dreamer has constructed reality. Working with dreams, the dreamer then awakens to synchronicity – or how the same mind is constructing reality by day.

Yes, there is a distinction between the dreamer and what we dream about – but it is called the Transformation of Things. This is to say, we really don’t know why we are here, and we can’t know with certainty where we will go when we leave.

A tree will fill with leaves in spring and let them go in autumn. Next spring, it will blossom again.

The dreaming mind is like the roots beneath the soil, and experience expands out like branches above, in similar proportion to the roots. Bind the roots, and the branches are not as full.

Just because we cannot touch the roots – doesn’t mean they are not equally important in the expression of the tree.

Opening to the Great Mystery is giving credibiltiy to the intangible, romancing the numinous or living without the need for definition.

Whether you see a butterfly or dream of being a butterfly, allow it to become your teacher. It will come out of its cocoon in its own time – but it will learn to fly.

By following the wind and the smell of flowers, your true colors are revealedd against life's tapestry of change.