Life, bittersweet

The great Taoist master Chuang Tzu once dreamt that he was a butterfly fluttering here and there. In the dream he had no awareness of his individuality as a person. He was only a butterfly. Suddenly, he awoke and found himself lying there, a person once again. But then he thought to himself, “Was I before a man who dreamt about being a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly who dreams about being a man?”

There are times when I experience an intense empathetic state. I have a simultaneous awareness of both connectedness and suffering in the world. Yet, I don’t simply feel others’ pain. I feel a deep sense of guilt and responsibility for their pain. All at once, I fully grasp my indirect complicity by just living in this modern world, within our affluent country.

Every choice and action has millions of tiny threads attached. They pull at my skin, creating thousands of invisible wounds. I ache, uncertain of the source. If I settle here, in this reality, I become frozen. Even taking no action is painful because it creates its own consequences. 

I have always interpreted this “experience” as the true reality. I accepted that if I faced it, there would be anxiety and depression. When the practicalities of life pushed me forward and I was able to blunt some of the intensity, I saw it as hiding from the truth, even if I did feel better. What most would term “coping” felt like acquiescing to a cruel, unfair world. I became another mindless human, trampling others in my efforts to create a comfortable bubble for myself.

However, I was pondering the butterfly story recently. Is my perception of reality accurate? 

Our time on earth is a journey toward remembering our wholeness. A butterfly has no sense of individuality and implicitly knows this truth. I have viewed the world as the dreaming butterfly, experiencing a human reality where a sense of separateness creates pain, and believing it is true.

If I switch perspectives, I become a lucid dreamer. A human who can access this primal memory of being a butterfly, unencumbered by the burden of individual suffering. I can see that this pain is temporary and serves a purpose. My role in both feeling and causing pain is part of the process.

I am caught within this dream, yet aware. I can now act.

Photo courtesy of photographer Heather Hanson


One thought on “Life, bittersweet

  • Posted on February 11, 2014 at 12:53 pm

    I believe I ended up in nonprofit work and attempting working with inner city youth because of this same connectedness to feeling other’s pain and feeling guilty that I wasn’t saving the world, only helping to make it go ’round. When I worked for a nonprofit that taught economics education to kids, I used to say this to myself all the time. “I’m taking the easy route – not being in the trenches with the kids ” But I was just being the receiver of all societies burdens every day, with no buffer of time to create positive change- just absorb all the ills. I became sick from that teaching experience or should I say trauma. But I’ve come such a long way from that feeling. Too much to share here, but what I know for sure now is that the only reality is my own light. My purpose is to contribute to the brightness of my light, find others with that bright light to share it with – and only that will heal the world.


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